Soundproofing Tips for Small Home Dwellers – How Not to Make the Same Mistakes I Did

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It’s a noisy world we live in. Traffic, subways, construction sites, lawn mowers, vacuums, TVs, and all those digital dinging and ringing sounds.  I could go on.  As I write this post, my hyper-industrious neighbor Bertram is using a nail gun and circular saw on his latest home DIY project.  A great guy and super-talented, I can’t wait to see what he’s doing.  But right now he’s driving me a little crazy.  I’m also a light sleeper, so if someone in the household has an early flight and is up at 4 a.m., then I’m up, too—especially if I was awakened hours earlier by a careening carload of late night revelers.

And so I tried all the things that everyone tells you to try.  A tapestry on the wall—OK, it was a rug, but everyone thought it was a tapestry.  Still, I hated the look and it did nothing to stop noise traveling from room to room.  Added egg crate foam behind so-called tapestry.  The foam yellowed, began to smell moldy and, still, no reduction in bothersome noise.  I tried weather stripping and door sweeps with rubber gaskets.  It kind of worked but looked really ugly.  Tried some gorgeous curtains in a weighty velvet—improved sound quality within the room, but no help with the construction noises from outside.  I tried upholstering a wall with cotton batting and fabric.  Same as the curtain thing.

I decided it was time to end the slapdash approach and get SERIOUS.  So I started looking into what was really going on here, and man, was I surprised by how complicated this can be!  But I’ve outlined what I learned below, and I hope it will help you:

  • think specifically about the source and type of noise you’re dealing with, and the ways it’s reaching you.
  • find solutions that actually target your problem in an effective way.
  • gain some understanding from which to approach professionals, if you go that route.

Some of this is a little technical but—fantastic news!—there are no quizzes and no homework.  There will, however, be a cookie break before the Summary.

I’ve also listed links to a few resources below the Summary.  I have no affiliation whatsoever with these websites, companies, or their products.  Just FYI.

The Four Approaches to Soundproofing

There are four approaches to soundproofing you need to keep in mind when trying to solve your problem.  They all work differently and independently, but can also work together, like pieces of a puzzle.  They are:

  1. Mass
  2. Damping
  3. Decoupling
  4. Absorption

The Two Ways Sound Travels from Its Source to You

There are also two different ways sound travels:

  1. Airborne sound (people talking, for example).
  2. Structure-borne sound (like heels clacking upstairs, which is sound vibrating through the ceiling, floor, or walls).

And you need to solve these issues two different ways.  (Hint: it’s another one of those “simple but not easy” things).

  1. You need to block airborne sound with some kind of barrier or mass, something thick and heavy.
  2. You need to damp structure-borne sound (vibration) by dissipating it, which is somewhat harder to accomplish.

Also, low pitch (or low frequency) sounds, like the recycling truck that wakes you on your day off, are harder to block than the high frequency squealing sounds made by its dusty brakes.    This seemed counter-intuitive to me, but a LOT of testing and data exist on this subject, so I’m going with the experts on this one.

A Closer Look at the Four Approaches to Soundproofing

Now that you’re better able to break down the whole of your noisy situation—and it could very well be a multifaceted problem—let’s take a closer look at those four approaches to soundproofing we first looked at above.  Why, you ask?  Because you don’t want to absorb sound when you really need to be blocking it.   Or vice versa.  If you get it right the first time, you may not need to try (and buy) anything else.

1. Mass – It’s just what is sounds like.  A big, heavy, thick object like a sheet of drywall.  It’s especially good at blocking airborne sound (like people talking in the next room).  But if that were doing the job for you, you wouldn’t be reading this, now would you?  Short of ripping out your drywall and replacing it with a thick wall of concrete, or reinstalling 5/8″ drywall with a sheet of MLV (more on MLV or mass-loaded vinyl later) nailed to the studs behind it, you could do what I did and create a “wall” of floor-to-ceiling book cases.  It didn’t exactly soundproof the room, but it significantly reduced the noise problem.  To a level I think I might find acceptable.

2. Damping – Ever strum a guitar and then place your palm over the strings to stop the sound vibration?  That’s damping.  I can’t help thwacking stemware at parties to see if I can get that clear, beautiful ringing sound. When no one’s looking, of course.  But then afterward I sometimes feel weird, and wrap my hand over the rim to stop the sound.   That’s damping.  And I only found a few things that will accomplish this in a house after its construction is complete.

One is a “damped drywall” product that I’m thinking of placing behind my floor-to-ceiling “wall” of book cases.  (Technically, this is a construction phase product, I know.)  The drawback is that it’s a little pricey, though there is a DIY version, and we have to figure out how to affix it to the wall in a semi-permanent fashion.  What I’m trying to achieve here is sound blocking and damping of everyday noise—music, TV, excited conversations—between a home office and a living room.  I’ll update this post with my successes or failures, but damped drywall products get the thumbs up from soundproofing pros, so it’s staying on my short list.

The other is a product that actually contains a layer of that MLV mentioned above (in #1), and it’s called the AcoustiDoor or the AcoustiCurtain, which looks more like a roll-up window shade.  Honestly, if you have a noise problem over which you’re losing sleep, productivity or sanity, I think these would be worth a look.  Both are in the $120 (US) range, and they’re not bad looking.  This MLV material provides both mass—as indicated by the name—and damping, in the sense that the material actually transforms sound vibration into heat, dissipating it within the structure of the material so it doesn’t travel through from the source—voices, leaf blowers, etc.—to the receiver, which is you!

Again, don’t bother with beautiful draperies if soundproofing is your goal.  Lined, interlined, it doesn’t work.  They will improve the quality of sound within the room, but you’ll still hear traffic or kids playing outside.  For soundproofing, you would need to buy industrial soundproof curtains that are used to block and dampen noise from heavy machinery.  They are not soft.  They won’t fold back or pleat.  And they require heavy-duty rods and tracks for hanging. 

So if you’re still rolling your eyes over the AcoustiCurtain, rethink it and have a look at them here.  Or the AcoustiDoor here.  They’re even available in several colors.  NB:  I have no affiliation with these products or their manufacturer, whatsoever.  I’m just hoping my past blunders might steer you to a swift and cost effective solution, if it applies to your situation here.

Much of the sounds you hear coming from outside (airborne sound, remember) are likely coming through cracks in your door, or through your windows, unless you’ve got the newer, high performance type windows.

If you don’t like the look of the AcoustiCurtain, consider a soundproofing window insert.  I saw one brand called “Indow” but there are others available out there.  These are not permanently installed, they just fit snugly inside your existing window.  Some were fitted with magnets.  This is a potentially a good solution for renters—or for homeowners who are short on time for household projects.

You could try ordering one, and see how you like it before ordering an entire set.  Most of what I saw in my research indicated a 50% to 70% reduction in outside noise.  It’s something to ask the company’s Support Staff about.  And ask yourself what level of reduction would be acceptable.

What if clacking heels upstairs are an issue?  Not to mention dropped objects, scraping chairs, the arrival of new furniture, tango practice, and so forth.  If it’s YOUR upstairs, then a heavy rug and thick pad might be all you need to solve the problem.  It will provide damping against impact sounds (structure-borne).  If it’s your upstairs neighbor’s apartment, and you’re on good terms, you could talk to them about putting down a rug or carpet.  Hmm. Your other option, but one that might prove to be inferior to and more costly than a thick  carpet upstairs, is to soundproof your ceiling.  Because it’s always best to try to reduce noise closest to its source.

If YOU are the upstairs neighbor, and the sounds are coming from below, think about whether it’s airborne sound, like voices—in which case a thick rug won’t be much help much. It would be lovely and soft underfoot, so it might distract you from the noise, but the noise will still be there if it’s airborne.

3.  Decoupling – This is primarily a solution to structure-borne sound, and involves disrupting the path (or transmission) the sound vibration takes to get to you.  This usually needs to be done during your home’s construction or renovation.  There is a soundproofing technique where wall studs are staggered, so that the drywall on each side of the wall is nailed to a different set of studs.  The drywall panels are not connected via the studs (they’re decoupled), as they normally would be so the path of the noise is disrupted.  Something to think about for a future reno.

But!  If you need to tear out and replace damaged drywall like I do (roof leak), you could install something called  furring channels or hat channels.  These are lightweight, somewhat flexible metal channels that look like my French baguette baking pan with the gutter and chamfers.  Only smaller.  But, hey, the pros endorse this system and so I’m doing the research.  Furring channels also work by isolating (decoupling) the drywall from the studs, thus breaking the path the sound vibration is traveling.  But in a different way.  I will update this post after my consultation with the contractor.

SIDE NOTE: If you’re not planning a renovation, and decoupling or isolating sound is not an option, your next best approach is damping

Here’s something that you can do this weekend if you have a noisy garage door openerTom Silva (This Old House) illustrates in this video how he used rubber strips—cut from mud flaps he found along the highway—to isolate  (decouple) a clanking garage door opener from the ceiling, reducing noise in adjacent rooms.  Have a look if your bedroom happens to be above the garage.  The video is 1:45 minutes long.

4. Absorption – This is a somewhat confusing aspect of soundproofing.  While it has the weakest effect in blocking sound that travels from outside to inside, or from room to room, it can be part of your overall solution.  It’s most effective, however, in reducing existing sound bouncing around within a space.  You know from moving that when you still had the rugs and curtains and wood furniture in the house, it didn’t echo the way it does when you finally toss that last box into the moving van.  All your stuff absorbs sound and keeps it from reverberating around the space.

So.  To avoid confusion, when you’re shopping for soundproofing products, check the label to see if it says something like, “For Acoustic Applications.”  Then you might be looking at a sound-absorbing product, and not something that will reduce noise that requires damping or blocking with mass.  Ask their Support Staff if you’re not sure.  

There are, of course, good residential applications for acoustic products.  If you have a home office and do a lot of video teleconferencing, you can mount acoustic panels to your walls and transmit much better sound quality during your meetings.  But it won’t likely keep someone in the hallway from hearing you, or vice versa. 

The Cookie Break

  • OK, you’ve made it this far!  Wow!—how you stuck with it, I don’t know!  Proves your persistence and “whatever it takes” attitude, I’d say!  But it’s now time for the aforementioned COOKIE BREAK.  Did you think I wasn’t serious??  Here is the recipe for my beloved aunt’s chocolate almond cookies.  They’re delicious!  And SO much easier than soundproofing.  Bake up a batch, and then come back and read the Summary below with a little saucer of cookies and a big pot of tea.  It will all make A LOT more sense, I promise.

A BRIEF SUMMARY – Before You Go Out and Tackle All This!

There are four approaches to soundproofing.  They all work differently, and can work together like pieces of a puzzle.  They are:

    1. Mass
    2. Damping
    3. Decoupling
    4. Absorption

There are also two different ways sound travels:

  1. Airborne sound (people talking, for example).
  2. Structure-borne sound (like footfalls upstairs or in a nearby hallway, which is sound vibrating through the ceiling, floor, or walls).

And you need to solve these issues two different ways:

  1. You need to block airborne sound with some kind of barrier, something thick and heavy.
  2. You need to damp or dissipate structure-borne sound (vibration), which is somewhat harder to accomplish.

Low pitch or low frequency sounds are harder to block than high frequency sounds (a rumble versus a chirp).

If airborne sound is your problem, then you need to block it with mass or a heavy barrier. I placed a set of floor-to-ceiling book cases in front of a wall that I plan to add damping drywall to.  I am trying to block sounds— conversations, music, TV—that travel between rooms.

I’ve found a couple of products that might help you block or damp sound.   One is damping drywall.  The other is a  brand-name product called the AcoustiDoor or the AcoustiCurtain, which contains a layer of MLV or mass-loaded vinyl.  It’s one of the quickest, most cost effective solutions I found out there.

Industrial sound blocking and damping curtains do exist, but they’re stiff, unattractive for residential applications, and require heavy duty hanging systems.  Regular fabric curtains won’t do the job, even if they’re heavy.

Another product that might help you is a soundproofing window insert.  They’re not permanent, and are a good possibility for all you renters out there.  I looked at one called Indow but there are others.

If footfalls (structure-borne impact sound) from upstairs are the issue, a heavy rug and thick pad on the upstairs floor might be your easiest and most straightforward solution.  If, however, you are upstairs and you’re hearing conversations from downstairs, a rug and pad will not likely do you much good, as it is airborne sound you’re dealing with in this scenario.

Decoupling is another approach to soundproofing.  It involves isolating and disrupting the path of sound vibrations.  It needs to be planned during a construction or renovation phase.  But you might be able to find and decouple some equipment around the house, like Tom Silva’s noisy garage door opener here.

Absorption reduces reverberation, which you hear as echoes.  It’s most effective in improving sound quality within a space, not blocking sound traveling in and out of the space.  It has the weakest soundproofing effect, but it can be an aspect of a multi-pronged soundproofing solution.  When you’re shopping for soundproofing products, check the label to see if it says something like, “For Acoustic Applications.”  Then  you might be looking at a sound-absorbing product, and not something intended to provide damping or blocking.

More About MLV or Mass-Loaded Vinyl – Because Everyone Wants to Know!

Just in case you are ready to rip out a wall—so you don’t rip out your hair, instead—MLV or mass-loaded vinyl is a flexible sound barrier that comes in varying thicknesses, generally sold by the roll.  It’s a plastic with mineral compounds that make it extremely heavy and very effective in blocking and damping sound.  Its mass blocks sound, while the visco-elastic material in MLV dissipates and actually transforms sound energy into heat, providing the damping effect.  I find this pretty amazing!

MLV is available as both a generic and brand-name product.  A company called AcoustiBlok makes a brand-name MLV also called AcoustiBlok.  There is an interesting 1:09 minute video here (scroll down, video is on the right) showing how effective it can be. Have a look around the site if you’d like to quiet your duct work, pool pump, noisy ice-maker or garbage disposal.  They have a product called QF-2 that might do the job for you.  I have no affiliation with them, whatsoever.

MLV is all fairly pricey, and kind of ugly—the only color choices I found were black and grey, though I read somewhere that a translucent option exists.  Generally it’s installed during construction so you won’t ever see it.  But there is mid-tone grey MLV wallcovering that, while not exactly elegant, might look totally amazing if your son is practicing the trombone in your unfinished basement.  Then again, you could just get him a silent rehearsal system for Christmas—works with all kinds of instruments, including brass. They’re all over the place online and at the electronics stores.  Whatever it takes!

Some additional resources are listed below.  I truly hope you’ve found the information in this article helpful.  I know it can be complicated, but the key is to identify the source and type of sounds you’re dealing with, and remember that the issue may require a multi-pronged solution.  Most of the websites listed below are small companies, so give them call or email some questions—you just might find the answer you’ve been looking for!

Best wishes to all of you!  I hope you can find a little peace and quiet at home!

Additional Resources

1. Really GREAT website here called noisehelp.com.  LOTS of extremely helpful information on sound and noise!

2. The AcoustiCurtain is an easy and inexpensive option, providing both mass and damping.  There is also the AcoustiDoor.  Both are available in several colors.

3. If you can’t find a rubber mud flap along the highway like Tom Silva did, these guys offer a soundproofing kit for noisy garage door openers. There is a Help Line on their website, too.

4. If your goal is to improve sound quality in your home office during video conference calls, you might get a DIY project going with this acoustical fabric by the yard.

5. The Primacoustic website offers information and products to help improve sound within your TV or media room.  Some products could also apply to a home office situation, where reverberation needs reduction.

This is what a furring channel or hat channel looks like.

If you need information on padding for rugs and carpet, you can find it here at findanyfloor.com.

This website sells window inserts, among other soundproofing products.  I’ve linked to a case study and their solution.  Consider whether something like this might reduce outside and traffic noise for you, as well.

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