Comal, a bustling,
Popular Science|Winter 2019
Oaxacan-inspired restaurant in Berkeley, California, has all the ingredients for the kind of ear-splitting ambience that’s become familiar in modern eateries: packed bar, open kitchen, high ceilings, and concrete walls. But when I join a dinner there one spring evening, it’s easy to jump into the margarita-fueled conversation and order up plates of grilled corn, carne asada tacos, and rotisserie chicken with mole.

Despite the clinking cutlery and up-tempo Latin rock music, nobody strains to hear the waitress when she points out the chipotle, habanero, and chile de arbol salsas that she plunks down with our chips.

This apparent sonic miracle is crafted by computer. An algorithm embedded in a system of networked microphones and speakers carefully controls the din. Called Constellation, the setup is the brainchild of San Francisco Bay Area firm Meyer Sound. The company, run by John and Helen Meyer, has built audio systems for concert halls, sports venues, and Broadway theaters for 40 years.

The couple first turned their ears to restaurant noise one night in 2010, when they met some good friends at an upscale tavern famed for its seasonal Mediterranean fare. The meal was superb. The racket of a packed house and an open kitchen was unbearable. Their table talk all but ceased.

While most people would just raise their voices for the evening and move on, John was inspired. He’d found their next challenge.

“We were trying to figure out exactly what interferes with conversation at the table,” John says. “What is the real problem? Why are people shouting?”

Ear-weary customers everywhere are asking the same questions. In the past decade, noise has risen to the top of annoyances in Zagat’s annual Dining Trends surveys, beating out poor service, bad food, and high prices. Restaurant critics in America’s major cities tote decibel meters to their meals. Apps like iHearU and SoundPrint help people vet their choices and share the results. Social media and mounting research about related health risks amplify complaints.

Diners might think the worst impact of a high-volume meal is a ruined night out, but University of Michigan public health researcher Rick Neitzel says eateries are part of a larger problem. Our cumulative sound exposure can increase our risk of hearing loss, heart attack, and stroke. “Your ears don’t care where the noise comes from,” he says. “They only care how much you get.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much extra volume is assaulting our eardrums when we eat out because most of the evidence is anecdotal. But consider a 1993 study of about a dozen dining establishments, which found that sound levels peaked at 68 decibels (a little louder than normal chitchat). Compare that with a much larger 2018 survey of New York City restaurants, in which one-quarter hit at least 81 decibels (more like a garbage disposal), the average level was 77, and just 10 percent were 70 decibels or below. The report deemed those “quiet.”

Saving dinner conversation isn’t as simple as turning down the in-house music. So some restaurateurs have started hiring consultants to diagnose their sonic ailments and prescribe a variety of architectural tweaks and sound-absorbing decor. A properly tuned environment ensures privacy for each table, and lets people chat and order in normal speaking voices—all without damping the buzz that keeps the atmosphere energetic.

John told Helen that, with the right tweaks, he could adapt Constellation—which Meyer had originally designed for concert venues— to offer a range of vibes for everything from a mellow Sunday brunch to a lively Saturday night. He and Helen began recording dinners at restaurants (with the owners’ OK) to find out what acoustic canvas they were starting with. In the center of the table, they’d plop a nest of six microphones crammed into what looked like a mesh flying saucer. The contraption captured the auditory mix from every angle so the team could later play it back and study it. Ultimately, they’d reverse- engineer the noise into something completely new.

The sprawling corporate campus of Meyer Sound was once a ketchup factory in the Berkeley flatlands. Inside a square block of low-slung, concrete buildings topped by red-tile roofs, massive factory floors with ample space for assembling speakers and other audio components surround a small, white-and-gray soundproofed chamber. This is the lab where the outfit’s handful of senior staff go to test out new ideas.

One morning, John Meyer sits in the middle of the room wearing a rumpled blue-checked shirt and tan chinos. Wire-rimmed glasses and an untamed gray beard frame his squinty, somewhat distracted look as he peers at an array of wall-mounted speakers and dangling microphones. They’re attached to a computerized signal processor that can pick out threads of recorded sound (like the glug of pouring water or a loud laugh), modify their volume, echo, and location, and then weave them back together.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM POPULAR SCIENCEView All

They Might Be Giants

A photographer-and-ecologist team are on a mission to document the forests’ mightiest members.

3 mins read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Droplet Stoppers

Covid-19 made face masks a crucial part of every outfit, and we’re likely to don them in the future when we feel ill. Fortunately, there’s a style for every need.

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Landing a Lifeline

For those whose livelihood depends on the ocean, a covid-spurred interruption in the seafood market might speed progress toward a more sustainable future—for them and for fish.

10+ mins read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Headtrip – Your brain on video chat

Dating, Catching up with family, and going to happy hour are best in person.

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Behind The Cover

Butterflies may seem delicate, but they are surprisingly tough.

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Tales From the Field – A cold one on mars

Kellie Gerardi, bioastronautics researcher at the International Institute for Austronautical Science

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

The Needs Of The Few

Designing with the marginalized in mind can improve all of out lives.

6 mins read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

Life On The Line

On the Western edge of Borneo, a novel conservation-minded health-care model could provide the world with a blueprint to stop next pandemic before it starts.

10+ mins read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

waste watchers

YOU CAN TURN FOOD SCRAPS INTO FERTILIZER IN ALMOST ANY CONTAINER. THESE BINS USE THEIR OWN METHODS TO ENCOURAGE THE PROCESS, BUT BOTH KEEP BUGS AND STINK AT BAY.

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020

why can't i forget how to ride a bike?

LEARNING TO PEDAL IS NO EASY FEAT.

1 min read
Popular Science
Winter 2020
RELATED STORIES

Blue Hill Public Library

Wow—things have been busy at the library, and the August art show “Seeing the Light” is getting a lot of viewers. If you haven’t seen it, stop by. The show features paintings, carvings, pottery, and porcelain by local artists in a range of prices. Proceeds from the artwork sales are shared with the library.

2 mins read
The Weekly Packet
August 19, 2021

Twenty Years Gone

One family’s struggle to make sense of 9/11

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
September 2021

Madness on Campus

Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man

5 mins read
Mystery Scene
Summer #168 2021

GRIPPING RESEARCH

I said my first words in a bar—“orange sody.” I eventually outgrew my love of Whistle orange soda, but I have a lifelong interest in bars.

2 mins read
Mystery Scene
Summer #168 2021

The Detonations of Alice Neel

A survey of her portraits at the Met is packed with raw emotional power.

6 mins read
New York magazine
April 12-25, 2021

The Culture Pages – The Queen of Fractured Fairy Tales

Hlen Oyeyemi writes magical, unsettling novels in which nothing remains fixed. She has lived her life that way, too.

10 mins read
New York magazine
March 29 - April 11, 2021

The Mexican Revolution's MATA HARI

THE TRUE STORY OF THE MYSTERIOUS AND ELUSIVE HELENE PONTIPIRANI

10+ mins read
True West
November 2020

SCHOOLS OR BARS? OPENING CLASSROOMS MAY MEAN HARD CHOICES

President Donald Trump insists that schools reopen this fall. Many parents, educators, doctors and economists want the same thing. But getting children back to school safely could mean keeping high-risk spots like bars and gyms closed.

4 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #454

Coast to Coast

Journey along the John Muir Way to explore Scotland’s heartland.

3 mins read
Global Traveler
June 2020

Muscle master class

FROM GUNS TO GLUTES, THIS INTRODUCTORY MANUAL ADDRESSES ALL THINGS MUSCULAR.

8 mins read
Oxygen
Summer 2020