We Brought an Acoustic Consultant to Rough Trade to Figure Out What’s Wrong


Last Thursday Williamsburg’s new and impressive home of overpriced vinyl, Rough Trade, announced that all scheduled shows taking place in the 250-capacity concert venue in the store’s back were to be cancelled or postponed. The problem: Noise complaints. They were getting too many of them. A bit odd considering 1) The massive store is located on a largely industrial N. 9th St. and 2) Many of the shows are relatively early. Those shows aren’t all that loud, either, at least the two we’ve been to (Danny Brown, playing a 20 minute set at 5 p.m., and Phosphorescent playing barely louder than the talk-happy weekend afternoon crowd).

But the complaints are real enough that Rough Trade took the responsible (and, as we learned, very rare) steps to right whatever is wrong. Over the weekend, we asked our (real word coming up) acoustician friend Marty “Hard” Schiff to grab his lab coat and clipboard and go out to the store with us so he could offer an actually-informed diagnosis about what’s going with the venue, and what management could do to get the shows back on track.

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Schiff is no slouch. He earned his undergrad degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas (aka The World’s Greatest) and an MS in Sound & Vibration from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. He has been working in the field of making things quieter since 2000. At Rough Trade, after prying him from the hypnotic clutches of the Tumblr IRL Childish Gambino room (LOLWTF), we walked back to the venue, which is still partially open just in case any young record-buying sporting-enthusiasts want to take in a game or two of ping pong.

Schiff took a look around, made some mental notes about whatever it is acoustic consultants make mental notes about, and the following day we asked him about the place and what they could do to get back on the live music track. Watch out: Things are about to get mad nerdy.

SOTC: Based on our looking around Rough Trade, any obvious sound-leaking red flags pop out at you?
Marty Schiff: I didn’t see anything that was an obvious leak, which would be something like windows to the outside or an exhaust fan punched right through the roof. But two things were clear, first that they didn’t have any interior construction–the underside of the roof is exposed to the room, as are the exterior block walls, and sound insulation is limited if you don’t put some finished surfaces up on the interior. And there is no telling how massive the walls are or how much concrete (if any) they have on the roof to block sound. Second, many of the loudspeakers were rigidly bolted to the walls and roof, which because of number one are the exterior walls that the neighbors are exposed to and/or attached to. This can increase what’s called structure-borne noise transmission, where you are directly vibrating the building components, as opposed to airborne where things are simply so loud they can be heard through the wall.

What are some of the fool-proof recommendations you’d make to management to turn Rough Trade’s music venue into a sound proof fortress?
At this stage of the game, short of an interior renovation, the avenues for improvement are probably limited. Step one would be to really quantify how much sound insulation they have currently through some controlled testing. This will establish how loud things can be without them exceeding the legal limits in the apartments. Short of building interior walls and ceilings, some improvement might come from addressing how the speakers are bolted to the neighbors’ walls and the roof that they look out over. When it comes to a sound transmission problem like this, superficial things like hanging acoustic panels or foam sheets or that kind of thing don’t really address the problem. Surface treatments like those only really affect the sound inside the room, not how much gets out.

With or without any changes, the last step is always to figure out the maximum allowable level and then to make sure they don’t operate louder than that using a limiter. The city noise code limits how loud commercial music can be in the apartment, but not how loud it can be in the venue. So it is never straightforward– different venues can operate at different sound levels depending on how well their acoustic separation is from their neighbors. The sound level in the apartment depends on the building between and a host of other variables. So that’s where the testing comes in.

How much money would all this take?
That really depends on how many neighbors there are, how involved the testing is, how contentious the dispute is, how far they want to go in renovating, etc.

Short of booking folk music exclusively, what are some easy fixes Rough Trade could do RIGHT NOW to better contain the sound there?
It will all come down to limiting the sound level. Getting the speakers off of the shared walls and off of the roof that the neighbors look out at may let them play louder than if they didn’t do anything–but all that does is get them a higher limit, not no limit at all.

You were mentioning something about the neighbors window units essentially being holes in the wall where sound can easily travel through. I’m not familiar at all with the law, but isn’t some of this on them?
Not at all–the law is completely on the side of the residential property. It limits the sound level in the apartment, no matter how well insulated the apartment is. It also doesn’t matter who was there first. If someone builds an apartment building next to your venue, it is now your responsibility to comply with the noise limit in the apartments that weren’t there yesterday.

See also: The Top 15 Things That Annoy the Crap Out of Your Local Sound Guy

Anything you want to add you feel might be pertinent about all this?
Venue and bar owners should know that the city noise code is serious when it comes to commercial music from bands, DJs, jukeboxes, iPods–the fines start big and go into the tens of thousands, and then they can even padlock whatever gear is making the noise. From the residents side, folks should know that the apartment noise limits are quite low, but they are not necessarily inaudible–there is no law that guarantees silence in your home, even if you were there first, and even if the music sucks.

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