We live in a noisy world. Much noisier than the world of a couple of hundred years ago. Then, the loudest sound you heard in an New England village was a church bell. Or even, a few decades back, when, instead of power mowers and leaf blowers shattering a Saturday morning, you might hear through your open window the hum of insects, the chirping of birds, and nothing more loud than the intermittent whir of a push lawnmower.
It's common now to have, on any city street, your ears assaulted by roaring trucks, which, when not rattling by on the street, are backing up into alleyways to the accompaniment of high-decibel beeps. Fire trucks and ambulances, even a half-mile away, can be ear-splitting. The philosophy is that such sirens need nowadays to be ultra-loud, to be heard over the basal din-level of the streets.
The word "bistro"--ordinarily referring to a French bar or small restaurant--does not derive from French, but from Russian. During the Russian occupation of Paris after the fall of Napoleon, Russian soldiers on weary guard duty about the city would sidle up to the local wine-bar and order a drink, saying "Bistro! Bistro!" (pronounced "biss-traw"), the Russian word for "Quick! Quick!" -- so they might quaff their drink before being spotted by some superior.
The rule of the day in some restaurants is just that: quick, quick...order, eat, and get out --to make room for the next customer. In this marketing effort, noise can help.
In some New York restaurants, it is part of business strategy to play loud music, not as background, but as foreground. The tempo is non-relaxed, to keep you chewing--which you might as well do, as it's too loud to talk in there anyway. Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article how as a restaurant chain operating under the name of Dick Clark (one-time emcee of the radio and TV program American Bandstand and billed as America's oldest teenager, now in his mid- or late-sixties), does--as policy--keep the sound level way up and the diners chowing down and moving out. And, it is not--allowed one of the chain's managers--under local discretion how loud to play the music; he had no on-premises control by means of which to moderate the sound.
But it's not just in the Dick Clark chain in NYC that the problem appears. In the Boston Globe reviews of local restaurants, Allison Arnett's column (appearing on Thursdays in the Globe's "Calendar" supplement) has begun to rate restaurants on noise level as well as on food, decor, and service, specifically as to whether you can hold a conversation in the place or not. It turns out that the majority of restaurants reviewed are "passable" given that they are not crowded (i. e., "conversation possible"), but a surprising number of places rated great on food are concurrently rated as noise traps.
In these instances, the culprit probably is not a "eat-and-move-out" strategy on the part of the management, but a lack of planning, that is, while all else in the decor and surround is well calculated, no attention is paid in the design of the restaurant to what the noise level will be when most or all of the seats are taken.
Why is that? Probably because the architect or interior design planner focuses primarily "space" while laying out the premises, and not "sound." Acoustics simply doesn't enter into the equation. Too, the people who do the planning have grown from adolescence to adulthood in a world of high-amplification movie sound tracks, super-loud concerts and dance music, turned-up Walkmans, and the like. Specifically, they have lived all along with noise levels that are unthinkably loud by earlier standards, and take such clamor for granted as being "normal." Also, many of these people have by now lost maybe 20-30% of their hearing due to chronic exposure to loud noise, and hence are unable to judge how any particular sound level might be received by undamaged ears.
Too, when a restaurant opens for business and fills up to where the conversation and music reach loud levels, the sense is that the place is "humming," that there is an exciting bustle or sonic "edge" to the atmosphere which is just part of the ambiance. Of, course, when there's music blaring in a restaurant, that in itself forces the patrons to talk all the louder, creating in turn an escalation in speech which augments the overall din.
There's a place I like to go for quick informal lunches-- Bertucci's near the Alewife MTA station. It's convenient, the food is inexpensive, and I like the menu. They play background music, and most times I have been there, the background music is in fact background.
But, more than a few times--and it may depend upon who is the "manager" for that particular day--the background music (usually, old Sinatra songs), is turned up to foreground, "in-your-ear" (as in "in-your-face") levels. On those occasions, I've asked the music turned down a bit, not off (I like Sinatra...), and they've usually done just that. But that the basal level of sound there is *loud* is not that unusual in such places. OK. What can anyone do about all this?--if they are among the persons who care about how much their ears are being assaulted.
For one thing, in the case of restaurants, they can complain to the manager. That may work in most cases. But maybe not all. A couple of years ago, I dropped by the Ritz Hotel at Florida's Amelia Island Resort for their "tea-time." I was looking forward to some relaxing moments chatting with my wife and mother-in-law. No sooner than we sat down in the hotel's carpeted lobby amidst elegant potted palms and satin-upholstered settees, along with a few other parties--maybe seeking the kind of relaxing interlude as I was--than a fellow at the grand piano began belting out show tunes. Not at a background level that would let the other patrons and ourselves enjoy each others conversation, but ultra-foreground, as if auditioning for some brassy Broadway production.
I asked the woman who appeared to be in charge of the room if the player might be less exuberant acoustically, but, upon her chatting briefly with the piano player, she reported that he was not about to, he saying that maybe the other patrons like what and how loud he was playing. Maybe so; they had better like it, as they certainly could not converse. We left.
So complaining may or may not work. In many instances, it won't, as the service people in our burgeoning service economy are, in many instances--like the piano player--serving mainly themselves. Often, the choices are ear plugs, or getting up and leaving.
People--both vendors and buyers of this or that item or equipment, often equate power with noise level.
Some years back when the guy who so liked Remington electric shavers that he "bought the company" was himself doing the sales pitches, he would flip on the razor and immediately relish the vigorous buzz that it gave off. "Listen...that's power!!" he would say. It so happened that I bought one of the razors--in response to one of his early ads, before he started to switch on the things. It was like putting mini-chain saw up by your head. I gave it to my brother for his birthday--he's less bothered by sound levels than I am.
The equating of sound level with power or effectiveness holds for whole lines of goods, from lawn mowers, snow blowers (and leaf blowers!!), trucks, to hair dryers. This last one really makes me wonder where people are coming from. I'm very happy with my current barber, except when he decides to cut my hair wet and then dries it with his hair dryer. Up by your ear, it's like having a 747 buzz you. Why can't they make noiseless hair dryers, or ones that at least have only a soft hum? Of course they can. There is no mechanical reason why hair dryers can't be soft in sound. But manufacturers wouldn't sell as many of such a model to a public that has been sold, or has sold itself, on the proposition that loudness equals power.
The art of public speaking is a lost art. It is rare that you can find anyone able to stand up in a large room and make themselves heard and understood--all without a microphone to amplify their voice.
Something by the quaint label of "rhetoric" is no longer taught in grammar or secondary schools, as it once was. Rhetoric, simply put, is the art of public speaking, both the framing of arguments and their oral expression. In particular, it involves the placing of the voice, projecting it out and over the audience. Reaching all of the audience is not achieved by loudness, but by artful projection.
It is rare to witness such rhetorical skill even on today's stages--except in amateur productions where their is neither budget nor motivation to "mike" up the actors. I recall some years ago seeing the actor Basil Rathbone (famous for his movie portrayals of Sherlock Holmes) play in Terrance Rattigans' Separate Tables. The production was staged in Boston's John Hancock Hall, where miking was not used. The impressive thing about Rathbone's speech, as well as that of his co-star Margaret Leighton, was that their slightest intention carried to farthest row of the theater--without benefit of microphones.
Even the "stage whispers" of these actors carried to all the audience. To achieve a whisper, they did not, as such, whisper; rather, they would change the quality of their voice so that, while the sound was produced at the same volume as the rest of their spoken lines, it had the tonal values that we associate with whispering.
I've noticed the same effect on certain television dramas where you hear a telephone ringing on the video, where the telephone is from a distant room. More often than not, in the split seconds before the TV actors respond to the phone, I would take it that the kitchen phone in my own house had just rung. What was coming out of my TV's speaker was not simply the sound of a telephone ringing, but that of a telephone ringing at a distance.
Such modulation in the quality of sound is at the base of the ventriloquist's art. No one can actually "throw" their voice. What they can do, though, is produce a voice with tonal qualities as if it were, for instance, muffled as coming from a closed box, or high pitched as if coming from a tiny body (the dummy in their lap). That, plus strategies of indirection, such as not moving the lips and looking out and away to the apparent source of the sound, complete the effect.
In the church I attend, the walls, floor, and ceiling are of marble, and thus are highly reflective surfaces for sound. In and about the altar are several microphones: one each at two podiums, another placed between the two podiums. And, of course, the priest is "miked."
The result is that every word the priest utters is heard by the various mikes at three levels: first, by picking up the original speech; second, by picking up what comes out over the various loudspeakers placed about the church walls; and third, all of the reflections from the foregoing as reflected off the church's marble surfaces. The result is a reverberant clutter of sound.
Should the priest speak rapidly--which a certain one invariably does--I literally cannot "hear" a word he is saying. Or, rather, I hear each word n time where n has to do with the number of cascading, overlapping sonic reflections that the various mikes, speakers, and marble surfaces give rise to. Fortunately, the other priests of the parish speak more slowly, with more space between words and phrases, so that what was said a half-second before is not acoustically blended with what is currently being said.
I contrast all this with what happened in one of the churches I attend in my childhood. Fr. Syzmanski at St. Michael's was a wonderful speaker. He would give the sermon first in Polish, then in English. In either language, he would utter--without benefit of microphone--a short phrase, and then pause, letting that phrase roll around the acoustics of the church hall such that the sound his voice gained resonance, not clutter. Only then would he go on to sound the next phrase. Fr. Syzmanski was himself "of the old school," and clearly had paid attention to his teacher of rhetoric. They don't make 'em like that anymore--at least not since rhetoric was dropped from the curriculum and Radio Shack replaced it.
One wonders whether technology, while part of the problem--along with un-trained speakers, can be part of the solution. Where there are multiple mikes about, can signal -processing somehow de-echo and de-reverberate the sound signal that the listener hears?
The opera houses of the world, up to now a refuge from amplified singers, may well be facing the specter of microphonics.
In a New York Times article, Anthony Tommasini :recounts how electronic sound systems, introduced on Broadway in 1940, and later with hidden body microphones and wireless transmitters in 1964, spelt the death knell of skilled singing and subtle lyrics in favor of brassy sound and "numbing spectacle." Now, he points out, electronic sound systems threatened to acoustically second-guess natural singing with installation in such concert halls and opera houses as Berlin's Staatsoper and, in America, the New Your State Theater, home of the New York City Opera and the New York City Ballet. He painfully notes how the voices of such legendary casts as baritone Leonard Warren, tenor Jussi Bjorling, and soprano Bidu Sayao in a 40's production of Verdi's Rigoletto would be listened to attentively by hushed audiences who savored every nuance of the unamplified human voice, whether the natural sound be big or small.
Tommasini further notes how the microphones in the New York State Theater distort the acoustics. Instead of the singer's voice coming directly to you and then reverberating throughout the hall, the reverberant echo seems to come too soon. Further, the powerful voice of baritone Mark Delavan in Verdi's Fallstaff seemed to push the sound system to its limits, with "...an agitated listener from an upper balcony [shouting] out angrily: 'Turn off the mikes. Turn off the mikes. Let's have some real sound up here.'" Soprano Beverly Sills, now retired, and a former director general of the New York City Opera, has also expressed dismay at the amplified sounds at the State Theater's acoustics, noting annoying buzzing as well as homogeneity and lack of contrast, especially in how women's voices came across.
Tommasini, in his article, asks why City Opera audiences haven't risen up in protest against the erosion of musical quality as perpetrated by electronics. He speculates that the company has succeeded well in attracting younger audiences who are both new to opera and who have had little exposure to the natural singing voice, having grown up with amplified sound in movies, rock clubs, and even churches. In effect, many of the City Opera's audience have lost, or never had in the first place, a keen appreciation of the unamplified voice. Just as TV has gutted modern generations' taste for reading and conversation, electronic sound media has coarsened or erased the modern listeners' taste for quality sound in favor of loudness.
One way to fight noise is to fight it with anti-noise. This technology involves a microphone which listens to the same noise that is arriving at your ear, and generate and equal and opposite acoustic waveform which it plays in your ear along with the signal form the surround. The effect is that the generated equal and opposite signal cancels out the original noise sound. (For a rundown of commercially available technology that does just this, check out the site at Bose Corporation.
This technique works, as might be expected, on lower register noise signals which are repetitive and periodic: e.g., the "hum" of an motor or engine, and not very well where the sound is by and large non-repetitive. The reason is the technique needs to predict what kind of signal to generate in order to cancel out the sound from the environment, and it's hard to predict just what that might be should the environmental sound be non-regular.
Perhaps architects and restaurant designers--or, for that matter, designers of any large interior spaces where people gather, such as theaters, concert-halls, hotel function rooms, and the like--could computer-model the acoustics of the space, not just the "look" of the place. Consider a program which would acoustically model the sound experience of a person situated in some certain spot in the planned space and experience in a simulated fashion what would be the acoustic experience they would have there. Certain parameters they might have to control include: number of people present; any ambient noises in the surround; the acoustic reflectance of the material used in the wall, on the ceiling, on the floor, the furniture or seating, etc.
Also in the model ought to be any significant sound sources in neighboring rooms, sound from overflights, and the life. Only then would the designer of the space be able to et an idea of the acoustic experience of any person present in such a space. It would be important to be able to generate 3-D sound graphs or profiles of the sound levels in the space, and also to be able in acoustic space to "travel" to any spot in the space and experience over the computer systems sound system what it would be like to be in that space under specified sound conditions and parameters. Then, the designer could know what the person in the competed design would experience, and maybe adjust the construction plan accordingly.
What about siren noise? One aspect of the problem is that the siren sound is broadcast, whereas--for the most part--it need be directed toward those vehicles that are impeding the path of the ambulance or the fire truck. Maybe the "audio spotlight" technique developed at the MIT Media Lab --that of directing sound just to where it is needed or wanted--could profitably come into play here. Siren sound would be directed, as with a searchlight beam (maybe having a light or laser beam co-linear with the sonic path is the way to "aim" the sonic beam...), toward the target vehicle or vehicles. Then, rather than blasting the neighborhood generally with noise, the siren sound is deployed where it can do the most good.
Maybe...just maybe...technology, which introduces so much annoying noise into the daily surround, can also act to reduce that noise.
Tommasini, Anthony. Defending the Operatic Voice From Technology's Wiles. The New York Times, Wednesday, November 3, 1999, p. B1.