When creating a space, it’s important to consider audio as a design element. Sound inside an area can get a bad reputation when not properly managed. Ambient noise can be linked to increasing stress levels and possibly other issues like high blood pressure, peptic ulcers and migraines. Control sound so it doesn’t become distracting or unhealthy, while creating the desired atmosphere or actions.
John Powell, president of Pioneer DJ Americas Inc., explains that audio is critical to experience. “If the goal is to create a purposeful space providing a specific guest experience, then sound can enhance that experience. The quality of the audio, type of content and the actual content will have an impact on the experience and how people behave in the space.”
This can be achieved through atmospherics — the process of using elements like sound, visuals and smell to create a positive environment. Powell says that audio elements can be used:
- Strategically to support the experience that occupants and visitors have.
- Tactically to support organizational objectives (like fast-paced music in restaurants to encourage customers to stay in their space a shorter time).
Think carefully about the space and the experience you are trying to create, Powell encourages. “Audiences — customers in a retail environment, diners at a restaurant or guests at a museum — pick up on bad sound or the wrong sound, and it affects their behavior.”
The Right Sound for the Space
When integrating a sound system into a space, consider the goals for the space. Powell suggests discussing:
- What are you looking to do in the space?
- Who are you seeking to attract or retain?
- What is the content that you’ll play?
“Once you resolve these questions, then you’ll consider the fundamental issues of acoustics, cabling, aesthetics and budget,” he says.
Consider decibel level of the audio for health and comfort. If people will be doing focus work and need background noise to concentrate, the sound level should be lower than in a social space.
Average sound level measured in decibels for common sounds and noises, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes:
- 0: Softest sound that can be heard
- 10: Normal breathing
- 30: Soft whisper
- 60: Normal conversation
- 110: Shouting in the ear
ArchToolbox.com has created a list of acceptable sound levels for different room types, with ANSI S12.2: American National Standard Criteria for Evaluating Room Noise serving as the basis for the information, and other sources supplementing information.
[Related: Acoustics Considerations for Shared Spaces]
The list suggests decibel level ranges for the following room types:
- 25-30: Theaters, concert halls, libraries
- 30-35: Classrooms, lecture halls, conference rooms
- 40-45: Offices, private work rooms
- 45-55: Open offices; reception, common spaces and lobbies; shopping; dining halls
To find the right level of sound for a space, consider working with an acoustician or using a sound level instrument.
Audio Equipment Considerations
When picking equipment, not all speakers are created equal, Powell warns, as “the right choice will make a huge difference in how your space sounds and the experience you ultimately create.”
He gives the examples he’s seen of “audio done wrong,” due to lack of strategy or training:
- An audiophile who insisted on a system for his bar that was beyond budget
- The acoustical nightmare in a museum that meant the displays and accompanying audio were misaligned
- A sound system so complicated that retail staffers couldn’t operate
To create the right sound in the space and experience for occupants and guests, consider what sounds and music align with the space itself and what the space is used for too, Powell advises.
“More often than not, your optimal sensory experience is not tinny, crackling or acoustically compromised,” he says. “Instead, most places wish to project a strong robust and clean sound — which is not the same as loud — with good dynamic range over a system that looks good, is long-lasting and is easily operated.”
Taking time to consider audio and audio as an element in the space will help create a memorable experience and set the tone for occupants. “Sound and music are so essential in our lives that they should be part of every design, building and room,” Powell says.