As City Debates How To Keep The Peace, An Expert Explains How To Keep Things Quiet

Jun 22, 2017

Austin City Council members have delayed a vote on the so-called “agent of change” proposal, which would establish rules aimed at easing tensions between neighbors and music venues over amplified sound. An early version of the rules asked both new businesses and established venues to commit to “build accordingly to accommodate for sound.”

But some found the proposed item toothless.

“It wasn’t as robust as folks would have liked it,” said Frank Rodriguez, a senior policy adviser to Mayor Steve Adler. Rodriguez said Wednesday that the mayor's office has taken the lead on convening stakeholders to amend the proposal.

While the item was originally scheduled for a council vote on June 15, Rodriguez said he doesn’t expect the tweaked version to go before council any earlier than the first week of September.

In the meantime, though, what exactly does it mean to “build accordingly to accommodate for sound”? First off, throw out the idea that outside noise can be entirely squelched.

Josh Ball (right), an owner of Rommute, consults with Carlos Rivero about how to mitigate noise at his restaurant, El Sapo Botanas y Burgers.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

“So soundproofing as a whole – that idea and concept – is more or less a misnomer,” said Josh Ball, an owner of Roommute. The company does sound mitigation for restaurants, bars and music venues. “You can make [sound] pretty much dampen, but the cost of it is so high that it’s infeasible for a space to do that.”

Ball and his friend, Patrick Herzfeld, agreed to demonstrate ways to mitigate sound. We met up at Herzfeld’s studio in far Southwest Austin. The two set up a microphone 8 feet from a speaker that was blasting Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Here’s the song as heard in a quiet, acoustic-treated space (in other words, unadulterated):

Then Ball and Herzfeld grabbed three high-density insulation panels that they normally would install on the ceiling or walls of a restaurant to dampen noise. They positioned the panels in a V-shape between the microphone and the speaker. Here’s what the microphone picked up:

To best simulate how someone staying in a hotel room next to a venue might experience the noise from a show, Ball and Herzfeld put the speaker on a stool on the grass outside a door with a double-paned window. Before we listened, Ball explained what was happening as the Tom Petty tune hit the window.

“As the sound travels from the speaker, it goes into the glass. It takes some energy to go through that glass and then it goes through a void, which is with a sealed gas inside of it to actually keep oxygen out of it, and then [it goes through] a second pane of glass,” Ball said. “So, every transition that it makes it takes more energy, which is a further reduction in volume.”

Now, imagine if that hotel window were open. Ball and Herzfeld cracked the door, simulating how the sound might reflect off an open window:

Ball said while music venues can adopt sound systems to better direct sound, the biggest opportunity for sound mitigation lies in new construction.

“The more energy and effort we put into the design and building of new construction, then the more reduction they’re going to be able to have overall,” he said. “But it’s just looking at every single variable and making sure they all work together, because at the end of it it’s your weakest link that’s going to cause you to have this added volume.”