How to Add a Nostalgic Touch to Your Lo-Fi Music

male producer making music in the dark

male producer making music in the dark

+ Producers, Composers, Synth Heads and Sci-Fi Nerds, our new course with synthwave producer Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk, is out now! 

By George MacDonald of Producer Sphere

One of the most captivating elements of lo-fi music is its heavy reliance on emotive, nostalgic sound design. Lo-fi producers and beat makers use a range of production styles to evoke a feeling of wistful sentimentality in the listener, from vintage sampling to low-fidelity mixing techniques, reminiscent of the sonic imprints of the music they listened to growing up.

Thus, adding elements of nostalgia wherever you can, is a great way to completely transform a lo-fi track, one that transports the listener into their own past. A nostalgic track can instantly unlock distant memories, even if you’ve never heard that track before.

So how can you evoke this mysterious sense of nostalgia through your music?

Lo-fi music (namely lo-fi hip-hop) relies on dusty, heavily-filtered drum loops, jazz-influenced chords, and old-school samples. By using these production techniques you are purposefully adding or retaining sonic imperfections that producers decades ago would have been trying to remove from their recordings.

Let’s take a closer look at how these techniques can be used to enhance the nostalgic character of your lo-fi tracks.

But first, speaking of retro sounds, Soundfly’s brand new course with legendary producer, DJ, and world-builder, Com Truise, is out now! In his first ever online course, we’ll be taking an in-depth look behind the curtain at how Com Truise creates his “mid-fi synthwave slow-motion funk” sound using synths, drum machines, and retro ’80s production techniques. Check it out!

Drum Busses

One of the most crucial elements of a lo-fi beat is its drums. While many producers aim for pristine, high-quality drum loops, lo-fi is often the exact opposite. Overly-clean drum sounds would sound out of place in a lo-fi beat, and could completely ruin an otherwise great track.

For example, when searching for lo-fi hip-hop drum sounds look for retro, “boom-bap” style drums. These sounds are often sampled directly from vintage drum machines of the ’80s and ’90s, which helps to add a little extra nostalgia to the track.

Listen to Hazue’s track, “Rest,” and it feels like the drums are sitting on a bed of felt, or gathering dust behind the radiator, or even underwater. That’s no mistake!

Once you have your drum sounds, an extremely useful lo-fi technique is to use a drum bus. A drum bus combines all of the smaller parts of the drum beat into a single grouping. This is incredibly effective for lo-fi music because it means you can easily add effects such as filters, saturation or compression to the entire drum loop.

For example, adding some vintage tape saturation to the entire drum loop helps to glue the drums together to create a more cohesive sound. This can result in a vintage-sounding drum loop that sounds like it’s sampled from one specific source. This technique is extremely effective for lo-fi hip-hop production, but can also be applied to other contemporary genres such as lo-fi house.

Some common examples of lo-fi drum bus effects are:

  • Low-pass / band-pass filters
  • Compression
  • Tape emulation
  • Saturation
  • Transient shapers

+ Read more on Flypaper: “5 Digital Emulators Perfect for Getting a Retro Synth Sound.”

Tape Emulation

Old tape machines and other vintage hardware created various low-fidelity effects. These imperfections such as tape flutter and warble, subtle detuning, and other audio artifacts can really add a vintage, nostalgic element to your tracks.

For example, using tape emulation on a piano loop can turn a standard, modern piano tone into a warm, melancholic sample. Plus, when piano sounds are used in lo-fi music, you can often hear subtle pitch modulations that softly warp the sound. Many tape plugins are able to accurately emulate this subtle warping effect of old tape machines.

Just listen to Kiefer’s track “Happysad Sunday,” which sounds like it’s running the piano through a broken old tape machine.

Kiefer actually discusses how he approaches the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements of his jazzy lo-fi hip-hop style using both theory and improvisational feel in his new course on Soundfly, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats. Check it out!

There are various plugins that recreate these tape noises and effects, often with incredible accuracy and precision. J37 Tape by Waves Audio, created in association with Abbey Roads studios, is a precision model plugin of the very machine used to record many of the greatest masterpieces in modern music.

With a variety of user-adjustable controls including Tape Speed, Bias, Noise, Saturation, Wow and Flutter, the Waves: Abbey Road J37 faithfully recreates the inimitable sonic signature of the original machine.

Soundbeds

In order to create a sense of nostalgia in your music, you need to fully immerse the listener. One effective way to achieve this is to use soundbeds in your music. This technique is extremely common in lo-fi hip-hop and even lo-fi house music.

So what exactly is a soundbed? A soundbed in lo-fi music is essentially a quiet, ambient, non-musical sound that sits “behind” the main beat. Common examples of organic soundbeds include vinyl crackle, rain falling on a window, or forest ambience.

Soundbeds can add a sentimental atmosphere to a track, which in turn creates a stronger emotional connection with the listener. For example, a subtle, soft sample of the tide coming in could remind someone of a period of their life that they spent near the ocean. Or the sound of vinyl crackle could remind them of an old record player from their childhood.

Sampling

Chopping, flipping, and rearranging samples is a fundamental part of modern music production, particularly in electronic and hip-hop genres. This style of sampling has also played a huge part in music history, as the early beginnings of hip-hop came from sampling and looping breakbeats. The ability to use an existing sound and reinvent it within a new track gives you a huge amount of creative potential in your lo-fi tracks.

It can also act as a nostalgic “callback” to past eras of music history. For example, sampling a 1960s jazz piano or an ’80s saxophone melody allows you to access the timbre and character of these old-school sounds.

Sampling is probably one of the biggest reasons why lo-fi is so irresistible to modern music producers, as it gives us a chance to sample extensively in the modern world where music is infinitely accessible.

We can think of nostalgia as an emotional yearning for a cherished period of our lives. It can be a powerful feeling, so learning how to tap into that feeling through your music is incredibly valuable. So why not try a few of these techniques in your own music?

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, home recording and production, composing, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s artist-led courses, like: Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability, RJD2: From Samples to Songs and Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk

George MacDonald is the founder of Producer Sphere, a fast-growing music production / audio engineering website with a thriving online community. Producer Sphere has helped thousands of artists from around the world on their music production journey, from software reviews to in-depth video tutorials.

Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk

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