"Great food and service, but the place was so loud we had to shout over dinner. Not cool.” Comments like this are all too common in reviews of restaurants, where acoustics often take a back seat to other aspects of ambiance.

Kristen-Murphey-Headshot-2011In its 2015 State of Dining in America survey of more than 10,000 diners, Zagat found that noise was second only to service as a top dining-out irritant. Kristen Murphy, an acoustics pro who consults with architects, designers and business owners, offers some sound strategies for taking the din out of dinner.

rd+d: What’s the best point in a project at which to consider acoustics?

KM: Early, before the design and construction process starts. We can do a lot of good at that stage. It’s also easier on a client’s budget when acoustics are addressed as part of the initial design versus trying to solve problems later. It’s still possible to achieve great results after the fact, but doing so requires working around existing systems and that means additional steps, time and cost.

rd+d: What are some mistakes restaurants make that impact acoustics?

KM: Simply choosing to ignore the acoustics of a space is common, as is not planning to incorporate enough acoustically absorptive materials. Site selection also factors in: Operators often don’t sufficiently consider the impact of the immediate area — if they’re adjacent to loud sources such as music venues or rail lines, or next to quiet spaces such as residences or healthcare facilities. Excessively loud building system noise, such as HVAC, and background music being played too loudly are also common. And, while I understand the motivation, many simply squeeze too many people into their spaces.

rd+d: When you evaluate a restaurant’s acoustics, what types of tests do you perform?

KM: The most common tests are for reverberation, the way sound lingers or echoes in a room, and noise isolation, the way sound moves through the walls and floors/ceilings. We also check the levels of sound coming from the mechanical systems.

rd+d: What are some strategies restaurants can use to improve acoustics?

KM: The most important thing is to plan for an acoustically absorptive ceiling to help keep sound from carrying over long distances. We also recommend reducing the density of seating. The more people you have in one area the more sources of sound there are, which creates a feedback loop as people raise their voices to hear over each other. Absorption can help reduce the distance and length of time that such sounds carry, but it can’t erase the direct sound caused by talking and activity. Another strategy is to isolate noisy locations, such as host stations and kitchens, with full walls or other physical separations.

rd+d: Are there any interesting new materials that help enhance acoustics?

KM: To meet an industrial look, there are options for acoustical decks and treatments that look like fireproofing. For a polished look, there are acoustical plasters that have a porous topcoat and acoustical backing, as well as other types of large-format ceiling tiles that have a smooth look. There are acoustical wood and metal products that, like acoustical decking, are perforated. They look like hard surfaces but there are tiny holes that sound passes through.