There exists an on-going debate that has quietly raged under the surface of both popular and underground music for the last four or five decades, with relatively little press and public interest. This debate is the battle between so called “hi-fi” and “lo-fi”, better known as high fidelity and low-fidelity. Fidelity refers, in a basic sense, to the grade of reproduction quality of recorded sound; low fidelity contains greater levels of noise and distortion than its cleaner, smoother cousin. Whilst it would be possible to go into an intensely technical description about these forms (yawn), what is actually interesting is that “hi-fi” and “lo-fi” have moved beyond simply the quality of recording available to an artist. Various artists and scenes now wear these terms as badges of honour.
So why make such a fuss about which “fi” your songs claim to be? Constant progress in sound recording over the last few decades has made it possible to produce extremely clean, clear recordings, with unbelievable depth of sound. Most successful artists, due to current convention and large budgets, favour this approach. The majority of chart music is often brilliantly produced, perfect for blasting at full volume on a Monday night at Arena to hundreds of inebriated students excited beyond reason to hear Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” or Matin Garrix’s “Animals”. The blissful sound of crisp electronic drums and bass frequencies that could bring down the Physics Building is enough to spur any student into busting some extremely questionable dance moves for hours on end. Electronic music lends itself particularly well to the “hi-fi” aesthetic as it is often created entirely digitally and as such encounters little distortion.
However, lo-fi, the seemingly irrational alternative, enjoys a far larger cult following. Plenty of music fans deliberately seek out the waves of fuzz, vinyl crackle and drums that sound like they are coming from the next room. This is probably, like many things, due to the on-going retro revival, a nostalgic throwback from when music was “real” and a reaction to the supposedly ‘evil’ diseases of digital recording and Pharrell Williams’ prodigious talent for production.
Lo-fi may sound a bit “naff” (there’s even a movement called “no-fi”…I promise) but it has an unmistakable charm, favoured for the most part by guitar-based genres such as indie-pop, punk and folk. Once a fact of a poor musician’s life, lo-fi is now deliberately recreated, with artists shunning high-spec programs for single-microphone home recordings and copious amounts of blankets to dampen those noisy drums. The Black Tambourines for example (signed to Exeter label Art is Hard records) perfectly, or perhaps imperfectly, display the lo-fi sound on their self-titled LP. It’s not only smaller, underground bands which wear their lo-fi with pride, however; chart toppers Vampire Weekend sound discernibly fuzzy on their latest effort “Modern Vampires of the City”, even more so than earlier releases.
Whatever your preference, your choice of “fi” might subtly speak volumes about your music taste and even your outlook on life. Maybe you’re a perfectionist looking for musical nirvana, or perhaps you embrace the beer-soaked sound of Cavern Saturdays. You may sit on the fence and dance to whatever sounds good at the time. Regardless of your choice, expect the musical swords of hi-fi and lo-fi to clash for many years to come.
The Black Tambourines
Chase and Status
by Joe Stewart, Razz Music Correspondent