ASA Lay Language Papers
161st Acoustical Society of America Meeting

Soundscape Tour of San Francisco

Dennis A Paoletti – ; 415-990-5229 c
Shen Milsom & Wilke LLC
33 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94105

Popular version of paper
Presented Wednesday afternoon, May 26, 2011; Paper 4pAAa1
161st Acoustical Society Meeting, Seattle, WA

Acoustics as defined by the common layman has long been a popular topic of general discussion.
Though sometimes considered a very special technical discipline in the physics community, acoustics has long held a special place among laymen. From critical listening of concert music to complaining about exterior noise interfering with conversation, every lay person has an opinion. Upon leaving a concert, one can often overhear numerous conversations where an attendee is describing the acoustic design of the hall/auditorium, based on what they’ve read, acquired from the media or perceived from their own visual and aural cues. Outdoors everyone is exposed to a myriad of sounds from traffic to music to industrial noise. Even away from major urban areas, peace, quiet, and solitude can be interrupted by the sounds of airplanes, lawnmowers, and other manmade recreational vehicles.
Where does one find a place of quiet solitude amongst the din of the urban environment? What has the architectural and acoustical community provided to obtain a place of quiet during the busy workday?  

People often assume they should hear well anywhere they go. They don’t realize that there are research physicists and psycho-acousticians doing extensive studies on the mechanism of the human ear; nor do they realize there are acoustical consultants advising architects and landscape architects, planners and developers on the design of almost every commercial building and significant outdoor environments, attempting to minimize unwanted noise and optimize speech communication.

Few people have the gift of being able to explain the complex technical concepts of acoustics to non-technical individuals in a way that is easily understood. Dennis Paoletti is a 40 year veteran acoustical consultant who has lectured extensively on the topic of architectural and environmental acoustics and consulted on major commercial office, worship, and performing arts projects throughout the country. His firm Shen Milsom & Wilke provides consulting services in the United States and internationally. Dennis took his technical experience to the streets and offered a Soundscape Walking Tour as part of an AIA (American Institute of Architects) San Francisco Chapter month long Festival of Architecture. Interest was keen. A diverse group of individuals joined the walking tour in a City famous for its sights, and sounds. Participants included a teacher, a local architect, an architect visiting from Washington DC, and a variety of lay people who had a general interest in acoustics and a love of San Francisco. One of them even blogged the tour live. While some in the technical fields search for the perfect metric to measure and compare sound environments, Paoletti and crew enjoyed an afternoon, walking about the City and experiencing the real sounds that help differentiate one city from another. Some unique sounds that define the soundscape of San Francisco include the cable cars, fog horns, electrified street cars, and even the famous Blue angels streaking along the San Francisco Bay.

The tour traversed the major streets, alleys and pocket-parks of San Francisco with Paoletti demonstrating practical applications of the principles of acoustics.  He was able to take the participants to outdoor spaces where peaceful solitude was experienced during the middle of a busy day. Waterfalls, sprays, and trickling water features provide masking of annoying discrete sounds of automobiles; buildings provide shielding of noise and create protected areas where traffic noise is significantly attenuated. Stories about architectural acoustics were illustrated from many local buildings on which Dennis had consulted. The acoustical performance of operable double hung windows in old historical buildings is much less effective than the double pane hermetically sealed high performance windows of today’s high rise buildings. Additionally, the group occasionally stepped into a building such as the Palace Hotel, where Dennis illustrated some practical examples of acoustical parameters of sound absorption and sound reflection describing why some spaces had better acoustics than others.

During the tour, participants had an opportunity to learn about hot topics in acoustics that included hearing damage from industrial and entertainment noise as well as personal listening devices, low level audibility of hybrid vehicles and personal transport vehicles, concert hall design, restaurant noise, and sound masking systems in open plan offices. They were also able to ask questions about urban legends and old wives tails they heard and always wondered if they were true. For instance, one participant asked if it were true that the best place to sit and listen to music in a particular music hall was in the balcony. The answer is “Yes”!; the reason being that sound reaching the balcony seats, in a well-designed hall, arrives in close proximity from the ceiling and the side walls, as well as a reflection off the stage floor that travels upward over the heads of those sitting on the main floor. While walking, popular subject matter related to acoustics included the Vuvuzela (the noisemaker from the World Cup - soccer) and the high noise level of the 100% compostable bag used to package Sun chips. Paoletti sometimes used a small hand-held sound level meter to measure representative sound levels at different points on the walk. Paoletti was also able to demonstrate a sound level meter application on his iPhone for quick simple comparative sound level references.

At the conclusion of the tour, there was uniform agreement that it was interesting and educational. One of the representative comments Paoletti received was: “Thank you for leading the Soundscape Walking Tour; all of us heard a version of the City we had never encountered before”.