The Uptown, Mission District, San Francisco. Photo source unknown.
The Uptown is the closest bar to my office, and is a classic Mission Districthipster dive bar. One hot, Indian Summer day in the fall, it was filled with patrons, windows flung open…but the jukebox was off. And everyone was concentrated by the bar and front door, leaving the back area empty.
Anyone who tries to record diffuse crowd sounds, or “walla,” knows that this is a golden moment. Human voices, but little intelligible conversation, no background music, not too far away from the noise source. I ordered a beer, sat as far away from everyone as I could, and started rolling on my handheld recorder.
I did a little trickery by taking a segment of the recording, swapping the left and right channels, and layering it with another segment, to effectively double the number of people in the room. Luckily there wasn’t too much background noise to also get multiplied. Perhaps not the most interesting of moments on its own, but the little details of the cash register ring, squeaky door hinges, and the general density of the human sounds represents (to me, anyway) a surprisingly hard-to-capture scene without the intrusion of music.
Hot days in the city can force people into the street, where it can be cooler than in their apartments or homes. I usually reach for my field recorder when the mercury rises, which I hang out of a third-floor office window.
This is a recording (longer than most I usually post) that features everything I like in an urban ambiences: Sirens. Heavy trucks. Busses. Voices in different languages. Motorcycles. Car horns. Murmuring and footsteps.
On this day, the City was quieter at 1pm than it was at dawn.
I work in San Francisco. It’s one of the world’s great urban centers. Imagine my surprise when I took the subway to the financial district and walked for two full blocks and heard…well, not much.
It was 1pm just off the Financial District on a weekday, and I heard almost no talking, no horns, and very few “hard sounds.” All that came to my ears was the occasional footsteps of a non-talkative passerby, the sound of a water jug being put on a hand truck, and of course traffic. There was plenty of sound, sure, but it was a wash of hushed tones, very diffuse and distant voices, nothing jarring like you’d expect near one of the great cities of the American West. On lunch hour, no less.
Here’s an example. I’m walking this whole clip, but wearing my quietest shoes (my sweet camo Chuck Taylors, if you must know), so any footsteps you hear are passers-by. This kind of hushed background ambience would be a great layer to which more specific hard effects could be added to achieve a certain mood.
Ready for recording in San Francisco's Mission District on a rainy winter day.
Urban ambiences benefit from focused listening. Every city has its own sonic palette, and every neighborhood’s aural character is as unique as a fingerprint.
I work right in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, a culturally rich and very urban part of the city. Best known as the hub of the city’s Latino community, it has its good and bad sides. The good includes more eateries than one could possibly explore, great boutique shops, art studios, and amazing diversity. The bad includes drug dealing, prostitution, and gang violence. As you can imagine, that makes recording opportunities galore.
This post’s track is a compilation of urban ambience recorded out of my office’s windows, at varying times of day. This is only a small snippet of my huge library of urban San Francisco ambiences, every one of which reveals another aspect of the City’s character.