Restaurants have to strike a fine balance between eerily quiet and shouting-across-the-table loud. At Oakland's Oliveto, the high-tech solution is a set of mics, speakers, and sound-absorbing panels that constantly record, modify, and pipe back the ideal background noise—essentially real-time Photoshop for sound.
In The New Yorker, the magazine's music critic, Alex Ross, recounts a recent dinner at Oliveto. The restaurant's highly engineered soundscape is the work of John and Helen Meyer, the proprietors of Meyer Sound Laboratories. Here, Ross explains how Meyer Sound's "Constellation" system subtracts the undesirable parts of restaurant background noise.
"Each table is in its own sonic zone," John explained. "But it's not isolated." He mentioned a colleague's earlier attempt to address restaurant noise, which succeeded in suppressing chatter but led to a muffled, sterile environment: "Everyone hated it—the room ended up being completely dead." Instead, Constellation undertakes a process akin to the Photoshopping of an image, with undesirable elements removed. John explained that there are two components to a sound as it resonates: the early reflections, which contain most of the intelligible information; and the later reverberation, which is blurrier. "Right now, with those loud people right behind me, we're hearing only their reverb energy—it's not enough for intelligibility. Early reflections have been cut out: you can hear voices but not what they're saying." The effect is conviviality without chaos.
Oliveto is taking sound design for restaurants to a whole new level, but Meyer Sound's systems are, of course, most sought after in the world of music. In the piece, Ross also discusses attending a concert at a rehearsal space in San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall that's outfitted with Constellation, an experience he finds striking if a bit "philosophically disquieting." Does a Photoshop for sound enhance live music or does digital retouching destroy its soul? [The New Yorker]
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