Notes on Lo Fi

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Know what I want

I know it’s behind me

Behind my Western mind

-Malkmus/Berman/Pavement/Silver Jews

I was listening to some tracks off the Silver Jews’ album The Arizona Record just now, and got thinking about lo fi recording. In particular I was struck by “Secret Knowledge of Backroads”, partly because I know the polished Pavement version of this song (off the extended double disc edition of Slanted and Enchanted).

I googled lo fi record and came across an article by Bruce Bartlett on how to recreate the aesthetics of lo fi recording using high fidelity recording equipment. Initially this idea seemed rather ridiculous, a) because most people prefer high fidelity recording quality (according to this survey I haven’t conducted), and b) because it seems an unnecessary effort to go to, when there is so much lo fi recording equipment available. For example, all the tracks on my myspace page – recorded using a mike plugged into my iPod nano – have lo fi touches, whether it be background hiss, distorted vocals, guitar or drums, or the sound of a passing police car.

Perhaps Bartlett’s intended audience are those who want to selectively incorporate lo fi elements into their recordings, controlling the effect by artificially simulating lo fi. For example, I remember reading in the liner notes for a Beastie Boys’ album how they attached a long sheet of plywood or mdf to the bass drum to modify the sound and make it more like the boomy kick used in rap music (see Bartlett’s article on this).

Which is fine, except that I somehow feel this misses the point of lo fi which (from my perspective) is its contingency, the fact that it isn’t managed and you never know what you’re going to get.

If one wanted to bring French theorists into this (always a temptation for me), then Michel Serres (1980 [2007]) book The parasite seems relevant. One of the ways Serres thinks of the parasite is as ‘noise’, that which interrupts, distorts or diverts the normal flow of things. A common approach to noise is to attempt to ignore, minimise or remove it, but the fact is that apparently insignificant noise does not only divert value but can be productive, steering processes towards outcomes that would otherwise not have been possible.

In another life I would start an indie recording label called Contretemps.

References:

Serres, Michel (1980 [2007]) The parasite trans. Lawrence R. Schehr, introduction by Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

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