Producers today have the tools necessary to arrange and mix audio that’s been pristinely recorded at the highest quality. But we still find ourselves hypnotised by artefacts associated with low-fidelity equipment – the crackle of an old vinyl disc; the ‘warm’ detune of a vintage synth; the hiss, wow and flutter of tape machines. As a result, genres that include the word ‘lo-fi’ have exploded into the mainstream in the last six or so years.
Lo-fi hip-hop, lo-fi house, chillwave and hypnagogic pop are among the many genres that embrace the imperfections of low-fidelity hardware. You’ll hear warped pianos and pads that are absent of rich high-end frequencies, along with drums that are slightly distorted and often sampled from old records. It’s then likely that the track is processed through a tape machine or old mixing desk to add that old-school flavour.
Here, we give you some software alternatives to tape machines, old samplers and vintage synths that can help you achieve a lo-fi sound.
Best plug-ins for making lo-fi music at a glance:
- Softube Tape Echoes
- BabyAudio SuperVHS
- iZotope Vinyl
- XLN Audio’s RC-20 Retro Color
- SketchCassette II
- denise audio Bad Tape
- WaveTracing SP950
- Softube Model 84
- Waves Kramer Tape
- UJAM Retro Finisher
- Wavesfactory Casette
Softube Tape Echoes
Bringing realistic sounds and textures to your DAW is Softube’s forte. With Tape Echoes, the company has used its expert knowledge of modelling to emulate a cassette deck-style tape delay, complete with an interface that screams ‘vintage’.
In our review, we said: “It sounds like a tape echo without just mimicking one model. It can gently lift a source in a mix, and it can take the foreground in a heavy dub style. It can do set-and-forget, and you can tweak it endlessly as an instrument in its own right. It’ll even turn out a sweet, clean echo like a newly calibrated machine with fresh tape, even though you’ll probably come along later and start turning up the dirt. If you’re already using Amp Room or Modular, then Tape Echoes will add even more value than it does as a plug-in, but even without those add-ons, it’s still well worth the price.”
Read the full review here.
Baby Audio Super VHS
Baby Audio’s lo-fi offering comes in Super VHS, with an emphasis on fuzzy VHS-style effects – go figure. The affordable plug-in is extremely easy to use, with three main dials, a magic button and a few sliders. The dials allow you to turn up Heat, a saturation algorithm; Wash, a dreamy reverb; and Drift, a luscious detuner. The Magic button instantly applies a Juno 60-style chorus to your sound, while the Static slider generates noise and the Shape slider adjusting sample rate, resulting in drastic bit reduction in ten different steps.
In our review, we said: “Producers looking to create lo-fi, nostalgic, vintage-sounding tracks won’t need to create lengthy plug-in chains of EQ, chorus, compression and saturation. This does it all for you and isn’t a burden on the CPU.”
Read the full review here.
iZotope’s free lo-fi effect has long been a go-to weapon for producers, whether it’s for adding a subtle touch of vinyl-style saturation or full-on mechanical noise. Plus, a recent makeover has made Vinyl even more accessible and intuitive, with a new Lo-fi button that iZotope says instantly brings the “worn timbre of late-80s hip-hop”.
A core and enjoyable feature is Vinyl’s ability to transport your sounds back through the decades, all the way to 1930. As you move through the timeline, you’ll essentially be listening to your sounds as if they were recorded in that era, with all their primal imperfections. Sliders for dust, scratch and warp will let you inject the sought-after imperfections of vinyl, while dials for Mechanical and Electrical will accentuate noise. iZotope’s Vinyl is free to download, so this is a no-brainer.
Learn more at izotope.com.
XLN Audio’s RC-20 Retro Color
One of the top-charting plug-ins on Splice is XLN Audio’s RC-20 Retro Color, and is consistently found in the ‘Popular This Week‘ plug-in round-up. Much like iZotope Vinyl, this multi-effects unit is a staple plug-in among lo-fi artists. Arming you with the tools to bring the textures of vintage analogue hardware to your DAW, RC-20 features six engines to colour your sounds with.
The effects engines enable you to replicate the crackle of vinyl, the wobble of tape, crunchy distortion, chorus and reverb, and more. Each module sports a Flux slider which can adjust the extent of its effect, from subtle to extreme. In addition, the Magnitude slider dictates the global intensity of RC-20 on your instruments, which can be configured at any time, even when browsing through the variety of the plug-in’s presets.
Price £61 / €66.97
Learn more at xlnaudio.com.
Aberrant DSP SketchCassette II
With a GUI that perfectly symbolises the goal of the plug-in, SketchCasette II is a lo-fi dream maker. If you’re looking for tape models, this plug-in has 12 of them, with three types each boasting four variations: Cheap, Value, Standard and Master. You’ll notice the difference in ‘quality’ in each of them, and you can further manipulate their tone with an Age slider, which you can gradually move from New to Used to Worn.
SketchCasette II has independent controls for Wow and Flutter, with rate, depth and waveshape, with the option to sync to your DAWs tempo. In addition, you can swap the Wow and Flutter mode to FM, which lets you modulate the rate of Flutter. A flanger, saturator with two modes, a dropout control and compressor are built into the plug-in, too. This wonderful tape emulation is made all the more special with its animated reels.
Learn more at abberantdsp.com.
Denise Audio Bad Tape
Denise Audio has created a different type of tape effect – one that is designed to sound bad. Sometimes, though, to make things sound good, you have to make them sound bad. Bad Tape is a simple and affordable plug-in that focuses on bringing extreme artefacts of tape to the forefront: Wow, Flutter, Hiss, Squeal and Harm, along with sliders for Color, saturation and Speed.
In our review, we said: “Bad Tape stands out because of its mission statement: to sound bad. The subtle tones you can achieve by slowly bringing effects in are highly usable and scrolling through presets lets you quickly see how you can twist audio in different ways. The distortion and harming effects are great for crunching bass sounds or drums, and for the price, it might be worth adding to your arsenal for its variety of uses.”
Read the full review here.
Akai samplers, such as the MPC desktop series and rack-based machines, are fond favourites of lo-fi beatmakers. Their old-school processors result in tones that are hard to achieve in high-spec DAWs – without the right tools, of course. Akaizer is a free plug-in that lets you time-stretch in the style of the Akai S950, S1000, S2000 and S3000 samplers. This will give you that classic metallic sound in the sample, sending you straight back to the 90s. It’s as simple as that.
Learn more at the-akaizer-project.blogspot.com.
Much like the creator of Akaizer, WaveTracing has a solution for lovers of vintage sampling machines. The SP950 combines the sound and look of the E-mu SP-1200 with the filter of the Akai S950, sporting just one slider, a knob and two buttons.
Producers using the SP1200 to sample would capture the incoming signal from a vinyl record at a faster speed – 78rpm, for example – to save sampling time. They would then slow down the sample in the SP1200, which resulted in some dusty sounds. SP950 recreates this with its single slider, combining the pitch of the source and the detuning of the SP to compensate for each other. The S950-inspired filter does a stellar job of isolating low-end frequencies. If you love the sound of these classic samplers, give the SP950 a try.
Learn more at wavetracing.com.
Softube Model 84
If you’re thinking of including synth sounds in your lo-fi beats, you’ll want to consider a Roland Juno emulation. The vintage Roland Juno is prominent among a range of producers thanks to its reasonable price tag and useful versatility. You’d have heard its rich, analogue sound in a ton of genres and styles. There’s plenty of choice out there for emulations, but we’ve found a favourite in Softube’s Model 84.
In our review, we said: “The sound is almost a perfect facsimile of the Juno-106. This is true both to the naked ear and when you compare frequency graphs between the original’s hardware and Softube’s software. There really is very, very little to choose between them, and as each original Juno sounds subtly different anyway, the sonic lines between software and hardware blur further.”
Price $159/€159 ($99/€99 intro)
Read the full review here.
Waves Kramer Master Tape
As the name alludes, Waves teamed up with legendary producer Eddie Kramer on this tape-based plug-in. Made in 2011, but still used heavily by acclaimed producers, the effect is modelled on a vintage reel-to-reel tape machine that can provide you with all the wow and flutter you’d need, along with adjustable tape speed, bias, flux and noise parameters.
The GUI oozes ‘vintage’ with its spinning tape reels, and is friendly enough to have you tinkering and dialling in warm tones in no time. This is a great plug-in for individual elements, but can also be used on your master output to add some dust to your whole track. Best of all, Waves has it on sale right now at a seriously low price.
Price $60 (Sale price)
Learn more at waves.com.
UJAM Finisher Retro
Hans Zimmer and Pharell Williams’ company Ujam has a range of intuitive effects and instruments, with its Finisher series being ideal for soudnu design. Each Finisher product is a multi-effects plug-in, with Retro primed for “instant old-school flavours”, the brand says. Whether it’s the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s vibe you’re after, Retro’s 20 sound modules should be more than enough to satisfy your needs.
Ujam touts Retro as Instagram filters for your audio, with 50 modes across four decades. Parameters such as Grit, Color, Mode and Rate will let you fine-tune your finishing touch, with over 100 presets for some quick inspiration. In addition, the central Finisher knob is onboard to control the dozens of processors under the hood, with reverbs, delays, flangers, tape hiss and more.
Learn more at ujam.com.
Wavesfactory Casette is another plug-in that brings back the casette tape deck back into vogue, with four casette emulations to choose from. The developer says that the plug-in was the result of extensive analysis of a large number of sound signals recorded into real tapes. The four emulations include a 1960s ferric-oxide coating, a chromium dioxide formulation, a short-lived model from the mid-70s and early 80s, and a metal formulation that helps create firm bass.
There are also parameters for Erasures, Spread, Stability, Satic, Dynamic and Artefacts, along with Pro, Home and Micro configurations. You can go even deeper with its settings to adjust parameters such as crosstalk, degredation depth, wow depth and tons more. Plus, the clean, retro GUI features a sneaky reference to Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is a cool touch.
Learn more at wavesfactory.com.