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.
Rusty? Heavy? Covered in graffiti? You KNOW it will sound good.
Many people are unaware that the San Francisco Bay Area was once thoroughly fortified against attacks from the sea. Remnants of this past dot the entrance to the Golden Gate, in the form of bunkers that once housed gun emplacements.
One such installation was Battery Yates at Fort Baker. Located at the best vantage point for southward-facing photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Yates was meant for nothing other than picking off minesweepers that might try to get through the minefields inside the ‘Gate in wartime…minesweepers, of course, that would never come.
Battery Yates was active from 1905 through 1946. Now, only the U.S. Coast Guard maintains a station at Fort Baker, primarily for saving the lives of boaters and wind/kitesurfers. Now Battery Yates is a tourist attraction, is fun to scramble on and around…and, in swords to ploughshares style, is also a great source for cool sounds!
Each of the gun emplacements has four lockers, each sealed with a massive steel door. Some doors have outer latches that have been left to swing freely in favor of just welding the doors shut. These latches, rusted by more than 60 years of salty mist, are quite expressive when swung, manipulated, and otherwise mishandled. The perfectly square concrete rooms behind these doors caused them to have a lot of low end and resonance.
I decided to try my luck with recording some groaning metal effects on these doors, despite the fact that:
I only had some time before work one weekday, which meant that…
I could only record during rush hour, made worse by the fact that…
The Golden Gate Bridge is only 1/8 of a mile away, plainly visible from the recording site.
All this meant lots of background traffic noise. I mitigated these risks by using a hypercardioid microphone for off-axis rejection of sound (a shotgun would have been a better choice in terms of pattern, but I just loved the sound of my MKH-50 too much to not use it), careful placement of the mic relative to the bridge (making sure that either the mic element faced away from the bridge or a thick concrete wall blocked line of sight), and the judicious use of the Denoiser plugin from iZotope RX. And, for effects like these, the small-condenser-mic proximity effect only helps!
The result came out pretty well, all things considered…although the editing in today’s post is pretty sloppy, so apologies for that. Everything was recorded at 24-bit, 192-kHz, as best befits complex groaning metal sounds, since pitching this stuff down can yield pure sound-design gold. I recorded even more massive metal hits from this session, which may be a topic for a separate post… (And until then, you can hear yet more heavy metal hits/impacts here, here, and here.)
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.
Pipes along the side of the road. This is the kind of "a-ha!" or "ooh!" moment recordists wait for!
[Just had to post something orange and slightly eerie. Happy Halloween, all!]
It was a quiet night in a San Francisco warehouse district: Calm wind, not a lot of people on the streets, the sun was going down. A bunch of pipes – probably for redoing water lines beneath the street – were stacked on the sidewalk, perpendicular to the street.
This is precisely the reason that I carry a small, handheld field recorder with me at all times. I shoved it into a few pipes to check out what I could hear. I got some really nice drones with that added pipe/tube resonance and comb filtering, which will definitely go in my growing and rather extensive “unsettling drone” library. Some of the car passbys in the street had a resonant, screaming quality, which may make good spaceship pass-bys as well, or aggressive layers for expressive car ‘bys.
But, I quite liked some of the passages where this drone mixed with the activity of the street. Today’s sound is recorded within a 12″ diameter concrete pipe about six feet long. A lone man walks down the street singing, followed by a bicycle, he continues singing then crosses the street in front of me, a breath of wind really amps up the resonance for a moment, and then a few cars pass by, kicking up loose asphalt. Although it sounds like a mix of street noise with a synth drone underneath it, this is unedited except for some compression and normalization. The imaging is incredibly tight because there was about six feet of 12″ pipe in front of the mic capsules, narrowing the stereo field.
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.