Published On: Thu, Nov 2nd, 2023

How to make your home much more soundproof

How to make your home much more soundproof
How to make your home much more soundproof

Experts share their best strategies on covering noises and blocking them out

(Illustration by José L. Soto/The Washington Post; iStock)

I knew the planes would be a problem the first time my wife called from our new apartment.

“Where do you think …” whoosh “ … we should put the couch?”

In between the planes, there are church bells. The toll can be charming, but when several churches ring them all at once, every 15 minutes, the charm can give way to frustration, especially if I’m on a deadline.

I thought moving to a small town in Switzerland would be quieter — a break from the all-day symphony of sirens, the neighbor’s howling dog and the bustle of the four-lane thoroughfare outside our old apartment in D.C. Noise is everywhere, though, and it’s bound to leak inside just about any home.

Keeping sound out can be expensive; it can require replacing windows, hanging drywall and stuffing open spaces with insulation. Even then, some noise will seep through. “We never use the word ‘soundproof,’” says Lou Clark, a studio designer and acoustic consultant who owns the firm Sonic Space in New Hampshire. “You can have a 12-inch concrete wall: You can still hear a truck on the other side of that.”

But in between costly near-silence and unwanted annoyance, there are ways to adjust our rooms — and ourselves — to better manage the most persistent and unavoidable sounds around us.

Beyond white noise: How different ‘color’ sounds help or hurt

The cheapest option: Try to get used to the noise

Before calling a contractor, I called Susan Rogers, a professor at the Berklee College of Music with training in psychoacoustics, the study of how we perceive sound. (She was also Prince’s sound engineer in the ’80s.) I wanted to find out if I could alleviate my irritation not by changing something in my home, but by changing something in my head (besides plugging my ears).

Our response to sounds can vary based on memory, mood or personality. If we’re already in an agitated state — say by having a lot of work to do — noise can seem more irritating. The lack of control over the sound makes matters worse; a lawnmower in the hands of a neighbor can be more bothersome than one you push yourself.

But even accounting for individualized response, certain sounds are more likely to be distracting or upsetting, Rogers says. For instance, body sounds tend to be the most widely off-putting (thankfully none of those are leaking into my apartment). Sounds that change in loudness rapidly — Rogers demonstrated this by imitating a trilling sound similar to a jackhammer — are particularly troublesome. So are sounds that are in the same frequency range as a person crying. “If we have a negative reaction to something, it’s because circuits in the brain perceive that stimulus as being something you want to reject,” Rogers says.

When we get used to sounds, “mechanisms in the brain have decided, ‘Well, this is unimportant. I can shift it to the background because I don’t need to deal with this right now,’” Rogers says. This is more likely if a sound is constant — we forget about it the way we forget we’re wearing socks. If the sound comes and goes, Rogers says it may be helpful to try to associate it with something positive. “This sounds silly, but think to yourself, ‘Oh, good, the bells,’” Rogers advises me. “If you can replace that stress hormone with a little bit of dopamine, you can take that exact same stimulus and help to make it a positive thing and not necessarily a negative thing.”

If you can’t ignore it, cover it

If a sound is too loud, too uneven or just too annoying to get used to, another low-cost option is to mask it with a device such as a sound machine or fan. “You want similar frequencies and they need to be powerful enough that they dominate, like the sugar in the medicine,” Rogers says, adding that she’s used YouTube videos of ocean sounds to mask noise. Besides covering the noise, masking can restore a sense of control and reduce anxiety, Rogers says.

Another option is to move to an interior room. “The more building you put in between you and the noise source, the better off you’re going to be,” says Tomás Méndez Echenagucia, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Washington. Basements can be especially quiet since they’re often surrounded by dense earth on all sides. He also suggests installing a sound meter app on your phone and walking around to find the quietest spots. A drop of even five decibels could be the difference between a solid rest and a sleepless night.

Filling a room with soft but dense furniture, thick rugs and heavy curtains can also make a noisy room feel more comfortable auditorily. “The sound will still come in, but once it’s in, it will die out sooner,” Méndez Echenagucia says. This, however, isn’t making your room quieter in a technical sense; it’s just stopping sound from bouncing around the room after it enters. “It’s a perception thing,” says Clark, the studio designer and consultant. “We think things are louder if they last longer.”

Look for holes and weak spots

For rooms that still aren’t quiet, some construction might be needed. The first goal with reducing sound in a room is always to keep it out. To do that, you’ll need to add mass. “When you isolate a room [from noise], you’re making it really, really heavy,” Clark says. “That’s what stops sound from going in and out.” To build mass, Clark adds layers of drywall to walls, which can block sound. Next, you’ll want to find other spots where sound is getting in. “A lot of people think, ‘Well, my neighbor’s over here. I just need to take care of this wall, right?’ Probably not true,” Clark says. “It’s going to find its way through the leaks.” Those gaps could be located around windows, doors, even electrical outlets — any space where there’s an opening.

Clark puts heavy, firestop putty meant to block sound around electrical boxes inside the walls. Around windows and in places where there’s not enough room for drywall, caulking can help. While you’re inside the walls, look for open spaces to add insulation. This will block some high-frequency sounds, but it’s most helpful for reducing resonance, that is, keeping sound from bouncing around in the walls and “preventing the wall system from becoming an amplifier,” Clark says. The resonance of an insufficiently insulated wall can make it seem like there’s nothing between you and the source of the noise. In cases where fire codes or water damage may limit your material choice, mineral wool is a good option, but otherwise, the “regular old pink stuff is going to accomplish what you need to do,” Clark says. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money inside the wall” for insulation.

Go all out on professional soundproofing

You will have to spend a lot of money if you want to achieve home-studio levels of quiet. This essentially entails building a very heavy room within a room, which can cost as much as $500 per square foot and requires a lot of additional space. And even then, you won’t keep out every rumble.

“Unless I were building something from the ground up, I’ve basically given up on meaningfully trying to … ‘soundproof’ as people understand it,” says Mike Moschetto, a record producer and engineer in the Boston area who consulted with Clark on a home studio for recording music and a control room for producing, mixing and listening. “If they’re doing work on our street, you can still hear it.”

Moschetto stopped short of constructing the all-out room within a room. But with “a small fortune of insulation,” drywall and heavy window plugs made of layers of medium-density fiberboard, Green Glue and silicone weather seal, he has been able to make his control room quiet enough for critical listening.

The same measures he’s taken to keep sounds from getting in also help keep his work from spilling outside into the neighborhood — but there’s a limit. Even with the modifications he’s made to the studio space, the loud sounds of a band — especially the low frequency of drums — still escape. “Until my closest neighbors develop the same love and appreciation for heavy metal and punk rock that I do, then I’m kind of at an impasse,” he says.

Before moving, I imagined that I could resume my hobby of playing electric guitar, but to do so in my space, with my budget, I’ll need to practice what Clark calls “social sound mitigation”— working with my neighbors to only make noise at a time that won’t bother them. Until then, the loudest sound on the block will still be the passing airplanes, though I barely notice them now. As for the bells, I’ve come to like them.

Gabe Bullard is a writer who covers culture and technology.

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