Lo-fi love

I have long been a fan of low-fidelity – aka lo-fi – recordings, both audio and visual. Since the pandemic, I daresay a golden age of lo-fi is upon us.

Watching the first night of the Democratic National Convention reinforced this notion. I marveled at its cobbled-together smartphone and Zoom videos mixed with high production value segments, all strung together with frequent blips and dropouts and herky-jerkiness. Charming and, at times, quite moving. For me, the lo-fi aspect is a feature, not a bug.

I first realized we as a culture were in for a lo-fi content boom in March, when late-night talk-show hosts retreated to their homes and interviewed celebrities via Zoom, or some equivalent. Big stars with earbuds, poorly lit in their kitchens, their kids in the background, with no edits to spice up the visuals. It was chaotic and oddly intimate.

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Then SNL valiantly attempted to put on a couple shows from the cast members’ homes. Everyone used laptops and phones and standard software to edit (or not). The quality of the results – in terms of “fidelity” – was often subpar. It moved me.

Even the newscasters retreated to their homes and carried on. Like all of the above, without ties, without a hair and makeup crew, or fancy lights. Setting up in front of a bookshelf, which seems the norm. They’ve mostly returned to studios, but only recently, and I’m not enjoying them as much.

Even as I despaired about so many other things, the wildly varying quality of these diversions reinforced a sense of connection, of familiarity with these people we look to for guidance and entertainment. It was like running into them on the street.

I reckon my own lo-fi love stems from when I was an impressionable lad incessantly listening to radio through tinny car speakers, spinning much-beloved, scratched, warped LPs, and rewinding distorted, partially erased cassettes. It was all I knew. It would be years before I would hear something on an expensive system. Thus, I am sentimentally attached to music rendered on distressed media.

I particularly love my collection of K-tel LPs – original hits by the original stars. The audio quality of these products is notoriously bad, but the songs shine, perhaps even more so with the sludgy sound. To me, at least.  If a “demo version” of a song is available, I almost always love it more than the fussed-over production.

Similarly with video. As a youngster, I stared long into the cathode ray of a cheap television for many hours, watching both network and cable television on a boxy unit emitting sound through dust-and-dander-filled tiny speakers, cranked up as loud as possible. When VCRs came along, I devoured many a VHS tape, its shimmery strangeness and crappy sound going straight to my heart.

It’s quite the irony that now, with HD big-screen televisions and audiophile-level speakers in most homes, we are watching more grainy, poor-quality sound content than ever. Even as production norms inevitably return, I will wager some lo-fi aspects of video and audio will remain.

I’m hoping producers realize as I did decades ago that hyper-defined visuals and pristine sound can, quite paradoxically, muddle the message. Expensive equipment can actually detract from the soul of the endeavor. Especially if it’s from the heart, which by definition is messy.