Using 'Pink Noise' in a Loud Workplace

Repairs to the facade of the NPR building in Washington, D.C., have produced steady, deeply distracting noise — prompting a search for practical solutions.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays we focus on the workplace, and today we talk about annoying sounds in the office - like a noisy printer or loud colleagues, or in this case a drill.

NPR's Neva Grant reports on something very close to home.

NEVA GRANT: So close to home, it hurts.

(Soundbite of machine)

GRANT: Yeah. Nasty, huh? And to record this I didn't have to visit a construction site. I didn't have to go anywhere. I just sat in my office and held up a microphone.

(Soundbite of drill)

GRANT: Here at NPR's headquarters in downtown Washington, repairmen have been drilling the façade of the building for weeks. It can get so loud, so unbelievably intrusive, it's like living inside a giant tube.

So I began to call around to see what we could do about this and that's how I met Wade Bray. He's an expert on why awful sounds sound so awful.

Mr. WADE BRAY (Head Acoustics): Human hearing is very sensitive to patterns. If you have a fairly smooth, not very much change of level, you can tolerate and tune out a fairly high amount of sound level. But if all of a sudden you start noticing something sticking out and coming and going, particularly if it's episodic like that, then it becomes objectionable. That's why the drill is so annoying.

GRANT: Wade Bray is actually a vice president of a company called Head Acoustics, and he says even typical office machines like printers, they can get on your nerves if they start to act out of character like rattling or shaking. Your brain just latches on to that jagged pattern, and it can't let go.

So one obvious way to deal with a sound that's nasty, says Bray, is to fight back with a sound that's sweet.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANT: All right, maybe a little too sweet for some of you, but the point is if you can play music at your desk, try that first, but not just any music. For example, these pan pipes, they're too sparse, says Bray. You need something that's lush.

Mr. BRAY: Music that is very thick like a choir singing and very thick chords, many different tones present, that will have more content at all frequencies and will be easier to hide the drill noise.

GRANT: Okay. So to test out his theory here's the drill - with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

(Soundbite of choir)

GRANT: Huh. Not bad. But if you don't like big production numbers, Wade Bray says there is another sound at your disposal and you can download it at your desk. It's called pink noise, similar to hissy white noise, says Bray. But...

Mr. BRAY: It's a more natural sound, much more like the sound of wind and trees or rushing water.

GRANT: Wade Bray says some noisy offices actually pipe in an artificial version of the sound to calm people's nerves. So what happens when you take our old friend the drill and match it with pink? Here goes.

(Soundbite of drill and pink noise)

Mr. BRAY: You could still hear the drill, but it's a much less strong sound, so yes, you can probably do a pretty good job of hiding the drill or making it less objectionable by doing that sort of thing with your computer speakers.

GRANT: Before playing the pink noise at your desk, you should check it out with your colleagues first, says Bray. And speaking of colleagues, remember that pink noise can also drown out the sound of the human voice. So if you have an office mate whose yakking is almost as bad as a drill, well, just remember pink is in.

Neva Grant, NPR News, Washington.

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