Tag Archives: noise

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When Noise is on the Menu

A reasonable noise level at a restaurant should be about 65 decibels.  But many can top 85. Little wonder noise is the most common complaint about eateries of all sorts.

These days when the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells writes reviews, it’s not uncommon to read about sound levels in expensive establishments that are “abusive” or “overpowering.”  That’s not always the case.  But high New York rents dictate small rooms with many tables.  And the bar culture especially in after-work watering holes nearly duplicates the sound intensity of the beachside runway on St. Maarten’s.  We have all had the experience of spending an evening with others where our time together was defined less by the food coming from the kitchen than our skill as lip-readers.

The World Health Organization notes that the normal nighttime noise level for a large city should be no more than 40 decibels.  (This measurement scale is logarithmic; every three decibel increase roughly doubles perceived sound intensity.) Continuous sound topping 55 decibels can leave a person at risk of cardiovascular disease.  That’s a considerable distance from the 120 decibels that can produce permanent hearing loss: a real risk for musicians of all sorts.

A reasonable noise level for a busy restaurant should be about 65 decibels.  But many restaurants easily top 85 in their bars and main dining areas, a fact aggravated by the tendency of well lubricated patrons to talk even louder.  Maybe the hard stuff should come with a noise warning as well as a warning to drink in moderation. Little wonder noise is the single biggest complaint leveled against eateries of all sorts.

Many eateries are also designed to reflect rather than soften noise.  And nothing is a greater problem than hard surfaces, especially glass. Glass harshly reflects sound back on us, even while it seems visually transparent.  So even a table with a beautiful view may be no better than sitting in a three sided box. In practical terms, avoid the offer of a seemingly cozy booth with a view that is also  just a few steps from the bar. If the place is busy, you are likely in for a sound circus. As I documented in The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, all of that alcohol-fueled reverie a few feet away is going to come you way twice: once as the sound travels to the window, and then again when it comes back to your ears a few microseconds later.

The problem is common enough to get a separate web page from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Their recommendations:

  • Spare your kids the noise.
  • Eat at off times.
  • Request that music or the sound on televisions be turned down
  • Ask for a quieter corner away from loudspeakers or loud groups.

There is a curious fact about excessive noise.  Many of us don’t notice it.  We are used to moving through clamorous environments that push at the margins of comfort.  Some of us are natural stoics, bearing the burden of too much noise until it is mentioned by others.  This is one reason excessive sound volume is a contributor to stress, not to mention permanent hearing loss. As ambient sound turns into a roar it stretches the natural elasticity of our patience.  In the end, we feel drained and fatigued without exactly knowing why.

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Sturgis or Bust

We were clueless about the long tradition of the rally that has continued all these years, even through the Covid-19 scare.

When I was a young parent I remember an August trip through the West revisiting spots I had seen when I lived in Colorado.  South Dakota had to be on the list.  I was anxious for my family to see Mt Rushmore, and the narrow “pigtail” roads that wind their way through the mountains on the western side of the state. The Black Hills National Forest always had a different look than the forests further south. The usual pattern back then was to leisurely drive along the picturesque roads to dusty Deadwood to the north, then Mt. Rushmore a bit south, and then look for a place to spend the night on the edge of the forest.

Looking at the map, our spur-of-the-moment choice in the 70s was the sleepy village of Sturgis. To be sure, the day before we stopped we commented on all the motorcyclists on the highways. But then, who wouldn’t pick a nice spot to tour via twisting but smooth mountain roads?  Needless to say, we were ignorant of what was around the next corner.

We must have looked like deer in the headlights as we slowly inched our way by parked and double parked motorcycles along Junction Avenue, now anchored at one end by the well-named “Loud American Roadhouse,” and at the other by “Red’s Grill and Pub.” All the riders we saw in the last few days seemed to have found their way there as well, swelling the edges of the road with their two-wheeled machines.

At first we thought there must be at least a few hundred.  Wrong. There were thousands. We somehow missed the memo about the long tradition of the rally that has continued all these years, even this week through the Covid-19 scare.

The press has been reporting that about 250,000 have showed up, swelling the town’s normal population of 6500, and no doubt putting the staff at the small Sturgis Hospital across from Red’s on its own red alert.

Against all odds, and after sheepishly explaining we didn’t know about this annual siege, we actually found a couple willing to let us use a nice basement room for the night. I think this was the last time that I traveled without making reservations in advance.

Dinner for the family was in one of the roadhouses, which offered steak and potatoes or nothing. Needless to say, it was an easy menu to ponder. It felt like we were eating in the dining hall of a mining camp.

I know my way around a library, but I was surely out of my league with the motorcycle crowd. In fact, the only other memories that remain is the deafening noise. Back then, some of the folks that  had come to town looked down on their luck. But a rider of a “hog” can at least claim the honor of sucking up everyone else’s sonic airspace for at least two blocks.