Softening sound in the modern home

The sounds of a home can be such a wonderful part of the human experience. The jovial chatter during a holiday party, the laughter of kids running around, the music piped in while cooking dinner – they make the soundtrack of a life.

But in this day and age, in the more spacious styling of modern homes, it’s harder to hear what a conversational companion is saying over the interminable din. We lean closer to the person speaking to us, having lost their words in the background noise, and say, “I’m so sorry, say again?”



The problem isn’t our ears, it’s the space.

The materials used to build homes tend, by necessity, to be hard surfaces. Floors are poured concrete, often topped with hardwood, tile, or as is popular in Santa Fe, brick. Countertops have to be hard, smooth and flat. Windows are bigger than ever, and all that glass creates yet another hard, flat surface.

All these materials are beautiful and convenient, but with the rise in popularity of high ceilings and open floorplans, and the demise of sound-absorbing wall-to-wall carpeting, modern homes have become echo chambers. Sounds bounce between the walls, ceiling, and other hard surfaces, with nary a soft element to absorb them. And this makes it so hard to hear any one sound clearly.

In homes of yesteryear, rooms were more compartmentalized with lower ceilings, and often, carpeted floors, which all served to break up and absorb sound waves. The rooms were literally quieter. Santa Fe certainly has a population of adobe homes with smaller rooms, and importantly, more rounded walls, which interrupt noise.

But in newer homes, even those with a nod to traditional Santa Fe style, the spaces still tend to be roomier, taller, have more windows, more hard surfaces, and thus, echo more.

Brad Cole, who has worked in audio/visual design and acoustics for 25 years, has some thoughts on the matter. His Albuquerque-based company, Integrated Entertainment Solutions, specializes in commercial entertainment consulting and system design. He has installed sound systems and the accompanying acoustic treatments on cruise ships, in schools and office buildings, and has done work at the Santa Fe Opera. Included among his company’s services is residential acoustic treatment consulting, and he’s not shy about emphasizing how much people need sound deadening in their homes.

“It just doesn’t seem that acoustics are built into the home design process,” says Cole. He notes many homeowners build a new home, only to discover, after it’s finished, the chaos of noise flying around.

But he says that with a little thought, the remedies can be diverse and simple.

“Totally smooth walls bounce sound,” says Cole. “Plaster is almost as `reflective’ as glass.”

He suggests choosing surfaces purposefully meant to dampen noise.

“Break up large surfaces. Do it with art. Or rugs. It can even be metal art, as long as its shape breaks up the surface well. What you’re trying to do is diminish the reflection of sound. Vigas and a tongue-and-groove wood ceiling help break up sound waves,” says Cole.

But he wants to disabuse people of the concept of hanging things flat against the wall. He says when it comes to noise reduction, how you hang something is as important as what you hang.

“The larger the air gap behind the tapestry, the more it mitigates the echo,” he says. “But if you hang a curtain or piece of fabric directly against the wall, it doesn’t change things very much. Hang a heavy rug, but space it two inches off the wall. Put some felt or fiberglass behind it to increase the density behind it, so you get a better NRC (noise reduction coefficient).

“It’s easier to absorb high-frequency sounds with soft goods like cloth, foam, etc.,” he adds. “Low frequency, like bass, goes right through walls.”

He suggests it helps to insulate interior walls well to help abate the transmission of sound between rooms, something that’s especially useful to consider at the start of designing a new home, not after it’s built.

“The better the sound system, or the louder you plan to use it, the more you should treat for sound absorption,” says Cole.

There are attractive products that attenuate sound. One that’s highly adaptable to any interior design is a photo-printed acoustic panel that also serves as art.

Companies like Acoustimac (acoustimac.com) and Audimute (audimute.com) will print your photo, or a photo they have available, on a large acoustic panel that can be hung as art. Using your own photo not only avoids rights issues but makes the art personal.

Another option that is especially well-suited to classic Santa Fe-style homes is a tin ceiling tile that’s micro-perforated for sound absorption. American Tin Ceilings (americantinceilings.com) carries a variety of patterns. When installed with an acoustical pad, the company claims an 85 percent reduction in room echo and noise. Their products can also be used as backsplashes or on other vertical surfaces. They offer sample packs on their website for those interested in exploring this avenue.

Closer to home, an Albuquerque-based company produces handmade felt wall panels that both attenuate sound and dress up a room. Founder and Creative Director David Hamlin started his company, Submaterial, in his garage in 2006. He’s since outgrown his space twice and now boasts 25 employees and an impressive client list – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, Apple, and Microsoft, to name a few.

While his company does create custom installations for commercial businesses, such as hotels and tech sector offices, it also carries a line of residential products.

“We’ve created a new objective for the business, focused on residential interiors. We have a program of beautiful wall panels, mirrors, and accessories,” says Hamlin. “We have a range of things currently available in our online shop. We also do a lot of custom panels. Most people prefer to work with us in that custom way.”

Hamlin echoes Cole’s lament about loud homes. “I visit people’s homes who have all these sound issues. Hardwood floors, glass, concrete, and drywall. The sound is just banging around in there,” he says. “There’s a lot you can do in a residence in acoustic ways, with rugs and soft furnishings. Especially in these modern interiors where it’s all hard surfaces. Acoustic science is generally very broad strokes. Someone may be able to tell you how many square feet of absorptive coverage you need, but it also needs to look good.”

Submaterial’s decorative panels, painstakingly hand-assembled by its artistic team, feature a variety of patterns and colors. Panels like the Myth and Diade designs not only bring a splash of color to a room, but visual texture and noise reduction.

“We work from the standpoint of aesthetics. Wool felt is a beautiful material to work with. Over the years, the technology to make them has evolved, so they are not just decorative anymore. They also soften the sound scape in a home, performing two different functions,” says Hamlin.

Those considering building a new home should take the opportunity to build acoustic solutions into the design of the home, from insulation to wall angles to the type and location of speakers. But folks in existing homes don’t have to reinvent the wheel; they have plenty of options for deadening those annoying echoes, from ready-to-install products to more creative solutions of their own making.

After all, being able to hear a conversation clearly and still appreciate the background music makes a huge difference in the enjoyment of a home.

For more information on deadening sound in your home or workplace, contact Cole at brad@i-systems.us, or Submaterial at www.submaterial.com.

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