The Compressed Interview #3: George Vlad

Welcome to a new post of the Compressed Interview!

Last week, I was able to have a video call with George Vlad. George is a sound recordist, composer, sound designer, and photographer. George has an extensive and diverse experience in the audio field as you will see. This interview might not be as compressed, but it is full of George’s experience on his multiple expeditions, including remote and sometimes inhospitable parts of the world that you need to know about. This is what we talked about:

Threshold: Getting Started
J: How did you get started in audio? What was your first job and how did you get it?

G: That’s the story of my life, because everything led towards that. As I grew up, I was a child that focused on sound instead of other media. I remember that my grandparents had this huge pan for cooking, and I kept banging it, very gently and kept listening to how it changed depending on where I hit it. My grandparents and my parents kept saying “What’s wrong with you, go play with kids or something”, and I was like “No, this is my toy I want to play with this”. I realized afterwards that I kept focusing on the sounds around me, the birds in the garden, and everything that was going on around me.

Fast-forward fifteen years or more, I was very much into electronic music. First, listening, then I became a DJ for a while. I came up with new music and I got in touch with many producers, I was very involved in that scene for a bit, until I realized that the music that I wanted to play did not exist. So, I wanted to produce my own music, but I failed at it. So, I just learned how to use DAWs and plugins. There was never an end to that, I just enjoyed it so much. Back then, I was living in Italy for a while, I was working in non-related jobs. I came very tired from work in the evenings and I spent an hour eating something fast and then trying to create music and sounds that were pleasant for me. Progress was very slow, but it offered a lot of satisfaction. I failed, learned from my mistakes, and tried again. It was very frustrating but also very rewarding when I managed to something without anyone’s help.

Eventually, I was trying to get into the music production business, and I was trying to get into university so I could study mixing and mastering and I thought it was something I would enjoy doing, but after I met sound engineers, I realized how much ego there was in the business and how it depended on how you sold yourself as a businessman, and make connections, and I lost interest in it. A few years later around 2010, I was getting small freelance jobs for writing and programming, and I realized that I had the skills that I had built over the years. I could produce music, I could do sound editing, even sound design. I had all the skills, so I started to look for jobs that were more relevant to what I enjoyed doing. I think the first job that I ever got was editing an audiobook. I did that, and it was very exciting that I got paid to do that.

Moving on from that, I did a lot of podcasts, audiobooks, even some short films, mostly editing the voices and cleaning them up. But then I realized it wasn’t creative enough for me. I liked doing it, and it paid for the bills, but I got to a point where I wanted to move forward, I wanted to progress, I wanted to learn more. In sound editing for media such as radio and podcasts, there’s not much room to grow, to learn and to do things better, so I started to compose music for my own pleasure and to try and market that to the people I worked with. I was hired to do music for podcasts, such as intros, stingers, sounds and elements.

Also, I’ve been playing videogames since I was 5 or 6, so I wondered if I would be able to work in videogames with what I loved doing the most, audio. It was back in the beginning of the iTunes App Store, there weren’t a lot of games or apps, but it was getting enough traction. So, I started to approach game developers, I would play their games and realized most of them sounded rubbish. There wasn’t a lot of focus in audio, as it was back then. That way I got a few contracts, worked in a few games, a lot of those projects never even made it anyway. The good part about it is that I managed to use the demos that I did as part of my portfolio in Soundcloud, YouTube, and my website, so when I approached someone or looked for a job, I was able to show my work. This way, it was more convincing than just saying “I can do this, I can do that”. I think that what they were looking for back then, was not necessarily that I was the most gifted or talented person, the developers that I worked with, were looking for someone who worked with a team. Especially not remotely. It’s very trendy now in 2020, but it wasn’t very common back then. Since I was all the way over in Romania, it was very difficult to convince them that I could work, that I was proactive enough, I came up with ideas.

Overall, I struggled to convince people that I could work with my limited experience, while being off-site, but it was rewarding when I got contracts. I just built on that. In 2011, I stopped working on podcasts and audiobooks, it’s something I don’t like anymore. I focused on videogames. And, in 2015, I moved to Edinburgh, I started university, started sharing and getting feedback, and it helped me a lot. After I got my degree, I moved to England, and I’ve been slowly, steadily growing ever since.

©FB George Vlad

J: And how and when did you started doing field recording?

G: In 2015, when I just moved to Edinburgh, I started studying, I worked 2 days per week on those projects and I worked the other 5 days on paid projects. I didn’t have any time left for myself. I was very excited, as you are when you work in the field that you love. I didn’t want to say no to anyone. And it was also this element of “what if tomorrow all the work that I have, dries off and I don’t have anything else to do”, so I forged through, and tried to get as much work as possible done. Sometimes doing as much as 100 hours a week. Which obviously was damaging. I talked to Iain about it (Dr Iain McGregor- Programme leader for both the undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in sound design at Edinburgh Napier University). I was happy because I was doing so much work, he said this was damaging for your physical and mental health.

The first time I heard it, I didn’t take it seriously, but as I kept doing it, I realized I was indeed damaging my mental health. I wasn’t creative anymore, I wasn’t sleeping well at night, I didn’t go out or see any friends, I was cooked up in the studio working. So, I think it was December when I realized I had to take a break. I put everything on hold, I flew back to Romania, I hired a car and I just drove through the mountains. It was winter, it was snowing, it was beautiful. And I wanted to do something that I still enjoyed doing, but it was not tied to my work anymore. So, I started doing sound recording and a bit of photography, but it was very limited back then. I realized that going back to the nature and listening, and incidentally recording was a very nurturing activity for me. It made me feel whole again, made me feel like I wasn’t putting a lot of pressure in myself. I was just going with the flow. If there was something to record it was fine, if not, it was also fine. I did a lot of hiking, went out to the nature, and I was being active like that.

Then, I went to record to Scotland as a first step, then I went to Romania, Sweden, Norway, and then South Africa in 2016, I attended this beautiful workshop about sound art and sound recording. Then I started organizing my own expeditions, I went to Senegal, Ethiopia, to the Congo Rainforest, the Amazons, Borneo, and other places like that. There was another learning curve, it was a bit difficult at first and then I built on that. It was kind of the opposite of being in the studio, as you would expect, in terms of being out but also in terms of how it would weigh in my mind. If I’m in the studio 2 or 3 months I get to a point where I’m not creative anymore. Going out in nature, in an expedition like that… turning off social media, and notifications in my phone, and not thinking about anything else. Being present in my immediate reality. That nurtures my creativity. It takes me back to where I was before I started getting burnout. At the moment I do about 65%/35% split between studio time and being out in the nature. If it’s not possible to travel abroad I can still take the car and go to the forest and spend a few hours there, just listening.

©FB George Vlad

Attack: Things to discuss
J: What’s the biggest challenge you have encountered, professionally speaking, and how did you get around it?

G: I think starting was the biggest challenge for me. I grew up in Romania just after the communism in the 90s. I was always told that I needed to go to the university to study and have a good life. I grew up in a family with a lot of means. Everyone told me that university was the key and the way out of that hard life. The trend back then was programming and mathematics, computer science. That’s what everyone was advised to do. I liked working with computers, but I had doubts that I would enjoy doing that for the rest of my life. I felt a lot of pressure, but I thought “Is this going to make me happy?” but being happy was not a priority after communism. It was mostly thinking about how to make more money, how to live a life that is not going to be scarce. I never really considered it, but that idea was always there.

As I was going through high school and learning more, I realized I had different passions and things that I wanted to do. Music started to dictate what I wanted to do. I was in groups that had to do with music production, or DJing, or parties, or dancing, poetry even. I felt that was my escape of what I was forced to learned. I dropped out high school when I was 17 and I took this time off to think about what I wanted to do. I did a lot of unrelated jobs that didn’t require using my brain a lot.  I realized I did not want to keep doing that, but I did not want to go back and study Programming or mathematics. So, as I was learning about music production and audio, I realized that it was something that I enjoyed and was happy doing. I was happy to do it without being paid, I did things over and over again, tried to learn from my mistakes. That opened my eyes to wanting to work in this field.

My aim for many years was to study audio engineering in Milan, because that’s where I lived, but that was not possible for a bunch of reasons. I didn’t have enough money to afford it, and when I did, I didn’t have enough time. Then, I lived in France and in Belgium, I wanted to study, but the same thing happened again. I wanted to do something with my audio skills, and I realized that many people did that over the internet on a freelance basis. They have a happy life and a flexible schedule; they can work from wherever they want, and they can get paid. That’s when it became obvious that I could do it, so I just went for it and never looked back. It was a challenge at first, but I think that having role models, speaking to people and learning, made me feel it was also possible for me.

©FB Mindful Audio

Release: Talking about the good stuff
J: What’s the next step in your career? Any project you are working on?

G: Since last year, I started analyzing where I am, and what I am doing. And if the things that I am doing makes me happy, and for a very long time, maybe 8-9 years, I realized I have been focusing on myself a lot. I got to a place where I am happy doing what I am doing, I am getting paid well enough, I have a flexible enough schedule and lifestyle, and this is all fine, it’s not a problem. But it makes me feel a little selfish. When I travel to places like Ethiopia, or Borneo, the Amazons… there are a lot of things that I see that don’t sit well, that I am not happy about. Raising forests from the ground to put oil palm plantations so that some person somewhere gets rich and a lot of people suffer, or illegal mining in the Amazons. When I think about these things, I feel like I want to make a difference somehow. Not crazy things, but easier things to grasp or to relate to. I am getting to a point where I feel like I need to build a platform where I can share stuff. This has to do with my field recording work.

©FB George Vlad

I have a YouTube Channel where I post long soundscapes for a few years now. It’s getting a bit of traction now, and I’m getting feedback from people. I don’t really say much about conservation on the video descriptions or in my blog posts, maybe occasionally but it’s not something that I’m pushing. But people have the need to comment and say, “This is a beautiful soundscape, we need to preserve this part of the world, because otherwise we are going to lose it”. Working in sound, we want to make sound a big part of storytelling or any media, but sound intrinsically is something that affects people in very deep ways, probably more so than vision, smell or any other sense.

So, when you think about it, sound has this huge power to affect people that have never experienced some things. I can use this, first as a platform to talk to people directly, but also to show people what we stand to lose, and what things are like in different parts of the world. So, this is probably the next step in my work, where I become active, sharing sound recordings that people like and they will probably comment and feel more closely related to. It’s not an easy thing, it’s something that takes years to perfect but I’m getting to a point where I can talk to people, share stories, I use photos and videos, but sound is still going to be the main aspect there.

J: Generating awareness through sound, I love that.

©FB George Vlad

J: What would you say is the most important thing when doing field recording?

G: When you think about field recording, but also when doing sound design or composing music, it’s really important, and it sounds really cliché, and obvious, but you need to listen. When I go out to do sound recording in a new place, I want to be fully immersed in that place, so I can fully understand it. There are many reasons why I record sound, for example I record sounds for documenting a place, also I like to record beautiful sounds that I enjoy listening to so I can playback or show to another people, I record sound that I can use for sound design or music composition and sound art. But any of these would work if I didn’t really listen.

When I went to Kenya a few months ago, I was going on a safari on foot with a Maasai. My experience in safaris, as you are in a vehicle, you are sheltered from any dangerous thing that might happen to you. You can look at things, you are not allowed to get off the vehicle, the engine is on, you are a guest, you are not part of the environment. So, what I want is to listen, to be part of the environment. It’s easier said than done, sometimes it’s not even possible. In the workshop in South Africa, that opened my eyes to being part of the environment, we did deep listening, we took chairs into a very random part of the savanna. The ones that touched me mostly were at night. Imagine it was 11pm, in South Africa, in the border with Botswana, it’s very wild. You are sitting on a chair, you can listen to their movements, but no one is talking, everyone is quiet and listening. After a while we saw some zebras coming really close to us and realizing there were people there, and everything that was happening around us, I tried to analyze, but after a while I let go and thought about what I could hear. So, I realized that’s what I was trying to get to.

Now, I try to do this whenever I am in a new environment. If I don’t do that crucial step, I think that I’m missing out on a lot. In the safari in Kenya, I was able to get off the vehicle for a brief period so I can put microphones out in trees and in bushes, but I missed a lot of action because I didn’t know how the environment really sounded like. So, it took me longer to get good recordings, sounds that I considered good, useful, beautiful or worth. So, I learned to be present in the moment, 100%, not thinking about social media, Brexit or whatever, I was just there. After I did walks like this, I was able to understand how the soundscape was like. I learned to pick the best recording locations, to work better and to be more creative in terms of sound recording. This a very long way to explain why I feel listening is crucial for my work.

©FB George Vlad

The Gain
J: What are the biggest life lessons learned in your personal and professional career?

G: I learn lessons everyday… I don’t know… the biggest one… Don’t be an a*****e (laughs) I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but just, be a good person. I know many people who didn’t have access to education like I did, they had to learn and do things by themselves, it was very difficult for them to get to a Senior position in audio or work on big projects. The difference was that there were cool people, other people wanted to work with them, hang out with them, talk to or relate to. So, if you’re selfish or narcissistic, you are not open to feedback or suggestions, or if you’re not a nice person in general, it’s going to be much more difficult to get anywhere. Be a good person, that’s the biggest lesson I can talk about, I guess.

To know more about George and his work, visit his website, his YouTube channel, and his Patreon page. And also, let’s support his idea of promoting the awareness on wildlife and conservation through sound.

Even though this was a large interview, I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you think and we’ll read each other in a couple of weeks.

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