Dining on Decibels

Original artwork by  Kyle Hodgman

Original artwork by Kyle Hodgman

This episode was written and produced by Leila Battison.

Have you noticed how loud it gets in restaurants these days? Have you found yourselves shouting just to keep a conversation going? Architecture critic Kate Wagner explains how changing design trends have led to dining experiences that aren’t just antisocial, but are negatively impacting our health as well.  


A Stirring of Patience by Chad Lawson
The High Wind (Instrumental) by Brooke Waggoner
Money Makes The World Go Round (Instrumental) by Marcus Meston
Back Then ft. William $ (Instrumental) by Alexander Lewis
Mischief Afoot by James Childs
Fast Forward by Virgil Arles
Lit (Instrumental) by Har Megiddo
Now and Then by Uncle Skeleton
The Last Warmth by The Echelon Effect
Dizzy (Instrumental) by Fuzzy Halo
Cocoa Nibs by Uncle Skeleton
On The Grow! by Uncle Skeleton
Falling In by Shawn Williams
Coast (Instrumental) by Con Vos

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[SFX: Restaurant ambience building]

You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I'm Dallas Taylor.

[music in]

One of my biggest pet peeves is overly loud places. For some reason our society has confused loud places as fun places. They’re not. I’m usually the first person to leave a party when it gets too loud. In my opinion, nothing productive happens when you have to start yelling at each other just to be heard. Sadly, this perception of louder is better stretches across all of our society. Concerts, parties, restaurants, clothing stores, ….and even churches have jumped on the bandwagon of uncomfortably loud music. Ironically though, public restrooms are way too quiet. Honestly, that’s the one place I wouldn’t mind a little death metal.

[music out]

For the longest time, I felt like it was just me and 90 year olds who cared about this. Well, that was until I met Kate.

Kate: Hi, my name is Kate Wagner, and I'm an architecture and design critic based on Baltimore, Maryland.

You might know of Kate through, McMansion Hell, which is her website, which deconstructs some of the idiocracy in modern, suburban house design. However, her other intense passion is sound.

Kate: I was working as a recording engineer and was a music student as well and was very concerned about hearing loss. Paranoid more like it.

Kate: I was always afraid that one day I would wake up and not be able to hear.

[music in]

Kate: I was developing these aural skills to able to listen to sound at very specific frequencies to be able to hear things like the overtone series and whatnot and all of the sort of ear training you do when you work in recording and I was afraid that if I listened to music too loud or if I went to the bar and it was too loud that I wouldn't be able to do that anymore. That I would lose those skills and that was scary for me because at the time that's what I wanted to make a career out of.

So Kate became hyper-sensitive to the loud sounds that could damage her hearing, and actively tried to avoid them.

But that’s easier said than done, especially if you want to live a little.

[music out]

Kate: I think that since the dawn of electro acoustics probably, it’s been cool to be loud.

Kate: It was just about the raw, visceral power of electronic sound and I think that, that's translated to some extent into rock and roll.

Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Pop... almost all genres.

Kate: There's a sort of culture of if it's too loud you're too old and I think that there's a point of pride, it's like it's attributed to youth and the raucousness of youth. The untamed, unwieldiness of adolescence and what not.

Kate: It's cool to listen to music really loud in your car. It's cool to listen to music really loud when you're a teenager in your parent's house.

Kate: It’s cool to listen to music really loud when you're in a rock concert or when you're at band practice et cetera.

We all know what she means, some music just isn’t meant to be played at anything less than 11. But sometimes we don’t get a choice about the loud noises assaulting our eardrums.

Kate: When the sound is unwanted then it becomes more irritable… loud music is about this weird sublime pleasure and sort of sadomasochistic pain, pleasure thing with music.

Kate: But loud noise I think is different than that. I think it's just irritating and then you start to sort of worry and then you start to think about, what about my health. [SFX: Bulldozer] Or it's just like God I wish the bulldozer would stop bulldozing at 7:00 in the morning. I think the unwanted characteristic is a key qualifier there.

There are so many sources of sound in the world today that we have no control over, and once you start to notice them, they can really get under your skin.

Some, like the busy background hum of a coffee shop [SFX: coffee shop ambience] seem to blend together to create a white noise that lots of people like, and will actively seek out. But other sounds, regardless of setting, or time of day, [SFX: jackhammer] are always [SFX: baby crying]- unwelcome.

Kate: I think that part of the reason why people listen to music so loud on headphones, earbuds especially, is because they're trying to drown out the other types of environmental noise

[SFX: tinny beats as if through headphones]

Kate: sounds like the bus for example, people listening to podcasts and music on the bus, it's like the bus sounds are irritating [SFX: bus motor], the other people are irritating [SFX: background chatter], the air brakes [SFX: air brakes] are irritating but what they're listening to even though it's too loud, it may be uncomfortably so, is somehow less irritating than the ambient sounds around them.

On busy city streets, on public transit, and in public spaces, you can see the truth in Kate’s words. More and more people are turning to the music and podcasts in their headphones to drown out the otherwise inescapable noise.

[music in]

But there are places where headphone listening can’t save us. Places that can be louder than construction sites, but that we choose to go to on a regular basis. Restaurants. If you haven’t noticed it before, I’m sorry, but you’ll almost certainly notice it now... Actually I’m not sorry - more people need to be angry about it. I’ve got serious problem with it, and so does Kate.

Kate: I personally have a beef with it 'cause eating out is a lot of fun, right? Its social, you get to eat delicious food that you don't have to cook, you get to have delicious drinks and deserts. I mean eating out is a good time, but the fact that it's so loud makes it much less of a good time.

[music out]

There’s no getting away from it, today’s restaurants are loud. It’s hard to hear yourself think, not to mention have a conversation.

[SFX: Building restaurant noise, layering new sounds]

There’s music thumping, the clatter of machines, cutlery, glasswear, and people shouting to be heard over, well, all of the other people.

Kate: So we ask ourselves why are restaurants so loud?

[SFX: Restaurant noise out]

Kate: A loud restaurant seems like it's more popular, like its more funky. That's why restaurateurs in the 90s and 2000s started pumping loud music in their restaurants even though no one was there, and that's just now ubiquitous. You can't go anywhere without a loud restaurant.

Kate: The bagel shop I go to in the morning, [SFX: muffled thumping drum and bass] they're just playing Rihanna, thumping, bassing, its 8:00 am and I'm just like my God do we need to play club music at 8:00 am at the bagel store?

But it’s not just the music. The problem goes much deeper, to the styles and trends that underlie modern restaurant design.

Kate: Another reason why restaurants are so loud as far as the design perspective goes, is because for example, things like communal turnovers, bars that are in the restaurant that are not separated in any way from the restaurant.

Having the two together isn’t just trendy, it reduces the need for table service, and you need fewer staff, helping restaurants to cut back costs.

[music in]

But even the look of your restaurant can have a big effect on what it sounds like. The biggest culprit, Kate says, is minimalism.

Kate: Minimalism, just in the broadest sense is basically very sparse furnishings, nothing plush or fluffy or anything like that. Nothing traditional, it’s very modern. And so you get things like slate floors, wood walls, Danish designer chairs, rusticated light fixtures.

Kate: There's industrial minimalism, which is Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood and all this other stuff, but then there's also minimalism that's super designy, everything is metal, steel, glass, all these hard surfaces and materials.

Kate: Curtains and carpets and low ceilings or acoustic ceilings in any way are very much not minimalist, and they are considered kind of a drag, or they're considered too plush…. and so what you end up with is you have these tall ceilings, and you have nothing to absorb sound, and you have these hard materials on all of your surfaces, no tablecloths, nothing.

[music out]

You’ll see it if you go into any trendy bar anywhere in the country. It’s the very essence of coolness right now. But minimalism comes with an added bonus if you’re trying to run a restaurant. No soft surfaces means much less effort to keep everything clean. But soft surfaces do more than soak up spills, they also soak up sound.

[SFX: Underlying restaurant chatter]

Kate: Not even a tablecloth to absorb sound, the only thing absorbing sound in a restaurant is other people, and they're making sound, so it kind of cancels each other out. And so what you get is just a big box that just bounces sound around a room.

Kate: In order to absorb sound you need a material on a wall, or ceiling or floor that is absorptive. And when you have none of those things the sound just keeps bouncing off instead of being absorbed or transmitted through a wall or something like that.

Kate: So what you get is you get a room that is unintelligible and you get one that's loud because the more people talk the more new sound energy comes into the room and so then that's bouncing off the walls and it combines with the sound energy that's already bouncing off the walls. And so you just get a big soupy mess of sound.

[SFX: Loud unintelligible restaurant noise]

Ugh...I don’t know about you, but that much loud noise is just exhausting. And that soupy mess can get really, really loud. Even in supposedly relaxing coffee shops, including the one Kate likes to work in, the volume levels can get surprisingly high.

Kate: It was kind of a down time at the restaurant… even then, the ambient level was in the 70 decibel range and to give an example of what else is in that range, that's freeway noise [SFX: fast cars passing], and that's a sewing machine [SFX: sewing machine] and a vacuum cleaner [SFX: vacuum cleaner], so it's not exactly quiet.

Kate: But when we get into other restaurants, like the wine bar I was in that was in the 80 decibel range. Then you start to get into levels that can start to be damaging to hearing over time. So for example, 85 decibels over eight hours permanently damages your hearing.

Kate: The restaurants that were the loudest that I measured were at the 90 decibel range.

The noise levels are posing a real health risk. It would seem that Kate’s worries about hearing loss during dinner are justified. Plus, there’s clear research showing that this much noise in a restaurant is unhealthy.

Kate: Like those studies that link excessive restaurant noise to excessive alcohol consumption because we drink when we're stressed.

Kate: But there was also a series of restaurant studies done at Oxford that showed that stressful restaurant conditions, including noise drive people to make unhealthier choices.

[music in]

Kate: These are all things that benefit restaurateurs, they have lower overhead, they have less maintenance and they have higher turnover and more alcohol sales. But at the expense of everyone who dines there, so I was kind of peeved by that.

Through our unconscious drive to follow fashion, we go to these trendy places. They’ve got integral cocktail bars and shiny metal tables - they’re the very essence of cool. But electing to spend our time in these places is actively harming us!

Perhaps it’s not all bad news, though. Taking a step back, we can figure out how we got here, and if there’s anything we can do about our current dining dystopia. Find out, after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

If, like me, you love eating out, then you’ll understand the pain and frustration in not being able to enjoy a meal because of overwhelming and inescapable noise. And it’s becoming more and more common. We’re facing an epidemic of antisocially and dangerously noisy restaurants right now.

Kate Wagner is an expert in architectural acoustics. She blames the loudness of our dining experience on the current trend for minimalist design. Clean lines and shiny surfaces have been the death of sound-friendly materials in our restaurants.

But the sounds we experience in the environment have changed drastically over human history. And just like today, they were driven by innovations and trends.

[music out]

Kate: Before people there were these sound like bird noises [SFX: bird noises], like the sounds of the natural world. You start to get early people noise… conversation [SFX: muffled conversation], these kinds of things but you start to get things like the church bell [SFX: church bell] and the town crier and agriculture, horses [SFX: farming sounds], Metal, blacksmithing [SFX: anvil strike].

Kate: The industrial revolution changed the soundscape forever and you started to get things like factory noise, mechanical noise, you started to hear things like bicycles and cars, cobblestones, all this stuff. [SFX: Building industrial noise] Everything exploded all at once and now it's really noisy. And what's so interesting about noise is that at the beginning of modernity, the mid to late 19th century and the early 20th century, noise was thought of as a celebration of progress.

At the time, the sound of industry was as much a symbol of cutting edge modern advancement as the 8am drum and bass in the bagel shop. But the noisy advance of progress wasn’t going to last forever.

Kate: It started to be negative starting around the turn of the 20th century. There were certain noises that were considered to be bad.

Noises from things like steamships [SFX: steamships] and railways [SFX: steam train] and factories [SFX: mechanical factory noise]. As much as they were a sign of progress, people really hated those sounds, and soon they became a major public health concern. Eventually, measures were taken to radically change the acoustic environment.

Kate: Early noise control in architectural acoustics for example, there is an ideology of sanitized sound. It was like that noise became a symbol of inefficiency. It became a symbol that things are not working as they could and so the acoustic ideal of the 1920s and 30s was to make places that are entirely silent.

Kate: It got so extreme, the mentality of total absorption that reverberant or any kind of reflections became seen as noise as well. And there was this idea that the ideal acoustic condition was one of total absorption.

[music in]

Kate: For thousands of years in architectural acoustics, whether you're talking about the acoustics of churches or you're talking about the acoustics of the Roman Amphitheater or you're talking about acoustics of 19th century shoebox halls, the acoustic ideal was based around reverberance because reverberance was at the time, the sonic picture, the sonic image of what a building was.

Kate: And in the 20th century with the advent of these new acoustic materials for absorbing sound you could. You could have a building that looked cavernous and it be silent and that completely divorced the architecture of a building from what it sounded like for the first time in human history.

[music out]

So, as public opinion waxes and wanes, acoustic ideals do change over time, just like design trends. Right now, minimalism is a trend with apparently little care for acoustic aesthetics. In restaurants, it’s led to a soupy mess of sound. But the good news is, the tides might be starting to turn once again.

Kate: These trends, like this minimalism and these design trends and the high ceilings and the no soft goods, is very much equivalent to what we consider to be high luxury

Kate: In residential design you're starting to see more soft goods come into play, you're starting to see lots of attention being paid to carpeting and rugs specifically. You're starting to see a move away from minimalism towards what consumer level magazine would say is maximalism, which is just interior design speak for houses with people's actual stuff in it. But I really think that interior design is starting to finally get sick of minimalism because it has been so many years of minimalism in high architecture and design, and it is so boring.

Perhaps, then, there is hope for our horrifyingly loud restaurant culture. But right now there are already a few places you can shelter from the noisy storm.

[SFX: Gentle clink of cutlery and glassware]

Kate: The restaurants that are the quietest are those hole in the wall, Napolese, Indian and Thai restaurants 'cause they still have the carpet and they still have the acoustic ceiling tile and they still have the table settings and things like that.

Kate: I mean anyone who's been to a Napolese restaurant is familiar probably with this décor that's like red carpet floors, lots of white table cloths, very kind of formal décor and that's why they're so much more quiet than the bar across the street.

Kate: So it's kind of funny actually, those restaurants, which I think if people were being pejorative would call them dated or tacky are actually way quieter and therefore more enjoyable to eat in than everything that's super hip but so loud that your ears are splitting.

If you’re a restauranteur with your diners’ happiness on your conscience, you don’t necessarily need to embrace the dated decor. There are thoughtful solutions that can keep everyone happy.

Kate: It's about avoiding the bad really. Designing the good is a lot more nuanced but you at first have to avoid the bad.

Kate: Thinking and building for sound starts at conception. It's not something that can be applied after the fact. Acoustics starts at the beginning of the architectural process.

That means thinking carefully about bringing noisy features into the dining areas. Open kitchens might add atmosphere to the restaurant, but they also add a lot of noise.

Kate: Things like high ceilings are a concern. If your ceilings are high it's gonna be probably louder or at least more reverberant unless you've just coated the whole thing in padded foam.

Kate: But what the good news is, and I think this is a really great thing is that design for acoustics has been on fire lately.

[music in]

Industrial noise was solved with brand new acoustic materials in the early 20th Century. Today, designers are redoubling their efforts to make spaces that not only look good, but sound good too.

Kate: You have things like acoustic furniture now, like these booths with these really tall backs to sort of isolate sound and give both visual and sonic privacy. There's all these colorful artworks that are now acoustics panels. They are architectural features and not just things that you tacked on 'cause you screwed up the sound in your space.

Kate: The acoustic ceiling does no longer have to be drop ceilings from elementary school with fluorescent lights built in.

Kate: Now they have these sculptural ceilings, with acoustic backing and micro perforated surfaces that allow sound to be absorbed behind them but they'll look just like wood or metal or anything else that you really want it to look like.

Kate: 'Cause a lot of them are screen printed and they're really, really, really, really high def screen printing, so you really can't tell that, that's not real wood. So if your restaurant is horribly loud and you want to remodel there's lots of options for you.

[music out]

We’re really fortunate to be living through this time of acoustic innovation and unprecedented flexibility with materials and design. But ultimately it’s up to us, the consumer, to make it clear that something needs to change.

Kate: Now there are these apps, like Sound Print is an app that's devoted specifically to having sound meter. You open up Sound Print, and you record some noise for a little bit, and it will capture and enter this database of restaurant noise.

It’s basically Yelp, but for loud restaurants.

Kate: So they'll tell you what restaurants are loud, they'll give you sonic profiles for restaurants. It's like do you want it to be raucous bar loud, do you want it to be coffee shop loud or just casual conversation loud. Do you want it to be very quiet and private?

[music in]

These days, we have unprecedented control over our lives, with almost unlimited choice in what we eat, where we eat, and who we eat with. So, why shouldn’t we make a choice about our acoustic experience too?

Our sense of hearing is chronically underappreciated, but it’s one that has a surprising lasting impact on our culture.

Kate: I wanted to work in making spaces that sounded better because I felt like that had a longer legacy than anything else. Because we still go to listen to music in Musikverein in Vienna and it was built in the 19th century. We still go to Boston Symphony Hall and it's built in 1900. I mean, you have an influence of centuries.

In a hundred years, I doubt we’re going to be longing for the soundscape of our minimalist wine bars.

So if - like me - you’re infuriated by the almost unavoidable assault on our ears in restaurants, how about we make a stand. It won’t take much - maybe just ask them to turn the music down, or start contributing restaurant noise to the sound print app. Tell your friends and get them to make sound-based meal choices too. I’d LOVE to make it to the end of the night without my ears ringing and still having my voice. I’d really, really like to make this a thing... Perhaps we can start a new trend of actually being able to hear each other while we’re eating out.

[music out]

[music in]


Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, an insanely talented sound design team creating beautiful sonic landscapes for television, film and games. Hear sound design excerpts at instagram dot com slash defacto sound.

This episode was written and produced by Leila Battison, and me Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed, and mixed by Colin DeVarney.

Thanks to our guest Kate Wagner. You can find Kate’s well crafted opinions on poorly crafted houses at mcmansionhell.com. Plus, you can find her over on twitter and instagram at mcmansionhell.

All of the music in this episode is from our friends at MusicBed. Check them out at musicbed dot com.

Thanks to Sarah Ault for naming this episode. Finally, if you’re as outraged as Kate and I are about noisy restaurants, we’d love to hear from you. You can reach out on Twitter, on Facebook, or by writing me at hi@20k.org.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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