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How Does Sound Masking Work?

by Brian Atkinson on February 2, 2012

Have you ever increased the volume of your music or television program in an effort to “drown out” your noisy neighbors? Or have you noticed how difficult it is to hear a conversation while walking along a busy street? In both of these situations, the “masker” (your music/television, traffic) is changing the threshold at which the “signal” (noisy neighbors, conversation) is perceptible. In other words, some sounds are masking – or covering over – the other sounds.

As demonstrated by the previous examples, sound masking can be both detrimental and helpful. In unwanted situations, noise control techniques can be implemented to mitigate the masking sound. Other times, “fighting sound with sound” is an effective solution in acoustical design. For example in settings where confidentiality is key, low background noise can be problematic, resulting in reduced speech privacy. Or, in open office settings, the surrounding noise produced by coworkers to be very distracting to someone that is trying to concentrate in a quiet environment. In these situations, a carefully designed sound masking system can be implemented to produce a comfortable level of non-distracting background noise which utilizes the principles of sound masking to increase speech privacy and diminish distractions.

People sometimes have a hard time understanding why an acoustical consultant would ever recommend raising the noise floor for, well, anything. The stereotypical idea is that acoustical consultants want to make everything quieter. But as engineers, our challenge is to solve the “riddle” of the sound, however it presents itself. The fact is, a good sound masking system can improve patient rest in a hospital facility, or it can reduce distractions in a noisy work environment. At Acoustics By Design, we develop custom acoustical solutions designed to meet the needs of our clients – even if it sometimes means raising the noise floor.

Brian Atkinson

Brian Atkinson

Brian Atkinson has spent the last 20 years at the crossroads of people and digital communications, and is a sought-after international and inspirational speaker and Social Media Consultant. In his spare time he is also a voice artist and actor. You'll work with him to get your projects started, figure out a scope of work, and answer general questions. Brian is the Client Development Manager at Acoustics By Design in Grand Rapids Michigan.

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