The Wild World of Spatial Audio

Davar Ardalan
7 min readMay 18

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Diving into the promise of Dolby Atmos technology paired with Apple AirPods for the ultimate listening experience. It’s like having a private concert with nature herself.

As I embark on my grand adventure beyond the halls of National Geographic, it’s time to share my thoughts on the future of spatial audio. My own audio adventures kicked off at NPR, where I was schooled in the fine art of audio storytelling by wizards like Cindy Carpien, Bob Malesky, Walter Watson, Doug Mitchell and Bill McQuay.

In 2008, I was part of NPR’s Climate Connection series with National Geographic. Together with NPR’s Liane Hansen and Ned Wharton, we were dispatched to Egypt to report on the ramifications of climate change, including the encroachment of saltwater upon the Nile River, which serves as Egypt’s primary freshwater source. The adverse effects of rising sea levels, coupled with submerged land, posed a significant threat to the region’s agricultural livelihoods and overall way of life.

Our audio narratives were replete with captivating sounds, crashing waves against concrete blocks on the shores of Alexandria, waves from the enchanting realms of the Nile delta, and the cautionary words of a date farmer with salt in her land.

Enter Spatial Audio Technology:

In 2023, technology continues to shape the way we experience and interact with the world around us. One fascinating development is the emergence of spatial audio, a revolutionary technology that creates a three-dimensional sound experience. Our 2008 stories from the Nile River would have been even more immersive today.

Imagine this: you’re perched on the edge of your seat, wearing your trusty AirPods, and as you press play on that nature podcast or audiobook, you’re whisked away into a three-dimensional soundscape like never before. The rustling leaves transport you right into the heart of the jungle, the roar of a lion shakes your eardrums, and the flutter of wings sends shivers down your spine. This future of spatial audio and nature is tantalizingly close.

Using a handy Zoom H3 mic, you meticulously gather a symphony of sounds, painting a vibrant audio canvas of the wild. The ebb and flow of the river becomes an orchestra, the gentle whispers of the wind add depth to the story, and the chorus of wildlife surrounds you with an immersive embrace. Every chirp, growl, and splash is captured in glorious detail.

But here’s where it gets truly exciting: enter Dolby Atmos, the sorcerer of audio technology. With this tool, you unleash your creativity during post-production. With a flick of the editing wand, you position each sound source, giving life to your three-dimensional masterpiece. The lion’s roar rumbles from the left, the bird’s song dances across the soundscape, and the river’s flow cascades all around you.

Dolby Atmos turns your nature storytelling into a thrilling adventure that engulfs the listener in an audio universe that’s simply out of this world. The future of spatial audio is close. It’s only a matter of time to listen, experience, and get lost in the marvels of the audio universe.

Resonating with the current generation:

Spatial audio music has already struck a chord with the current generation due to its immersive and captivating nature. The appeal lies in its ability to transport listeners, creating a multi-dimensional experience.

Unlike traditional stereo sound, spatial audio envelops the listener, making you feel as though you are physically present within the natural surroundings. This heightened sense of presence and immersion has captivated the imaginations of many, creating a deep emotional connection to nature.

Furthermore, the current generation values experiences that are authentic, personal, and technologically advanced. Spatial audio recordings will allow audiences to explore the beauty and diversity of natural environments in a way that was previously inaccessible. It taps into the growing interest in mindfulness, wellness, and eco-consciousness, providing a unique avenue for people to reconnect with nature even in urban environments.

As a storyteller deeply invested in nurturing cultural relevance in stories, I believe that hearing the echoes of ancient rituals, the whispers of storytelling, and the resonance of tradition, can foster a profound connection to the past and promote a greater understanding and appreciation of diverse cultural heritage.

Enhancing Emotional Connection and Creating Memorable Experiences:

Emotional connection plays a pivotal role in inspiring action and fostering long-term engagement. Spatial audio takes this connection to a whole new level. Listening to the sounds of a rainforest or a tranquil coastal landscape through spatial audio allows individuals to feel the serenity, wonder, and interconnectedness of nature. This emotional impact has the potential to deepen their commitment to sustainability and even amplify donors in their investment in projects aimed at preserving and restoring the environment.

Imagine a donor attending a virtual fundraising gala and suddenly finding themselves enveloped in the sounds of a tropical rainforest, or stakeholders participating in a sustainability conference, feeling as if they are sitting beside a babbling brook. These immersive experiences not only leave a lasting impact but also serve as powerful reminders of the importance and urgency of supporting sustainable practices.

Advancing scientific research and documentation:

The recording of nature in 3D audio opens up new possibilities for scientists and researchers. Traditional audio recordings, while informative, often lack the depth and spatial context required to fully understand the intricate relationships within ecosystems. Spatial audio, on the other hand, offers a more accurate representation of natural soundscapes, capturing the nuances of distance, direction, and movement. This allows scientists to delve deeper into their research, exploring the behaviors of different species, studying environmental changes, and documenting biodiversity in unprecedented detail.

By utilizing spatial audio, researchers can gather a wealth of data that not only contributes to scientific knowledge but also helps in environmental conservation efforts. These immersive audio recordings offer a comprehensive and holistic approach to studying nature, providing a new tool for understanding and preserving fragile ecosystems.

How to record 3D Audio

Recording a scene on a river in 3D audio using Zoom H3 microphones in the field requires careful planning and execution to capture the essence of the environment accurately. Here is a simple guide on how a scientist can record the scene:

Equipment Preparation:

  • Ensure you have the necessary equipment, including headphones and a microphone capable of capturing spatial audio. I suggest Zoom H3 to begin with.
  • Familiarize yourself with the operation of the Zoom H3 microphone, its settings, and recording capabilities.
  • Carry spare batteries, windshields, and any other accessories you may need for uninterrupted recording.

Choose an Ideal Location:

  • Select a location on the river that offers a diverse soundscape, including the ebb and flow of the water, vegetation, and potential wildlife habitats.
  • Consider the ambient noise levels, avoiding areas with excessive human-generated sounds or other disturbances.

Setting up the Microphones:

  • Position the Zoom H3 microphones strategically to capture an immersive 3D audio experience.
  • Utilize the microphones’ built-in or external shock mounts to minimize handling noise and vibrations.
  • Experiment with microphone placement, taking into account the desired sound sources and their spatial characteristics.

Recording Separate Sound Files:

  • Begin by recording 2–3 minutes of the ebb and flow of the river. Focus on capturing the subtle nuances of the water’s movement and the surrounding environment.
  • Once the river soundscape is captured, listen carefully for any wildlife sounds and record separate files for each distinct sound source. Pay attention to bird calls, animal vocalizations, or other unique sounds that contribute to the scene.
  • Additionally, record the sounds produced by the canoe or vessel you are on. This includes paddling sounds, water splashes, or any other relevant noises that add authenticity to the experience.

Considerations for Post-Production:

  • When recording, take note of the position and orientation of the microphones to assist in post-production and recreate the 3D audio experience accurately.
  • Take reference photos or notes to remember the spatial arrangement of the microphones and their relation to the river and wildlife.
  • Aim for high-quality recordings with minimal background noise or distortion, as this will enhance the fidelity of the 3D audio experience during post-production.

Post-Production and Dolby Atmos:

  • Transfer the recorded sound files to a computer for post-production.
  • Utilize audio editing software that supports spatial audio processing, such as Dolby Atmos, or collaborate with a master spatial sound designer like Cheryl Ottenritter, to recreate the immersive 3D audio experience.
  • In the post-production phase, you can adjust the position, level, and panning of each sound source to recreate the authentic spatial audio environment of the river scene.

New listening devices leading the way:

The adoption of spatial audio is further propelled by the development of advanced listening devices and headphones. As technology continues to advance, we can expect an array of spatial audio listening devices to hit the market in 2024. These devices are designed to optimize the spatial audio experience, delivering high-fidelity soundscapes that transport listeners into the heart of nature.

With the rise of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, spatial audio is set to become an integral part of these immersive experiences. VR headsets equipped with spatial audio capabilities will enable users to explore virtual natural environments, creating a sense of presence and connection like never before. Furthermore, the accessibility of spatial audio technology through headphones and mobile devices ensures that people can experience the wonders of nature storytelling anytime, anywhere.

About: This blog post was co-written by Davar Ardalan with editorial support from ChatGPT. Davar Ardalan is the outgoing executive producer of National Geographic Audio, where she oversees the award-winning podcast series, “Overheard”, the narrative limited series “Into the Depths” as well as new forays into spatial audio via Nat Geo’s Soundbank. Ardalan is also EP of “Freedom Speaks,” a voice AI on Amazon Alexa that shares inspiring stories by Iranian women. Ardalan is a senior advisor to Women in Voice, a global non-profit creating women leaders in conversational AI.

Prior to this, Ardalan was deputy director of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship Program in Washington D.C. and before that a veteran journalist at NPR News for two decades. In May 2014, Davar was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity. In Fall 2021, through her work at IVOW, (Intelligent Voices of Wisdom) Ardalan launched a conversational AI scholar on Google Assistant to preserve the wisdom and work of her late mother, Islamic scholar, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar into 21-century voice technology. Ardalan lives in between southwest Florida and Washington D.C. where is also a mother of 7 boys and a girl who are all over 21!

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