From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Lo-fi is an aesthetic in music production which uses lo-fi recording practices. Its use is usually due to the artist's financial limitations. Many lo-fi artists use inexpensive cassette tape recorders for their music. The term was coined by WFMU DJ William Berger who dedicated a half hour segment of his program to home recorded music throughout the late '80s under the name Lo-fi.
Lo-fi's roots could perhaps be dated as far back as a set of live cylinder recordings created in 1900–04 by Lionel Mapleson from a catwalk 40 ft (12 m) above the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The sound quality of these is appalling (more so since they are one-of-a-kind artifacts that have been further worn down by being played over the last century); the aesthetic quality, though, partakes in the electric, authentic feeling of an unedited event being captured in real time. In the same historical period, commercial field recordings of folk music had begun to be created in many nations of the world, recorded catch-as-catch-can by early record producers such as Fred Gaisberg of HMV. From field hollers to ghazals sung by Indian courtesans, these spontaneous recordings made on portable equipment remain some of the most compelling music one can hear. The description of "lo-fi", however, would be slightly amiss, since the intention of the recordists can be assumed to be to capture the recordings in as high a quality as was possible within certain pragmatic boundaries.
In a later era, Buddy Holly would record some songs in a converted garage, and some posthumous Hank Williams demos would be overdubbed for commercial release, but it was not until Bob Dylan decided in 1975 to officially release a set of The Basement Tapes, first recorded as music publisher demos in 1967, that the first lo-fi pop music milestone was reached. Perhaps benefiting from the fact that the music was really not originally intended for general release, the recordings, made on a consumer-quality Ampex quarter-track machine with two microphones set up for "dual mono," made a virtue of their flaws; with their asides, laughter and unselfconscious looseness, they defined the authenticity of the lo-fi experience. As a historical matter, in the years between the production and the official release, the popularity of these particular recordings also created the first market for pop bootleg records, which as a listening experience came to include seemingly every scrap of certain rock artists' off-the-cuff and unreleased work, including home recordings.
Lo-fi recordings became more commonly heard in the late seventies to early eighties with many electronic acts. Suicide's debut album is a large collection of Lo-fi classics, which Bruce Springsteen took inspiration from on his 1982 lo-fi album Nebraska. Other classic lo-fi's to appear around this time include Throbbing Gristle's "United", Thomas Leer's "Private Plane", The Normal's TVOD/Warm Leatherette single, and The Human League's "Being Boiled". Another UK classic Lo-fi band is the Young Marble Giants.
As a term to describe a musical genre, lo-fi is mainly associated with recordings from the 1980s onwards, when cassette technology such as Tascam's four-track Portastudio became widely available. Prime early exponents included Daniel Johnston, New Zealand bands such as the Tall Dwarfs, who recorded on Chris Knox's 4-track and released on Flying Nun Records, and Beat Happening and the Olympia, Washington label K Records. In the early-mid 1990s, Lo-fi found a wider audience with the success of such acts as Eric's Trip, Beck, Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, Palace Brothers, Pavement, Liz Phair, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Trumans Water, The Clean, Yo La Tengo, David Kilgour (musician) and (later) Elliott Smith.
Often lo-fi artists will record on old or poor recording equipment, ostensibly out of financial necessity but also due to the unique aural association such technologies have with "authenticity," an association created in listeners by exposure to years of demo, bootleg, and field recordings, as well as to older pop studio recordings produced more simply. The growth in lo-fi coincided with the growth of extreme slickness and polish associated with the multitrack pop recording techniques of the 1980's.
Many artists associated with the lo-fi movement, such as Bill Callahan, or Bob Log III, have frequently rejected the use of finer recording equipment, trying to keep their sound raw instead, whereas others such as Guided by Voices and The Mountain Goats slowly moved to using professional studios.