For one reason or another, whether it’s culture, commerce or community, people all around the world have huddled closer to one another with every passing year.
In 1900, fewer than 40% of Americans lived in and around urban areas. By the year 2000, that portion had nearly doubled, and today roughly 80% of Americans have collected together on about 3% of the total landmass in the U.S.
Unfortunately, many of our building and noise codes are vestiges of an earlier era, when the world was a little quieter and we were all a bit more spread out. Now many cities, New York included, have come to find that excessive noise is the new number one quality-of-life complaint.
For musicians and home studio owners, this buzzsaw cuts in both directions: When sound gets out, it can annoy neighbors and family members. When sound gets in, it ruins takes and breaks concentration.
Often, the best bet is to find an outside rehearsal or recording studio to book by the hour or by the month. But if you own your home or have a long-term lease and a little bit to invest, there are plenty of ways to improve the situation.
What Not To Do
The most common misunderstanding around soundproofing is the idea that acoustic foam panels can help stop sound from getting into or out of a room. In reality, that approach is about as effective as building a spacesuit out of strategically-placed napkins.
Although they may help improve the character of sound within a room, when it comes to blocking sound transmission, egg crates and mattresses don’t work, and neither do wall-mounted sheets of fiberglass. The truth is that there are only two things that can ever do the trick: Mass and Trapped Air. This can only be achieved through real construction with solid materials.
By far, the best way to soundproof a space is to build a “room within a room” – a new, freestanding floor, ceiling and set of walls that are sufficiently massive and decoupled from the original structure. This can be extremely effective, although not inexpensive. Even then, acoustics contractors like Jim Keller of Sondhus often say that there’s “really no such thing as soundproofing – at best, it’s more like sound resistance.”
But with that said, there are steps you can take to improve the “sound resistance” of your room without going all-out.
Where to Start: Doors and Windows
Sound is a lot like water. Wherever it can go, it will go.
If you have a sturdy massive wall, with even one flimsy area or a single air gap, sound will find its way to that weak spot and travel directly through it. The first place to look solve both these problems is your doors and windows.
Interior walls, which are usually made of a single sheet of drywall on each side of a supporting vertical “stud” may have an STC rating of about 33 dB. If you’re lucky, your exterior walls might cut out as much as 40 or 50 dB if they’re up to basic building code. But all too often, your doors may have an STC rating as low as 15dB, providing pitifully little sound protection.
Doors in apartment buildings, even ones that lead into communal hallways, are often entirely hollow. In many cases, they may literally be made of two pieces of flimsy plywood, kept from caving in on each other only by a lightweight honeycomb of corrugated cardboard.
Replacing a hollow door with a heavy solid-core wood door can go a long way to improving the overall performance of your room. But remember: it’s critical that the seal of the door be airtight, or sound waves will come screaming through whatever air gaps that remain.
Windows are another common weak spot. Replacing cheap windows with double-glazed glass can do a lot to block out street noise, as well as keep the temperature in the room more consistent.
If you have simple goals, like recording a few extra vocals or guitar overdubs at home without street and hallway noise interfering too much; or if you want to freely practice in your apartment without feeling self-conscious as your neighbors enter and leave the building, this step alone may go a long way in taking your room from useless to useable.
But for those who really need to block sound, this is just the beginning. Improving doors and windows can bring your whole room up to the spec of your walls, but they can’t take you beyond that point.