How do you create the illusion of a day in the jungle for zoo purposes? Michal Rataj speaks of recording in Cameroon

“It’s an unimaginable sonic circus,” Michal Rataj, music composer and teacher of the Composition Department of the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, describes his experience of living in the jungle in Cameroon’s Dja reserve where he made authentic recordings of jungle sounds. The results of his effort form the sound design for the new gorilla pavilion in Prague ZOO, giving visitors an opportunity to experience the illusion of one day in the jungle.

Miroslav Bobek, the current director of Prague ZOO and Michal Rataj first met at Czech Radio where Michal Rataj worked as a music director and producer. At the time, the highly popular Odhalení (Reveal) project showed the life of gorillas in Prague ZOO using the reality show format.

“Miroslav Bobek approached me a few years later with his vision for a new gorilla pavilion. He remembered that I had messed around with sound experiments, sonic compositions and so on back in our radio times. We discussed the ways of making sure that the pavilion gets a great soundtrack. There are some jungle sounds around and you can use stuff from sound banks, but our very first conversation made it rather clear that the best way to do it would be for me to just go there,” Rataj describes the genesis of last year’s expedition to Cameroon.

It was his first ever visit to Africa and an experience like he had never imagined before. “I went there along with zoologists, armed with all requisite microphones, but, in principle, all of the sound design work was quite the interdisciplinary affair. It’s not just composing, sound design, or technology alone. It is an intersection of all those disciplines, and in fact that’s an area that we at the Composition Department work on a lot. This project is exactly where music and compositional thinking intersect with technology and architecture. It interacts with architecture because we are actually building a virtual space within the new pavilion using multiple loudspeakers. Composition is involved because we are creating something that does not exist in real time. Sound design figures into it because you need sonic material recorded in a real environment. And it all just came together beautifully as we were creating the sound design for the pavilion.”

How do you record the sound of the jungle? I suspect you don’t just stand in the middle of it and turn on the microphone…

The actual recording took place deep within the Dja reserve, which is Cameroon’s biggest reserve situated in the central-eastern part of the country. It is huge. We walked with the local guards some 25 kilometres into the jungle to the Bouamir research base. It is an inter-governmental space inside the jungle intended for numerous universities. It also serves as a meteorological station and a base for the jungle guardians, plus it also offers some amenities such as space for building tents to stay. It is a little wild, yet it also provides background where you don’t have to worry about being trampled by an elephant or bitten by a snake. We spent two days at the base, and that was the timespan within which I was able to make my recordings. The compositional vision was that I was trying to record the sounds in a way that would allow me to create the illusion of one day in the jungle in the pavilion. I recorded at night, early in the morning, and then during the next full day and deep into the night, and finally into the following morning, because those are all different phases of life in the jungle. For a person who has never heard it before, this is obviously a completely incredible experience – an unimaginable sonic circus.

What are the most typical jungle sounds?

The ubiquitous cicadas, and the chirping and buzzing of other insects. It’s like a permanent sonic tapestry with incredible internal dynamics. The buzzing insects create a perpetually changing sonic mass. The cicadas’ chirping can reach an extreme crescendo – and then they all quit at the same moment. Within the space of one second, you feel like your head’s going to burst, and then there’s dead silence suddenly. And then it will start all over again within like half a minute. It’s really incredible. So, the chirping insects are the foundation layer. The next thing that really grabbed me was the sounds made by the hornbill birds – they have a beak and this sort of ‘horn’ on it; hence the name. They make two kinds of sounds we kept hearing all the time while on our way to the jungle and then back again. The first is the sound of their wings. They’re quite big, and so the sound of their wings waving is quite loud. When one flies over your head, you feel like a dragon just flew over. And if they happen to not wave their wings because they’re just drifting, the actual drifting makes quite a forceful sound. Of course, they sing too, or actually, they make very specific rhythmical sounds. It’s like the ‘headliner’ sound of the area that cuts through all the rest. It’s an extremely prominent sound. Based on the field recordings that I made, the ZOO commissioned an analysis to identify all the birds that can be heard on the recordings in cooperation with Cameroon zoologists. The bottom line is that, within the space of two days, I captured some 36 bird species.

Did you have any specific equipment?

The recordings were made using a special parabolic microphone with a rather narrow directional pattern. It works basically like a camera with zoom would, or a bit like telephoto lens if you will. It can really pull sounds out of the space. If you stand up holding the microphone and change your position ever so slowly, what you hear will keep changing quite distinctly. In the jungle, literally every centimetre sounds different. It was a fantastic experience zooming into the jungle space and ‘turning up’ different animals making different sounds. In the resultant composition, these ‘spot’ or ‘detail’ sounds served as isolated moments with which you can work in time.

You turned the post-production work in the studio into a student assignment, right?

Eight students worked on it all semester long. We played a lot with it in order to shape the space properly. To do that, we needed a technology that could work in 3D, because when you come inside the pavilion and stand in the middle, in the centre of an artificial jungle, loudspeakers are nicely hidden and camouflaged all over the place. They create this virtual hemisphere that we like to call ambisonic. Actually, ambisonic means spherical – it means a spatial sound design where, in addition to the horizontal level, we also work with sound above the listeners’ heads. We needed to figure out how to make the sounds engulf you once you enter the pavilion. In addition to the parabolic microphone, I also recorded the jungle sounds using a special 3D microphone featuring four capsules, which means that it senses sound across 360 degrees, in all directions. I used that to record the atmospheric foundation, evening to morning and again the next day. I used the parabolic microphone to capture the ‘spot’ sounds. Eventually, we needed to put these two layers together.
We created a hemisphere in the pavilion – we installed seven speakers at the bottom, five in the middle and two at the very top. It made a sort of sonic umbrella. We took the sonic foundation that gave us a model of the day from one morning to the next, and then we compressed that into one hour. The resultant loop that provides the sound design of the pavilion is one hour long and plays non-stop. We planted the spot sounds into it and created different situations – such as when a bird flies over you or when you get hit by a falling tree. The entire composition was made in this 3D mode and each of the students was tasked with composing several situations of this type – where something was taking place dynamically. Then we took the situations and set them into the foundational sonic tapestry, which was the one-hour loop consisting of the morning-to-morning sounds. The students and I had an opportunity to create the sound design for a public space, which I believe is quite a big topic in the current discourse on composition and related fields. It is most definitely an interdisciplinary topic and one of those that we as composers should explore more in the future.

Did the jungle experience inspire you in terms of your own compositions?

Not immediately, I guess, but it did help us develop the expertise we have been pursuing at the Department for the past ten or fifteen years – the notion of sound and space. We had an opportunity to implement several grant research projects on this topic. Thanks to one of them, we can also play live using the speaker sphere and seek ways to transfer the sound and music experience to the public space, the concert hall, the church… wherever you can think of, because all of the equipment is mobile and not space-intensive. The work on creating the sound design for the ZOO pavilion has most definitely contributed to expanding our experience with spherical sound, and pointed us in a new direction again. In the pavilion, the sound is not exactly intended for focused listening, yet at the same time, it is not a sound you want to ignore either. The sound is the key to evoking a rather specific illusion of an environment that we become a part of. If everything works right – and so far, all the arrangements have been made – we will turn off the jungle in the gorilla pavilion in February, and play a concert with the students there. For the time being, no spherical sound design such as this exists anywhere else in the Czech Republic. The gorilla pavilion will resound with music in February, and I believe that will be something quite interesting.

The interview can also be found at

Monika Otmarová

Photo: Zuzana Lazarová

2. December 2022