Let me start by giving the title some context. "Realism" and "Hyperrealism" (in the context of this discussion) are two different approaches to recording and producing music. It's the way I like to describe the ethos that different engineers, producers or musicians carry with them into the recording studio. In my experience, engineers, producers and musicians tend to lean fairly firmly towards either one of the two categories. Every so often you'll meet someone who feels equally at home on both sides of the debate, but most of the people I've worked with lean at least a little more toward one of the two sides than the other. It's a topic that has often lead to passionate debate in my experience and says a lot about an individuals fundamental beliefs when it comes to music recording as an art form. Having said this, not all engineers, producers or musicians are aware of the differences between the two approaches. The purpose of this little blog therefore is to get you thinking about Realism and Hyperrealism, and how the two approaches fit into your own recording ethos.
The basic idea behind Realism (in the context of music production) is similar to its use in visual art; where visual artists seek to capture and reproduce what the eye can see, recording engineers and producers seek to capture and reproduce what the ear can hear under normal circumstances. Those who work within the realm of Realism like their records to sound like the "real" world. It would be common for most of the instrumentation to consist of acoustic instruments, or at least a faithful representation of an electric instrument as it would be heard during performance conditions (micing an electric guitar amp would be an example of this). Realism exponents are often advocates for capturing and retaining a live performance with as little alteration or manipulation as possible. The main point to drive home here is that Realism is all about keeping things as “natural” or “realistic” as possible. Genres that may commonly utilise this approach would be classical, jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass etc.
Some examples of this approach may include:
* Favouring distant or room mic placements over close micing in an effort to capture the sound source as if the listener were a witness to the performance;
* Using spaces other than recording studios to capture the ambience of specific locations;
* Capturing the natural reverb of the recording environment rather than adding reverb during the mix;
* Restricting the use of compression in an effort to maintain the natural dynamics of a performance;
* Using EQ sparingly in an effort to retain the natural frequency balance of a sound source;
* Recording live ensembles and limiting the use of overdubs;
* Using the mix to create a “real” world representation of the recorded ensemble.
These are just a few examples of what I would consider to be the Realism approach. Realism should not be limited to these examples and may not strictly follow all of these at all times, but they at least give us a starting point for the purpose of discussion.
(A composer by the name of Noah Creshevsky has used the term Hyperrealism to describe his own personal music composition technique, a technique that involves the combining of various audio samples from the world around us to create some fairly unique music. My use of the term Hyperrealism does not refer to his approach.)
In the context of this discussion, I am using Hyperrealism to describe the “hyped” sounds that can be achieved through various production techniques. By taking a sound that may or may not sound “real” to begin with, then over emphasising or hyping certain aspects of that sound through the use of compression, EQ, distortion etc. we can create a sound that has hyper-real qualities. For example: a vocalist sings into a large diaphragm condenser at close proximity. Compression is used to not only control dynamic range, but to “turn-up” the subtle sounds that are masked by the louder sounds. The sound of the breath, the crackle of saliva around the throat and mouth etc. are all suddenly more audible. EQ may be applied to enhance the perceived “airiness” of the voice with a boost of the top end frequencies etc. What we now end up with is a sound that still resembles a human voice, but is a hyped version of reality. In this example, nothing has been added to the sound that did not already exist, we have simply enhanced existing elements which would have previously gone unheard.
Many modern genres of music rely heavily on this approach, such as most forms of pop and rock music, electronic music, metal etc.
Other examples of this approach may include:
* Favouring close micing over distant micing (particularly with instruments such as drums, guitars and vocals) in an effort to capture finer details;
* Using controlled studio environments to provide more detailed recording of the source material and to limit the introduction of ambience;
* Heavily processing and manipulating a sound source with compression, EQ, distortion, modulation and time modifiers (delays, reverbs etc.) to create a sound that may or may not resemble the original sound source;
* Pitch shifting or time stretching audio to hear smaller details within a recording. This is particularly effective when an audio sample is slowed down (as opposed to being sped up), allowing small details to be heard within the sample that would otherwise be missed due to the speed at which they originally occurred.
The Hyperrealism approach can also refer to things such as multi-tracking and editing. For example, it would not have been possible for Freddie Mercury and Queen to record Bohemian Rhapsody if they were worried about Realism. The ability to multi-track allowed Queen to realise a sonic vision that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. Editing is now a part of daily life in most recording studios due to the advent of DAW’s and the editing capabilities they provide. The comping of multiple takes, editing of timing, and pitch correction offered within modern DAW’s means that most of today's music productions result in a Hyperreal aesthetic. The editing, tuning and comping of takes does not involve creating something from scratch, they merely enhance the reality that was originally captured.
You may have already realised that in most cases, almost everyone uses some form of Hyperrealism in their music production these days. As a working engineer and producer, I wouldn’t be able to do my job without taking such an approach. Many of today’s productions try to blend the two approaches together, which can yield some wonderful results.
My question to you is: on which side of the fence do you feel most at home?
Personally, I am well and truly on the side of Hyperrealism. The records that I most love are the ones that make me feel as though I’m inside the sound, almost as if I’m being taken to some kind of alternate universe where anything is possible. To be completely honest, reality bores me. I’ve heard the sound of a drum kit thousands of times (I’m a drummer in case you didn’t already know) and drum kits sound nowhere near as cool to my ears when they’re being played in a garage. When a kick drum is close miced and fed through a monster PA however, I get very excited! There are plenty on the other hand who feel the exact opposite to me and would much rather hear the sound of a drum kit in their garage. I, however, love the possibilities that Hyperrealism offers and I’m always on the hunt for new and interesting sounds.
There are plenty out there who would disagree with me. In my experience, they’re often the same engineers and musicians that gravitate towards analogue gear… the ones who still enjoy the torture of analogue tape machines and the limitations that it creates. They love the idea of recording live to tape with no edits and very little processing. They talk endlessly about retaining dynamics and how modern records are squashed to death etc. They don’t put things on their records that can’t be reproduced live and so on. These are the Realists, and although I may not be one of them, their opinion is just as valid as mine.
So, which one are you? A Realist or a Hyperrealist? You don’t have to pick a side, but at least have a think about the differences between the two… It might just help you solidify what it is that makes you tick, but more importantly, what makes your client tick, and that's the first step towards making a great record together.