What does your shop sound like?
May 20, 2014 at 9:00 AM
From Board & Vellum
Acoustics. Here’s an issue so very dear to my heart (or, to be more accurate, my ears). Poor acoustical planning is something I see more and more of these days and I really can’t stand it. Here’s a little story.
Last week we went out to dinner at a relatively new bar / restaurant / pub / “couldn't figure out what it was but that was sorta the cool part about it” in a great neighborhood. I walked by the space outside and it looked slick on the inside, the trendy mix of earthy finishes and raw exposed structural elements that works so well in Seattle. The menu looked good (and, for the record, was) and so we decided to jump on in and get our late night dinner started.
Ow. Holy crap Ow. Make it stop ow. Not. Enjoying. Myself.
The sound in this place was sharp, shrill, and downright painful. We managed to move ourselves to a booth as far removed from any of the people as possible and trudged through a pretty miserable dining experience. I would have taken a plane full of screaming babies over this. The place wasn’t even that crowded and all I could think about was something we’ve all thought about when we’ve seen something that is so close to great fall flat so hard.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Now, before I dive into how to work carefully with acoustics let me defend myself a bit. I’m getting older (for the record, we all are). Noise bothers me more than it did back in my 20’s. There are some bars now that I can’t even go into at certain times of the night because I get sick of yelling over people and getting a headache. Those bars have their own special place in hell so we’ll just ignore those as places that purposely fall outside the mainstream. If you only enjoy your music at sound and bass levels that are artificially pumping your heart then you’re not going to care about this post anyway. And also, GET OFF MY LAWN!
What I’m talking about are the everyday spaces that are just designed so wrong. Here are the important acoustical issues to consider when designing retail / restaurant / café / general assembly spaces.
1. Who is your client / target market?
If it's me, make your drinks strong and our noise tolerable. Also, little rubber duckies in cocktails help.
Seems pretty obvious but a lot of places miss this. Like I mentioned above, younger people have higher tolerance for loud noise. So do urbanites. It also seems that suburban chain restaurants with bars tend to attract a certain shrill and obnoxious clientele bent on screaming as well. But beyond these groups, there are specific niches of clients that have to be tailored to. Are you a high end restaurant during the day and a loud pub at night? It gets tricky and deserves special consideration. Carefully consider who the heck you want in your space and be honest about their expectations for noise.
2. Carefully design your space
This one is tricky. Most spaces are designed and have the walls all figured out prior to any acoustical consideration. Fair enough. But know that the layout of your space impacts how sound is transmitted. Sound is a wave and will keep on bouncing just like light. Think about a big theater and how it is carefully designed in order to provide the best acoustics. A small pub certainly isn’t an opera house but analyzing how high the ceilings are and how deep the main and secondary spaces are is going to go a long way into determining how miserable patrons who blog about their unbearable experiences
are going to be. Just saying….
Here’s one that is often brought to the top of the list ignoring the first two items. That is unfortunate. Finishes are topical solutions that while often fully effective, could often be unnecessary or dialed back. But here’s the lowdown. Hard finishes bounce sound and soft finishes absorb them. Carpets, upholstered seats, wall covering, drapes, ceiling panels, and other soft surfaces are the go-to material for helping soften noise issues. There are also some great products out there with some good results, acoustical drywall for instance. One of my favorite restaurants, Olivar, on Capitol Hill, almost became my least favorite restaurant. On the first visit I had to leave during my meal because the audible assault was so unpleasant. A friend convinced me to go back and I was shocked to see that the new acoustical drywall they put on the ceiling worked so well.
The important thing to remember with finishes is that they need to work with your aesthetic and target market while still meeting your acoustical goals for the space. It isn’t easy but it is necessary. And when you open a restaurant or space you have far less of a chance of having someone come back a second time when you’ve disappointed them the first time. Get things right the first time and don’t make soft finishes your back-up solution after the damage is already done.
So, all this said, the most important take-a-way is to make acoustical concerns an item on your checklist when designing a space. There isn’t one solution for your space, there are dozens. The only goal is to make sure that with any designed product you get what you want and what meets your needs.
And know that the next time you see me slide out of your restaurant earlier than most, know that your food probably isn’t to blame.
All credit goes to Board & Vellum