Monday, July 16, 2012

Sounds like Teen Spirit. Eh? I said "What"?

Pete Brown recently raised the question of the acoustics of modern bars, while admitting the possibility that he's turning into a grumpy old get. Well, according to HardknottDave "the future of pubs, beer and nearly everything else is in the youngsters".   That's true in a sense.  For sure, the future  belongs to those people who are young now.  But they won't be enjoying it as young people.  They'll be older then.  Taking the UK: In 2007 , for the first time, there were more over-65s than under-16s,  The median age of the population is rising, the proportion aged between 16 and 64 is shrinking.  The under-20's, who made up about a third of the population when I was born, now make up less than a quarter. 

When we were young we were, no doubt, smarter than we are now.  Of course, we didn't know shit, but we made up for that lack of experience by being generally quicker.  Sadly, we weren't smart enough to use hearing protection when working in noisy environments. I'm a bit mutton in one ear due to rock 'n' roll related hearing damage, and of course there's the general age related deafness that comes on most of us as we get on a bit.

We (many of us) take hearing so much for granted, that we forget just what a neat trick it is.  Particularly when we're indoors, we're immersed in an incredibly complicated sound field,  with many moving sources of sound and a  varying mix of more or less reflective and dispersive surfaces.  If you think about it, the ability to "focus" on a conversation and extract information from the jumble of noise is remarkable.  You'll have heard of what's sometimes called the "cocktail party effect",  this kind of selective attention enables us to pick out those sounds that are important to us, be it a conversation or whatever, and dismiss or ignore the competing clatter.

Unfortunately,  age related hearing loss very often affects our ability to get speech, as we tend to lose the high frequency sensitivity that I gather is particularly important for distinguishing consonants.   At the same time,  what's termed spatial hearing loss  specifically undermines our ability to selectively attend to sounds by their origin in space.   So what you've got here is an age related double whammy, which will definitely knacker your ability to hear (and therefore make) conversation in noisy environments as you get older.

It's been said that young people positively enjoy acoustically "bright", "lively" environments.  And that a lack of ambience (in the technical sense of reverberation) will create a dead, dull, vibe-sapping feel to a room.   I don't know if the young do actively seek out acoustically challenging environments, but it does seem likely that before the onset of hearing decline, they will be more tolerant of background noise.  I'm sure there are young people who equate noise with excitement.  Good for them.   Of course, we shouldn't forget that some young people will have hearing issues which will cause similar problems to those experienced by us old gits.

What we're talking about here is a (largely) invisible handicap, which designers of indoor spaces should consider.  It's perfectly possible to construct and furnish a room with well defined acoustic properties.  It's not all or nothing of course.  I could cobble together a dead room, or a really nice bright one.  Bring loads of people into my lively room and it could get quite dull and oppressive.  If you've ever been into an anechoic chamber (or even a good vocal booth) you'll know how weird that sounds / feels.  I've seen people put sheets of hardboard on a (carpeted) floor for an acoustic musician who couldn't handle the sound of a relatively dead space with very little in the way of what are called early reflections.

Booth seating is a particularly boss solution to the kinds of acoustic problem we get in bars.  Soft furnishing is always good, of course.  As the lovely soft sound absorbent human bodies come in to a place, they tend to arrange themselves on the soft furniture, keeping the overall distribution of sound absorption about the same, be the room full or empty.  Booths offer acoustic "micro-climates" with tightly controlled reflections (limiting distracting clatter) while allowing the occupants to partake of the general ambience of the room.  It's not that hard to come up with other schemes that can create a variety of sounds and "feel" in quite small spaces. It's not all about the colours and the pictures on the wall.  Careful arrangements of absorbing, reflecting and diffracting surfaces allow the designer to shape the sound field in a way that can define distinct areas and give an overall acoustic that doesn't vary too much with occupancy.

Or you can just fit a place out the way you like, and tell all the people who don't like the acoustics to f*ck off.  But that doesn't sound like the best way to run a business to me.


Jeff Pickthall said...

I've long believed that when a pub gets described as "cosy" it is shorthand for the pub have a dead, low-reverberation sound.

StringersBeer said...

Yep, I think that's very often true.

Dave Bailey said...

"Or you can just fit a place out the way you like, and tell all the people who don't like the acoustics to f*ck off. But that doesn't sound like the best way to run a business to me."

It's a way to run a business if the people who do like it bring in enough revenue.

StringersBeer said...

The problem with targeting a business too tightly is that it makes it rather fragile, wouldn't you say? Especially if you're targeting a shrinking demographic and trying to be desperately trendy. There's nothing like the cutting edge for getting away from you. It's certainly a way of running a business, but not (IMHO) the best way.

But that wasn't really my point. It doesn't have to be one thing or the other. I'm not suggesting everywhere has to be a cosy old brown chintzy pubby pub. It's possible to create varied, interesting, inclusive spaces which don't discriminate against people with hearing problems. You're still free to put off fuddy-duddies (of whatever age), with the decor, music, pricing, whatever.

To go back to your point, if I can make enough money without providing disabled access to my business why would I bother putting in a ramp / special toilets? That's OK, right?