The Benefits of Sound Masking

open office

The Benefits of Sound Masking

For good aural communication, a signal—i.e., the voice of your colleague or a musical performance —must be loud and clear, well above the noise around you: All of what you want, and none of what you don’t. More signal, less noise. Makes perfect sense, right?

But the noise around you is often made up of signals. The problem is most of those signals aren’t meant for you. Still, being signals, they grab our attention whether we want them to or not.

This post looks at the benefits of sound masking, how it works, and why sound masking systems, alongside other acoustical design features, can help create better sounding workspaces.

Peace and Quiet Means Productivity… Or Does It?

Think about your ideal conditions for concentration. Words like “calm” and “quiet” probably come to mind. But have you ever experienced total quiet? Maybe it was that Sunday morning at the cabin. You took your laptop to the end of the pier, hoping to get some work done while your companions slept away the joys of the previous night. Even there, at end of the pier, it wasn’t totally quiet. Signals were present: the whistling wind, chirping birds, a gentle creak of your Adirondack chair.

Outside an anechoic chamber, total quiet is realistically never attainable. So what we actually want is an acoustical environment where attention-grabbing signals stay below (or, are masked by) other noises that won’t distract us.

What Is Sound Masking?

Sound masking is a steady and continuous, non-informative sound, produced into a space to raise the level of ambient noise with the goal of mitigating the risk of concentration-breaking by signals.

What a definition! Let’s unpack it:

Signals, whether they are meant for us or someone else, form a large part of our noise environment. The signals aren’t distracting in themselves; rather, it’s our ability to understand the signals that breaks our concentration. We strive to find quiet, but in a quiet place, with fewer competing noises, a sudden signal seems even more jarring. So instead of avoiding signals, what if we raised an unintelligible noise to a level where it covers attention-catching signals? That is what sound masking is all about.

Sound Masking in an Open Environment

Sound masking can often benefit workers at open offices, where the lack of walls results in inevitable disturbances from conversations, phone calls, TikToks, and so on. When the general murmur of mechanical unit noises aren’t enough to block the conversations around you, sound masking systems are here to help! They’re usually purpose-designed systems used to raise the background ambient noise levels and spread them evenly throughout a room or space.

This concept isn’t new. Legend says the ancient Romans positioned water fountains in their front yards to prevent street noise from disturbing their outdoor dinners. The modern sound masking system, however, finds its origins in the 1970s, when designing offices with open, flexible spaces emerged as a trend. While masking systems back then weren’t as elegant as today’s, they used the same basic principles.

Components of Sound Masking Systems

Most sound masking systems consist of a processor/speaker grid system, where small speakers are installed above the ceiling T-bars. The masking system’s individual components aren’t much larger than your typical rechargeable Bluetooth travel speaker, and each unit is connected to a central processor in an electrical cabinet.

What makes this system great is that workspaces can be divided into a grid system. Select areas can be set to a higher volume and receive more masking than others. Modern centralized sound masking systems actually allow for other functions as well, from office announcements to background music for the staff holiday party. (The speakers are already there, so why not put them to good use?)

Muzak vs White Noise vs Pink Noise

Now, before you get excited about becoming the office DJ or sharing your expertise in ornithology with your colleagues, consider what makes good background noise. Sure, the chirps and chatters of sparrows or the latest album by that Portland-based instrumental vaporwave-electro band might help you work, but these sounds—while soothing to you—are likely unwanted signals to others. With this in mind, sound masking systems often emit pink noise, the easy-on-the-ears cousin of white noise. While masking systems can sometimes be mislabelled “white noise machines,” the best ones emit pink noise.

Using HVAC Noise as Sound Masking

If sound masking is so beneficial, why not save costs and just over-design HVAC systems to be louder? While HVAC systems can provide ambient noise to cover distracting signals, once an HVAC system is installed, you’re committed to an uneven grid of uncontrollable noise in your workspace. And a noisy HVAC system could be as disruptive as that vaporwave band out of Oregon.

The beauty of a dedicated sound masking system is control: Most masking systems are designed to emit noise within set levels to avoid becoming a disturbance themselves. Many systems can be adjusted for specific areas of the office or times of day. Some even use microphones in the office ceiling to measure noise to adjust masking levels in real time.

Acoustical Solutions for Better Sounding Workspaces

For an open office to succeed acoustically, it should incorporate a mix of open work areas and enclosed, sound-isolated spaces, such as private offices, phone booths, and both small and large meeting rooms. Moreover, sufficient levels of acoustical treatment are necessary to help control reverberation, and a quiet HVAC system keeps ambient levels down. Adding a masking system to cover open areas can help turn a good open space into a great one. A decent sound masking system can provide noticeable improvements to your workspace’s acoustical environment.

At BKL, we have been consulting on acoustics for over 55 years. We were there when open offices became a thing in the 1970s, and, through the years, we’ve consulted on many notable office spaces throughout Greater Vancouver. Contact us today if you want to learn more about acoustical solutions, like sound masking, for better sounding workspaces. We’d love to hear from you.

Written by Joonas Niinivaara

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