Diners’ top complaint about restaurants is noise, second only to lousy service, a recent Zagat survey found. There are plenty of incremental solutions: Carpets, curtains, and other acoustically gentle materials can soften the din, but a restaurant’s sound level still rises and falls with the number of customers squeezed in—or, perhaps more precisely, the number of wine bottles they’ve finished off.
Meyer Sound Laboratories, an audio engineering company in Berkeley, California, has found a way to control sound in restaurants, using sophisticated technology typically reserved for concert halls and recording studios, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently. Through a magical combination of acoustic materials, recording equipment, and an iPad, it is now possible to make a restaurant as loud or as hushed as you want, with a swipe of the finger.
You might think a restaurateur would want complete quiet all the time, to keep diners happy (and guard against hysterical Yelp reviews). But think about the last time you sat in a dead-silent restaurant. You probably felt like your conversation could be heard across the street.
With the Meyer system, you can augment the acoustics of a restaurant just as you would those of a live performance. You can make the space loud on a Friday night, and quiet on Sunday afternoon. You can program some sections to reverberate more than others: the bar, say, versus the private dining room.
Here’s how it works: Speakers, subwoofers, and microphones are placed around the restaurant, in tandem with sound-absorbing fabrics (including, weirdly, recycled jeans). The microphones record sound, the sound gets sent to a digital processor, and the processor allows someone—the restaurant owner, or whoever else—to tweak the sound just by tapping away on an iPad.
The system was piloted recently at Comal, a Mexican restaurant in Berkeley run by former Phish manager John Paluska, a guy no doubt sensitive to the nuances of sound. Paluska is sensitive to the nuances of aesthetics, too, and as much as he cares about sound, he didn’t want his restaurant to look like a gearhead’s basement. So he and the sound engineers took pains to hide all the equipment. Speakers mix seamlessly into the industrial-chic decor, and sound-dampening materials are customized to look like art. As the Chronicle reports:
A giant print by Deborah O’Grady may seem like just a photograph of a street in Oaxaca, but it’s part of Meyer’s Libra acoustic image system. And just last week Paluska hung an abstract triptych painted by his friend Billy Martin, drummer for the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Martin used Meyer’s acoustic fabric as his canvas.
The system isn’t cheap: It can run anywhere from $10,000 to more than $100,000. But apparently, that’s a lot less than it would’ve cost 20 years ago—and in restaurant economics, no doubt less than the price of a dozen bad Yelp reviews. "As a person who loves to eat out and as someone who reads the restaurant press, I know that noise is a hot-button issue for everyone," Paluska says. "What we wanted to achieve is often mutually exclusive. Either you have a conversational ambiance or a buzzy ambiance. What we’re excited about is that we’re achieving both."
[Via San Francisco Chronicle; images courtesy of Comal]