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Thinking in Sound: Dropping Spot-on Mixes with Hannah Webster

Post Production
London, UK
UNIT’s returning sound designer on the collaborative nature of the company, everything being under one roof and a passion for animated cartoons

Eight years ago Hannah Webster started her career at UNIT before leaving to assist at various sound studios and then returned to UNIT recently. Now a sound designer at the studio, she relishes being back with familiar faces, working in a collaborative environment and creating ‘spot on’ sound mixes. Her work includes content for Red Bull as well as Audrey Hepburn’s documentary in 2020.

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Hannah> I always think that speaking to the client is very important and talking to someone who is excited about a project is inspiring. Bouncing ideas and making sure you’re on the same wavelength helps me go into the project with confidence and assurance that what I’m creating is something both we’ll enjoy, and of course, the target audience. 

The next step is something that I’ve learnt the hard way through the years - getting the base of your mix/project to a good place, because if you don’t have a good starting point, then it causes a few problems down the road. For example, when given an OMF for a TV ad, I make sure that my music, guide VO & SFXs provided are relatively mixed, just so I have that base. Then, when I start adding new elements on top, like a new VO or my own sound design, it saves me time and worries about mixing because it shouldn’t need anything majorly dramatic.

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Hannah> As mentioned before, I love being able to bounce ideas off each other. Something that I do enjoy more so now that the pandemic took it away, is when you have a room of clients behind you. I mean, sometimes it’s much easier to get your head down and get the job done but having someone in the room who is feeding back definitely helps me creatively. 

Also, I know that I’m sometimes terrible at finding the right words to search for in an SFX library, so having someone mention a word my brain can’t think of is always helpful. 
I have the privilege of working at UNIT where everything is done under one roof, which makes life a lot smoother when delivering projects, as we can talk to each other, and problem solve if needs be. Plus, it helps that everyone is mega nice, which is always a bonus. Everyone looks out for each other, doesn’t matter what department - very much appreciate the team spirit.

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Hannah> There’s two bits of my job which I find satisfying. Firstly, when you get the drop spot-on in your mix. When I say the ‘drop’, I mean when you get your sound design together and it hits the right spots, bringing everything together and giving momentum to the mix. And secondly, my all-time fave thing: when you foley something and you get the timing perfect so a splash, crackle or pop fits just right - chef’s kiss.

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Hannah> I think that with everything that has happened over lockdown, people appreciate audio a bit more. It’s always said that good audio is something where you don’t have to think about it (in some mediums that is). So when we went into lockdown, it was difficult to replicate that quality at home. Now we’re able to access studios again, it’s helped the cause. I’m very lucky that I have my own studio now at UNIT, which has a nice feel and sounds very good. 

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Hannah> I have many engineers who I’ve worked with in my career who I respect and appreciate so much: Jamie Thomas, Gez Lloyd, Chris Southwell and Ben Leeves just to name a few; all of which I must credit as I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support. But I guess my hero? It would have to be my all-time favourite bassist, Juan Alderete. Not just because he’s an incredible bassist who innovated a lot of amazing pedal techniques, but because of how he worked so hard and continually does to recover from his TBI when he had an awful motorcycle crash back in early 2020. He’s worked every day to get motion back in his hands, to get his brain to process things like he did before and is back playing a fretless bass better than I ever have. He’s an inspiration and shows when you have passion for something, nothing will get in the way of it.

LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Hannah> Well, as mentioned before, it’s the people I work with who have influenced and inspired me to work the way I do. Being a woman in the industry, it’s hard not to notice the lack of female audio influence in post houses, but something I have found is that the people I have worked with don’t make me feel like the odd one out, giving me just as many opportunities as any of my male counterparts. They have helped give me confidence in what I do and that I’m good enough to be here.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Hannah> I’ll usually have the news or something on in the background but nothing too distracting as I can’t afford to go down that rabbit hole whilst I’ve got stuff to do.

LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low-quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Hannah> After I’ve done a mix for something I’ve worked on, QC’d etc, I will play that in the background whilst answering emails or reading, as I think that’s how most people watch ads - whilst distracted by phones or conversation. So, my thinking is, if something sticks out to me (someone who has listened to it hundreds of times), then it’s worth another look. Because there’s a difference between grabbing someone’s attention and something being irritating!

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Hannah> Well, I watch a lot of YouTube, so I like to listen to YouTube essays, ranging from political views to youth drama, and even what happened to the restaurants on Kitchen Nightmares. I generally start with something a bit lighter in the morning. I do enjoy listening to music outdoors but I’m a serial mouther/boogier in the street so I gotta wait until it’s dark to do that. But my Spotify yearly breakdown is pretty embarrassing as my partner uses his Spotify for all the good music (praise be for his music taste), and I’ll usually listen to some cheesy nonsense/bangers on the way home after a night out. I think my most played song this year might be Wile Out by Ms Dynamite. Banger!

LBB> Do you have a collection of music and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of tunes, are you a hyper-organised Spotify-er…)?

Hannah> I wish I was a vinyl nerd, but that’s my partner’s job. I’ve always been terrible at collecting music as I’ll listen to a song from an artist, put that into a playlist and listen to that religiously until I move on. 

LBB> Outside of the music world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

Hannah> Something that I love is animation and cartoons. I follow a lot of different artists on different mediums who’ve gone from drawing comics to doing small animations. I love the progress and how they also include small bits of sound design to elevate their original characters. A good example is Ketnipz, a character that doesn’t need to say anything at all, but conveys many feelings - haha. It’s something I would love to get into in my spare time. 

LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Hannah> Years ago, before my H4N broke, I went to Iceland in the summer when the sun never really sets. So we were able to go on some tours at around 11 at night. We went to Gullfoss Falls and the Geysers and because we were the only ones there, I was able to get some amazing clean sounds of the Geysers erupting and of the late-night atmosphere. Very lucky and what an amazing experience!

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