by Kevin McHugh

How to Make Lofi Music: 5 Key Elements to Create That Chill, Vintage Sound

how to make lofi music

In an age when everything is loud and demanding attention, sometimes the perfect remedy is music that sits nicely in the background. Similarly, when digital technology makes it possible to create pristine, ultra-high-definition music and images, some artists have veered in another direction. When it’s easy to make hifi, the challenge is how to make lofi music.

In this tutorial, we’re going to learn more about what lofi music is and learn how to make lofi beats that are perfectly chill, while still being interesting and well-crafted.

Jump to these sections:

What is lofi music?

5 key elements of a lofi beat:

  1. Start with a slow tempo and a simple beat
  2. Add “vintage” sounds and “jazzy” chords
  3. Create imperfections everywhere in the music
  4. Adjust EQ, tone, and saturation
  5. Create space and atmosphere with samples

Follow along with this tutorial using the instruments in KONTAKT, the industry’s leading sampler and instrument-building tool with thousands of high quality instruments to choose from.

 

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What is lofi music?

Lofi music (low fidelity) has sonic elements to it that are normally considered imperfections in a context of a recording, such as misplayed notes and environmental noise such as hissing and crackling. These are considered conscious, deliberate choices in lofi music production. To some ears this may sound “vintage”—this is because many lofi productions want to emulate the grainy sound of tape recordings.

Lofi beats made today are now usually recorded on high fidelity equipment and mixed in a DAW with modern-day plugins and processing. Lofi hip-hop beats often emulate the sound of a 1990s car stereo.

Listen to some examples of modern lofi beats. Do you hear the grainy, vintage quality?

It almost sounds like we’re listening to vinyl.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what lofi music is, let’s learn how to make your own lofi song with a few key techniques.

1. Start with a slow tempo and a simple beat

Lofi beats always start with a simple, chill hip hop beat. This is a genre all about slowing down, so the tempo will almost always be between 60–90 bpm. You can go slower than 60 bpm, but anything faster than 90 bpm will lose the chill energy. The important parts of the beat will always be a kick, snare and hi-hat, and we’re going to stay in 4/4 time.

Keep in mind, we will add some variety and imperfections later. If you want to see that, you can skip ahead to the third tip, but for now we’re just going to make a simple beat, with the kick on the first and third whole note of the bar, and the snare on the second and fourth. The hi-hat can lazily tap along on every eighth note. Remember—KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Here’s an example using DRUMLAB, a great tool from Native Instruments that makes mix-ready drum design, fast:

Using DRUMLAB to create a simple beat
Using DRUMLAB to create a simple beat

You can check out how it sounds here.

2. Add “vintage” sounds and “jazzy” chords

One thing that’s essential to making Lofi beats is smooth, easy chords that feel jazzy but simple. A great way to get that feeling is using Major 7th chords. Major keys tend to feel more soothing and optimistic, and 7th chords are a common favorite of jazz players looking to add some flavor. Another key element to the Lofi sound is to use vintage sounds. Some great examples are Hammond keys, electric bass, vibraphones, etc.

Here’s how we can lay out a simple two-chord pattern using the LO-FI GLOW Play Series instrument, which is great for adding fuzz and distortion to a song.

Adding jazzy chords with LO-FI GLOW
Adding jazzy chords with LO-FI GLOW

Here’s how that sounds.

3. Add imperfections everywhere in the song

When we’re making Lofi beats, we want to find sneaky ways to keep the music interesting, and just a little bit different. This helps balance out the chill feeling with just enough flavor to feel unique and cool to listen to.

Some ways we can add imperfections start with the drums. Remember in the first tip we said to keep the beat simple. Well there’s a big difference between simple and boring! We don’t want boring—and a great way to do that is to add little variations and imperfections to the beat. This involves sliding the drum notes just a little bit off the grid. One or two notes might be a little late, or a little early. They’ll also drop out occasionally, or have a quick fill.

You can also make small, occasional changes to the other instruments using the same principle. The trick to this is that a little bit goes a long way. We don’t want things to go crazy, we’re just adding a barely-perceptible difference occasionally. Not enough change makes it boring, but too much change loses the chill.

We’re also going to play around with how the bassline fits, so I’ve made a really quick and simple bass line using the SCARBEE MM-BASS. I’ve moved a number of the notes into different places to play with the groove a bit, which you can see below.

A quick and simple bassline using SCARBEE MM-BASS
A quick and simple bassline using SCARBEE MM-BASS

Another great way to introduce imperfections is to the EQ and tone of the sounds, which leads us directly to our next step!

4. Adjust EQ, tone and saturation

A common feature to all Lofi beats is right in the name. As we mentioned earlier, lofi is short for “low fidelity”—a way of describing how clean or “true” something sounds. In lofi, we’re going for smudged, dusty and warm sounds that mimic faulty vintage equipment. That’s easily achieved with a few quick steps.

First, we’re going to use EQ to mimic the limited bandwidth of vintage radios by cutting off the lowest and highest frequencies. That means cutting off everything below 200 Hz, and everything above 5K Hz. This will give us the “smudged” feeling. Another great way to get lofi tone is to use distortion and saturation to make things sound dusty. This is a way to add some dust, or grit to our sound. The two of these steps combined will make the tone feel warm and chill.

So for our example, we’ve added an EQ and a saturation/compression unit to each of our instrument channels. We’ll start with using SOLID EQ, which mimics the way that analog solid-state EQ hardware works. We’ve dialed some settings to keep things sounding muted and smudgy, while still preserving the essence of our sound. Then we’ve got SUPERCHARGER adding some compression and grit to our sound. The chain looks like this on our drum channel.

Lofi drums chain
Lofi drums chain

We’ll see how these elements work really well in our next step.

5. Add space and atmosphere

Lofi beats make us feel chill when we’re listening to them because they have a sense of space. They’re not crowded or busy, but they also feel immersive and textured, like a good sofa. One great way to give a beat this sense of space and texture is to add a background layer with lots of reverb.

Start with an atmospheric recording or sample. It can be anything, a recording of cars going by on a nearby road, or the distant sound of an airplane overhead, raindrops on a window, or even a faint television in the background. Make sure it’s smooth and distant. Then we’re going to take that sound and drench it in reverb. Let that layer sit in the background of your lofi beat, and it will add a sense of space and atmosphere for your listener to float in.

Here’s an example using a mic recording of some footsteps on a sidewalk. Here’s our original recording:

We’ve taken that and run it through BITE, to emulate a low-resolution digital sampler, then DIRT, to get some of the crunch of an analog tube, dial in some settings on SOLID EQ to stay in line with the rest of our track, and then of course we’ll drench it in reverb with RAUM.

Lofi atmospheric chain with BITE, DIRT, SOLID EQ, and RAUM
Lofi atmospheric chain with BITE, DIRT, SOLID EQ, and RAUM

After the chain, it sounds like this:

With these five elements, we’re able to take some really simple ideas and make a track that has vibe, groove, and some interesting texture. These elements all work together to make a final result that sounds like this:

Start making lofi beats

There are different ways each of these elements can apply to ideas you might have in the lofi genre, so try them in your own music and see how they work for you! And if you haven’t already, take a look at the breadth of instruments available to create lofi music in KONTAKT, including LO-FI GLOW, DRUMLAB, and more.

 

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