Noise restrictions faced by licensed property owners

Related tags Noise Sound Consultant

Mock rockers Spinal Tap proudly boasted, in the cult film of the same name, that the volume knobs on their amplifiers go up to 11. These days growing...

Mock rockers Spinal Tap proudly boasted, in the cult film of the same name, that the volume knobs on their amplifiers go up to 11. These days growing numbers of licensees are buying a device that effectively means they only go up to eight or nine.

The reason is that local councils and residents, not to mention the government, are getting increasingly sensitive to noise at a time when pub and club customers are demanding that the music gets louder.

Caught between the two, operators are turning to acoustic consultants - experts in the control of noise - to produce a solution.

Shaun Murkett is one of them. As sound engineer to rock star Peter Gabriel, it was once his job to crank up the volume. Now he says he gets paid more to keep it turned down.

He has just completed his biggest job so far for entrepreneur John Gray who is opening a 20,000sq ft lap-dancing club called Spearmint Rhino in north London. As you can imagine, there were plenty of protests from local residents. About 95 per cent of them objected. The surprising thing is that 80 per cent of them were about noise.

"Noise was the factor on which the whole case hinged," said Murkett, whose evidence eventually won the licence for Gray.

The local council, Camden, had insisted that the music be completely inaudible after 11pm, a common demand from authorities. "I was in the guy's bedroom at midnight with ear to the floor," said Murkett who as well as having plenty of gadgets relies on his own judgement.

Somebody joked that a man who used to be Peter Gabriel's sound engineer probably can't hear a thing, but deafness is a serious issue here. Murkett believes that as music in pubs, clubs and concerts has got louder over the last couple of decades, the hearing of young people has grown progressively worse.

Noise levels of more than 80 decibels can cause hearing problems and in most clubs these days you'll find volumes up to 120 decibels. Levels have risen as deafer people have demanded that DJs and bands play it louder creating a vicious circle.

Consequently, noise is becoming a big issue in the industry and it is likely to get bigger still with the prospect of longer opening hours and the government's proposal to switch licensing to local authorities which are already enthusiatically supporting complaints by residents and licensees. In recent months:

  • Newcastle has written to pubs and clubs threatening prosecution

Noise has been a major factor in Westminster's clampdown on late licences

Hackney has warned of higher fines for breaches of noise abatement orders

Plymouth has taken a zero-tolerance stance on noise nuisance

Environmental Health Officers across the country have threatened to get tough.At licence applications magistrates, too, are demanding evidence that late-night noise is not going to upset people living nearby, and Murkett frequently finds himself in the witness box as an expert witness.

Licensees are faced with a dilemma. They don't want to upset the neighbours but they also need to satisfy the customers. After all, they have to make a living. It's at this point that an acoustic consultant comes into the picture.

The number of acoustic consultants in the phone book has grown along with the noise levels and the complaints. Inevitably, there are cowboys among them, but a fully qualified professional will be regarded by magistrates as an independent expert. If an acoustic consultant clears a place of causing a noise nuisance, their word will usually be accepted.

Murkett himself is a relative newcomer to consultancy having started out by building sound-proof studios for the BBC before joining the Gabriel road crew.

He discovered a knack for helping licensees control noise when working for clubs in Turkey and, after launching his own business here five years ago, his advice led to Marks & Spencer bringing in quieter gas-fuelled delivery lorries. Now half his jobs are in the licensed trade.

"The pubs and clubs side is growing very quickly," he said. "Too often, though, licensees come to me late in the day, when they already have a noise abatement order hanging over them.

"The de-regulation of drinking hours has meant bars play music later at night - but most bars are not set up to be nightclubs and some of them leak noise like a rusty bucket.

"A lot of licensees think they can blag their way through by promising to keep control on noise, others have good intentions but they aren't on the premises when the volume is turned up - probably because they can't stand techno. But they run the risk of having their sound equipment confiscated or being closed down altogether."

When called in, Murkett will start by carrying out an audit to assess where sound is breaking out of the building, measuring levels inside and out, as much as possible in a real situation when the bar is full and the music at its loudest.

Leaks might come through fans or gaps under doors or between floorboards. "Bare boards with gaps might be all the rage among designers but they are very poor acoustically," grimaced Murkett.

Techno and heavy garage are the most intrusive kinds of music because of the insistent rhythm. The bass notes, too, are hardest to keep in, especially if there are windows.

"They rattle with the bass and amplify the sound, like the skin of a drum," he said.

Murkett's report will recommend ways to control the noise. Like anything else, the problems can be solved if you can throw enough money at them, though there have been occasions when he has had to suggest that effective sound-proofing may mean that a business is no longer commercially viable.

Windows and fans can be cheaply bricked up, of course, while other structural changes are expensive. An independent ceiling, for instance, costs about £60 per square metre, and if you get any work of this scale done, Murkett recommends that you get it done properly with expert supervision.

A good acoustic consultant will also know some short cuts. Faced with a vibrating record deck that was causing feedback, Murkett once sent somebody out to buy a pair of scuba-diving boots.

"I set to work on them with a pair of scissors, cutting out circles to put under the feet of the deck. I knew that sorbo rubber would be just right for soaking up the vibrations and the boots were the cheapest solution."

Most of his reports recommend a combination of structural work and setting a maximum volume to get a place through the objections - "usually a whole raft of compromises".

Courts will not readily accept a licensee's word on keeping the noise down - which has led to booming sales of a device known as a limiter.

This as an automatic pilot for a sound system, putting a lid on the volume without distorting the music. Spinal Tap would not be impressed, but as Murkett points out, there is one simple solution for all noise problems - "turn it down".

- Qualified acoustic consultants are accredited by the Institute of Acoustics which maintains a professional register. Call 01727 848195 for more information. Otherwise your local authority will recommend someone it believes to to be trustworthy. Sean Murkett Acoustic Consultants can be contacted on 020 7923 7275.

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