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How to Reduce Background Noise

Have you ever noticed the background noise in a restaurant or other gathering area? Some spaces seem to promote noise, while others don’t. Some areas seem to boost background noise by using hard reflective surfaces, seating that is close together, high ceilings and music piped into the seating area. What is the reasoning when creating places that are not comfortable to sit and have a conversation? For restaurants, the management wants to have the tables turned over to the next patron as quickly as possible. If you sit and chat, it takes up space and reduces the seating for the next people coming in the door. They want you to eat and go! Notice in high-end restaurants, you will pay extra for carpet, very soft music, sound dampening tablecloths and cloth napkins. They want you to stay and order more food and drink.

Other places with history of noise issues are gyms, meeting rooms and churches. When you have large rooms with hard surfaces, the sound produced by the people in the room will bounce around and cause distortion. This makes it difficult to understand what is being said.

Noise Sources

Sound mitigation is a hot topic in any environment that people frequent in groups. Environments with small numbers of people rarely have the problem with background noise. Noise may be in the form of other people talking, laughing or moving around. It may be noise from air conditioners or heating units running. It may be outside traffic noise or the sound of music playing. All sound that is not your primary focus may be interpreted as noise. Persons with hearing loss have more difficulty focusing on the desired sound or speech while ignoring the unwanted sounds. In a large group of people, the room size and acoustic properties may be part of the problem of ignoring unwanted sound. If you plan to change the room acoustics, it is important to decide what the problem is before investing in remedies.

Options to Reduce Noise

Noise reduction comes in a variety of forms. You can cover windows with heavy draperies that specifically mention noise reduction on the packaging. Once I purchased simple heavy (adorable) curtains for my office, which did not help reduce the sound echo at all. I ended up taking them back to the store and purchased curtains designed to absorb sound. It made a significant difference in reducing the amount of sound bouncing around the examination rooms.

Place upholstered furniture with plush fabrics in the room to absorb sound. Thick fluffy toss pillows and throws will help maximize noise absorption. Thick carpet and padding are also valuable in reducing sound reflection.

Installing porous fabric-covered false beams on vaulted ceilings will provide some sound absorption and sound deflection. You may want to add acoustical foam ceiling tiles directly over the existing ceiling. This type of foam comes in a variety of colors, is lightweight and is easy to install. YouTube videos offer a plethora of ideas for installing the foam products. In some rooms, you may want flat foam to absorb sound and in other rooms, you may want foam with an irregular surface to diffuse the sound energy. This would help reduce echo of sounds.

Another idea is to place freestanding room dividers or screens covered with a special sound absorbing fabric in the room. These panels are made of material that absorbs sound rather than allowing it to bounce away. These panels offer visual privacy as well. Sound-deadening paint is available to spray or roll onto walls or ceilings. This paint is able to reduce the frequencies of background speech but not the low frequencies of traffic or air conditioner rumble.

Acoustic wall panels are used for absorbing and diffusing sound. You’ll need to do a little research before putting up the panels. You’ll also want to find reflection points in the room and place the panels at ear level. Are people usually standing in the room to be treated or sitting? Panels on adjacent walls can prevent the sound from bouncing back and forth between parallel walls.

Doing the Research

Sound mitigation can be confusing, making it important to find out what is the best treatment for your area. Sound in a music room is treated differently than sound in a meeting room or restaurant. There are professionals who specialize in treating room noise and are a great resource for your project. FBN

By Karon Lynn, Au.D.

Trinity Hearing Center is located at 1330 N. Rim Dr., Suite B in Flagstaff. For more information, visit TrinityHearing.net.


Karon Lynn is a doctor of audiology with 30 years of experience working with hearing impaired individuals. Dr. Lynn may be reached at 928-522-0500 or at audio@trinityhearing.net.

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