20 Watts

ISSUE 19 | The Lo Life: Low fidelity music is sweeping the campus — and the nation by 20watts

Devon Stewart rocks the Shaefer studios while working on his self-titled solo project

Lil Wayne. Kanye West. Maroon 5. Rascal Flatts. Music purists loathe them for at least one reason — Auto-Tune, a downloadable audio processor that corrects vocal and instrumental blunders in order to attain perfect pitch. By using this program, a producer can fill in a recorded performance’s holes, smooth its edges and polish its smudges.  Everyone must use this to attain musical nirvana, right? Negatory. In fact, musicians that admire large holes, adore peculiar edges, and worship pesky smudges are alive, well and plentiful. They are lo-fi artists.

Lo-fi is a shortened form of “low-fidelity,” fidelity meaning the extent to which an electronic device such as a radio or television can accurately reproduce a sound or an image. Taken literally, lo-fi can be defined as low-quality sound.

Performers like Beck, The Black Keys, Dinosaur Jr., Modest Mouse and Ween have all retreated from that glossy, synthetic, superficial world into a barebones, bare-necessities cosmos, recording sound in only its purest, most genuine state. But it’s not just a hit with more mainstream acts either, and has slowly found its way into Syracuse University’s own music scene over the past few years.


Ulf Oesterle, an Assistant Professor in the Bandier Program for Music and the Entertainment Industries at S.U. and owner of local label Aux Records, managed a band between 1997 and 1998 that recorded an EP on South Campus over their Spring Break.

“People that are recording in lo-fi, they want to create something,” he said. “They don’t always have the means to create a product that is polished, but there is a certain beauty in these really cheap recordings.”

The band converted their apartment into a makeshift studio by flipping mattresses up against the wall for soundproofing, plopping the drums in the middle of the living room, and building a vocal booth out of three other mattresses. Some current students have been following a similar path.

Devon James Stewart, a junior film major in SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and guitarist for local ska/experimental outfit Native Informant, also started his own electronic project using some lo-fi techniques. He sees the genre as a response to today’s financial climate.

“I think with the economy and the way the world is, people think that it’s harder to get your music heard, or its harder to make some money playing music,” he said. “So more people, more bands that are trying to do things are thinking of innovative ways to just try new things.”

Stewart uses Logic Pro Studio, Apple’s music production suite, to create his art. Stewart, who’s also a DJ, has used it to record songs outside, in a hallway, or on a flight of stairs to capture different room sounds.  He said lo-fi is a positive force because the musical process becomes solely concerned with the individual, not a huge record company.

“It takes it out of the hands of the industry and out of the commercial world. It gives it more of a human face,” he said.


Bob Dylan’s 1975 record The Basement Tapes was the first landmark lo-fi pop album. The disc distinguished itself by holding on to its flaws, playing off mistakes, and recording live. Thus, Dylan invented lo-fi’s calling card — authenticity.

“What does a song sound like in its unfinished state?” asked Theo Cateforis, an Assistant Professor of Music History and Cultures in the Department of Art & Music Histories at SU. “I think the idea of intimacy is important to lo-fi, that if you can imagine, ‘Wow, this sounds like it was recorded in someone’s bedroom,’ it’s a lot easier to imagine yourself in that space than it is to imagine yourself in Metallica’s studio.”

Lo-fi is about that demo aesthetic, he said. That gritty, dirty, distorted sound comes from the equipment.

Artists like Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd all recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorders. More modern musicians have used four-track recorders, namely the Tascam Portastudio, the first of its kind. With these, the artist records four separate instruments on four separate tracks and then blends them all together at the end.

Although it has become the norm to produce demos, Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska on the Portastudio, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ axeman John Frusciante used it to create Niandra Lades & Usually Just a T-Shirt as well as Smile from the Streets You Hold. Newer models of this recorder have six and eight tracks, with some digital types going as high as twenty-four. People can find this kind of equipment on the street, Oesterle said.

“Some people are finding second-hand equipment and you’ve got a sense of trying to fix up this old gear, maybe analog gear that’s been discarded by most of the modern studios,” he said. “Some people, if they’re lucky enough to have GarageBand on it or some sort of rudimentary audio recording program, you can put together your music in that.”


But what about the critics who say lo-fi groups are flooding the market? It’s no fun if anyone can create some semblance of a studio in their own home, record some songs in low quality, and throw it on their MySpace page. Oesterle disagrees.

“From a perspective of music consumption, I think it’s great because people can put music together, offer it to fans or potential fans on any one of the social networks, and people can consume music, they can hear it, they can interact with it, download it, or stream it,” he said.

Kevin Hegedus, a sophomore music composition major also known as Mouf, began a lo-fi project called Mouth’s Cradle in the summer of 2008, making music based primarily on vocal loops. Using only his laptop, its internal microphone, GarageBand and a few outside instruments, Mouth’s Cradle recorded two EPs: Body Pop in 2008 and Beach Tales in 2009. He did it all for free.

[Lo-fi] sounds very do-it-yourself-ish, but at the same time it has this really grainy rock quality, which, to me, is just so attractive and makes the music more real for me,” he said. “I think aesthetically, the raw sound is really beautiful.”

Another upside to marketing lo-fi is the live show. A fan may pick up a band’s album, like the music, and wonder about the quality, but still want to go see them live.

“I think if you have this really polished CD and then you go to the live show and the live show doesn’t hit the mark, doesn’t reach the level that the CD was, I think you’re disappointed a little bit,” Oesterle said.

“If you have a recording that is less than stellar but you go to the live show where they’re playing through a PA system that’s state of the art, which many of the venues have great PA systems, even small venues, the concert experience is more pleasurable at that point.”


Matt Gasda, a junior in The College of Arts & Sciences, sings and plays guitar and keyboards in the ambient act Bears in America, who are planning to record this winter.  He said some members of the group want to record in a more lo-fi way, with no mixing or overdubs, but he would prefer the expensive equipment.

“It’s a real choice — sometimes limiting gadgets in the studio results in a more spontaneous sound,” he said. “I think there is something worth investigating in that approach. Some bands, particularly pretty ones, could never do it. Pretty music requires delicacy.”

The lo-fi approach has become synonymous with old-time authenticity, a certain back-to-basics process designed to tickle our remember-when glands. People still buy and listen to vinyl records, not only so they can impress other people with their collection of trendy second hand knick-knacks, but also because the music can provide a sort of homely nostalgia.

Gasda had a somewhat humorous, ironic outlook on lo-fi and its future.

“It has certainly flooded the internet with atrocious, aesthetically empty music. But the radio is and was already flooded by bad music,” he said. “We used to have bad music controlled by major labels, now it’s controlled by young people with GarageBand.”

— Bill McMillan



Auto tune isn’t freeware. This is one of the numerous errors I’ve seen from you guys lately. I’m starting to wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Comment by Rodney

Hey Rodney —

Thanks for catching that. You’re right, Auto-Tune is not a “freeware program,” and we’ve corrected the sentence to reflect that.

We are a student-run publication, so we’re still learning — feedback is definitely crucial to us. If you find other errors, please e-mail 20wattscopy@gmail.com.

20 Watts

Comment by 20watts

love the article guys.

Comment by Toby

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