Unless you have been living under a rock, you have likely heard of lo-fi music.

If anything, you’ve probably stumbled upon the 24-hour streams on YouTube labeled “Lo-Fi Beats To Study and Relax To.”

Lof-Fi or Low Fidelity music, which stems from hip hop, is reminiscent of the classic style of sample-based hip hop, which appeared in the late 70s and lasted until the late 90s. The genre has become ultra-popular thanks to producers like Harris Cole, Idealism, Nujabes, Knxwledge, and others.

If you landed on this article, you’re probably looking to learn how to make it. Luckily for you, I’m going to dive in and explore this relatively new genre of music and provide you with a few tips and techniques so that you can get started with making your own.

Finding The Right Samples

When it comes to making lo-fi music, you need to have suitable samples. Typically, you’ll want to stay in the BPM range of 70-100 bpm, so keep that in mind when choosing your samples. You should also try to stay within a 4/4 time signature. However, the key of the track is totally up to you!

The main idea is to make the listener feel nostalgic.

You can do that by picking the right melody and chords. Think about some memories you love, such as walking on the beach with your dog, watching the sunset with a loved one, or kicking it with a few friends. Use that memory as inspiration when searching for your sample.

There are plenty of great resources for samples, including:

  • Splice
  • YouTube
  • Record Stores

If you’re musically inclined, you can record your own chords into a four-bar loop and sample yourself.

When trying to decide on the instruments to use, you want to use old jazz records as inspiration. Think Rhodes keyboards, hollow-body guitars, double bass, piano, string quartets, etc. Many classic jazz records often use brass and woodwinds to spice things up as well.

Writing The Perfect Lo-Fi Chord Progression

Again, lo-fi music pulls from the same components we find in old-school hip-hop, specifically jazz chord progressions. You’ll likely hear tons of lo-fi music producers using ii-V-I chord progressions in their tracks with the addition of seventh and ninth intervals attached to the chords for an added bit of flavor.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to know anything about music theory if you’re simply searching for jazzy samples, as you truly just need to use your ears. However, if you decide to write your own progressions using real instruments or VSTs, I recommend brushing up on your music theory.

Getting Those Dusty Drums

Drums are one of the essential elements in lo-fi music. However, you can’t simply throw an 808 and a rimshot on your lo-fi track before calling it a day. Drums in lo-fi music need to sound dusty and, well, lo-fi!

One of the best ways to do this is by starting with the right samples. While you can do a bit of additional processing, in the end, it’s better to spend time searching for the perfect samples to keep your post-processing minimal.

Listen to some lo-fi music and think of what you hear. You probably hear muffled kicks, thick, snappy snares, and soft hi-hats. When searching for these samples, they all must share a similar aesthetic. If you can grab drum samples or loops from the same track or sample pack, that’s always better, as they’ll share the same “room” tone.

It’s even better if these samples have a bit of background noise or saturation already applied!

There are plenty of ways you can go about making a drum groove for your lo-fi track, though this is the one method I highly recommend:

  • Start with a fully-sampled jazz drum groove and create a four-bar loop under your chord progression.
  • Find a dusty hip-hop kick and snare sample that you can layer atop the drum groove.
  • Layer your kick samples atop the sample kicks and your snare samples atop the sample snares.

With this method, you get the jazzy, realistic roominess of recorded drums and sampled drums’ attitude and punch.

To spice things up, you mustn’t forget about percussion! While you can add standard percussion instruments, such as shakers, bongos, or bells, I recommend going for something a bit more unconventional.

Try some stick clicks, finger snaps, key jingles, or glass bottle hits. Sample something around the room and find unique ways to layer it over your drum groove! Plus, you can manipulate your samples using EQ and saturation to get a lo-fi sound.

Important Lo-Fi Recording Techniques

Once you have your elements laid out and looping, it’s time to add some flavor using a few standard lo-fi production techniques. Let’s take a look at three production techniques found in just about any solid lo-fi track.

Lo-Fi Audio Effects

Now just because your drums and samples sound good and ready does not mean you can’t manipulate them even further and put your own spin on them! Often, you will hear effects like delay, reverb, chorus, phaser, flanger, and more.

Having an understanding of each of these audio effects will help you spice up your tracks. One of our absolute favorite effects for lo-fi music is the bit-crusher.

Bit-crushers reduce the overall resolution of a sound by lower the sampling rate. This effect adds a unique flavor of distortion that helps mask the cold, high-fidelity digital audio world. Most DAWs have some form of bit-crusher integrated into them, though if you’re looking for a solid, third-party bit-crusher, here are a few plug-ins I recommend:

Tape Saturation

There are so many benefits to tape saturation that I could write an article detailing my undying love for it. In lo-fi music, tape saturation is KEY.

Back in the day, recording engineers would purposefully add more audio to tape to get a beautiful and warm distortion sound. Unlike your DAW, the tape had physical limitations, which would give audio subtle saturation, compression, and phasing.

Engineers often use tape machines to add unique irregularities to the sound, including warble and high-frequency roll-off.

Now, before you go out and spend thousands on a vintage tape machine, you’ll be happy to know that there are plenty of tape saturation plugins out there that can emulate the characteristics of old tape machines. Some of our favorites include:

We often apply Tape saturation to tracks here at eMastered to get warmer, cohesive, and harmonically complex masters.

Ambient Textures

Lo-fi music is about nostalgia. It can take the listener back to a place in time. To create the right headspace for listeners, we recommend using ambiance in your tracks to build an atmosphere.

Lo-fi music often uses unique ambient recordings that add small details and fill out the empty space without feeling distracting. We recommend looking for samples such as analog noise, vinyl crackle, or room tone.

You can also find subtle ways to add field recordings to your track, such as rain sounds, chirping crickets, or ocean waves.

To make your track unique to you, I recommend making your own ambient recordings. All you need is a smartphone! Go out into the world using your track as inspiration to find the right atmospheres to sample. Head down to your favorite beach and sample the waves, or take a walk by your favorite lake late at night to capture the quiet croaking of frogs.

Let your music guide you!

Setting The Mood

Lo-fi music is a very nostalgic and reflective genre of music. You want your lo-fi track to induce those emotions into the minds of your listeners. As the producer, it’s up to you to set the stage for yourself so that you can write with that feeling in mind.

For instance, it can be difficult to write great lo-fi music if you’re trying to produce in the kitchen with many people scurrying around you or on a bus ride back home with your laptop.

Find a space that you can call your own for the time being and set it up. Even if you don’t have the luxury of having a home studio, that doesn’t mean you can’t go into your room, dim the lights, light some candles, burn some incense, and get into the vibe. No space in your house? Consider taking your laptop and a good pair of headphones to a nearby park, lake, or viewpoint.

Let the silence of nature inspire you.

Approach making lo-fi music with the right mindset, and we guarantee your music will come out much better right off the bat.

The Importance of Active Listening

While we all listen to music, the truth is that most people listen to music passively. Passive listening is the type of listening you do while driving to work/school, folding laundry, or hanging out with friends.

We all do it. In the age of streaming, it’s even more true. However, as a producer, you need to start listening actively. Get yourself into a quiet space, put on a pair of headphones, and LISTEN to the music you are playing.

The beauty of active listening is that you begin to hear things you’ve never heard before. You may have never noticed that the dusty vinyl crackle sample in your favorite lo-fi track was side-chained to the kick or that the floating, ethereal guitar part was slowly panning from left to right.

By isolating these elements and hearing how they are layered together to create a whole song, you can draw yourself a roadmap for your own tracks. You may even get inspired to create something you would have never considered on your own!

Here are a few questions to ask when active listening:

  • What instruments are playing in the song?
  • How are those instruments used in the song? Main rhythms? Counter rhythm? Melody? Leads? Ambiance?
  • How Is The Song Structured?
  • What is the chord progression? Does the bassline play on the root of the notes, or does it use an inversion?
  • Do things slowly change from section to section, or are there repeated parts?

Keep It On The Lo-Fi

Lo-fi music is beautiful in the simple fact that it can connect so many people from all walks of life. It’s simple, nostalgic, and perfect for escaping from the worries and troubles of the day-to-day.

Head over to YouTube, start listening to some of those 24-Hour Lo-Fi streams, and study what you hear. Maybe soon, you can add your music to one of those streams and be the inspiration for other young producers out there.