How did you come up with the idea for the Middle Eastern Ambiences library?
It wasn’t so much that I came up with the idea for it, as I had the recordings laying around for years. These were crimes of opportunity more than anything else. I happened to take a few trips into the region for work several years ago (well before the whole Arab Spring movement), and I took whatever opportunities I could find to get out and capture the sounds of the cities. Rob Nokes was interested in getting some ambiences from that region, specifically anything that had Arabic walla in it, up onto his site. I guess he must have had people contacting him looking for those types of recordings. Here I was, with these gigs of raw recordings sitting on my hard drives. It gave me the impetus to finally sit down to cull through to pick the more interesting recordings and get them cleaned up for use.
How did you decide what specific ambiences to capture?
Like I mentioned, these were more crimes of opportunity than anything else.
Dubai was easy to navigate as a foreigner, as only about 15% of the population are actually Emirati. There’s a large European presence, and at the time (this was before the global recession), it wasn’t that uncommon to see people out with media gear in random parts of the city. There’s no real getting around on foot in that city though, you need a vehicle to get most places. Since I was there for work, I stuck mostly to hunting down interesting spaces surrounding the places I was already spending my time in. The same philosophy applied in Cairo, but I had to be much more careful about drawing attention to myself and the people I was with. We were definitely a visible minority there and the police there are always looking for opportunities to collect “tips.”
What was your recording setup, and how did you go about recording the ambiences?
I had to be extremely light and not draw attention to myself, particularly in Cairo. There were times I’d go out wandering neighboring alleys by myself, sometimes with a member of the local crew I was working with if I could convince one of them. Other times, I’d be with the rest of the U.S. crew in our down time. We’d visit places like the Spice Souk in Dubai, Khan al Kalil market in Cairo, or even the pyramids at Giza. I never took anything larger than a Sony PCM-D50 with me. It’s a great little recorder, and I’d love to get my hands on the new D100 sometime. As we’d wander around, I’d hang back a little bit form the rest of the group I was with, or get ahead of them. I was able to keep them out of the recordings for the most part, and they helped run line of sight interference to hide the recorder. Thankfully, it’s small enough that, most of the time, you can get away with just standing around looking non-descript.
Most of the time you can get away with just standing around looking non-descript.
It’s easy to have that in one hand, held at the right angle to capture the space, but have something else in your other hand that’s holding your attention. If people do notice you, and you’re not using big and bulky gear, they tend to look at what you’re paying attention to.
If you’re standing at a vendor’s table and looking over their items, checking something on your phone, or anything else that says, “I’m not paying attention to this thing in my other hand,” then most people will ignore it. That said, you still have to be aware of your surroundings.
The activity at the pyramids would have been cool to capture, but the whole place was just a little too shady to risk that kind of attention in such a small group. Pick pockets were everywhere (not to say they weren’t at Khan al Kalil as well), but the police were more aggressive there than any other area of Cairo I had been to. There were places where I’d sometimes be by myself. I didn’t worry so much about that in Dubai, but Egypt? Always be assessing the situation, because sometimes you have to know when to leave everything in the bag.
The down side to the D50 the fact that, even with the little dead cat on it, wind can be a serious problem. I was able to eliminate most wind noise from the recordings that made it into the library, but there are still a few spots in the files where it’s stronger than I’d like it to be. There are files in there that still have some wind, or a little bit of low end rumble remaining, but I liked them too much to keep them out of the library. Also, they could be cleaned a little more, but there might be a trade off in the quality. So, ultimately, I chose to leave them in with the mild cleaning I gave them, and let the user treat in context of how they needed to be used.
Do you have a favorite recording from the Middle Eastern Ambiences library?
Across the street from the Spice Souk in Dubai is a canal. I was standing on that side, just grabbing a little bit of the sounds of the boats creaking when the Call to Prayer started. The cool thing was that you could hear the individual performances from multiple mosques on the other side of the canal.
There are three recordings from that moment in the library, and they still bring a smile to my face.
People also have this impression that everything stops when the Call to Prayer comes on, and that’s not the case; particularly in Dubai, where there are so many nationalities. So not only do those particular recordings have this cool back and forth from the multiple mosques, but the activity on the street doesn’t miss a beat. People are still loading and unloading materials on the boats, traffic is driving by, it’s all business as usual. There are three recordings from that moment in the library, and they still bring a smile to my face.
Any situations that stood out in particular when recording the library?
The room I had in Cairo was at the Semiramis Hotel. I was on the something like the 14th or 20th floor; I can’t remember exactly which anymore. The room had an exterior balcony, and below it were two things: A semi-major thoroughfare, and the Nile. If you take the time to bother, you can find out approximately what time the Call to Prayer will start throughout the day (it happens 5 times) in a given location. I bothered to find out what time the morning call would be, and got up at 3:45 to setup on the balcony and wait for it to start. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to hear it from there, but I figured it was worth a shot. I spent a total of an hour and a half out there that morning, because I had intentionally gotten set up a half hour early.
I was surprised by how active the city still felt that early in the morning, which made me think I would have no chance of picking up the morning call at all. And then one came wavering across the river, blending in and out of the traffic wash and the birds.
The result was this beautiful skyline urban wash with these haunting human voices over the top.
Then thirty seconds came another, and then a bit later another joined in. The result was this beautiful skyline urban wash with these haunting human voices over the top. There’s a file that’s almost 11 minutes long in the library, and this is that file.
There is one non-audio story I have to share though. Our trip to the Khan al Kalil market was on our last night in Cairo. We were getting on the plane the next morning to head home. One of the other crew members has this thing about eating street vendor food wherever he goes. Now, in the past, he had only ever really worked in the U.S. and Europe. For the most part, you’re gonna be safe consuming street vendor food in those areas. He found this “sandwich” window in the Khan al Kalil market, and he could not be dissuaded… even after we had just had camel sausages in a restaurant that was only a small step up from street vendor food. The moral of the story? Don’t by a sandwich from a guy in a window at the Khan al Kalil market in Cairo. ;)
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