HOW TO: Soundproof Your Venue

The design is complete, the hard, textured surfaces are installed, the place looks fantastic, and the anxiety begins to seep in. Now that you’ve built it, will they come? Take a look around—see the glass, the wood, the marble, the granite, the tiled surfaces? Great care was taken to follow the advice of your designer, your architect, your spouse, your builder, your landlord, and you’ve mastered the décor of your facility. Now here comes opening night.

The crowds begin to build to the delight of you and your support staff. People seem to be enjoying themselves, the laughter builds, the conversations flow, the people-watching swells. But then you begin to realize: There is too much noise in the room. All those hard, reflective surfaces are suddenly working against you. Your customers begin to shout over the background noise caused by all the acoustic reflections in the room. To simply hold a conversation, voices are elevated to unwelcome levels. Conversations begin to compete with each other as people start to shift and move around, trying to find a dead spot in the room for better sound quality. But no such space in your facility exists. The relief comes from walking out the door, back to normal conversational tones, and another valued client has just walked out, lost to poor room acoustics.

Sound familiar? The term coined for this phenomenon is called the “cocktail party effect.” It can ruin your business, but is often ignored upfront by the designers, architects, builders and decorators dedicated to helping you make your place “look” nice. But the sound quality is another story.

By definition, sound wave reflections in an untreated room filled with hard reflective surfaces, such as a bar or restaurant, can carry for up to ten seconds before they die off. The problem is that human ear can tolerate only two seconds or less worth of those reflections before the sound signals begin to interfere with each other.

In other words, the human ear hears two sound signals at the same time—the original sound and the reflected sound. When the reflected sound carries for under two seconds, the signal is heard as one distinct sound. But when the reflections extend beyond two seconds, two distinct sounds are heard and the interference begins. As the echoes carry, the original sounds begin to compete with the reflected sounds. This is when voice levels are elevated over the level of the background noise, and you have your Catch 22. The longer the echoes survive, the more intense your decibel level readings become. You’re left standing right next to a friend and can barely hold a conversation.

Soundproofing treatments vary across the board. There are acoustical engineers who will bill you for their expertise, acoustical consultants who will bill you for onsite visits and expensive reports, product sales people who make commissions on selling you the wrong products, and contractors who want to perform product installations. Frankly, the more homework you do, the more confused you will probably become. So let’s take the mystery out of the process and show you what works the best.

The goal is to surface-mount something in the room that can absorb the echoes and collapse their reflection times down to under two seconds. There are hundreds of potential products on the market, most of which are made from either acoustic foam or compressed fiberglass. Both serve to convert sound wave energy into kinetic energy, eliminating echo and delivering greater clarity to original sound, which in turn will lower the decibel level readings in your room.
But don’t use foam. It isn’t fire rated, it degrades over time, it sprinkles dust particles out over your customers. It’s ideal for radio stations and recording studios, but not for public venues such as a bar or restaurant. If you surf the Net looking for help, skip past the foam suppliers who will try to tell you otherwise.

Instead, opt for compressed fiberglass panels. You will get the fire rating you need, the panels will last for the life of your business, and they will look great. But don’t worry, we’re not talking about slapping them up against your decorative walls and ruining the décor you have invested in. Instead, a company called NetWell Noise Control ( in Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers something called Ceiling Clouds that are both functional and aesthetically appealing.

Ceiling Clouds are custom cut sound panels, wrapped in 48 colors of cloth, and are designed to “float” mechanically from a ceiling out over a crowded room filled with customers in a loud bar or restaurant setting. These are compressed fiberglass panels that are mechanically attached to a ceiling, and suspend down just one or two inches, hanging parallel to the ceiling in rows and columns, spread out over the expanse of your room. They are custom-cut to size and color, and when appropriate quantities are installed, the echoes will collapse down to under two seconds, sound clarity is restored, decibel levels drop, and repeat business returns.

Ceiling Clouds add to the aesthetic value of most any room, and are often viewed as a decorative piece rather than a sound control device. Plus, they let you leave your walls alone. Go with one-inch-thick material if your room is filled with human voice only, or bump up to two-inch-thick material if you have loud, live music in the room. Thicker panels will absorb more low bass tones.

The key to the success of your Ceiling Cloud treatment is to ensure that the appropriate quantities are introduced into your room. The quantities installed are based on the size, shape and surface textures in the room before you get started. “NetWell Noise Control can easily calculate these numbers and produce a quote for you,” says Mark Rustad, President of NetWell. “The placement of your Clouds is regardless, so long as appropriate quantities are installed upfront.” The standard Cloud size is 3’x4’, but custom dimensions are available. Millions of people have benefited from the sound quality improvements that our full product mix represents.”

Sound ordinances can be a problem for any bar or club, as can the simple social issues that can arise from a noisy environment. By taking the right course of action, and maybe doing a little cloud-hopping, bar owners prevent the problems before they make any noise.