Listening to classical music is often pleasant, but listening to someone practice classical music? Not so much. And practicing in an apartment without driving the neighbors crazy is an issue every musician has likely faced. Hearing those same two measures of Strauss over and over and over again at half speed may just as well be considered torture. But as musicians, we have to do it. And unless you are in school or paying for your own music studio, we face the decision to either alienate our neighbors or not practice, the latter of which leads to slowly hating yourself. It’s a lose-lose situation!
I moved back to Chicago last month. Before then, I lived within walking distance of my school, where I had access to a practice room at virtually any hour. What a luxury! But moving to Chicago, out of school, I was terrified of getting stuck in a year-long lease only to receive weekly noise complaints from my neighbors because of sound bleeding into their apartments. I play the bass trombone for crying out loud which, scientifically, is the loudest instrument in the entire orchestra. I had to do something. So I started researching the most effective ways to soundproof a room, and it turns out there are A LOT of ways to do so. I have tried my best to filter my findings to help my fellow musicians who are also looking to convert their room into a practice space.
My biggest concern was preventing sound from bleeding into other rooms/apartments, which is to say I was less worried about creating an acoustically pleasant space. This is an important distinction that we will get to a little later. The other concern I had was cost. There are a lot of fancy sound foams and panels out there, but they do not come cheap. Lucky enough, though, there are some alternatives that are much easier on your wallet and just as, if not more, effective.
BASIC GUIDELINES TO SOUNDPROOFING
The most effective way to soundproof a room is to basically build a room within your room.
Now this obviously is not the most ideal solution due to the amount of effort and construction needed, but it helps demonstrate the effectiveness of isolation. Sound is vibration, so when sound hits a wall it causes the drywall to vibrate, which then vibrates the studs behind the drywall, which will then vibrate the drywall of your neighbor. Think back to when you attached a piece of string between two tin cans and spoke to your friend, or listened through a cup pressed against a wall to hear the other side. Isolation helps decouple this type of sound travel.
More mass, better absorption
The heavier the material, the more effective it will be in reducing sound. Stay away from light foams or thin blankets. If you have hardwood floors and neighbors below, use a heavy rug and slip a high density rug pad underneath to maximize the absorption.
Keep it air-tight
Gaps in doors and windows will let sound bleed the worst. Think of sound like water: seal the leaks.
Lower frequencies tend to get caught in the corners of a room. There are high density foams you can buy called bass traps that are designed to be placed in the corners of your room to soak up that low-end “boomyness,” but they come at a steep price.
Sound absorption vs. soundproofing
Since I am most concerned about not upsetting my neighbors, this post is geared towards total soundproofing. You can tweak acoustics by strategically placing sound absorbers within a room. I, personally, like to practice in a dead-sounding room so that I can’t hide from my mistakes, therefore I don’t mind fully covering all areas with absorption. Still, most sound absorption materials will absorb high frequencies, so having bass traps helps balance the acoustics of a room.
Sound curtains vs. sound panels
Foam panels are effective, but costly, especially if you are looking to cover your entire room with them. Sound curtains are a cheaper alternative and may even work better. I came across curtains that were made by a company that originally made moving blankets. This company also had a special line of heavy blankets that covered loud industrial machines in factories to make them quieter. Word of these blankets’ effectiveness for absorbing sound got around to musicians. The company then started selling sizes that fit the standard heights of homes so that people could easily convert a spare bedroom into a recording studio. An advantage to sound curtains are that they do not need to be attached to the wall, which helps decoupling sound transferred through contact.
Keep those curtains loose
If hanging curtains, keep them a few inches away from the wall and let it fold. Stretching out the surface will reflect the sound instead of absorb it. Keeping curtains loose and folded will help tremendously.
My original plan was to buy a bunch of these curtains and hang them on a track on my ceiling so that I can slide them out to create an enclosed space when needed and slide them back when I’m done. Unfortunately, I found out I am not allowed to drill into the ceiling of my apartment so I had to slightly alter that plan. I decided to buy some 2×3’s at Home Depot and basically build a tent within my room, but I still attached the curtains on a track so that I can move them to one side when not practicing. Once I got all the materials, I was able to build it all in a weekend. You can see my process below.
Step 1: Cut and attach ceiling frame. Home Depot will cut your studs for a small fee, or just use a hand saw. Attach using a drill and long sturdy screws. I wanted to make sure I had enough room for my trombone slide so I decided to make mine 6’x8’. In the end that turned out to be plenty more space than I needed!
Step 2: Attach the legs. I cut mine to be 6’6” so I can stand inside.
Step 3: Reinforce corners and add beams on the ceilings to support the blankets on top. I also used leftover lumber to help sturdy the structure.
Step 4: Hang the curtains! I had already bought the ceiling track system from IKEA, so I decided to attach it to the structure. This way I can now slide all the curtains to one side while not practicing so my room can feel a little more open.
Step 5: PRACTICE
- 2×3’s – $2 each x 8 = $16
- 1×2’s – $1 each x 4 = $4
- Sound Blankets – $30 each x 5 = $150
- 4 ceiling rails and connectors (optional) – $30
- Total spent: $200
By Robinson Schulze, Bass Trombone and Civic Orchestra of Chicago Fellow.