by Anders Johanson January 08, 2021 10 min read
Lofi music is a type of music that was developed with the creation of recording equipment that could record sound on magnetic tapes. The word lofi is in reference to the "low fidelity" of the magnetic tape recordings versus vinyl records. The term lofi is relatively new, and most people associate it with the soft, mellow music that was commonly played in coffee shops, waiting rooms and as relaxing background music in the 70s and 80s. The most popular example is the album "Amber Time" by Harold Faltermeyer. It was released in 1982, and consists of smooth jazz songs with an electronic synthesizer. Most lofi music is instead created electronically, with musicianship being shunned in favor of a more simplistic approach to music. Beat makers and hip hop artists are considered lofi musicians, as are some modern "chillstep" musicians. Most songs created by lofi musicians are composed of samples taken from old records. Lyrics are usually kept to a minimum or non-existent. A subgenre of hip hop music based on nostalgia for the early days of the art-form. In hip hop, artists usually have a "boom-bap" sound (heavy bass, drums and simple synth melodies), and lofi hip-hop artists attempt to emulate this sound.
Lofi beats are everywhere. It is one of the most popular hip hop sub genres alongside trap. It’s been steadily taking over platforms like YouTube where every other playlist or radio live stream is featuring an anime character listening to chill beats. Some like to dismiss the genre by calling it the ambient music of the 21st century, others appreciate it but reduce it to simple "study beats". Whatever the reasons are for its popularity, lofi hip hop is here to stay and will always have an audience from those who are nostalgic about simpler times when video cameras were the size of a wonder bread pack and every kid had a Game Boy in his pocket instead of a smartphone. In this article we will cover the basics of making a lofi hip hop beat, discussing all the key elements necessary to achieve an authentic lofi sound.
The centerpiece of every lofi beat is the melodic loop. Ideally the listener will enjoy it so much that the repeating nature of the loop will be the selling point of the track and not its weakness. It would be an understatement if we told you it is important to get the melody part right. Your typical lofi hip hop beat won’t have a lot of melodic variation in it, but the overall vibe needs to be strong enough to carry the whole track on its own. Having a subpar sample or a boring chord progression is a sure way to turn the listener off. While everyone has a different taste, there is a basic approach on how to make your musical idea fit the accepted norms of the lofi genre.
First, you’ll have to decide whether to use a melodic sample from a lofi sample pack or channel your inner genius and write the chord progression from scratch. Both approaches have their merits. A sample from a pack will get you started pretty quickly and is a tried and tested way to get your creative juices flowing. Writing an original composition on the other hand will give you almost unlimited flexibility and control in terms of instrument selection. Moreover, a custom chord progression will provide you with a solid foundation upon which other elements can be built, such as a second melody layer and a baseline. Let’s take a look at the underlying features that would make a chord progression sound like it is from a real vinyl jazz record.
Unless you are a practiced keyboard player who can improvise a dozen ideas on the spot, you might want to spend some time thinking about what scale you want to compose in. The lofi sound is typically known for its mellow and nostalgic vibe. You might think that we can safely discard a happy sounding scale like the Major scale because of that. After all, a happy scale seems like a poor fit for what we are trying to achieve, right? Not quite. The major scale can be used for lofi hip hop, but there are better options out there. A catch-all scale that can give you a sad, reminiscing feeling is the Minor scale. It is found in many genres due to its versatility and you would be on the safe side using it. The only downside is that a Minor scale won’t set your track apart from the rest of the field because people are used to hearing it across so many genres.
What we are really looking for is a scale that sounds jazzy. It makes sense because most lofi producers focus on finding old jazz, funk or soul records when crate digging for their next gem. A scale that would fit the description perfectly is the minor scale in Dorian mode. If you are not familiar with it, the scale is all the white notes starting from D. Naturally you are not restricted to writing your chord progression in D Dorian exclusively. You can select the notes of the scale in the piano roll and move them to any key you like. If you move them to the key of A you will notice that the Dorian scale is very similar to the natural A minor scale. The only difference between the two scales is that in Dorian mode the sixth note, in this case F, is moved one semitone up to F sharp.
Now that we know what scale we want to use, let’s talk about the chord progression itself. The main thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Chord progressions are one of the few things in music that are free from copyright. You can safely borrow a chord progression from one of your favorite jazz records or reference some of the most popular jazz chord progressions online. One of the progressions that is quite common in jazz music is the so-called two-five-one (2 5 1) sequence. If you are writing in the key of A Dorian, an example of such a sequence would be a progression of three 7th chords - Bm7, Em7 and Am7. A visual example of the progression inside the piano roll can be seen below.
Once you have a basic structure of your chord progression in place, it is time to spruce it up and make it sound more human. Right now the chords are looking very rigid and unexciting. You won’t find a musician who is perfect in his timing like that. It looks quite robotic since there are no passing notes and every note is played with the same velocity. Although people won’t see the piano roll when listening to your track, the human ear will pick up little subtleties in the sound that will reveal the digital origin of the sample. To make your MIDI composition pass for a sampled piece of vinyl we need to dirty it up a little.
Inside the FL Studio piano roll there are various tools to help you humanize the MIDI notes. For example, by pressing ALT+L you can open the articulator. The most useful control knob inside the articulator is the “Variation” knob. Adjusting it will shorten the end of the notes inside the chords and clicking through the “Seed” arrows will randomize this effect. Other handy tools are the strumizer (ALT+S) and randomizer (ALT+R). Make sure to turn off the “Pattern” light inside the randomizer because you don’t want to make a random soup of notes out of your chord progression. All you need are the control knobs under the “Levels” section where you can randomize the velocity, the release and even the pitch of individual notes. And most importantly, don’t forget to apply your own human touch. You can shift the chord notes around manually to your liking. Holding the ALT key while moving or resizing the notes will allow for maximum precision. Try to have fun with it and modify the chords in a way that sounds interesting to you.
Once you have the melodic foundation for your lofi beat, it is time to lay down some drums. It is definitely recommended to use drum samples that were made specifically with the lofi genre in mind. Experimenting with different drums from unrelated genres can be refreshing, but if you want your track to fall into the lofi category then it is advisable not to deviate too much from the set standard. Lofi drums have a certain flavor to them that makes them easily identifiable and the listener expects you to have that type of sound. At the end of the day you could have the most jazzy sounding chord progression in the whole world, but if your drums don’t have that certain lofi vibe that the listener is used to, it will be hard for your production to be associated with the genre. This is why sample selection is so crucial. Nailing the samples will make the rest of the creative process easier because you will know that your sound is up to the standards set by the lofi community.
One of the biggest advantages of working with lofi hip hop samples is the fact that the files are already preprocessed to some degree. This is a major time-saving factor because you don’t have to do the EQing of the kicks or layering the snares. Samples from a good pack will sound quite authentic from the get go. The kicks will be heavy hitting and the snares will be already layered with vinyl crackle or have that old school boom bap vibe about them. It might be up for debate whether you should use premade drum loops or program the drum patterns yourself, but there is absolutely no doubt that a good sample library of one-shot drums is a must-have for any producer.
Whether you compose your own chord progression and bounce it to audio or use a melody loop from a sample pack, there is still a lot that can be done creatively. Most lofi producers process their loops heavily with the goal of making them indistinguishable from the original. This is both an art and a science. On the one hand the creative possibilities are limitless, but on the other hand there is a certain set of tools and plugins that are very commonly used. Covering even a fraction of all the available lofi plugins on the market would go beyond the constraints of this article. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at two widely used plugins to get a general idea on how a sample can be manipulated.
A popular plugin in the lofi producer community is iZotope Vinyl. As the name suggests the plugin will make the loops sound like they were lifted directly from a vinyl record. The plugin has a bunch of controls that can add record scratches, noise of different types, make the loop sound like it was recorded from a warped record and more. It is a neat little plugin that is intuitive to use and you can get it for free on the iZotope’s website.
Another plugin that can really change the whole vibe of a sampled loop is Gross Beat. The plugin comes with FL Studio and has an extensive library full of powerful presets that can do anything from stutter effects to flanging, but the preset you will want to try out first is the half-speed preset that can be found under the “Momentary” category. You can apply the preset to the whole loop or automate it to make it trigger at certain times. There are no hard and fast rules here, the best advice is to experiment with the plugin and see what interesting effects you can create.
Once we have the loop and the drums we can start thinking about a rough mix down. If you are using a melody loop from a sample pack it’s a good idea to clean the low end to make room for the sub-bass. Assign the melody loop to a free mixer channel and drop your favorite EQ on the effects slots. All we are looking to do is low cut the loop around 150hz.
Now that we’ve created some space for the sub we can start mixing in the bass. We haven’t covered the bass yet but the truth is, making a bass patch for a lofi beat is pretty easy. You don’t need any crazy sound design or intricate bass presets. All you need is just a good old sub that can be done with a simple sine wave. You can quickly create one in 3x Osc which is a free synth inside Fl studio. Load the plugin, open it and set all three course knobs to zero. And that’s how you make a lofi bass patch.
You can write the bass line by copy-pasting the root notes of the chord progression and playing around with the rhythm. If you are using a premade melodic loop it will most likely be labeled with a key, so just make sure you are using notes that are within the scale of that key.
During mixing it is important to remember that we want our kick to stand out and cut through the mix. Every time the kick hits we want everything else around it to go down in volume. It is quite an impactful effect which will make your listener's head bop. To achieve it we sidechain the kick to everything. You can do it manually or slap your favorite sidechain plugin on every mixer channel. Bass, loops, hi hats – everything can be sidechained to a certain degree. You could even sidechain the master bus, but applying it to every mixer channel individually will give you more control. For example, you might not want the melody to duck in volume as much as the sub when the kick hits.
An effect that you should also consider to enrich your mix is applying some reverb onto the loop. Usually a hall reverb will do the trick and make the melody sample sound bigger and spacier. Lastly, a paid plugin that can complete the mix and add that final lofi touch is the RC-20 Retro Color by XLN Audio. You can put it on the master channel and choose the preset that you like the most. The plugin will do its magic and affect the high frequencies in a way that will make the track sound and feel a lot more muffled.
In this article we covered a number of topics and this information should give you enough of a base to start producing your own lofi hip hop beats. We haven’t covered arrangement or mastering, but those steps are less important if you are just starting out. For now, focus on producing a dozen or so short loops of 8 to 16 bars in length to get a hang of the techniques introduced above. Practicing what you’ve learned is the first step to mastery, so go and start your lofi journey now by putting your freshly gained knowledge to the test.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.