How To Make Lofi Hip Hop (The Beginner's Guide)
So you have decided to start making your own lofi hip hop beats. Maybe you already have some experience playing instruments or making music, maybe you . But you are here, and that clearly means you want to know something about making your own lofi beats
Disclaimer: This article contains a foul sense of humor, a frequent appearance of curse words, wannabe-jokes that are not really funny, and also some painful bits of truth. By reading this disclaimer, you're accepting full responsibility for any eventual psychical trauma it may inflict upon you. You have been warned, guys...
The general aesthetics of lofi hip hop
I guess you probably already know quite well how lofi sounds like. Those raw, gritty sounding samples with 90-ish BPM boom-bap beats, often infused with foley, sometimes jazzy, sometimes somber and moody, but all with that special tint of nostalgia and, I quote, "longing for memories of moments that didn't happen yet". Making your beats sound like that, however, can be a challenge, if you don't yet know which techniques are used to get those exact aesthetics that make lofi lofi. Also, it seems to me that a lot of beginner lofi beatmakers mistakenly think that lofi equals "simple, forgiving and easy to produce", but in my opinion, they couldn't actually be any further from the truth, as making a good lofi beat can take quite some effort. Anyway, let's break down a few main characteristics of lofi first, while briefly explaining which production techniques are associated with them.
The Low Pass
One of the first things to notice about lofi is the general lack of high-frequency content. When you compare a lofi record to a classic hip hop beat and focus on the drums, you should immediately hear the difference - in that classic hip hop beat, drums are gonna be way more bright and clear, whereas in lofi they can even sound muffled to a certain degree. But despite drums are the easiest example to explain it on, this lack of frequency content is more or less typical for the whole mixdown - usually, even melodic samples and instruments are filtered in a similar manner so they don't stick out too much.
To get your beat rid of high frequencies, all you need is a simple filter set to low pass (LP). Some producers prefer to put just one filter on their master bus and just cut out all the high frequencies at once, other producers (like me) tend to filter each channel separately to have better control over the overall sound design.
One of the really good and reliable ways of making normal samples sound shitty, gritty and lofi-ish, is bitcrushing them with something like Decimort (don't confuse that with buttcrushing,, tho'). The basic principle of bitcrushing is changing the sample rate from the standard 44.1kHz (or 48, depending on your audio settings) down to a lower value, making the sample sound exactly like it would sound when sampled via some old-school recording device that wasn't capable of capturing sounds in modern standards of quality. Together with warping, it's a really powerful combo of effects that can turn your samples sounding like they were recorded via Nokia 3310 in a matter of seconds.
Especially those more professionally produced sounding, loud-mastered lofi beats have often one thing in common - they have their melodic (and often even percussive) content sidechained to the kick drum. To demonstrate this the best, listen to this beat. Can you hear how everything kinda goes silent for a short bit when the kick hits? Then you can hear the sidechain in action. For those of you interested in better understanding of what EXACTLY sidechaining means (as what you heard is basically only one of all the cool things you can do with this technique) and how to master this technique in FL Studio, I'd strongly suggest checking out this sidechaining guide I wrote earlier.
Another effect that is often used in lofi is what I call "warping" (based on the "Warp" function of a legendary "lofi VST plugin", iZotope Vinyl. Just check out this beat and focus on the piano. Can you hear how the pitch of it warps and bends slightly over time, making that Rhodes sound like the beat was playing on the old, weary turntable?
Is it even lofi if there's no vinyl crackle to be heard? I'm not even sure myself anymore :)) To get your beats crackling nicely, you don't have to steal your grandma's old brass band hits vinyl collection. Even though it's definitely more badass to record that crackling yourself, this can be also done quite easily using a plugin like RC-20 or downloading a few vinyl crackle samples from the internet (and don't worry, the internet is full of great free vinyl crackle samples). After that, it's only about setting the right volume for it so it doesn't come out as too loud and annoying in the mixdown (or, the other extreme, too quiet and barely noticeable). One last tip - you can sidechain vinyl crackle, too!
Another thing about lofi I don't probably have to tell you is that lofi beats are usually fairly short. And by fairly short, I mean REALLY short. You could fit a lofi beat twice into a commercial pop song and you still would have some time for a snack left. One minute and thirty seconds is a perfectly normal length for a lofi beat and despite there's no rule saying they couldn't be longer, there's a good reason for those beats to be that short, as they could easily start boring you off with the repetition and loopiness. It's generally a bit harder to make those beats longer, but still interesting for the ear of the unsuspecting listener at the same time. So if you're just beginning with lofi, I'd suggest not to force yourself to try to make your beats much longer, but rather leave them shorter and focus more on the quality of production, maximizing the possible level of enjoyment they can bring to the other people.
Getting your drums sounding right is a crucial part of the beat-making process. The rest of your track could sound like if Mozart recorded his hottest, dankest symphony through a cellphone placed in his toilet (eg a stunning lofi piece), and then Edward Scissorhands chopped it up, but if your drums still suck, it's no use. A shitty drumline can reliably destroy what would otherwise be a top-notch tune - and you don't want that, right? So here are few tips on how to make your lofi drums suck less.
Groove & swing
Foley & percussion
Changes & variations
Given the extremely high amount of beat submissions that completely lack any traces of a bassline, I'm forced to think that the bass is some kind of scary boogieman most of the lofi producers try to avoid even more than paying for their samples. But truth is, that without the bass, even lofi beats just lack weight and punchiness, and moreover, the bass is actually one of the easiest sonic elements to create and to fit it into the track melody-wise.
For most of your tracks, you will do quite good with some simple sine wave sub-bass, maybe with a little bit of added harmonics and a bit of decay. The key in making your bass sound good within the track (besides making it mono) is synchronizing the bass to play together with your kick drums (and if you're wondering if that won't make your kicks muddy, check that blog post about sidechaining again ;)
Anyway, if you still don't feel like making your own bass for your next tune, I have an offer for you: I've recently launched a new section of my website with Serum presets which people can buy for a humble pittance (or even download some for free), and then use them freely in their projects or study them in order to learn how to make such a sound themselves. Just check 'em out - and maybe you'll finally get to break that no-bass curse ;)
Sampling is the alpha and omega of lofi production. Despite you're by no means limited to using just samples (and I believe there's a fair share of lofi producers who prefer synthesizing their own sounds), sampling is generally being perceived as the most traditional way of making lofi.
Where to get samples
The beautiful thing about getting samples for your beats is that the possibilities are practically endless. Luckily enough, there is another blog post that's dedicated solely to this topic, so if you wanna get inspired, read it!
How to make HQ samples sound lofi
You can either buy or download samples that were made lofi by design, or - and this is way more fun - you can learn how to make any sample sound lofi yourself. But if you're reading this article with an open mind, you should already have some ideas in your mind - and by that, I mean those things I mentioned in the "Lofi Aesthetics" section, but there are of course more ways to do it.
A word on copyright
It seems that most of lofi (and hip hop) producers, including some big ones, too, don't really care much about having their samples licensed or cleared. And why to bother, when in most of the cases, nothing really happens to you, unless your little beat suddenly becomes a worldwide hit and someone notices what you did there and calls a lawsuit upon your ass. There have been quite a few of those cases, too, and moreover, I noticed that a lot of producers were complaining lately on Twitter on having their beats taken down from streaming services over a copyright breach.
With all that being said, I'd advise keeping those things in mind when downloading the next uncleared samples from YouTube. Remember, that if you won't be lazy and put some time into chopping the sample creatively, no content-matching algorithm will be longer able to tell what sample did you originally steal.
Lofi clichés to avoid
I've already mentioned Shiloh Dynasty, so let's start with that one. No, FOR FUCK'S SAKE, the world doesn't need any more Shiloh rip-offs. There's like 789563978 of them already, so please just admit that you've already missed this train, and if you insist on trying to get clout with ripping-off someone's else talent, at least find that unsuspecting victim yourself.
The mixdown and mastering
It looks like the shitty aesthetics of lofi hip hop lead a lot of producers into the belief that spending time on making your mixdown good is just a waste of time that you could otherwise spend on making even more (poorly produced) beats. Some of them like to say that if the music is good, people won't care about a poor mixdown. And while this is, in fact, a quite truthful statement (just remember all those Shiloh beats that are often just an absolute bare minimum, but still charming 'coz of the divine voice and soulful chords). People are really willing to overlook a lot of imperfections if the beat catches them by their balls (or heart), but should it be the excuse for not giving a fuck about your mixdowns at all?
Long story short: No, it isn't. So, at last, I finally get to my point: Even though there is a lot of quite popular beats with poor mixdown, mastering (and some generally poorly executed), you might as well notice that all those really good lofi beats are actually mixed and mastered really well. The true art of lofi doesn't lie in making people like a few crappy samples you managed to throw together in 10 minutes without an afterthought, but in meticulously crafting those beats to sound old-school, but also to still kick ass on all fronts!
As for mastering - for starters, I think it's perfectly okay if you just make your mixdown the best you can and then you just "master" the beat by making it loud enough using a master limiter, and maybe laying down some delicate final touches with master EQ. Mastering itself is a complicated process that relies heavily on the good studio equipment and room acoustics as well as on experienced ears and it takes a lot of time to get a firm grip of. Also, not every musician has to be able to master his own music - if everyone could do it, the mastering engineers would go homeless. So don't feel bad 'coz you don't know shit about mastering now,
Recommended VST plugins for making lofi hip hop
At first, I wanted to include a list of VST plugins that can come in handy especially for the lofi production, but then I changed my mind. This blog post is fatter than your mom's ass anyway, so I thought it will be better to give them a bit more space to breathe and actually a whole separate blog post about them. So stay tuned fam, I'm already working on it!