Masking sound keeps office conversations private
Silence is golden, but sometimes privacy is more valuable.
And to protect your privacy, many buildings, probably more than you realize, have used a system of electronic audio devices that create a “woosh” of white noise that makes it hard to hear what is being said across the room from you, next door, or in the next cubicle.
Rich Petty, owner of AAA Sound Service & Low Voltage, 295 Mt. Read Blvd., tells clients that sound masking sounds a lot like Niagara Falls, or a heating and air conditioning system.
“It’s just a random sampling of all the frequencies in the full spectrum that are randomly played over and over so it just sounds like rushing water,” he said.
Sound masking technology, which costs about $1 to $3 per square foot of office space, is used in almost any kind of office setting, especially in law offices, doctors’ offices, hospitals, banks, and anywhere else that personal information is shared.
“In recent years there’s been an uptick in the prevalence of open office layouts, less cubicles, less hard wall office configurations. And with people sitting in closer proximity, sound masking is certainly something that’s being considered more often in those situations,” said Nathan Rozzi, an architect at Hanlon Architects, 1300 University Ave., and a member of the board of the Rochester chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Even some car dealerships use sound masking systems.
“When someone is talking with their car representative about the $65,000 Lincoln they’re looking to purchase, they don’t want people that are walking around the showroom hearing their private financial discussion,” said Andrew Shepanski, an account executive at Functional Communications, 100 Victor Heights Parkway, Victor.
Sound masking experts say the technology reduces distractions and stress and improves worker productivity.
Sound masking has become especially popular in recent years because of the ways office space is now designed and constructed. So that floor space can easily be reconfigured when tenants change, interior walls often do not reach all the way to the next floor.
There often is a space above the drop ceiling that allows sound to pass from one room to another. Interior walls are often not insulated to prevent sound from passing through. And doors are sometimes hollow, which means sound also can more easily pass through.
“It’s a product that’s been around for quite a while, but it’s really taking off in the last few years for a lot of reasons,” said Mike Grant, owner of Tele Data Com Inc., 90 Air Park Drive, Chili, primarily a telecommunications cabling contractor that has been selling and installing sound masking systems for a few years.
“Sound that goes into the ceiling passes through and important conversations and things are overheard. It allows you to have those private conversations so your voice doesn’t carry,” Grant said.
Invisible to the public
Work areas are more often designed with an open space concept without any barriers, or sometimes only cubicle separators between desks.
“These call centers and these environments where everybody’s talking, the sound just travels all over the place. This deadens that sound so it creates more of a neutral environment so your voice doesn’t carry over to the next cubicle or the next office,” Grant said.
Shepanski said the general public is usually unaware that sound masking is operating.
“Probably 90 percent of people have been in sound masking offices and doctors’ offices or even just commercial buildings where they have no idea that it’s there because when they walk in the noise that they’re hearing, or not even picking up on, is just part of the natural noise of the building,” Shepanski said.
“The majority of folks, they would have no idea they are even in a sound masking area unless you were to turn it off and then they would know that dead air, that dead noise,” Shepanski said.
Using sound masking also helps medical offices comply with federal laws adopted to protect the privacy of health and medical information.
“We have it in our main waiting area, right at check in. That’s where most of the conversations and questions would take place,” said Annette Wiebeld, practice administrator at Elizabeth Wende Breast Care, 170 Sawgrass Drive in Brighton.
“We’ve noticed that it is more difficult to decipher what patients are saying. So the person who may be standing on the opposite side of them, or behind them, cannot hear,” she said.
“Hey, what happened?”
Sound masking systems usually consist of several speaker-like devices, often about the size of a shoe box, or a large coffee can, placed in the plenum space above a drop ceiling. The speakers are connected to a control system usually installed in an out-of-sight place, such as a closet. Amplifiers and equalizers or other equipment are used to create and adjust the sound.
With the system installed, Grant is no longer annoyed by a co-worker nearby who hums incessantly. Other co-workers say they no longer overhear conversations in neighboring rooms. They can hear talking, but they can’t understand what is being said.
Often, sound masking systems also can be used for paging and emergency notifications. Although sound masking is used most often in office settings, portable sound-masking devices are used in dormitories by college students and travelers in hotel rooms.
“You definitely hear it, but what happens is that you just don’t notice it. After about two hours you just don’t know it’s there. You can hear it, no question about it,” Grant said.
Grant described the noise made by the sound masking system as “sort of like a buzzing light, or a refrigerator compressor that you don’t notice until it turns off.”
“If I turn it off here people will say within 10 seconds, ‘Hey, what happened?’ It’s almost too quiet. it’s almost deafening,” Grant said.