With the lo-fi house sound making a comeback, we dissect the genre and talk to DJ, producer, and lo-fi advocate J. Albert about the benefits of lo-fi, and whether ‘lo-fi house’ is really a genre at all.
Queens-based DJ and producer J. Albert rose to prominence last year, and since then he has seen support from Resident Advisor and Thump, started his own record label, and released music on labels like Lovers Rock, Black Opal and Cult Trip. His music often has a warm, organic sound which some would describe as lo-fi, but he does not consider himself a ‘lo-fi house’ producer in a strict sense. In fact, he quite rightly points out that there are not many artists around “proudly declaring their music as Lo-Fi House.” Despite this, the combination of lo-fi and house has definitely seen a resurgence of sorts recently.
The elements of lo-fi house
Lo-fi music is defined as anything with a ‘lower quality’ sound. This is a purely technical classification, and not a statement on the quality or value of the music produced. The term lo-fi is an abbreviation of low fidelity, meaning music that includes technical flaws such as background noise, distortion or hum. These ‘flaws’ could be seen as mistakes, but some musicians and producers utilise them as part of their art.
According to J. Albert, lo-fi recording “is a comprised rendering of a true sound; achieved through the limitations of analogue recording equipment.” For an example of this from the man’s own music, look no further than the first track he uploaded on his Soundcloud: ‘My One and Only Love’.
As you can hear, the track is a beautiful solo piano performance based on the Frank Sinatra song of the same name, recorded with plenty of technical flaws resulting in an overarching scratchiness but also an incomparably warm, resonant piano sound. The secret of this track’s lo-fi charm is tape recording.
J. Albert explains: “There is something special about recording to tape; it brings warmth and gently squashes a mix in a pleasant way.” This can be heard in later J. Albert track ‘He Stop’ – a house track this time, with a markedly creative use of sampling. The slight tape hiss as the most prominent synth riff swells is sublime, and it is only present due to creative use of the tape format.
But there is more to recording on tape than the benefits of its sonic properties. As J. Albert says, “tapes are charged with sentiment, which I appreciate.” Others appreciate it too. Albert acknowledges that creating lo-fi music within the house genre has become particularly popular among bedroom producers, with some even using high end equipment or emulation to create a lo-fi sound.
Lo-fi house artists to watch
As J. Albert has told us, there are very few artists proclaiming themselves ‘lo-fi house’ artists. Albert considers himself a producer who occasionally creates lo-fi house. He admits that some of his earlier lo-fi recordings were “more low tech or low understanding than lo-fi.” When he was getting into music, back in Florida in 2006, “lo-fi was just the norm” for the grind, punk, noize and metal bands that dominated the underground scene, because the members of these bands were young and could not afford studio time or engineers. “These bands would record by any means possible,” he says. “Lo-fi wasn’t a sound to achieve, it was the sound.”
Indeed, older house music from the early Chicago house or Detroit techno scenes could often be labelled ‘lo-fi’ due to recording techniques of the time, and the cheap and sometimes broken equipment producers would use. Some producers during the dawn of acid house would intentionally send their Roland TB-303 synthesizers into overdrive to get the sounds we now know and love.
More recent lo-fi house music – music that is lo-fi as an artistic choice – can still be found. There’s J. Albert’s work, of course. And he singles out Grouper as a particularly talented and interesting lo-fi musician that he enjoys listening to.
Music from the label L.I.E.S. is often on the lo-er end of the fi spectrum. ‘Fully Automated’ by Vapauteen is a very recent example. Germany’s Relative Records is another label with a propensity for lo-fi house releases.
Other producers creating great lo-fi house music include L.I.E.S. mainstay Terekke, lo-fi legend Theo Parrish, and enigmatic London-based DJ Ross From Friends, whose music incorporates lo-fi elements, lush synths and jackin’ rhythms to great effect.
When asked if he would encourage others to try making lo-fi house music, he said he would rather “encourage musicians to make music that challenges the producer/listener.” For some musicians, creating new authentic sounds from old low fidelity equipment is the ultimate challenge. Others may prefer to work on higher fidelity sounds. Whatever the case, as long as producers continue to innovate, listeners will continue to benefit.
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