by David Smith
The non-technical term for designing a sound masking system is “dots on a page.” Circular images, placed by a design department, represent speaker locations on a floor plan. This visual aid achieves the benefits of ensuring proper coverage of the masking within the space as well as informing the installation team where to properly hang the speakers. To the unknowing it seems simple and easy.
The driving factor for purchasing a sound masking system is to create speech privacy and acoustical comfort. By gently raising the ambient background sound level over that of indirect speech levels, sound masking systems provide speech privacy by reducing the ability of the brain to understand conversations just a few feet away. The goal is to mask indirect speech and minimize distraction in the workplace, ultimately resulting in increased comfort and productivity for the individual employee.
But privacy is only half of the benefits you want out of a sound masking system. The consumable – what you are purchasing, is the sound itself. All sound masking companies can produce a noise level which is greater than the ambient background sound and therefore create speech privacy. However, the sound itself needs to be comfortable. It is the quality of the sound which contributes to creating a work environment that is desirable.
Delivering a comfortable sound involves multiple factors. The sound itself requires broadband frequencies in the sound spectrum – both high and low, a repeat that is undiscernible by the listener, and multiple, incoherent noise sources to make the sound more natural. The sound must have tuning and volume flexibility to adjust it accordingly for the acoustically distinguishable space or for those few employees who need “special” adjustment. And, the design of the system must produce uniformity throughout the space so that employees do not seemingly walk “in and out” of the sound.
This design layout is no “dots on a page,” as the science behind the system design is a critical element to achieving comfort for the buyer and users. Each project is unique. Yes, there are standards that act as a baseline for each building type but no two buildings are ever built identical to each other. And, therefore, each design must be tailored to fit the individual project. This is why cookie-cutter or “off-the-shelf” systems are ineffective – they are not engineered to the space.
A design department assesses the space and then applies the proper speaker types (i.e., upward firing, downward firing, small or large dispersion, etc.) and placement that is most effective for achieving both speech privacy and comfort. The design team takes into account the utilization of the space, the heights of the ceilings, and the materials used within it. The department applies their experience and the science of sound masking to ensure that it will be uniform and effective for the employees.
You aren’t just buying noise. You are buying the sound; an experience and an environment for employees that should result in a great place to work. They require privacy and comfort. The selection of that experience should be based on having an organization behind it with the right resources, systems and science that meets your needs and not the other way around.