What Instruments are Used in LoFi Music?
The Top 4 Instruments for Making LoFi Pop or Hip Hop
LoFi is an increasingly popular but misunderstood technique for music production. As a style of Hip Hop and Pop beat music, the genre has taken off to orbit on YouTube. Google Trends also suggests that interest in it will keep growing. If you’re a fan of LoFi beats and want to make some yourself, or you’re a musician/producer looking to shift into the genre, you’ll need to know what defines the LoFi sound and what instruments will get you that sweet buttery tone.
What is the LoFi Genre?
LoFi started way before anime girls on YouTube made it hit the front page. The term did not originally mean a specific genre, but instead described a technique for producing any style of music.
LoFi (or Lo-Fi) is short for “low fidelity”. Without giving you the full history lesson, LoFi is simply a way of producing music that emphasizes authenticity of sound by embracing imperfections and analog noise. It’s a counterpoint to the mainstream methods of overproduction found in modern pop music, which strip out much of the ambient noise and thereby sterilizes the audio’s character.
However, in recent years, LoFi has become a genre in it’s own right. I would say that LoFi exists on a spectrum with Hip Hop at one end and Post Rock on the other. To generalize, it’s a fusion genre that may include a mixture of predominantly Jazz and Hip Hop, with some Indie Pop, Space Rock, and/or Post Rock influence also prevalent.
LoFi is characterized by the following mainstays:
- Instrumental hooks, save for occasional voice samples
- Softened boom bap beats, often with intentionally over-saturated tones
- Lo-passed EQ settings
- Casual walk in the park tempos (as opposed to brisker-paced rap and pop songs)
- Intentional inclusion of ambient noise, especially: vinyl crackling, equipment hum, breath, street or cafe sounds, and Foley
- Leads are often played on a single instrument throughout, usually piano, guitar, or a synth emulating a brass or woodwind.
The 4 Most Common Instruments in LoFi
So what instruments are usually used in LoFi music? It’s a subjective question as preferences differ depending on the genres you’re blending. But overall the most common instruments to find in LoFi music are:
- Bass guitar or 808 bass
- Drum Kit
Let’s break down each of these instruments and see what specific tones or versions will give you the best results for LoFi.
Piano is perhaps the most recognizable instrument for Chill Hop styles of LoFi music. If you prefer playing keys to fretted instruments, you should feel right at home here. The most frequently used pianos tend to be samples of acoustic grands with effects (reverb, saturation, and chorus). Electric pianos are second most common, and I’ve noticed Rhodes pianos get most the limelight—as opposed to Wurlitzers.
If you’re in need of a synth of VST to use in your DAW, I can recommend one of the following virtual piano instruments (none of these are sponsored, just based on what sounds good to me):
- (Free) Claustrophobic Piano by Christian Henson – this VST has 3 mic configs and comes in free versions for both Kontakt and Decent Sampler
- ($69) Postcard Piano by Teletone Audio – comes with many presets and works with free Kontakt Player)
- ($149) Noire Piano by Native Instruments – works with their free Kontakt Player)
Guitar tones in LoFi tend to be clean and jazzy, soft and ambient. Leave your distortion pedals on the shelf; grab a reverb pedal and an analog echo/delay. Vintage-voiced single-coil guitars will fare better than high-out humbucker models in this genre, especially if you’re coming from a pop or rock background. But PAF-style humbuckers will excel if you want a creamy warm tone. When in doubt, a Stratocaster or a 335 copy can probably cover any sonic territory in LoFi—whether you prefer warm hi-passed Jazz leads or meandering space rock jams. CASTLEBEAT recorded his first two albums with a Fender Strat, for example.
Occasionally acoustic guitars played fingerstyle are employed, but for the most part the tones I’ve heard are unmistakably electric guitars. Lastly, I’ve tried several virtual instruments and synth presets that are meant to sound like a guitar, but none of them sounded realistic. I cannot recommend any VSTs for emulating an authentic electric guitar tone.
If I were currently in the market for a budget-priced LoFi guitar, I would probably try on of these:
- Harley Benton ST-20 or ST-62 (I currently use an ST-20 upgraded with Bootstrap Sparkle City pickups)
- Squier Classic Vibe 60s or 70s Stratocaster (I believe the Indie producer Xole uses a CV 70s Strat model)
- Gretsch G2622 Streamliner (the pickups look a bit like Filtertrons but they are really just PAF-style humbuckers)
- Ibanez AF53 or AF73 Artcore Semi-Hollow
- Squier Affinity Series Telecaster
- Harley Benton HB-35 Plus (a traditional 335 copy but the Plus version also has coil splits)
- Squier Affinity Series Jazzmaster
- Ibanez AZES40
- Gretsch G2215 Junior Jet Club
Low-end tones in LoFi can either be analog bass guitars or 808 bass synths. If you want a more modern hip hop sound, use a digital 808 bass that follows the kick drum. For a jazzier or “old school” sound, try a bass guitar played slap or fingerstyle; flatwound strings would be appropriate here.
If you want to use a synthesizer to get that 808 sound, any soft synth can accomplish it and most will come with a few 808 presets. At it’s core, an 808 bass is just a distorted monophonic sine wave. Drum Sample packs will often come with some tuned 808 sounds that can be imported into the sampler function of a synth.
Bass VST. If you don’t have a physical bass guitar but you want an analog sound, you can try one of the following bass VSTs:
- (Free) Bass Guitar for LABS sampler by Spitfire Audio
- (Free) Ample Bass P Lite by Ample Sound (a sampled P-bass with a few articulations)
- ($99) Scarbee Rickenbacker Bass by Native Instruments (works with free Kontakt player)
- ($299) MODO Bass by IK Multimedia (pricier than most VSTs I recommend, but it has the best sample sounds, with 22 bass models to choose from and a bunch of extra presets)
Analog Bass Guitar. You could also go and buy an actual bass guitar. Cheap import instruments have gotten surprisingly good over the last decade. If I were in the market for a cheap bass guitar to record LoFi these days, I would opt for one of the following (all of which cost less than MODO bass, for reference):
- Squier Affinity Jazz Bass
- Ibanez Talman
- Harley Benton JB-75
- Squier Affinity Jaguar Bass
- Harley Benton JJ-45
4. Drum Kit
Percussion in LoFi tends to come in one of two flavors: an acoustic jazz kit or an 808-based boom bap kit. Expect to add some analog warmth to your drum mix with light saturation or a lo-pass filter. It’s quite common for LoFi producers to work from sample packs and loops that can be dragged and dropped into sampler software, such as Native Instruments Battery or Ableton’s built-in Drum Racks.
If you want a free LoFi drum sample pack to get you started, you can try one of the following:
- Free Lo-Fi Hip Hop Drum Kit by SampleOcean
- Lo-Fi Drum Kit by Daemon
- Authentic LoFi Drum Kit by Vilarcorp
There are also some standalone VST drum machines available for free. These will give you that synth or 808 sound but without needing to load individual audio clips into a sampler. They are:
- Cassette Drums by BPB (has 3 kits, including an 808)
- Sitala by Decomposer (this comes with an 808 and a 909 kit, but you can also load your own samples into it if you want to try it as a sampler plugin instead)
- Kontakt Player Komplete Start is a collection of free plugins that can be used in the free version of Kontakt Player (which, in case you did not know, Kontakt is one of the most popular sampler programs in the music production market). The bundle includes two VSTs with drum kits inside them: “Band” and “Urban Beats”.
If you prefer to use an analog-sampled acoustic kit (I mean samples that actually sound like an authentic physical drum kit and not a synth reproduction), then here are a few options:
- (Free) SI Drums in Cakewalk. Cakewalk by Bandlab is a free full-featured Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and it includes a free drum kit VST called “SI Drums”. I’ve been using Cakewalk for over a decade—starting back when you had to pay for the DAW—and I’ve used SI Drums on a whole slew of tracks.
- (Free) Drums for LABS by Spitfire Audio. The LABS sampler and all VSTs made to play in it are all available for free.
- ($99) Abbey Road Vintage Drummer by Native Instruments. This includes 2 sampled, vintage pre-war drum kits and includes brushes (if you want a jazzier drum sound). It works in the free version of Kontakt, too.
If you’re interested in composing some lo-fi beats, these top 4 instruments will get you started down the right path. It’s better not to overdo it when you’re starting out, but if you’ve got some previous experience composing beats then feel free to experiment with any instruments you like. There are no rules for making music, just conventions. These instrument conventions I’ve laid out are merely meant to guide you towards your goals, but let your creativity stretch and grow as you get comfortable in your compositional skill level.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this article helpful, here are a few more you may want to read: