Wontner Masterclass with Sound Designer, Carolyn Downing

On Friday the 4th of May, the Stahl Theatre’s annual Wontner Masterclass was led by sound designer Carolyn Downing, winner of an Olivier Award in 2014 for Best Sound Design for her work on Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre in London.

A group of 12 pupils from Third to Sixth Form were lucky enough to attend the Masterclass, which began with a thought-provoking talk by Ms Downing on the role of a sound designer, an important, yet usually overlooked element to the staging of a production. She explained the rehearsal process, and the complexity that comes from designing the sound for even the simplest of shows. To the audience, it can feel as if the sound is just “there”, but Ms Downing explained about how deciding where the sound comes from, what type of sound the audience hears and how the sound interacts with the movement on stage is very important sub-consciously to the audience's experience and enjoyment of the show.

Ms Downing then took the group up to the Stahl's new sound technology booth. It is a bit of kit which most of us hadn't seen before and it baffled most of us. The endless number of knobs, faders, screens and switches gave the group a true insight into how much there is to the sound design of a show. Ms Downing demonstrated the basics, such as how to change where the sound is coming from, the pan of the sound, and the special effects that can be added.

The next part of the class was more practical. We split up into small groups, were given a short extract from a play, and told to think as a sound designer. After hearing a lot about the complexity of sound design, it was very interesting to see the pupils coming up with their own ideas based on just how many ways there are to change a sound, and how that can affect a show, and the audience's emotion.

To finish off the Masterclass, Ms Downing demonstrated a piece of software that controlled cuing of sounds, looping, volume and other effects. This software has been used in many previous Stahl productions, and as many of us are regulars on stage and off, it was a necessary and interesting look at what happens when a sound is simply played on stage, in contrast to what goes on behind the scenes to actually make it happen.

Ms Downing delivered a truly engaging and fascinating look into a seriously complex world of what happens in sound, leaving many from the group with a new found interest and respect for what a sound designer really does.

Charlie Cobb (L)