How To Go Lo-Fi With Ableton Live (Part 1)

We could all use a little more lo-fi dirt in our Ableton productions, right? Sure, it all depends on what you’re going for. Some genres of electronic music work perfectly with their uber polished tracks. There are times you feel like you can see them sparkling from a mile away.

However, imagine taking artists like – Flying Lotus, The RZA, or even Crystal Castles – and removing all of the dirt and grime. Their recordings wouldn’t have the same charm all of their bruised samples, hyper compressed drums and 8 bit sounds afford them.

So, without further ado, here are some tricks you can use to add extra grit to your Ableton Live productions.


Going Overboard With Outboard

Working in an all digital environment can get a little stale. Everything is precise and predictable. Sometimes that level of control can be a bit uninspiring. Let’s take a look at some outboard gear that is sure to liven things up.

Cassette Tape Machines

Sending out a loop or even an entire track into a cassette recorder, then re-sampling it back into Ableton is a great way to add tape saturation, hiss and other unexpected lo-fi goodies only tape can offer.

Tascam’s famed Portastudio series of 4 track cassette recorders are still alive and kicking. You can find one used for around $100. Some of these even come with a pitch knob that can add a great warped sound so your productions.

Tascam’s Portastudio series is great for re sampling your loops and tracks back into Ableton Live

If you really want some lo-fi sounds, you can even mic a boom box, or hand held cassette recorder with your tracks playing through it. This is an extreme version of a technique known as re amping.

Here are a couple of examples (note: these are my interpretations of the techniques used, I may be wrong):

Boards Of Canada – Chromakey Dreamcoat (Clip)

You can hear the not-so-subtle warping of the sampled guitar part. This can be easily done by sampling a loop into your 4 track, sending three or four different “pitched” versions from the 4 track into Ableton, then re sampling and triggering them.

Try manually manipulating the pitch knob slightly through each run.

Aphex Twin – Xtal (Clip)

Here is another beautiful example of what processing your tracks through tape can do. This recording is steeped in mystery (some say a cat mangled Richard D. James’ tapes.) Even so, here are a couple rough ideas for this sound:

Take note of the extreme amounts of tape saturation. If you were to try and achieve the same results with digital clipping, it wouldn’t sound the same.

Try recording your track from Ableton Live into your 4 track so that it’s in the red. Let the meter peak above 0dB. Adjust input signal to taste until you have a nice saturated sound.

Stomp Boxes To The Rescue

One of the most common ways of getting unexpected lo-fi sounds is by using effects that are not intended for the application. For example, use a distortion pedal meant for guitar, and throw it into your re sampling chain.

Next time you record your outboard synthesizer or drum machine into Ableton Live, try throwing a Pro Co Rat or even a cheap Dan Electro distortion pedal into the signal chain.

Try finding cheap distortion pedals and adding them to your signal chain.

The sky is the limit. Any type of boutique pedals can do crazy and unexpected things for your audio signal, and usually they are inexpensive.

A Bit Of Reduction

Digital music is represented in bits. Most professional recordings are processed at 16 or 24 bits. However, there was a time when computer could only handle 8 or 12 bits at a time. Using tools to reduce bit rate quality is a technique that can drum up sounds of the NES and Atari 2600 days.

Here is a sample from an 8 bit weapon song, a great example of pure 8-bit music.

8 Bit Weapon – Micro Anthem (Clip)

Ableton’s Redux

So, maybe you don’t want to be as extreme as someone like 8 bit weapon. Ableton Live has a great tool called “Redux” that will crush bits in increments of 1.

Use Ableton’s Redux to introduce some light artifacting, or complete chaos in your productions.

  1. Load up an Audio Sample of a Soft Synth in Ableton Live.
  2. Drop Ableton’s Redux onto the track.
  3. Activate the “On” switch next to the knob that says “16”.
  4. Play your audio file or some notes on a keyboard while reducing the bits with the knob.
  5. By bringing the knob down to 8 you can start to hear a noticeable difference in fidelity. Keep in mind, taking the knob all the way down to 1 is not for the faint of heart.

Another thing to keep in mind; most MPCs in the 90s had 12 bit sampling capabilities. Chopping up some samples and dropping Redux down to 12 bits can add more to that MPC sound.

Some Free 8-Bit VSTs

Here are some great (and free!) VST plug-ins I recommend that work with Ableton Live.

YMCK’s Magical 8-Bit Plug: http://www.ymck.net/english/download/index.html

Pontonius’ Pooboy 2.0: http://www.pontonius.se

Chip32 VST Synth: http://www.kvraudio.com/get/229.html

Another example of an artist using 8 bit more subtly.

Crystal Castles – Crimewave (Clip)

In the beginning (and around the 0:11 point) you can hear what sounds like something you would hear out of an old Atari 2600 game. Adding sprinkles of 8 bit goodness can add great effect to your productions.

Try loading a soft synth in Ableton Live and dropping the Redux on and setting the bit reduction knob between 4 and 8 to achieve a bit crushed synthesizer sound.


To read Part 2 of this tutorial go here: How To Go Lo-Fi With Ableton Live (Part 2)

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