Lofi Josh

How to Perform Lofi Acoustic Music Live on a Stage

By Josh Wirtanen

A Sunken Ship Irony began as my solo project back in 2004, but over the years it’s sort of evolved back and forth between a full band and its original solo form. Even when we’re doing a lot of full-band performances, I like to kick it alone once in a while to keep that muscle memory fresh — and to reminisce about the good old days when I was touring by myself in the MySpace era.

So I set up a solo show for April 16, 2023, at Caydence Records in St. Paul. I was initially planning on just busking in a corner of the record shop, as most Sunday solo performers do at Caydence. However, I ended up getting extremely sick beforehand. I didn’t get COVID-19; I ended up with some sort of respiratory bug that was brutal and persistent. I quarantined for a full week, then spent the next three days masking up, but even after 10 days, my voice hadn’t recovered.

I was really looking forward to doing the Caydence show, so I decided that I would commit to doing a live lofi performance. That would mask my weak, raspy, off-key voice a bit, and it seemed like an interesting experiment.

Lofi Josh

So how does one go about setting up a lofi acoustic performance?

Well, I really wanted to commit 100% to the lofi sound, which means I needed to figure out how to make everything sound a bit worn out, with some mechanical tones to really drive home the sound. Here’s what I came up with.

First off, for vocals, I brought my own homemade microphone, which was built from an old rotary phone.

Phone Mic

This is something that I had already built for the band, and we’d performed with it on stage several times before this lofi set. I fastened a mannequin hand to a mic stand, then built a full arm for it, so it looks like a severed arm holding a phone. Unfortunately, I lost one of the fingers, but I still think it looks pretty cool.

I won’t go into detail on how to make a phone mic, because there are countless tutorials online, but the short version is that you can simply wire the phone’s speaker to a 1/4″ guitar jack and solder it in place. Just make sure you use a higher grade of wire, because the phone’s default wire is probably going to be too weak to carry the signal properly. I used a piece of speaker wire that I salvaged from my home stereo system.

For the guitar, I had to get really creative. I ended up using a cheap Bluetooth speaker as an amp, which we mic’d with an SM57.

Bluetooth Speaker

This speaker is the Sony SRS-XB01, and at the time of this writing, it sells for $23.99. I got mine way back in like 2018-ish, and I don’t believe it cost that much back then — I want to say I paid maybe $10 or $15 for it, but I’m not sure. The sound guy joked that this was the smallest speaker that’s ever been on the Caydence stage, and I doubt he was wrong about that.

This speaker gave the guitar a weak, low-quality sound, but volume was a bit of an issue. I added an acoustic SansAmp DI box, which worked as a preamp and allowed me to add some gain to increase the volume. I also wanted to add some faux tape warble, so I used a Boss phaser pedal with the depth turned down to about 1/4. That seemed to do the trick.

Lofi Pedals

One problem I encountered was that the speaker had a little bit of a delay on it, though it wasn’t enough to make the vocals and guitar sound out of sync. It did mess with my head a little bit while on stage, as I could hear the sound I was actually playing from the acoustic guitar, followed by an echo a millisecond later, but the audience didn’t seem to notice.

I was still unsure how long my voice was going to hold out, so I decided that I would end the set with a little bit of a synth jam.

Korg Monologue

I have a Korg Monologue, and I set it up to play a beat loop and just modulated it for a while, using low-pass and high-pass sweeps to make it sound a little more interesting. I decided on this the night before the show, so I didn’t have time to come up with anything super complex or anything, but it was a lot of fun regardless.

In the end, I feel like everything sounded good — well, more interesting than good, I suppose — and I’m already thinking of ways to add to this setup to make it richer and more complex. I would love to have some lofi beats premade to go with this ensemble, as well as more synth parts to play off the simple guitar work. There are a lot of ways to simulate vinyl pops and cracks on a synth, and I’d love to add some of that for ambiance as well.

Maybe next time?