If you’ve stumbled on a playlist titled “chill study music,” “beats to relax to,” “ambient beats,” or something similar, you’ve heard lofi music. OK great… but what exactly is it? And if you’re a producer, how do you make lofi music? Read on for some background, historical context, and several approaches to making lofi tracks that can get you placed on playlists and make listeners’ heads nod.
What is lofi music?
Lofi stands for “low fidelity.” It’s more of a production aesthetic than any specific genre, but you’ll still see the term describe genres and subgenres. In contrast to hifi (or “high fidelity”) music, lofi music can be created with do-it-yourself (DIY) methods widely available to any producer.
Bedroom producers made early lofi tracks using 4 track tape recorders and other early consumer recording gear. As tape heads wear down, they create a subtle noise or tape hiss that limits high-frequency information in the recorded audio. It also adds saturation and gives the recording some analogue warmth. Early samplers with lower bit depths impart a crunchy vibe for a similar result.
Today, lofi producers use these imperfections intentionally. Some produce with older equipment to add grit to their sound. Lofi hip hop producers Boards of Canada famously used worn out tape machines that sounded something like old, warped VHS cassettes, giving their tracks an unmistakable nostalgic vibe. If vintage gear isn’t your thing, plugins can do the trick.
Lofi usually features instrumentals that revolve around simpler chords and melodies. However, lofi music makes extensive use of looping, and multiple looped patterns can evolve into more intricate structures. Lofi tracks have a chill vibe that can both demand your attention but also flow seamlessly in the background. But don’t just take our word for it. Put on a lofi playlist and see what effect it has on you.
How did lofi music come to be?
The term lofi has been around since the dawn of professional recording, to differentiate it from recordings produced in studios with hifi technologies. It came into more common use in the mid-80s. With the advent of CDs and digital technology, some listeners and producers realized they preferred a warmer, retro sound over digital’s relative harshness. So they recontextualized the term lofi and used it to positively frame this vintage style.
Around this time, radio commanded massive audiences, and independent stations helped popularize lofi music. DJ William Berger at prominent indie station WFMU dedicated a slot on his weekly radio show to showcasing lofi tracks. Here’s an example of one of his shows. Indie musicians and record labels also embraced the style. This was partly from indie’s embrace of scrappiness and immediacy that goes with DIY recording. But it was also out of necessity. Indie artists didn’t have the budgets to record in pricey studios with hifi technology.
Daniel Johnston was a lofi pioneer. His sincere songwriting and DIY bedroom production style lent his music an earnestness that inspired Kurt Cobain to proudly wear a shirt displaying Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You” album cover at the MTV VMAs at the height of Nirvana’s fame. Beck’s early music, blending folk, hip hop, and alternative, provides another good example. His 1994 single “Loser,” made him a (probably reluctant) standard-bearer of ‘90s lofi.
Throughout the 2000s, lofi started to sound more like what you hear on playlists today. Artists like Nujabes, Boards of Canada, early Gorillaz, and many many others blazed the trail. Mixing earworm melodies, nonchalant but catchy chord changes, and simple but effective beat patterns, their production styles embraced the rawness of the artistic process.
How do you make lofi music?
So now for the good stuff. If you’re wondering how to make lofi music, there isn’t one clear answer, but this section offers several approaches to point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that this is art, not science. These aren’t rules. They’re general guidelines.
The Secret Sauce
As mentioned above, making lofi music requires adding warmth and grit to give it a saturated, grainy sound. Obviously you’ll need a recording and arrangement tool. For most reading this, that will be Ableton, FL Studio, Logic, or any other DAW.
You can fasttrack a lofi sound with a plugin that adds the necessary grit. Check out this list from our friends at LANDR to find one that suits your needs. Another potential approach is adding a loop of the subtle noise of tape hiss or a record player spinning (but not actually playing a record). Dialing in reverb, delay, and saturation/distortion effects throughout the track also goes a long way in making it feel lofi.
If you’re determined to make it authentically lofi, you can find an old Tascam Portastudio, or an early MPC device, or even brave the antique world of analog tape. But note, you will still have to somehow export the finished track into a digital format to publish and share it with listeners. And while using vintage gear may be rewarding, most listeners won’t notice the difference from just simulating the effect with a plugin.
Vibe and Intention
Once you have a general production approach, think about the vibe you want. That’s what makes the artists mentioned above stand out; their music has a distinctive character. What works for them might not work for you though, so consider your track’s intention. Do you want to make something relaxed or chill? Nostalgic and sentimental? Funky, groovy, or sensual? Maybe a little melancholy, detached, or resigned? Jazzy?
Just don’t overthink it. Lofi music has a sense of effortlessness, and that starts with the creative process. Start making something that sounds good to you. If you’re not sure where to start, make a beat and see where that takes you. Which leads us to…
Let’s start with tempo. Lofi tracks typically fall in the range of 65 to 95 bpm. Any slower, and the track won’t have the right groove. Any faster, and it’ll feel too lively or frantic for lofi. That’s not to say faster bpms can’t create compelling tracks, they just stray from the lofi norm.
Next up: time signature. Like most of today’s popular music, lofi music is typically in 4/4 time. You could add some swing to give it a jazzy feel, which may start to feel more like 12/8 to you (check out this thread to go down that rabbit hole). But by and large, lofi beats use 4/4.
Now let’s look at the rhythm, starting with a simple beat structure for a single bar. We’re going to create a few lofi beats from scratch, but if you’re already a pro, you can skip to the next section. Also feel free to just grab a loop or sample an existing beat and move on.
The kick, or bass drum, serves as the beat’s backbone and holds down the groove. It usually comes in on the first and third beat. The snare provides the other key component. It will typically land on the second and fourth beat, working in lockstep with the kick. This beat pattern may seem obvious, but the vast majority of lofi (and tons of other genres) are variations on it. We’ll call this pattern 1.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Boom bap style hip hop beats work really well in lofi. Many boom bap tracks use pattern 1 the whole way through, but let’s switch it up. Add a syncopated kick immediately before the third beat. Then, put another kick on the “and” of the third beat (or right between the kick and the snare in the second half of the bar). Now you’ve got pattern 2, another common beat that goes a long way when producing lofi.
To spice it up, try adding another syncopated kick at the very end of the bar, right before it repeats (pattern 2A).
Or, remove the kick on the third beat (pattern 2B).
Experimenting with variations on pattern 1 gives you plenty of options for a solid beat to structure your track around.
Now for the actual kick and snare sounds. Lofi tracks typically use a snappy kick with some low-end heft. You won’t really hear booming 808-style kicks with a long decay. You can go with an electronic kick sound from a drum machine or an acoustic sound from a live kit. Just make sure it feels solid enough to hold down the track.
The snare opens up more sonic options. A classic acoustic snare would serve perfectly well, but you could also use a crunchy rim shot. Or a clap with some filtering, a short one-shot of a shaker, or a synthesized noise noise burst. You could also get creative and sample a piece of paper ripping, a match lighting, or the stylus of a record player scuffing up against something.
Of course, the kick and the snare aren’t the only sounds in your drumkit. You’ve got hi hats, rides and crashes, toms, cowbells, tambourines, timbales, and much more. And those are just traditional acoustic drum sounds. With some sampling and editing knowhow, you can create unique percussive sounds to make your lofi beat stand out. The key for these other percussive elements is how they flow with the other components of the track. Rarely will lofi beats feature intricate, syncopated hi hat patterns using sixteenth notes, or loud, dramatic tom fills.
Try creating 4 or 8 bar loops at a time and seeing where things go. While you want a catchy beat that makes the listener’s head nod, avoid making it too repetitive. Use short fills as at the end of a loop. Add subtle variations to your main kick-snare pattern every few bars. When transitioning to a new section, incorporate phrases from the other elements of the drumkit that complement added components in the new section. Mute parts of the drumkit for a few beats, an entire bar, or a full section. Just keep flow in mind. Jarring changes are even less desirable than overly repetitive beats.
Melodies, Riffs, Basslines, and Chord Changes
This is where the possibilities really open up when making lofi music. With the phrasing of your melodies, riffs, and basslines, and the rhythm of your chord changes, you start to create your own unique style. Only you will know what works for you, but you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.
First, let these elements flow with the overarching beat of the track. Like most any other style, you want your bassline and chord changes to reinforce or complement the beat. Remember, many listeners play lofi music while they focus on some work, chill with friends, or wind down after a long day. So there’s no need for polyrhythms or angular chord changes that contrast with the beat too much.
Next, as you’re creating the track, let your melodies, riffs, and basslines breathe a bit. Giving them space in the arrangement lets you add something else in that silence between the notes, picking up where the previous phrase left off. Once you have one or two solid ideas, try writing some countermelodies and counter-riffs to harmonize with the existing ideas. Experimenting with loops is the way to get really interesting results here. By combining multiple phrases of different lengths–maybe a short riff in the midrange with a longer topline melody and a medium-length bassline–you can create more intricate structures to keep the listener captivated.
You don’t need a deep understanding of harmony to make great lofi music. Having a knack for what sounds good and flows with the beat is plenty. But if you do have some theory knowledge, avoid darker-sounding modes like phrygian and dissonant intervals.
Obviously, you need some instruments to play these earworm melodies, funky basslines, and smooth chords. Great news: there really aren’t any rules at all for this. But if you’re paralyzed by all the choices, think back on your initial vibe and intention. If jazz is your vibe, try some sultry trumpet lines or saxophone phrases. If it’s funk, a smooth electric bassline, percussive, wah-inflected guitar chords, or a subtle clavinet riff could work.
Some sounds feel classy and comfortable in a lofi context. Pianos fit this description, and it doesn’t get much classier than an acoustic grand piano. The tines of electric pianos also have a timbre very well-suited to lofi. Plus, the tremolo and panning effects in electric pianos can help it sit in the mix better. Just plunk down a few chords, throw in some neighboring tones, and you’ll start to create interesting melodies within the changes to hypnotize your listeners.
Mallet-based tones–marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, and glockenspiels–can serve as captivating melodic components of a lofi track. They’re especially effective playing chord tones that harmonize with an underlying chord from another instrument. You can arrange them so they hit only once when the underlying chord starts or arpeggiate the notes of the chord to create more of a phrase.
Since mallet-based instruments conjure up memories of childhood toys for many listeners, they have an innate sense of playfulness that adds a unique vibe. Other pitched percussion instruments like steel pan, tongue drums, and hands drums have a similar effect. And since they’re often used in tracks for yoga or meditation, they can give a lofi track a soothing, calm vibe.
Plucked sounds also work really well for melodies in lofi. In more electronic-leaning lofi tracks, you’ll actually hear synthesized pluck sounds pretty often, dialed in with some saturation and reverb. If you’re looking for an acoustic sound, harps are a great choice. And while they’re great for melody, they can also add texture and work more like a sound bed. This is especially true with glissandos, or smooth but fast successions of notes that play up and down the scale, pushing and pulling against the tempo grid. Harp trills or bisbigliando work well to transition between parts and build anticipation between chord changes or new components of the beat.
These are just a few options. The limits are practically endless. As you’re making lofi music, just keep the creative flow going, try different melodies and riffs with different instruments, and see how it sounds in the track.
Dialing in Your Lofi Sound with CUBE
Many producers make lofi music with extensive use of sampling, either by taking existing samples then processing and recontextualizing them for their track, or by writing and producing new riffs and melodies with sampled instruments. If the latter approach suits you best, CUBE, our award-winning sampler and synth VST, can help you unlock a universe of compelling sounds for lofi tracks.
As the above paragraphs outline, the options for lofi instrumentation are practically limitless, and so are CUBE’s sonic possibilities. It contains over 100 dynamic sampled instruments (with our expansion packs Air, Threads, and Rumble adding almost another 100) to cover every category imaginable: gorgeous strings, intimate keys and pianos, gritty analog synths, hybrid winds, futuristic pads, cinematic percussion, and more. With 1000+ presets in the CUBE ecosystem, you can get quick results for any subgenre of lofi, and sample-morphing orbits, modulation, and FX allow you to design never-heard-before sounds.
Also we covered how plucked and mallet-based sounds can provide super compelling timbres for lofi tracks. More great news: this spring we’ve got something really exciting in store along these lines. Stay tuned for more….
Now that you’ve got a strong understanding of its history and how to make great lofi music, producing blissful tracks that mesmerize listeners is well within your reach.