Learn how to produce more creative and compelling lofi hip hop beats using some unique production techniques and Waves Retro Fi true lofi plugin. Find out our 4 favorite lofi tips!
By Charles Hoffman, Black Ghost Audio
Lofi (low fidelity) music is characterized by audio imperfections that are typically seen as undesirable, being used in a way that's appealing. Some examples of typically undesirable traits include noise, dropout, tape wear, wow and flutter. Creatively manipulating audio imperfections in a way that sounds good is the main challenge when writing lofi beats; think of this process like dressing up an ugly goat as a beautiful princess.
We're going to take a look at 4 tips for producing better lofi hip-hop beats that include embedding noise within your drums, getting creative with parallel processing, making unique risers and surprising listeners.
1. Embed Noise Within Your Drums
Embedding noise within your drums can help them settle into the mix and make it sound like they were sampled from a cassette or old vinyl record. You can hear low-level noise being used creatively in "Crust" by Flying Lotus, panning between the center and left of center—it sounds like the noise is embedded within the track containing the snare.
The problem is that adding noise to your recordings can quickly turn into a mess if you aren't careful. Constant low-level noise may sometimes not be noticeable enough to make much of a difference, and noise that's too loud can bury your drums.
One solution is to apply a gate to a noise track and make it open up every time it detects drum transients. You can manually set this up using a noise generator like eMo Generator, but it's tedious and requires you to feed your drum bus into the sidechain input of a gate. The easier way to pull off this effect is by using Retro Fi's noise module.
Select the type of noise that you want to layer with your drums (Cassette, Digital, Electric, FX, Mechanics, Synth, Vinyl), enable Gate mode, and then adjust the Threshold knob until you only hear noise when there are drum hits. The result should sound like there are drum hits being backed up by noise that rises and falls with transient material. You also have the option to place the Noise module before or after the Space module in your signal chain by toggling the Pre/Post switch; try both positions to figure out which setting suits your material the best.
2. Fill Space with Parallel Processing
Lofi songs don't typically contain many track elements, meaning it can be difficult to fill space. Although, when you take a creative approach to parallel processing, you can create captivating soundscapes—even with small and brittle source material.
Parallel processing refers to duplicating an audio signal, processing the duplicate signal via an aux track, and then mixing it together with the original signal. One popular example of parallel processing involves applying parallel compression to a drum bus; the parallel signal is usually compressed quite hard. Mixing together a dynamic transient signal with a heavily compressed signal maintains the punchy nature of the original signal while benefiting from the body introduced by the heavily compressed signal. Essentially, the compressed signal fills in the troughs in the transient signal's waveform.
Reverb, delay, distortion and saturation are regularly applied in parallel as well. However, there's no rule that says you can only apply one effect to each of your aux tracks. With the right mindset, you can fill an entire mix using a single well-crafted aux effect chain.
Drop Retro Fi onto an aux track and scroll through the many creative presets. I suggest getting started with something like "Guitar - Exquisite Fabric of Space and Time". Make sure that Device, Space, Noise, and Mechanics are toggled on and that both the Echo and Reverb modules are engaged. Doing this introduces distortion, delay, reverb, noise and pitch/volume modulation to your aux track. All this variety is going to help fill out the stereo field and make your mix sound much fuller.
Note: If all you want to do is apply reverb and delay, you can use Retro Fi’s little brother, Lofi Space—which offers the same Echo and Reverb modules as Retro Fi. The delay and reverb algorithms powering these modules were specifically designed to cater to lofi songs.
You can apply more than one plugin to aux tracks, so the next best way to capitalize on the space in your mix is to pitch shift your parallel audio. Apply an instance of SoundShifter after Retro Fi and adjust the Semitones value to +/-12; this is a safe value when applying SoundShifter as a parallel effect because it will ensure that the parallel signal remains within the key of your song. Having done this, you've created a unique and interesting single-line harmony. If you've created a high harmony, consider duplicating your aux track to create a low harmony for an even richer sound—tweak the Retro Fi settings on the second aux track for a bit of variety as well.
If you feel like the parallel signal isn't apparent enough within your mix, apply some heavy compression using the SSL EV2 Channel. Select a ratio like 8:1, a slow release time around 2, and ensure that the F.ATK (fast attack) switch is toggled to the Fast setting—which results in a 1 ms attack time. A VCA compressor, like the one found in the SSL EV2, tends to do an excellent job of applying parallel compression because of how snappy and responsive it is. You want the parallel signal to sound squashed when soloed. When you mix the compressed signal together with your dry signal, set your aux track's fader level to -inf and then slowly increase the level of the fader as you blend the compressed signal into the mix. Stop increasing the fader level when your mix starts to lose its punch, then slightly pull down on the fader—this is where you'll set your aux track level.
The result is that your mix will sound significantly more robust. Instead of overproducing a song by continually adding more song elements to fill space, ask yourself how you can fill space using the sounds already present within your mix. Generally, doing so will yield a product that is clear and focused from an arrangement standpoint.
3. Make Unique Risers
It's quite common to add risers to lofi songs as a means to enhance tension and release. At a basic level, you may choose to add a riser leading into section changes (verse, chorus, etc.); picture a long and drawn-out riser leading up to an EDM drop but not quite as present within the mix. Embedding low-level repeating risers into your hook can help maintain momentum. For example, if your hook spans four bars, you could layer in a four-bar riser that repeats alongside the hook.
There's nothing wrong with using riser samples that you download from Splice, but there are a few reasons you may not want to. First, the sample you download may not be the right length. Trying to time stretch a one-bar riser into an eight-bar riser is likely going to yield some strange artifacts. The second reason is that creating a riser using Retro Fi is so easy that it's probably faster than endlessly searching for a riser sample anyway.
Risers are typically created using a combination of a basic tone, noise, pitch bend effect and reverb. You can create a basic tone by selecting a sine, triangle, saw, square, or pulse wave within the oscillator section of a synth. A synth like Codex, which is a wavetable synthesizer, allows you to load all of these waveshapes. There's no need to engage any other processing within your synth because Retro Fi will be doing all of the heavy lifting from this point forward.
Insert an instance of Retro Fi after your synth and dirty up the sound with the Device module. Experiment with different Device modes, the Tone knob and the Styler knob. A mellow tone is probably going to work best for lofi tracks when creating risers. Disengage the Echo module and engage the Reverb module. Set the Reverb module's Length to 3-5 seconds and then adjust the Mix knob to control the blend between the dry and wet signal—it’s okay if the riser is swimming in reverb.
Choose one of the various noise options from the Noise module's dropdown menu. Turn the Noise module's Threshold knob down to -50 dB so that the module is constantly producing noise when there’s sound running through Retro Fi, and then adjust the module's Level knob to control the presence of the noise. For the most cohesive results, toggle the Space switch into Pre mode.
When you set the Device module's Ringer knob to a static value, it acts as a ring modulator that creates digital clipping distortion. However, when you increase the value of the Ringer knob over time, it creates a really cool pitch-bending effect. Automate the Device module's Ringer knob from 0% to 100% over the span of time that you'd like the riser to occur. You can also turn the Mix knob up to 100% for more intense results.
If the wobbly Ringer sound is a little too intense for your song, you can forgo the Ringer effect and apply an instance of Vocal Bender before Retro Fi. Toggle Vocal Bender into Fine mode and automate the Pitch value from 0 to 12—this will result in a clean pitch-bending effect.
4. Surprise Your Listeners
Most people actively browsing through music on Spotify are moving quickly, smacking the "Next" button like it's on fire. If you don't grab your listener's ear within the first 10-15 seconds of your song, they'll move on to something else. One of the best ways to draw attention and keep people listening is by catching them off guard; you can do this using a fun arrangement technique.
Drop an instance of Retro Fi onto your stereo bus and load up a preset like "Megaphone" or "Grain adlibs and BGVs" to introduce a vintage flavor to your intro. In this situation, you're looking for a preset that sounds washed out and atmospheric. Automate the state of Retro Fi so that it becomes bypassed when the first verse of your song begins; the goal is simply to affect the intro. The contrast created by lifting the lofi veil during the first verse will catch listeners by surprise, and hopefully, get them to stick around to listen to the rest of your song.
To make this effect even more impactful, use Retro Fi to apply a low cut around 400 Hz and a high cut near 3,000 Hz. You can filter out low-end and top-end content using the HP and LP knobs built into Retro Fi so there's no need to use a separate EQ. When Retro Fi gets bypassed, the additional frequency content that gets introduced during the first verse is going to make your song sound big, rich and full. Contrast is an extremely powerful arrangement tool.
With a separate EQ plugin like the Waves F6 Floating-Band Dynamic EQ, you can create an old-school phone filter effect by low cutting up to 500 Hz and high cutting down to 3,500 Hz. Use a steep slope around 24 dB/octave when applying these cuts. Add a bell filter at 1,000 Hz, 1,500 Hz and 2,500 Hz. Then, add roughly 6 dB of gain to each bell filter. The bell filters are going to make your song sound more resonant, while the steep filter cuts limit the bandwidth. Together, these mixing decisions will result in an old-timey telephone effect.
With a handful of lofi production techniques a part of your arsenal, you should have no problem getting the lofi sound that you're looking for. Retro Fi and Lofi Space can help streamline the process since they're made specifically for producers creating lofi hip-hop beats. Take what you've learned and start putting it into practice; this will help you recall lofi sound design and mixing techniques well into the future.
Charles Hoffman is the owner of Black Ghost Audio—a website that provides free music production tips, tutorials, gear roundups, and premium online video courses. Visit Black Ghost Audio to learn how to produce music online.
Want more lo fi tips? Watch 10 lofi/retro hip hop production tricks here!
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