When you stroll through the maze of streets in Fez, Morocco, it's as if you are walking back in time.
Sound recordist Jim Metzner recreates the feeling of wandering through the city of Fez using an audio technique called "live mixes.”
Jim Metzner has been producing sound-rich radio programs for the past 30 years, beginning his career with a piece for NPR's Voices in the Wind -- the predecessor to All Things Considered -- followed by his ground-breaking short format series, You're Hearing Boston, produced for CBS station WEEI-FM. He's received major grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His work has been featured in Wired magazine, the New York Times, Audio magazine, National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, and on the CBS Evening News.
Metzner has recorded all over the world and produced features for public radio's Marketplace, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and The Savvy Traveler. He has appeared as an "ambassador to the natural world" on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday and has taught at Vassar College.
Hear two-minute sound portraits of the planet, from Jim's radio program Pulse of the Planet.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Jim Metzner
Why do you describe yourself as a sound recordist rather than a producer?
Fell in love with sound recording over thirty years ago. Just going out with a portable deck and recording stuff -- anything. Refrigerator motors, squeaky balloons, elevator shafts, water running through gutters. To me the world of sound was (and is) undiscovered country. I felt like Jacques Cousteau. I couldn't understand why everyone wasn't doing this. Looking back at all the things I've done professionally, producing albums, making radio programs, working in multimedia, sound has always played a crucial role. There's always been some question about listening, some mystery that I was pursuing. You know, the symbol for a question mark "?" is supposed to be based on the shape of an ear.
Do you think recorded sound is able to capture the true essence of a place?
Although it's tempting, I try to avoid using the word "capture." The sounds are like gifts and if I receive them that way, then I become somewhat responsible for them and how they're shared. The essence of a place can surely be conveyed through its sounds. They likely change over the course of a day and throughout the year. So tuning in to the rhythms of a place means spending some time with it, becoming friendly.
What techniques did you use to collect and produce the rich sounds you captured for "Fez"?
Am always experimenting, trying something new. But in a place like Fez, that is so full of life, you could stand in one place and sooner or later a sound would come to you.
I used a binaural headset in Fez. It looks like a set of earphones, but instead of earpieces, they're microphones. It hears the way you hear, using the shape of your head and your ears as part of the information that gives us natural "stereo" hearing. Years ago, the Germans developed a recording technique ("kunstkopf") which used a dummy head implanted with microphone in its ears. With a binaural headset the recordist, in effect, becomes the dummy head. Now there's a straight man's line for you. If you've never recorded with a binaural headset before, it'll blow your mind. The playback really sounds like you're there. The big limitation is there's no way to monitor it while you're recording. Sort of like shooting from the hip with a camera. Takes practice. Listen to "Fez" with a headset and you'll hear some examples of binaural recording.
The first lesson of recording with a binaural headset is keeping your head still. It's interesting to see how automatically we turn our heads to follow a sound. How you record an environment is, of course, dictated by the environment itself. The alleyways of Fez lend themselves to wandering, meandering through their webs of sound - and I did plenty of that.
How do you use "live mixes" in your work and what effect does that technique have on your programs?
By a "live mix" I mean discovering a "natural" blending of sounds. Finding a perspective where the wash of children playing nearby works as a counterpoint to an old man in the foreground praying in the middle of an alley. Live mixes are always serendipitous, often magical, could never be duplicated in a studio. There are no straight lines in nature.
The city of Fez has been around for a long, long time. You walk through the Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, and you're in another world. Donkeys, not cars, men wearing jallabhas, women fully veiled, the aroma of spices in the air, the sounds of craftsmen beating metal. But then turn the corner and there'll be someone selling videos, with the sounds of a boom box blaring.
Later on, the challenge in sharing this sound means bringing a listener on a journey up to the point where they can appreciate the uniqueness of this aurally complex moment -- without telling them too much, "chewing their food for them."
Do you use different techniques when you're in a busy atmosphere, such as a market place, than you use when recording in a quieter environment, such as the Koranic school?
Each atmosphere has its own advantages and challenges. In a quieter space you have to be quieter, too - any hand movement on your microphone will be picked up. If you're wearing a binaural headset, you can't breathe loudly, swallow audibly, cough, scratch your nose, etc. In a noisy atmosphere, such sounds are masked by the sounds of the life around you, but these same sounds can easily lapse in a morass of incomprehensibility. Can you get near enough to a particular sound to have a more particular recording, or will you simply record the overall sense/ambience of this place?
How much tape did you collect during your visit to Fez and how did you choose the sounds that would create the deepest sense of place for your listeners?
I've probably made at least 20 hours of recordings in Fez. The dues of recording 20 hours of tape is that you have to spend at least that amount of time listening back to them. How do you log this material, both for yourself and for posterity? I'll bet few recordists realize the full importance of their work, historically and artistically. In a way, a good log is for posterity, not just for your own use, but who takes notes like that? Anyhow, for the short term, as you log the sounds, the most striking moments leap out. In a sense, they choose themselves.
What recording equipment were you using in Fez?
I use DAT (a Sony TCD-100 with a modified preamplifier) and a minidisk as a backup. I've used both Sharp and Sony. I've got an HHB MD which I took to Cuba last year. It has both advantages and disadvantages, but that is a whole other discussion. I use a number of handheld stereo microphones, and at that time had a Soundman binaural headset. These days, I use a sonic studio binaural mic on occasion.
Lastly, is there any place that you haven't been to before that you think would be particularly satisfying to record?
How long a list would you like? I could rattle off a whole slew of places, from the Amazon to Africa, to Brittany to Mongolia, where I would love to record. Just the other day though, I was thinking what a challenge it would be to try to discover the sounds of the hamlet of Yorktown Heights, where I live. Like everyone else, I take for granted the sounds around me.