Real vs hyperreal vs surreal

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 the aesthetics of recordings.

Sullivan Fellows - beatmaking with Pro Tools

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/pop live albums.
  • Early Beatles albums.

Recordings can signal their “realness” through imperfect (and therefore unedited) performances, but also through their sonic qualities. 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, or documentary or independent films–low fidelity, and not accentuated with EQ.

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 rough-sounding, but 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, etc. 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 pop from 1960 through 1980, e.g. Motown.
  • Most studio recordings by singer-songwriters.
  • Mid-period Beatles records, e.g. 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 gear and people to operate it.

Michael’s iconic performance on the Motown 25th anniversary concert 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, e.g. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
  • Late Beatles records, e.g. 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 uses 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; and 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.

Realism and effects

The three categories are especially useful when you consider different audio effects. A realist producer might find a particular effect to be excessive and “wrong,” while a surrealist producer might find the same sound 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 Compression: 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 accentuate particular sounds while still preserving their basic timbre.
  • Surrealist: Extreme low-pass, high-pass, and notch filtering: EDM filter sweeps, “telephone” voice, and other special effects.

Reverb

  • Realist: Compensation for an excessively dry recording environment; tasteful “audio Vaseline”.
  • Hyperrealist: Bigger-than-life reverb that 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

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band combines the realism of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the hyperrealism of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and the surrealism of “A Day In The Life.” Controllerism is the performance of surrealist sounds using the realist method of live unedited performance. Chance the Rapper blends surrealism (Auto-Tune and MIDI-controlled harmonizer effects) with realism (gospel choirs).

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

6 thoughts on “Real vs hyperreal vs surreal

  1. On the authenticity thread, I’m going to sound like an old guy, but that’s because I’m 52. When I’ve mixed or played in exceptional bands from analog days of yesteryear, very little processing “helped” the sound. Some bands were good, some were not in live settings, One good example was a pickup band comprised of many members of the E Street band. They used limited and subtle effects and reverb. Live interaction between musicians was extremely creative. Their live sound is still relevant and seems overwhelmingly authentic. Fast forward to today with Ableton background synth tracks, performance click tracks thru IEM, signficiant EQ and compression, and the overly processed and auto-tuned sound and I can’t feel the same way about the music. I’m not saying that the artists are any more or less talented— because I’ve been around great younger artists, it’s just something that might never sit right with me. When we rely on all the tools of today, does it impact our ability to listen, react and invent with our musical peers?

    • Tools evolve to suit different musical needs. I agree, if you have a bunch of musicians playing live in a room, just roll tape and do minimal effects. You use Ableton to make electronica, surreal collages of loops and textures. It would be nuts to do the E Street Band in Ableton, just like it would be nuts to try to do a dubstep track with analog tape. The problem isn’t the tools, it’s the misapplication of the tools to the wrong creative context.

  2. As a musician and an artist I’ve had to come to terms with the idea of authenticity. In terms of how people view these three categories there is a general view, at least as expressed to me, that they rank from most to least in terms of authenticity. When I was in school, there was a unstated understanding that the goal for the recording professional was to a achieve realism. Hyperrealism was acceptable as long as the overall perception was one of authenticity. Any creative use of effects was generally seen as heretical. I understood why this was the case but I was also puzzled that even though I thought that the emerging trend was towards more hyperrealist music there was still a sense that it was deceptive, too easy or inauthentic.

    I proposed for my Master’s Thesis that as digital technology and bedroom producers proliferate that we would see more and more hyperrealistic recordings. My idea was that as musical artists start to take up the tools of the recording studio they would be less beholden to the “rules” regarding effect usage. Artist’s would regard effects as merely tools to create the sound they are looking for without regard to their proper usage. In school I was taught how to use digital effects in a way that mimicked their hardware usage. In my own work I tend to use effects more creatively.

    Agains, thanks for your insight. I enjoy reading your answers on Quora as well. Take care.
    Bruce

    https://open.spotify.com/artist/6oWBaigp2qH8OzI3grrWPr?si=OcgAfqMeRuaL36dQynHCow

    • I struggled really hard with authenticity, too. In my twenties I was mostly playing jazz and country, two genres with an extremely conservative attitude toward recording technology. I had a really hard and abrupt break with the concept when I realized that any time authenticity came up, it was always wealthier older straighter white guys disapproving of the musics of less wealthy, younger, gayer non-white non-guys. Then I started making electronic music myself and experienced the sheer primal joy of a well-chosen kick playing four on the floor with a sample of a beloved recording on top. Letting go of authenticity was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done as a musician, and ironically, the more I embraced sampling and synths and studio trickery, the more my music sounded like it was an authentic expression of myself, rather than an imitation of some other music. In grad school I learned “proper” recording techniques, and I’m glad to know them, but then I was happy to get back to slicing and dicing in Ableton.

  3. As an interesting experiment, one of my students has arranged Time from Dark Side of the Moon for chorus, soloists, strings and rock band. We are currently rehearsing the various parts and plan to perform it live on our spring concert. In an attempt to make the performance as authentic as possible, we have an actual alarm clock, tubular bells, and clock chimes (mounted on a cello body) that will be played live acoustically for that familiar moment in the intro. I love your distinctions, and I’m excited to attempt to shatter the boundaries with a realistic performance of something you specifically mentioned as a surrealist piece of rock history.

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