Art of Record Production Conference
May 17-19, 2019
Berklee College of Music, 921 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02215
Friday, May 17 • 11:00 - 11:30
Lo-fi as Effect: High Tech Affordances for Bad Sound

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In 1994, The New York Times ran the article “Lo-fi Rockers Opt for Raw Over Slick,” legitimizing lo-fi sound. By 1995, “lo-fi” saturated music criticism such that many writers called for retirement of the term. But lo-fi has endured as an appealing aesthetic. Musicologists and media scholars consider lo-fi not only as a type of audio degradation, but also as a style and attitude. In the nineties, “lo-fi” went hand-in-hand with technophobia; it was a way of resisting whatever was considered too slick—overblown, oppressive, or uptight. In the past ten years, however, lo-fi has become a high tech effect: high-fidelity audio manufacturers now commonly market their products’ sounds as “lo-fi” (i.e., variously warm, dirty, dated, or minimalist).

This presentation considers the recent emergence of DAWs, plugins, pedals, and apps explicitly designed to contrive a lo-fi sound, and it situates them within the history of audio fidelity. It is based on archival research of amateur and professional publications about audio quality, including zines and audiophile magazines such as Option, Tape Op, Sound Choice, and Chemical Imbalance. Case studies will be the SVEX Instant Lo-fi Junky guitar pedal and the Goodhertz Vulf Compressor “Lo-Fi” option; I analyze the design, marketing, and operation of these devices, demonstrating how modern gadgets have taken the ethos of “raw” sound and turned it toward “slick” purposes. I use the concepts of skeuomorphism and the production myth to analyze the ways these tools construct nostalgia for an authenticity that never actually existed. Bringing together technical and socio-cultural aspects of fidelity, this presentation will consider how and why we continue to be drawn to sound that is flawed, degraded, overdriven, and incomplete—even when it comes at a high cost.


Elizabeth Newton

The Graduate Center, CUNY
Elizabeth Newton is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she teaches music history at the City College of New York. She has written for Leonardo Music Journal, Real Life Magazine, The New Inquiry, the Quietus, Repeater Books, and Sounding Out... Read More →

Friday May 17, 2019 11:00 - 11:30 EDT
Classroom 311 (3rd floor)