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Real vs. Hyperreal vs. Surreal

This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

You can put all recorded music techniques and gestures into three categories: realist, hyperrealist, and surrealist. These categories have soft boundaries that broadly overlap. Nevertheless, I find them to be a useful way to organize my thinking about sonic aesthetics.

Realist recording

Realist recording is the sound of humans playing live in the same location at the same time. This category includes:

  • All recordings before the invention of multitrack tape
  • Nearly all classical recordings (aside from electronic/electroacoustic works)
  • Nearly all mainstream jazz recordings
  • All bluegrass, folk, and traditional recordings
  • All rock and pop live albums
  • Early Beatles albums

You can signal “realness” in a recording through the performance qualities — if there are imperfections and stumbles, it’s a sign that the recording wasn’t edited or doctored. Poor sound quality and uneven mixing can be a sign of “realness.” In a discussion of sound design for video games, Greg DeBeer describes sonic realism as the sound of TV news, documentaries, or independent films — think low fidelity, unimproved by EQ or other effects.

Note that the important thing here is not the fact of an undoctored performance, but the impression or illusion of one. For example, the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 album seems to be a warts-and-all live record, but the vocals were rerecorded in the studio. They’re still a little rough (it’s the Grateful Dead, after all), but they’re nowhere near as messy as when they were actually performed onstage.

Even without such overt manipulation, “realistic” recordings depart from reality in other crucial ways. For example, the performances might have been selected from many takes. Also, an unedited live recording is still a recording. The timbre of the sounds is shaped by the microphones, preamplifiers, mixing board, tape, and so on.

Hyperrealist recording

Hyperrealist recording is like reality, but better. A casual listener might experience the recording as a document of a real-time performance, but close listening reveals various enhancements: effects, overdubbing, splicing, and so on. In the sound design context, Greg DeBeers describes hyper-realism as “action movie style… Sounds are over the top with extreme detail and EQ.”

This category includes:

  • Most mainstream rock (not counting extreme psychedelia)
  • Nearly all mainstream pop from 1960 through 1980 (i.e., Motown)
  • Mid-period Beatles records (i.e., Revolver and Rubber Soul)

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is a good example of a hyperrealist recording. The drums were played live in a single take by the great Leon “Ndugu” Chancler. However, various covers and baffles were used to sonically isolate each piece of the kit, so they could be processed during mixing to have unnatural clarity and punch. The bass guitar and strings are doubled with synthesizers to make richer and stranger timbres. The vocals include multiple layers of Michael Jackson’s voice, and have strange reverb in a few spots, produced by Michael singing through a long cardboard mailing tube. Finally, Tom Scott’s lyricon part was added well after the other parts, because Quincy Jones felt that the track needed a little “ear candy.”

You might be able to do a live performance of “Billie Jean” that sounds like the recording, but you’d need a lot of musicians and a lot of gear.

Michael’s iconic performance on the Motown 25th anniversary concert, Yesterday, Today, Forever, is, in itself, a hyperrealist masterpiece — he dances for real, but lip-syncs along to the studio recording.

Surrealist recording

Surrealist recording is music that could not have been played live in real time, or that bears no resemblance to acoustic instrument sounds. This category includes:

  • All electronic music, including hip-hop, EDM, techno, dubstep, electroacoustic composition, computer music, tape music, etc.
  • Much pop music since 1980 and nearly all of it since 1990
  • Psychedelic rock (i.e., Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon)
  • Late Beatles records (i.e., Magical Mystery Tour)

Greg DeBeers describes surrealist sound design as “fantasy or science fiction style.” It goes beyond EQ to use time-based effects (reverb and delay) and modulation (flange, pitch shifting, etc.) Surrealist music techniques include:

  • Digital quantization to create unnaturally perfect rhythms
  • Auto-Tune and harmonization to make unnaturally perfect singing
  • Synthesized and sampled sounds
  • The combination of dry and artificially reverberant sounds to create paradoxical and unphysical musical space
  • Digital splices and stutters, with instantaneous timbre and volume changes and “digital black” (unnaturally perfect silence)

Surrealist recordings often incorporate samples of realist recordings whose low fidelity becomes just another flavor of special effect — see, for example, hip-hop producers sampling old soul albums.

My favorite example of a surrealist recording is “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb, a combination of drum machines, synthesizers, and radically decontextualized audio samples.

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Realism and effects

The three categories are especially useful when you consider different audio effects. A realist producer might find a particular reverb setting to be excessive and “wrong,” while a surrealist producer might find the same setting to be too conservative.

Compression

Realist: High threshold, low ratio. Smoothing out a few peaks without audibly changing the sound.

Hyperrealist: Medium threshold, medium ratio. Boosting loudness and presence and providing “glue” without flattening out the dynamics too much.

Surrealist: Low threshold, high ratio. Deliberate “pumping” and “breathing,” especially through the use of sidechaining.

EQ

Realist: Gentle cuts and boosts to transparently and unobtrusively clarify the sound.

Hyperrealist: More substantial cuts and boosts to “fit sounds together” or to accentuate particular sounds while still preserving their basic timbre.

Surrealist: Extreme low-pass and high-pass filtering; notch and comb filters; filter sweeps; “telephone” voice and other frequency-based special effects.

Reverb

Realist: Compensation for an excessively dry recording environment; tasteful “audio Vaseline.”

Hyperrealist: Bigger-than-life reverb that still doesn’t overtly call attention to itself as artificial. Standard pop vocal reverb.

Surrealist: Huge, unphysical, or otherwise weird sounds, e.g. Phil Spector records, ’80s gated snares, different implied spaces in the same track, pre-delay.

Overdubbing

Realist: Adding parts that could have been performed live, but weren’t for logistical reasons, or because the producers thought of them after the fact.

Hyperrealist: Layering of voices and instruments to “fatten up” the sound, while still creating the superficial sense of a live performance.

Surrealist: Layering of decontextualized/acousmatic sounds, e.g. all sample-based music. Also, over-the-top massing of sound, like the guitars on commercial hard rock and metal albums.

Interesting edge cases

Sometimes you can hear realism, hyperrealism and surrealism on the same album, or even in the same song.

If you have suggestions for more examples, please hit the comments, below.

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.