Restaurant Sound Design: Crafting a Quieter Space
As a means of interfacing with the world around us, sound is such a prevalent feature of the natural world, that we take for granted how frequently we’re surrounded by it. While the human ear offers a robust frequency range, prolonged exposure to sounds that exceed 85db can lead to permanent hearing damage. The most common place that we experience these loud volumes for extended periods? Restaurants. So what can restaurateurs do to with their restaurant sound design to mitigate noise pollution?
While humans typically modulate their speech to a reasonable speaking volume, they adjust those levels to match the given acoustics of a space; if you’re in a loud environment, you’re more likely to speak up to be heard. As restaurateurs continue to look for new and adventurous locales to open up shop, the interior acoustics can sometimes take a back seat to cost and aesthetic. The repercussion to using the minimalist design of that converted warehousing space is sonic clutter that can often get as loud as it stacks, with volume rising to compete for aural space.
We can measure our relationship to sound through both hertz and decibels. Sound takes the shape of a wave and that amplitude, the way that it oscillates between positive and negative pressure. Hertz is the standard unit of measurement to determine the frequency of oscillations. We also engage with sound in terms of the pressure it exerts on your ears. We measure that through decibels.
The relationship between hertz and decibels (dbs) isn’t quite apples to apples. Hertz indicates the range that human ears operate, which is between 20 to 20,000 hertz. Decibels, on the other hand, represent the volume of those sounds, with the human ear capable of hearing things as low as -5 dbs. To put that in perspective, the average decibel level that you experience is around 60–70 decibels in a normal conversation, which is around the same volume when you are 15 meters from traffic. Just the general tenor of everyday urban life is around 50 dbs.
Trouble starts to creep in when the decibel level reaches and exceeds 85 dbs or so. You might hear that through prolonged exposure to industrial equipment or the use of personal headphones. And it doesn’t take long. For example, if you’re using headphones at 100 dbs for even 15 minutes a day, then you can give yourself permanent hearing loss.
The potential for damage compounds the more volume you encounter. If you’re in a place with a lot of noise clutter, then you’re more likely to increase your own volume to compensate. When you add in the kind of open floor and ceiling layouts that you find in modern restaurants, it can easily start to stack up; that’s a lot of noisy acoustics to cut through, which is where a measured restaurant sound design comes in.
Restaurant Interior Design and Sound
Whether through formal education or DIY experience, acoustic engineering can take a lot of time to master. Learning how to control the sound in a room is a separate skill from interior design and architecture, and unfortunately often takes a back seat to the aesthetics of a space. Mid-century modern and minimalism remain fixtures of the designed world, both of which privilege open spaces and a less-is-more approach to layout. Likewise, both present challenges to how sound travels in a space, and one that is which interior designers often overlook.
It makes sense why so many restaurateurs allow this aspect of their burgeoning business to fall by the wayside. Open floor plans and minimalist design strategies are affordable options that more-often-than-not add an air of authenticity to a space. The re-appropriation of unused space is an inevitable component of urban growth, but one that is often built on old and outdated design work that is expensive to upgrade for modern use.
Suppose you open a restaurant in a space that was designed with an entirely different use in mind. Minimalist design trends include allowing the space to dictate the aesthetic, such as exposed architectural bones. Here you might see concrete floors and brick walls, which set the tone for the space, but are terrible for the acoustics. Updating that for a cozy restaurant takes time and resources, that may not fit your budget.
These louder volumes can not only upset the guest experience, but they can create a problem for staff who face more prolonged exposure to loud sounds. That can lead to the potential liability of hearing damage, while also contributing to order confusion; if your server cannot hear the order, they may not be able to record the information properly. Moreover, if your back of the house staff uses paper ticketing instead of a kitchen display system, this could lead to problems with satisfying your customer’s order.
The Psychology of Restaurant Music
While music may not be a critical component in your restaurant sound design, it is such an intrinsic part of our culture that it often goes unnoticed. You can hear that in Muzak, a style of music that is intentionally stripped of its greater dynamic and rendered safe and harmless as a sonic supplement to your environment. Whether it’s to enhance the experience or engage diners, music does serve a tacit function in the restaurant space, specifically as a strategy to psychologically drive sales.
Your appetite is an aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated, and thus mutable, by music. For some restaurants, creating that je ne sais quas is imperative to atmosphere building, the lighting dimmed, the linens cleaned, and a quiet jazz trio politely playing in a corner. Those hushed tones are meant to supplement a patron’s experience, a branding play with psychological implications that can impact sales.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, loud volumes can result in higher short term sales, as patrons are subconsciously rushed to eat and leave by their fight or flight instinct. The types of sounds you use can also compliment the food in subtle ways. Research indicates that pairing the right food and music can have the effect of psychology enhancing the guest’s experience with their meal.
Sound Solutions for your Restaurant
There are a host of solutions to sound dampening in your restaurant from the practical and mundane to the more extraordinary branding plays. There is no wrong answer, although according to both Zagat and Consumer Reports, excessive noise is among one of the chief complaints of diners. Finding a balance between a conversational volume for your guests, and creating a natural ambiance is an important step that can add significant value to your restaurant.
The most obvious choice is the most mundane for your restaurant sound design: updating your space with sound dampening panels. Otherwise known as soundproof baffling, these are panels that you strategically place along the walls or support beams of the ceiling to manipulate the way sound waves travel. You place these panels based on their effectiveness to diminish sound.
More is not merrier, however, as soundproof baffling can add up in cost. Prices vary, but there are services available to not only provide you the material but to help you determine how much you need and where. Depending on your space, that figure can stack. Additionally, there are limits to how you can blend this type of technology into your pre-existing aesthetic, so a measured use is preferred.
Additionally, as mentioned above, sound can create a psychological impact on how people consume. Whether you employ music or not, the removal of ambient sound can yield interesting, if positive results, but that may prove off-putting to a group intentionally out to socialize. Think about the times that you’ve been in a weirdly quiet space and the reverential response that it engenders in people; it may come off like eating dinner in a church.
The Silent Treatment
On the more extravagant end of the spectrum is developing a unique brand that plays into the kind of atmosphere you hope to build. An easy step towards engendering a quieter, calmer restaurant space is a child-free restaurant which not only gives adults a night off from children, but it cuts down on the aural clutter that our youngest guests can often create.
Parallel to that is developing a space that intentionally caters to a unique guest experience. For example, you might have a restaurant that utilizes the silent disco model of engagement, with guests wearing headphones to allow them to modulate the volume at their disposal. A simple Bluetooth device would allow you to speak with someone in a virtual bubble of your choosing, free of outside clutter. Bonus points if you have self-ordering menus on your table, which will allow guests to work together.
Some restaurants take this a step further, curating spaces that are intentionally quiet as a means of meditating on your food. While that may be a bit extreme, when you consider the noisy clutter of the world around us, it becomes a lot more reasonable to understand why patrons may want to engage.
Keep Your Patrons Aware
Perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective solution is just to let guests know what to expect on busy nights. There are many ways that you can measure the total decibel level in your restaurant, and you will need a sound level meter to assess that volume. Make sure you provide a range if you do this. Measure the levels before you open when it’s quiet and during your busiest time when you are likely at your loudest.
Assessing the sound is the first step though, so make sure to share. You can share by posting on your social media, particularly in the “about” section; on Google My Business; a posted sign at the entrance; or by sharing your information with apps that allow patrons to choose restaurants based on the aural atmosphere.
Poor acoustics can make for a bad date. Limiting the way that you speak and interact with one another dampens the mood, and takes away from the atmosphere at the detriment not only to your health but to your long term bottom line. For a restaurant, that engagement is a cornerstone of the dining experience to engage your senses. People want to share that time together, to speak and listen, and acoustics can shape this situation for the worse. Employing the right restaurant sound design is critical to enhancing the guest experience. For the most part, no one wants to hear a pin drop at dinner, but finding that right balance only enhances the atmosphere in your restaurant.
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About the Author
Syd is a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot.