George VladFrom the winds that blow through the freezing Romanian Carpathian Mountains to the sounds of the searing heat of Ethiopia’s deserts, Romanian sound recordist George Vlad has taken a childhood love of sound, and built an expansive career in location recording.

His constant companions on his far-ranging ventures around the world are his Sennheiser microphones and headphones.

‘In the early 2000s I was a DJ for a while,’ he recalls. ‘I was excited about electronic music, and about producing my own music using computers but I realised I was more excited about sound design than anything else. I would spend days creating a synthesiser patch that sounded great to me. After a while I became interested in natural sounds and using them to create new sounds. From there it was very easy to graduate to recording my own sounds.’

George recording the Erta Ale volcano in Dallol, EthiopiaWhile studying at Edinburgh University for a degree in sound design, Vlad also worked on projects for clients – but found the combination excessively demanding. ‘I was burned out and I wasn’t creative anymore,’ he says. ‘The best way for me to fix that was to take a month off in winter.’

He returned to Romania, hired a car and disappeared into the mountains. ‘I did sound recording and photography. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just trying things and getting away from notifications, from having to reply to clients all the time and all the stuff in my mind. After a month of doing that, my creativity had returned, and I swore to myself that I would never forget about mental wellbeing and my own time.’

From there things developed organically, with Vlad starting to explore new places like Sweden and Norway. Then, in 2016, he was offered an artist’s residency South Africa.

‘I did a lot of sound recording there,’ he says. ‘Then I started to organise my own expeditions to Africa, South America, Asia. It never felt like I had to do any of this; I was always excited about it and started to build on that.’

The result is that the Surrey-based 36-year-old now specialises in exploring and recording the beauty of our planet’s most remote places, and clients that include Hollywood film studios, game development studios and production companies like Netflix licence his self-funded services and sounds.

‘I was recording the sounds of the Erta Ale volcano in Dallol, Ethiopia, and it was a life-changing experience listening to the lava boiling with my Sennheiser MKH 8060,’ Vlad says of on particular experience. ‘I was travelling with a group of guides, militia, police and porters. For them it was probably the 100th time at the edge of an active volcano, nothing special at all.

‘I was asked, why I was recording this stuff. I passed over my HD 26 headphones to one of the locals and he was overwhelmed. Until then, they only knew the reflected sound of the volcano, but had never heard the direct sound of the caldera. One of them was so moved when hearing it for the first time he started crying.’

Vlad's favourite recording rig employs four MKH 8020s placed around a tree – a head-related recordingOn another occasion, he was in Romania to record heavy winds in the mountains at night with two MKH 8040s and an MKH 30, but the wind dropped and the temperature quickly fell way below freezing. Sometimes this causes the batteries of his recorder drain too fast or the knobs freeze, but he has never experienced any issues with his microphones ‘ any outside conditions from -37°C to 49°C.’

While location recordings often require innovative approaches, Vlad has an unusual method of capturing in-the-wild surround: ‘My favourite rig to record with is four MKH 8020s, placed around a tree. It sounds a bit cheesy, but it gives me the perspective of the tree listening to the environment in 360°. Of course, a tree doesn’t listen to anything. But if you think about the grooves and the texture of the bark, it’s something like head-related trans-reflection, like your nose, face and its contours – the sound bouncing round the tree colours it in a certain way. So listening from the tree’s perspective in the rainforest is my ultimate recording technique and I will use it whenever possible. The low noise floor, high build quality and excellent bass response of Sennheiser 8020s comes in handy when recording in the wilderness. And they perform exceptionally well in extreme humidity, especially when you look at the competition.’

Vlad also shares his travel experiences and selected recordings with his social media community, giving hints and tips on techniques like making his rig as unobtrusive as possible so passing baboons don’t destroy it, or building a canopy of leaves, brush and twigs over his microphones in the rainforest to stop rain drops falling directly onto them to keep the sound more natural and retain the feeling of immersion.

‘I documented this on one of my early YouTube videos, and a lot of people are doing it now,’ he says. ‘They love the idea, and I’ve heard way better recordings of rain. So, I’m really happy to be coming up with these sorts of tricks to facilitate good sound recordings.’

Vlad combines an MKH 30 figure-of-eight mic with two MKH 8040 cardioidsA great deal of time goes into planning of these trips – Vlad does extensive risk assessments and has completed first aid and remote medicine courses to mitigate as much as possible. His expedition to Gabon, for example, took eight months of preparation, one month on location and up to six months of postproduction. Seemingly, no task is too challenging for, such as travelling to the Congo by flying to Gabon and then continuing by car.

‘Hiring a car in Gabon is more expensive than buying it outright, but as a Westerner you are not allowed to buy a car or even drive outside the capital,’ he says. ‘I’ve built my expeditions one on the other and very slowly pushed my comfort zone, so I’ve never been really far outside it. There have been situations where I’ve felt a little threatened. My friend and I were the only westerners in the Congo rainforest and sometimes the locals weren’t so excited for us to be there; we didn’t know the local mores, or social norms. But then I sometimes think it can be way more dangerous in Central London than in the Congo rainforest.’

Vlad’s forthcoming plans include a major expedition to Antarctica in 2022, which he has been planning since 2019, plus trips to Madagascar, Sumatra or Papua New Guinea. ‘It is rather difficult to find fixers locally, but I will try my best and will probably visit the country that eases its Covid restrictions first,’ he says.

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