Soundproofing vs. Sound Absorption
I have been getting a lot of calls lately where people are looking to soundproof a room. They explain to me that they want sound that is being made within the room to STAY in the room or they want to keep sound out of their space. We commonly begin talking about the room and the type of noise that we are dealing with in each particular situation.
A LOT of people ask for pricing on sound absorbing foam, or sound proofing panels. They are sure that foam is the ticket because people have seen “egg crate” foam or other similar products as finish wall treatments in recording studios, on TV shows and in movies. This misconception is INCREDIBLY common – so if you are reading this thinking to yourself, “Well, self, doesn’t foam stop sound? Isn’t foam used for soundproofing a room? Everyone knows that, right?” Unfortunately I have to tell you that you are wrong. Foam does not stop sound, foam absorbs echo. Don’t feel bad. There are lots and lots of people out there that share this idea.
There are two sides of the acoustical coin, if you will. There are products that absorb echo within a room and there are products that will block or stop a sound. (There are some panels that will do both. These are generally called composites, but if I get into that now, things will be confusing so I am going to keep it simple.) Products that are designed and intended to ABSORB ECHO within a room are soft, light, fluffy products. They will generally feel soft to the touch. They are designed to soften up the surfaces that are in the room and reduce the echo within that space.
Products that are designed to BLOCK SOUND from entering or leaving a space are almost always found INSIDE the wall construction. These products are heavy, dense, cumbersome, or designed to decouple the wall so that one side of the wall doesn’t have hard surface contact with the either.
I’m going to throw a couple ‘for instances’ at you here to hopefully help further my point. Imagine you are finishing a room in your basement. You have installed the studs that will frame the wall and you are to the point where you are ready for sheet rock. Rather than sheet rock, you decide that you are going to put some 2″ Thick, white “egg crate” foam on the studs. This foam has almost no mass and no density. It is mostly air. After you’ve installed the foam, you tell someone to go stand on the opposite side of the wall and you begin talking. You will be able to hear each other as if there were no wall in front of you.
New scenario. Same basement – same stud wall. Rather than foam, this time, you decide that you are going to put twelve layers of 5/8″ sheet rock on either side of the wall. Twelve layers on the inside, and twelve layers on the outside. You tell your friend to go to the other side of the wall and you start talking. I would be willing to bet that your friend would not be able to hear much of what you were saying due to the massive amount of mass that is making the wall.
Ok, new room. This room is made out of concrete and is the exact same size as a racquetball ball court (20′ wide by 40′ long x 20′ tall) and is made out of solid concrete. The walls of this room are two-feet thick. You clap your hands in the room and the echo seems to go on forever. You have, in your hands 100 new super-balls of varying colors. You throw them in every direction and they keep bouncing and bouncing everywhere through the room, and eventually they stop but it takes a few minutes. NOW imagine that you line that same room with 2″ thick foam. You line the walls, ceiling and floor. You throw the same 100 super-balls and they hit the wall/ceiling/floor and don’t bounce. The energy from the ball was absorbed into the room. A sound wave inside this room is just like that super-ball. It is reflected off of a hard surface and absorbed by a soft one.
I know that these examples are fairly crude, but hopefully I have painted a picture that helps you understand a little more about sound proofing and sound absorbing. I’m sure there are lots and lots of people out there that are excessively smarter than I am who are shaking their heads because I did not touch on the technical side of things explaining wavelength and frequency, but oh well. I am trying to lay down a very simple framework that will help the average Joe’s and Mary’s of the world understand the difference between these two principles of acoustics
Generally speaking, absorbing echo within a room is pretty easy. Based on the surfaces that make up the room and the size or volume of that room, it is fairly easy to suggest to potential customers a few different products and a pretty safe quantity of each product that will take care of their problem. Blocking sound, or decreasing sound transmission, however, is usually a much more difficult feat to accomplish. There are a LOT more things that come into play and blocking sound or soundproofing a room usually is going to require some kind of construction because the stuff that is doing the work is inside of the wall assembly, not on the surface of the sheet rock. Of course there are some products that can block sound that are finish wall surfaces, I am making a generalization.
If you have an acoustical problem or situation that you are looking to fix, the understanding of these two ideas is going to greatly help you choose a product or products that will help reduce or eliminate the problem. I do not want to get into product suggestions in this little write-up, I wanted to put something together that was more informational than anything else. If you would like to talk to someone about your particular problem, here are some things to put together that will help both you, and the sales person that you talk to.
- Are you looking to block sound or absorb echo?
- What are the dimensions of and surfaces in your room?
- What is the room used for? What types of sound(s) are you looking to block/absorb? (high pitch-squeaky sound, voices, low frequency-bass type sound, all of the above)
- What are your ideas as to the best way to treat the room, where to put product, or how to approach the situation?