Born in Switzerland, re-locating to France, and settling for a time in Cairo, Egypt, composer, sound engineer, and music producer Omar Raafat’s childhood was a gift in cultural exposure. Omar attended business school in Florida before relocating to Boston to complete his degree, and while there, Raafat found work at a recording studio which fueled his childhood passion for making and recording music. This inspiration channeled Omar into working with other artists and exploring the nuances of sound engineering and its role in sound design. It was here that he began to create his own sounds and integrate them into musical recordings.
After another move back to Egypt, Omar established his own small recording studio for local artists. Meanwhile, he also began writing music for advertisements, solidifying himself as an in-demand and marketable composer. His work has appeared in commercials for brands including Nestle, Vodafone, and Danone. Omar then moved to Montreal with his new wife and faced a difficult decision: should he focus on writing music, or dedicate himself to recording other artists? Landing a job at a large recording studio in the city quickly helped expose Raafat to big-name artists with even bigger recording opportunities. Realizing that he didn’t have to choose only one musical path, Omar began writing for media music, growing his catalog and eventually seeing his tracks used in various television shows on networks and platforms including Netflix, The History Channel, ABC, PBS, HGTV, and CBS.
With another move to Victoria, British Columbia, Omar decided to write his own album—one that didn’t require him to answer to anybody or fit prescribed media structures. By returning to his musical roots, Raafat sought to make an organic, intimate album, free from the large, sweeping, computerized orchestral sounds of his previous work. Omar can be heard playing the piano, guitar, and drums alongside a string quartet, and this reinforced to him that he needed to extend another branch of his work to allow for musical creation for the purposes of personal artistic exploration.
Omar shared some experiential insights with Face the Current including his collaboration on a track with BioGeometry, the way in which he composes for media, the inspiration behind his locale selection for soundscape recording, and why his latest album should be experienced as a conceptual journey.
Sasha Frate: How would you describe the genre and the style of music that you produce? Can you share a bit of background on your journey explaining how you got into music and the evolution of your path up until now?
Omar Raafat: The type of music I produce is referred to as contemporary classical or neo-classical. It’s like a modern take on classical music, and makes use of classical music instrumentation. We’re using a string quartet and traditional instruments that you’d find in orchestras or chamber music. There’s a bit of a modern touch to it by bringing in electronics and instruments that are perhaps more folk-oriented or pop-oriented.
The actual structure and harmony of the music is more like current pop music but with very organic, traditional instruments as well as some electronics. It’s a little bit of a mix of everything coming together and it’s pretty interesting. I think it’s music that a lot of people can enjoy because it’s very relatable with its pop music foundation. The instrumentation is also very familiar and very cinematic. This invokes a lot of emotion because you’ll hear the beautiful work of violinists and cellists.
SF: On top of all of that, you also incorporate principles of BioGeometry into your music—is that correct?
OR: I did that because of my wife’s work. My wife and father-in-law are BioGeometry so they like to experiment with music and instruments, and I’ve definitely been involved in it as well. But I’m more the music guy and I let them do the energy stuff because I don’t know as much as they do.
SF: Do you incorporate certain frequencies or sounds?
OR: I did one song with my father-in-law, Dr.Karim, and it started off as a joint-experiment. Dr. Karim came up with the energy part of it and then I had to figure out how to take that and then make it into music that you can listen to. It was many, many hours of experimentation, but it ended up being a very nice marriage of our strengths. But he’s definitely the one who gets all the credit for all the energy related elements.
SF: How would you describe that in an energy application to the music? For example, I’m familiar with the incorporation of healing sound frequencies into mainstream pop and hip hop music where you just listen to a track and take in its energetic quality. How would you describe what you are doing with this energy?
OR: The track I just mentioned is different than the album I did. On that track, Dr. Karim came up with the rhythms, timings, and the intervals that we needed in the music itself.
We started with something really basic. (It was all done on a piano at first.) And then once we figured out the rhythm, the intervals, and the tempo of the song, I came in and filled in the gaps to make it into a full piece of music.
SF: So, by using those different modifications to the music—like rhythm or tempo—you created an energetic effect.
OR: Yes, because, instead of modifying the music to include the energy, we came up with the energetic blueprint/skeleton first. Once that was figured out, it was much easier because I just worked off the blueprint. I transformed it from just a piano into an actual piece of music.
SF: Have you released that track?
OR: Yes, so that’s released with BioGeometry. You can find it on the BioGeometry website.
SF: The music video for your song “Hourglass” had a very beautiful setting. Why did you choose to film or compose this piece in the woods?
OR: Victoria, British Columbia was a new place for Doreya and I, and we fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. We honeymooned on Vancouver Island and were drawn to the area, it’s just so beautiful and inspirational. We come from Egypt and the desert, and that is beautiful in a different way, but Victoria is very special to us.
Because we move a lot, I really wanted to document the place that inspired me to write that album, and it was like capturing a moment in time. I wrote that album when we were living in Victoria, and the forest in the video is right behind our house. We also lived a bit secluded up on a mountain, so I really wanted to make a video clip that highlighted and captured that moment in our lives because I knew that I could be in Egypt, Europe, or somewhere else in the future. That was a very special time and I really wanted to be able to capture it.
SF: That’s great because all of that comes through in the music and the energy behind it. You can feel that all of those pieces that you put together in the music are meaningful to you.
OR: Thanks! I was really inspired by that area, and I felt like it was the right time in my life to do my own album. My wife and I love nature and going on hikes and walks, so it just felt right to write that kind of music there.
SF: You’ve made music in that setting, and you’ve also mentioned that another unique recording space that you’ve used is an old church in Montreal. Are there any other unique spaces that you’ve worked with?
OR: Yes, that’s the studio I worked at in Montreal. It was an old church that was turned into a recording studio, so the acoustics were really nice and really inspiring, too. As you can imagine, the space was great, and it sounded amazing to have instruments in there. Recording and working there every day was a great opportunity for me to grow as a recording engineer.
I’ve recorded in different churches for remote recording projects and I’ve had small orchestras request recordings, as well. I’ve also recorded in different pubs and bars doing big band music and random remote recordings, and that’s always a lot of fun. But those are recordings for other people.
Most of my writing and inspiration comes when I sit down and play with an instrument. I get inspired by the instruments. If I sit at a piano, I’ll write something completely different than if I sat down with a guitar. I get inspired by whatever instrument is in front of me and the sound it creates is what guides me.
SF: What types of film and TV projects have you composed for, and what do you most enjoy about this particular application of your music?
OR: The TV projects are really interesting. I work with about seven or eight different companies and they’re all based out of L.A., New York, and other locations around the world. Because of this, it’s mainly communicating online and through email, and sometimes I’ll receive a brief of a show that’s coming up and they need a specific type of music for it. They might need underscore and other elements that will fit in with the style of the show. I might do a few tracks, and sometimes it’s an entire album for the show.
Other times I’ll actually write an album that I think will do well for a specific genre in TV. It’ll be something that I feel like doing and I’ll just say to myself, “Okay, this month, I feel like doing a rock album.” After it’s completed, I’ll look for opportunities for it within the companies I work with. I’ll see who’s interested in it and who has a place for it.
So, those are the two different types of work that I do, and they both have their advantages. I prefer doing my own thing because I can do what I want and challenge myself.
I’ve worked on a few Netflix shows including Fastest Cars, Supergirl on CW, Blood Money on the History Channel, some HGTV shows, and many other programs. I’ve also done a lot of work for shows in Europe. But that’s what I like about this type of work—I write the music first and then it goes out wherever it needs to and lives on.
SF: That’s great! You said you founded the renowned recording studio known as The Mix. Is this the studio that’s located in Montreal?
OR: No, that’s the studio in Egypt. When I finished in Boston, I moved back to Egypt and made The Mix studios.
SF: What was your inspiration for opening the space?
OR: My time working at the studio in Boston inspired me to open my own studio because there wasn’t a lot of recording studios in Egypt at the time. I created The Mix as a boutique-style studio. It’s more of like an artist retreat, somewhere to write and get inspired. And it’s a very homey, very comfortable-feeling studio. Most of the studios in Egypt were very clinical and very corporate. You just feel like you enter into a white room and start recording. Yes, they had great equipment and nice rooms, but it was a different vibe. I wanted to create a vibe that felt like home, as opposed to a very corporate area.
That inspiration actually came from the studio I worked at in Boston because it had a similar vibe. The lighting is dark and dim, and it has comfortable couches. It’s a very inspiring place to be, and I felt like that’s what was needed in Cairo. The Egyptian music industry wasn’t really exposed to that kind of environment—it’s very commercial where people just come to record and then leave.
SF: It sounds like a space that’s more inviting because it’s about the whole experience which makes you feel like actually staying a while, as opposed to just coming in and out.
OR: Exactly, and I think that was the thing that made it more special than your average studio.
SF: Early this year you released your first album, A Way Home. You mentioned that this actually features hidden soundscapes that were recorded at some of your favorite hiking locations around Vancouver Island and B.C., Canada. Can you explain the process of capturing and embedding or incorporating these soundscapes into your music?
OR: I think most people wouldn’t really notice them too much; they’re pretty well hidden. But again, I was really inspired by the area and I wanted to capture that moment in time and where I was. We hiked three or four times a week at that time.
So, I got a Zoom recorder, which is a small hard drive with two microphones to record in stereo, and I took it everywhere with me. We would find interesting sounds and locations when we were walking around, and we’d stop and sit down. I’d set up the Zoom, wait for things to get quiet, and then I’d hit record and capture that environment for around five minutes.
I constantly did that and I captured a lot of different sounds. I even captured a storm we were once caught in! I now have a whole catalog of audio files of our hikes, and each song on the album has something different. I wanted each one to be a bit different, whether it was a hike right by the ocean so you can hear the waves, or a deep-forest hike that was in rain, or another one that followed streams.
Some soundscapes are more hidden. I think there are a few songs where you’ll hear waves rolling in at the end, but that sound is deep down throughout, as well. I think this all comes from my interest in sound design, because my background isn’t just composition, it’s recording engineering. I’m really interested in sounds. It’s about the combination of the melodies and the music, plus whatever sound is making that melody, and then all the layers that are behind the music.
SF: Would you say that even if the listener may not actually fully recognize the hidden soundscapes, they can still having some kind of affect? Maybe it’s being subconsciously received.
OR: Yes, absolutely—for sure. I think it’s one of those things you might not notice, but if we were sitting together and I turned off the soundscape, then you’d notice that something was missing and it would be very obvious.
SF: It’s like the effects of musical forest bathing where you are immersed in it without really paying attention to every little thing that’s going on in the background.
OR: Exactly. It’s a combination of everything that creates the sound. Soundscapes are one of the many things that create layers or textures, and to be honest with you, it’s really fun for me because I know they’re all from places that I love. And because I put them in there, I’m obviously much more aware of them so I listen for them. It’s like taking an auditory picture: I can hear the sounds of a certain area and that’s very special for me.
SF: That’s very cool, and it’s something you don’t hear of very often. It’s like through Instagram—we are inundated with experiences that are captured through photos and videos, but we don’t have that kind of experiential connection through music. What are you most proud of in terms of album features or the way in which the album came together?
OR: The album is really meant to be a journey, so it’s more of a concept album. It’s meant to be listened to straight-through, starting with the first song and then continuing on. That’s what I really like about this album because I’m used to just doing one-off songs or other projects that aren’t so connected.
With this album, the first song is the opening and then it flows in order. I definitely want to dive deeper into making more of these kinds of albums.
It’s a shame because everybody wants singles today. Even online music distribution and Spotify—they tend to prefer singles. It’s really become less about the album and more about building a great song. But I definitely want to stick to making albums that journey with the listener from start to finish. If I ever perform this album live, then I would want it to be more of a theatrical experience; more about the lights and the visual aspect of it versus just watching a musical performance. I wouldn’t want to be the highlight of the show, instead I would want to be on the side playing music to accompany a visual interpretation. That’s what really interests me.
SF: That’s a talent in itself because you’re not just trying to capture one song with all the elements together, but you’re actually orchestrating a whole series of songs into something that journeys through an entire experience. It’s kind of taking it to the next level. I think that people aren’t familiar with that type of experience either, because we’re so used to those typical “top hits” where an album is released and there are a few songs that are the most popular and then those tend to trend. I don’t think people are used to having a full album-journey.
OR: Right. I think the instrumentation lends itself to that more. My album is instrumental, so there’s no singing. It can be harder to retain people’s attention because of that.
I think music serves many different purposes. There’s some music that is meant to relax you, some is meant to take you on a journey, and some makes you have fun and gets you upbeat and excited. I do think every kind of music has its own place, and for me, this was a project that I was very passionate and excited about.
SF: Very cool. Speaking of journeys, you journey all over the map. Aside from your time in Canada (you mentioned Montreal and B.C.), you also spent a fair amount of time in Egypt. It sounds like those are two of the main settings for your recent past. How do these different locations impact or influence your music, both from a working standpoint and because of the different influences on your work and music production? What is experienced and accessible in Egypt (such as the ancient and high-energy sites) versus Canada (where you mentioned that there’s such a different experience in the wooded natural surroundings of the Pacific Northwest)?
OR: The biggest influence is getting to work in studios in different areas. You meet a lot of different people and hear lots of different music. When you move around a lot, you find that there’s something very similar with all these places. That similarity is what you start to notice everywhere you go: a lot of people are passionate about music and they’re just trying to make something good along the way.
But I feel like at the end, we’re all the same and everybody’s doing the same thing. I don’t feel like it’s all so different as people try to make it out to be, and that inspires me as well. Wherever I go, I just see what these people are doing and then I get inspired by them. This allows me to diversify as I see everybody creating in different genres and they’re very passionate about what they’re doing.
SF: As far as any of the ancient sites, have you ever worked within particular areas in Egypt?
OR: Not particularly. As we speak, I’m working on a song for the opening of a museum in Egypt. I’m recording it at my studio and it’s a really fun project. It should have been completed a while ago, but it was halted because of COVID-19. Just last week I got a phone call that we’re starting up again!
SF: Oh, great!
OR: It’s really exciting because it’s a really big, new museum, and there will be a big parade and celebration, so the song will be the main theme of all of that.
SF: That’s great! When it opens it will be the largest archeological museum in the world, so that’s really fantastic to be part of that. Did the museum request any particular elements that they wanted to be played throughout that music?
OR: Yes; it’s a very cultural song. We’re bringing in one of the top pop singers in Egypt—one of the most iconic and influential musicians from the eighties and nineties. He will sing, and there will also be an Egyptian singer who sings in the opera in France. She’s incredibly talented, and they flew her in to do the recording for the opera sections. The song highlights Egyptian culture, including the instrumental big orchestra sound.
SF: Yes, that sounds really interesting—I’m excited to check it out! Well, thank you so much, Omar. It’s been wonderful to learn more about your work and your journey, and I look forward to seeing more of this unfold.
OR: Yes, absolutely—it’s my pleasure.