Aural Postcard: The Sound of Coffee

May 12, 2010 Posted by Milena D

Well, as I suspected, and now is confirmed, I DO spend a lot of my time at different coffee shops around town, and some of my social time at a few restaurants and small venues. As I am still doing collection of soundscape information, impressions, etc. I will have more and more iterations of “The Sound of Coffee” to come…actually this makes a great title… 🙂 for my book… mwahahahaha 🙂 So this is a new iteration of my previous coffee shop soundscape posts.

On a side note, I am sitting at a Toyota dealership, getting zit’s brake pads fixed. There is free coffee, free wireless, a bar desk, it is quiet (there is a TV in the background but it’s quiet, and some low-level conversations with customers). Wow! It is way better to work here than a coffee shop – how very bizarre indeed.

Annotation: As usual (so far) the recording was taken with my iPhone and the reading with the app “dB” which I now realize is often (not always) fairly accurate – after I calibrated my SPL (Six Digital) app against a digital sound level meter, I realized .. heh… things are actually even louder than they seem. I mean, really, the quietest I’ve ever found in the urban jungle is still around 35 dB – and that would be considered “silence”.

But I digress.

Narrative: So back to coffee shops, here is one from Our Town, a place I frequent because of its airy, sunny disposition, tique furniture and neo-ironic hipster vibe. As far as ambience, I suppose it is not any quieter or louder than most cafes, but there are a few keynotes I have noticed. Their cooler is so loud that even though you habituate to it, once it stops (as it does occasionally – once it reaches optimal temperature I guess) I swear I can see faces in the room looking up from their laptops and facebook pages – “What just happened?” The absence of the seemingly atmospheric sound is more astounding than its constant, ominous presence! I guess the removal of a sound we become accustomed to tuning out makes us tune in!

 OurTown3 OurTown2 OurTown1

The screenshots above are all at the same location, and I have started to take multiple pictures at every location I measure/record, so as to give a better sense of the architecture – it helps for listeners to be able to visualize how sounds move, reflect, get trapped, etc. in any given space. It is interesting to note that two of the readings that are very similar are actually taken on different days – a different month in fact! – so they most likely represent the average level of sound amplitude in the space. The reading that is higher was taken on the same day as the one next to it, 10dB quieter, and that has nothing to do with reliability of measurements, it is simply a reflection of the RANGE of decibels in that environment – it could have been a loud passing car, as the coffee shop is located at the intersection of two very heavy-traffic streets. Or it could have been a loud conversation near me, someone laughing, etc. In any case, the point is – all things equal it is loud enough there – below is an expert recording from a typical ambience. Keynotes – steam machine, coffee grinder, banging of espresso handle, opening and closing of cash registers, conversations, and quite often – traffic from the outside, seeping in through thinly insulated windows.

I almost feel like too much of an insider to even have something insightful and reflective to say about this particular coffee shop ambience – I am there so often! I suppose, I frequently find it a bit too loud and regret having decided to study there, but then I forget and go again. I guess I often go when I want to feel the sense of community or being around life, people, and noise equals life sometimes. It’s funny how many faces noise has. Sometimes it is so overwhelming it is poison, but sometimes it is joyful – hustle and bustle of being around people, being together, not alone. I do however, wish someone would invent quiet coffee equipment, I swear the banging and steamers seem comparable to me to factory environments of the past (and present). And on top of that – let’s not forget music. Many coffee shops also play music or the radio (but most often, music) I would guess not to mask the disruptive equipment sounds – I don’t think anyone is aware of them as preventable annoyances – but to add to, or create an atmosphere.

Just as with the earlier Blenz example, where they had techno music blasting, other places try to create other atmosphere with their music – be it female singer-songwriter stuff, soft rock, or industrial punk stuff…each place uses music as a cultural stamp. Unfortunately it only adds to the already noisy environment, though I wouldn’t necessarily get rid of it – I’d just reduce mechanical noises or educate employees to use equipment with more care. If anybody asks, that is.

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