One would think that we want maximum quality, high fidelity tracks all the time, especially when it comes to vocals. And it seems to be the correct way to go at first glance. But not so fast; low fi stuff certainly has a place in music. Think about it: if you render everything to be perfect and flawless from beginning to end, you might end up with a pretty bland or even boring mix.
Contrast and movement
And that’s when you reach for lo-fi vocals, to create some contrast, some story that goes from A to B. In this case, A is usually the low fidelity vocal part, from where you open up the vocals into the full blooming B part. And when I say you open them up you may ask: why? Are lo-fi vox closed? Well, yes, they are. Because you create them with narrowing down their frequency range from a natural, broad frequency range to something more akin to a telephone, a small radio, a megaphone, or a laptop. While it’s certainly possible to create this effect with recording the real things, most of the time it’s simpler, easier and more flexible to just use some EQ and/or saturation.
Using the lo-fi effect on vocal tracks is not only good for simply creating some contrast in a plainly aesthetic sense, but you can also convey emotions or highlight the theme of the song with it.
Can be used for background tracks
For example, here’s this tune that starts with the low fidelity singing part, as kind of a background vocal, before the actual, full range vocal part begins. Then it returns again from time to time for little fill-ins, and is also an important part of the bridge of the song, before the full blown chorus enters.
Christina Aguilera – “Genie In A Bottle”:
The spice-up effect
This effect has become pretty hip from about the mid 90s on, and got into full bloom in the 2000s. Another good example is the following Simply Red song. In the middle eight Sarah Allen sings part of the Hall & Oates hit “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”, in a phone-like tone, but it’s pretty distorted and fairly compressed as well.
Simply Red – “Sunrise”:
From small to big
Now if you think lo-fi vocals are somewhat of a newcomers as far as effects go, you gotta check out this Buggles tune. The song was originally recorded by Woolley & the Camera Club but the Buggles version was the bigger hit. Listen to Trevor Horn singing the verses! The sound very tastefully simulates the sound of an old small radio. And what a surprise, going by the story of the song, radio is the old, now (then) dated technology, from where the song moves forward to the new, hi-fi sound – both sonically and in the lyrics as well.
The Buggles – “Video Killed The Radio Star”:
Yes, the Beatles did it, too
And finally the expected Beatles example. Why, you knew it’s coming, didn’t you? Yeah they created the old gramophone-like sound on this 1968 song perfectly (even the crackles are there). For this, they used a real 78 RPM record.
The Beatles – “Honey Pie”: