Pump up the volume

If you're worried the noise you make could drive your neighbours mad and turn your life into a long series of wrangles, you could be in need of soundproofing advice. Christopher Middleton reports
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The Independent Online

When musician Tot Taylor decided to set up a recording studio in his Kentish Town apartment, he had a feeling this might not be too popular with the neighbours. He had to decide whether to pile up duvets and egg boxes against the walls to absorb the noise or pay out for a professional soundproofing job. Wisely, he went for Option B, and to keep costs down, he located the studio in one of the smallest rooms - the bathroom. "It's only six feet by six, but that's all the space I need," says Taylor, who composes music for TV, films and advertisements. "If you're going to be recording an orchestra, you need somewhere the size of an aircraft hangar. But for what I do, it's fine. I can fit in the equipment - and me."

When musician Tot Taylor decided to set up a recording studio in his Kentish Town apartment, he had a feeling this might not be too popular with the neighbours. He had to decide whether to pile up duvets and egg boxes against the walls to absorb the noise or pay out for a professional soundproofing job. Wisely, he went for Option B, and to keep costs down, he located the studio in one of the smallest rooms - the bathroom. "It's only six feet by six, but that's all the space I need," says Taylor, who composes music for TV, films and advertisements. "If you're going to be recording an orchestra, you need somewhere the size of an aircraft hangar. But for what I do, it's fine. I can fit in the equipment - and me."

Mind you, there's even less space now than when it was a bathroom. For the secret of total sound insulation is to build a room-within-a-room, creating a small, independent box which is not an integral part of the surrounding structure. In between this box and the existing walls (plus floor and ceiling) are packed a variety of noise-absorbent features. These include rockwool-like insulation fibre, layers of sand, and wooden floors that "float" above their joists rather than being physically attached to them, just like a dance floor in a ballroom.

Net result of all this padding is that you lose about 16 inches off both the width and length of your original room, plus the same amount off the height; hence the shrinking of Taylor's already economy-sized bathing area.

It's not a cheap process, either, working out at around £100 per square metre - which means that total price for noiseproofing a room 4 metres by 3 would be around £7,000. Plus, if you want to breathe, you may need to spend another £1,600 on airconditioning. Expensive work - but it's got to be done if you don't want to wake the neighbours. "Sound is like water, you see", explains John Kingham, of XL Acoustics, the firm that installed Taylor's studio. "Just as a fish tank with a pinhole will leak water, so a room with a weak point will leak sound. It can escape through a crack in the wall - or even a keyhole."

And once it's out, the chances are that it'll get even louder, as the joists and voids between most urban properties tend to act like giant amplifiers.

No question that next-door-noise is today a major problem across the UK. Almost every town-dweller in the country has an audio-aggro story to tell, and official statistics echo this anecdotal evidence. According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, noisy-neighbour complaints have trebled since 1986, while the last English Housing Condition Survey found that an earbashing 2.3 million households were bothered by noise from next door. So bad have things become that the Government has introduced new building regulations (entitled Appendix E), requiring all new homes to pass clearly specified acoustic tests, whereby only certain levels of noise penetration are permitted.

Prior to the arrival of Appendix E (on 1 January this year), the only soundproofing requirement upon developers was to build party walls with bricks of at least 225mm thick (just under nine inches). This was a figure that was arrived at in the Fifties, however - in the days when the worst noise pollution you were ever likely to have to put up with was the man next door playing "My Old Man's a Dustman" on a scratchy old Dansette. Today, of course, things are rather different.

"Modern equipment is so much more powerful than what was available 50 years ago," says Kingham. "On top of that, today's pop music is dominated by these driving bass lines - and it's precisely this low-frequency noise which is the hardest to keep out, as well as the most annoying to listen to through a party wall."

Even the more "everyday" sounds from next door, such as TV, radio - and talking - can grate on the nerves, and as well as installing top-flight recording studios for everyone from 10cc to the MoD, veteran acoustic engineer Alan Stewart finds he is increasingly in demand to soundproof walls between houses.

"There's no doubt about it - people are less tolerant to noise than they were," says Stewart, who can soundproof a standard-sized Victorian terrace for £4,000 to £6,000. "I don't know that this kind of soundproofing actually adds value to a house, but it certainly makes a good selling point if buyers are nervous about noise from next door."

Someone who helps make that noise is Angus Gibson, whose firm Gibson Music designs and installs state-of-the-art audio equipment (flush-to-the-wall speakers, etc). As part of the service, though, he feels obliged to draw his customers' attention to the problems that these high-powered systems can cause. "We had a situation recently where the clients wanted to install a huge plasma screen plus bass speaker inside their old fireplace," he says.

"Aesthetically, it was the perfect location, but we felt we had to point out that the sound would go straight up the chimney flue and cause noise problems for the people in the adjoining properties, who shared that flue.

"To their credit, the clients acknowledged this, and the way we resolved the situation was to seal up the flue and then pour vast amounts of tight-packed sand down it, so as to create a huge, sound-absorbent barrier all round the speaker." Problem solved - and countless midnight confrontations avoided (it is estimated that 10 deaths a year are down to disputes over neighbour noise). All very nice too - but what about those of us who are living in old properties unprotected by Appendix E, and with bank balances that don't run to professional-standard noiseproofing?

"As an acoustic engineer, I shouldn't be saying this, but quite often there's a simple alternative to expensive soundproofing," says Kingham. "Almost invariably, the problem with noisy music is that the two sides tend to demonise each other; one lot builds up a picture of their neighbours as rock'n'roll monsters, while the other lot imagines the people next-door are uptight killjoys who've got it in for them personally. Much cheaper than building an acoustically sealed box is taking a bottle of wine and some flowers round to your neighbours and seeing if you can sort out a time when they're out perhaps, and you can play your music as loud as you want.

"And of course, the cheapest sound-reduction feature of all is the volume knob on your stereo."

XL Acoustics: 023 8047 4670; www.xlacoustics.com

AVD (FM): 01760 441700; www.avdco.com

Gibson Music: 020-7384 2270; www.gibson-music.com

If you want a quote on soundproofing, you can get a list of accredited UK acoustic engineers from the Association of Noise Consultants, 01763 852958; www.association-of-noise-consultants.co.uk

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