One of the most important elements in an incredible live performance is dynamics. Having an onslaught of the exact same thing for 45 minutes isn’t nearly as exciting as one that ebbs and flows, creating a much more varied, interesting, and enjoyable experience for listeners.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a loud, aggressive tech-death band that wants to be balls-to-the-wall constantly, there is still room for dynamic nuance without having to switch over to the clean channel, and a lo-fi effect is one way to achieve that.

Creating contrast with your guitar tone is insanely important in a live show, and this is one of the key tools many guitarists are using from small clubs to arenas all over the world.

How Can This Effect Help?

While most of us are focused on making our guitar tone bigger and better, not many of us have thought about making our tone sound smaller and thinner.

Ridiculous idea, right? Why would we even want that in the first place?

Well, there are actually two very good reasons for it. The first is obvious: a lo-fi radio sound is a cool effect in and of itself, and can even be used to sound like an old vinyl record.

However, it also serves a greater practical purpose as well. It can help create a much more dynamic performance.

If you’re playing a metal song with aggressive, heavy guitar tones all the way through it’s going to sound cool, but it can be hard to create proper dynamic flow this way.

If you have a section with only one guitarist playing a riff before the rest of the band comes in, it may be good to add some subtle lo-fi effects to make that guitar tone smaller and tighter because it will make the bigger, louder sections sound much fuller.

Perhaps you have a section where you play an ambient lead line over some heavy chords, this is a great way to help your tone cut through and differentiate from your main rhythm sound.

It’s an easy effect to pull off and adds a lot to your live show.

How It Works

The easiest way to create a basic lo-fi/vintage radio sound is by using an EQ pedal.

We’ve mentioned this effect before when talking about the flexibility of EQ pedals, but we’ll break it down in more detail here.

We can start making your tone sound “smaller” by limiting the frequency spectrum it’s using. Using a fairly heavy low end and high-end cut will leave only the midrange frequencies, and the narrower the area of midrange you allow to pass through, the more extreme the effect will be.

If all you want is a subtle effect that won’t impact your tone drastically, simply cut everything below, say, 200Hz to remove only the low end. When the effect is turned off, your audience will experience a much bigger bass thump than they would otherwise.

For a more traditional radio effect, the same treatment should be done to the high frequencies, and you could even boost a nasally bit of midrange to mimic the EQ curve of old radio speakers. Somewhere around 1kHz is usually a good starting point.

Taking The Effect Further

While EQ is most of the effect, you can also add to it by adding some clipping to the signal, otherwise known as distortion.

Pedals like the Ibanez LF-7 Lo-Fi are designed specifically to filter out low and high end while providing a gritty, almost bit-crusher-style distortion to imitate the sound of a broken speaker.

That bit of added color provides a much more convincing effect and increases the contrast between your main tone and the lo-fi tone.

If you’re interested in taking the broken-speaker effect to its limits, an aggressive fuzz is an excellent choice too. The heavy, dense distortion combined with a highly-compressed signal is the go-to for pushing this effect to the very edge.

On A Budget

But what if you don’t want to spend money on a pedal just for this purpose? Seems like a lot of money to spend on something you’re only going to use now and then, right?

No sweat, we’ve got a bunch of ways you could do something similar without buying more gear.

If you’re running any kind of digital hardware (and we highly recommend you do) you can even simplify this process by either creating an EQ preset or using a custom impulse response.

An impulse response (or IR) is a digital file that captures the sound of a speaker, and you can find many IR’s online that recreate very small speakers, which is the exact effect we’re trying to recreate in the first place.

Any speaker under 8 inches is a good choice, the smaller the better. You can also find impulses for cheap headphones and kids toys that will work just as well.

If you’ve got a spare pedal lying around like distortion or overdrive you can use it to achieve a similar result. Even if it’s that horribly crappy one you bought when you were just starting out and didn’t know anything about gear… in fact, that might be even better!

The idea is for it to sound small and wimpy, so if it sounds bad that’s… kind of the point. Take that old Boss Metal Zone, Pocket POD, or even any old overdrive pedal and turn the tone knob down to dull the high end of the sound. If you’ve got low-end control, you already know what to do there too!

Lastly, if you’re the owner of exactly zero pedals – in which case we need to have a talk – you may still have a chance. If you’re lucky enough to have a guitar with multiple volume or tone knobs you can set one of your pickups to be a “lo-fi preset” of sorts.

Let’s take a Les Paul-style guitar, for example. If we take the volume and tone knobs for the neck pickup and roll them both down to 5, you’ll get a more muffled, less distorted, and more importantly less punchy sound. Then, when you’re ready, you can switch to the bridge again for full volume, tone, and power!

A Means To An End

It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of making your tone smaller and weaker, but doing so for short periods of time is an immensely effective way to increase the dynamics of your performance like a drummer playing softer, or a vocalist shifting octaves.

Your hard work and time spent crafting your dream guitar tone will not go unnoticed, but your audience will definitely feel the effects of you making that small sacrifice, paying attention to putting the experience before your own tone-ego!

About The Author