Love & Life Work

“I Feel Like I’m About to Burst with Music”: Vasundhara Gupta on Life, Sound Design and Music Technology

Young Hollywood sound designer, producer and vocalist Vasundhara Gupta looks back at her time at Berklee and shares how advances in music technology have changed the world of sound.

Four years ago, Vasundhara Gupta moved from her hometown Kolkata to Boston to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. It was her first time in the American city, and her first time exploring the lush Boston Commons in springtime. “I remember meeting Donald Heller, an old man wrapped up in sweaters and shawls, braving the Boston weather,” narrates the producer, sound designer, sound editor and vocalist. “He was sitting on a bridge in the park and playing an interesting instrument I’d never seen before.”

Vasundhara went up to him and started asking him questions, both about himself and the instrument. She soon discovered that it was called Hurdy Gurdy. “We hit it off and he told me about his travels to India back in the 1990s; how he’d gone to New Delhi for sightseeing, and bumped into Lata Mangeshkar with her friends also taking a tour of that particular monument. Passionate about music, he then went on to find himself a teacher and began learning to play the sitar,” the music maven recalls delightedly, explaining how travelling has been an integral part of her creativity, helping to shape the world she loves and lives in.

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Vasundhara Gupta (photo credit: Rohith Jayaraman)

As music producer and post-production engineer now based in Los Angeles, Vasundhara has worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood’s music industry, from Oscar-winning musical genius AR Rahman to acclaimed playback singers Shreya Ghoshal and Shankar Mahadevan. The young musician has produced her own album and is currently working as sound editor and designer with Emmy Award-winning, lead sound designer and re-recording mixer, David Van Slyke. She has also recently finished sound designing and editing on two Hollywood feature films Robot 4 along with David Van Slyke and Rag Doll with critically acclaimed director, Bailey Kobe.

In her free time, Vasundhara is constantly experimenting with electronic textures and soundscapes. Yet she quotes the 1957 hit single Sar Jo Tera Chakraye from the film Pyaasa as her favourite musical memory. “My grandmother used to sing this when we were growing up. Whenever this song plays, I feel as though I’m back at home, and she’s giving my siblings and me the oil head massage we’d wait for all week,” she says.

Brought up in a Marwari joint family along with her three siblings and extended relatives, Vasundhara was used to home life being busy, fun and chaotic. My father is an entrepreneur in the steel industry and my mother co-runs a non-profit educational society for children. My grandmother plays the Hawaiian guitar (lap steel guitar), and passed this passion down to my mother and her sisters,” explains Vasundhara of her musical roots. “I’m so grateful that my mother made sure I was singing at the age of five. She sent me to many teachers and gurus who shared their love of the art with me.”

At a recital in 2016 (photo credit: Olga Kisseleva)

The singer admits that she has practically grown up during the ‘technological revolution’, including in the music industry, and has to do her best to keep up with new developments. “Things are definitely much easier than they were in the past. You can record, edit, and produce, all within a much shorter period of time, for much less money (with inventions of software versions of legendary hardware devices and plugins), and all with just a laptop (and those are getting so much smaller, too!),” she says, adding, “Just a couple weeks ago, I was watching a friend’s mother recording multi-track vocals into an iPhone with a mobile version of GarageBand!”

One of the best ways she’s found to adapt and keep up is to follow leaders and creators on social media, another new and integral part of the industry. “I read the news, subscribe to multiple music tech publications, and spend as much time as I can talking to my colleagues and friends in the industry. At the end of the day, this is how industry will shift and change with the world,” she opines.

Vasundhara is unconcerned about criticism from certain quarters that electronically produced music isn’t as ‘real’ as music made the old way: “Music is sound that makes you feel. If a collection of words and sentences is displayed on a laptop or Kindle, is it not still a book? Some of most arresting music that I’ve experienced has been technologically produced.”

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At work in the sound studio

But she does see scope for a better gender balance in the industry. “Whenever I have stepped into a production environment, even in Los Angeles, I’m one woman in a room of men. In most situations, the number of non-cisgender men in a room is either one or none. However, recent trends are making this fact more apparent, especially among industry leaders,” she adds. At this point, it’s heartening that people are consciously trying to bridge this gap, she says.

Looking back, Vasundhara’s most cherished memories are from the year she joined Berklee. “It happened to be the year that Rahman Sir received an honorary doctorate from Berklee. I was honoured to be among the lucky few who were chosen to perform at a sold-out concert honouring his musical career as part of the doctorate ceremony,” she recalls.

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AR Rahman at Berklee College of Music, Boston

Her team spent months working hard and preparing for the concert, sometimes spending days without a break from each other. They would rehearse all day together, eat all meals together, and fall asleep in each others’ homes after a long day of rehearsal and choreography. “Looking back, it’s those days I miss the most; it was a journey built on one common ground: our love for music,” she says wistfully.

She also credits her last year at Berklee when she had to live and study in Valencia, Spain, for four months, as leaving a lasting impact on her. “I found myself expressing my art in new ways, and it was in Valencia that I started exploring electronic ambient music and sound design,” she shares.

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Vasundhara in Valencia, Spain (photo credit: Rohith Jayaraman)

Like many before her have confessed, music is a spiritual experience for Vasundhara as well. “When I am practising, or composing, or producing, I forget about work, worries, issues. I don’t realize time passing and don’t seem to pay attention to what’s happening outside of my space. Sometimes, I feel like I’m about to burst with music, and times like these reinforce the purity and spirituality of music.”

Vasundhara Gupta’s second album will be launched on all digital platforms in Spring 2019.