Posts Tagged: ‘coffee shops’

Sensory Postcard: The Sound of Coffee

June 28, 2014 Posted by Milena D

I came by an interesting post today on Facebook, from the Creative Post about a study (I am yet to read, but very curious) which suggests that coffee shop ambience fosters creative intellectual labour. The story goes as so – as more and more independent creative contracts are moved to the cafe instead of to the (home) office there is a new ‘normal’ for creative workflow. Apparently ambient cafe noise at around 70dB is optimally productive, while levels pushing the 80dB are distracting (not to mention harmful, given the average laptop worker spends over 3 hours in a cafe).

I’m reading this in a cafe called The Bean in Mid-town Manhattan NYU, right across the Strand bookstore, and below we see the sound levels, which are in the mid-70s. So even according to the author of the original article this is a bit high. The problem is it’s hard to find a place that hovers at the flat 70dB mark. In my, now over four-year long extensive ‘study’ of North American coffee shops, it is quite rare to find a place that comes in at any less than high-60s dB. In fact, a popular ‘working’ cafe with all the ‘fixin’s’ – constant coffee machine turnover, steam, dishes, lots of voices, shuffling of chairs, background music – typically measures at mid-70s to 80dB. According to worksafe regulations, regular working exposure to sound at a magnitude of 85dB or over causes hearing loss over time. If we spend more and more working time in cafes, I ask then, why don’t we care more about the levels of sound we expose ourselves to? And what about those who work in cafes and restaurants? Restaurants are even louder than cafes, in my experience, based on past measurements.

In fact, not only isn’t anyone bothered (ok, I know that’s an overstatement) but people seem to like loud-ish environments to do creative work in. The article also pointed to a website called Coffitivity, which showcases an app, or rather a ‘revolution’ I think in productivity apps. Coffitivity offers the light ambience of a cafe for the creative worker who is getting writer’s block or coming up dry in the creativity department in the silence of their home. In fact, Coffitivity cite a paper that suggests some levels of noise is positive and productive for creative pursuits. The Creative Post article actually rallies against cafe noise, however, instead advocating ‘rain’ apps. That’s right, apps that play you an ambient rainscape that you can control in terms of intensity and type of rain. I am writing about this today because I’m just caught totally incredulous and open-mouth about this. It reminds me of the time I first heard about white noise machines for sleeping. The idea of adding undifferentiated constant sound when I need silence to sleep seemed like the strangest idea.

So, having grown up in a ‘keep-silence’ type of educational environments I cringe at the idea of adding ambient noise to my workflow in order to squeeze more creativity out of myself. Especially given that I hate the sound of North American cafes and whenever I am there I work ‘despite’ the noise, not because of it (or at least that’s what I tell myself). But I am starting to think there is something to the idea of sound levels and intellectual labour. In the past six months I’ve been intensively writing my dissertation at a work group on one of the SFU campuses. A public space, which albeit quiet, is still distracting. I’ve been listening to music on headphones while I work, and over time I noticed, when I turn it down I am much more distracted by it then when I turn it up past a certain level. Past that level my brain somehow puts it in a different category and it functions concurrently with thinking/writing instead of competing with my brainwaves. Very strange for me, because I am so fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of pumping noise into my ears in order to drown out distractions. It’s like a metaphor for urban noise – because the idea of eliminating it seems impossible, we instead focus on managing and counteracting it with other noise. And then again, maybe we haven’t eliminated city noise because we do in fact function better with it somehow.

Aural Postcard: Nature’s garden

May 13, 2010 Posted by Milena D

My first post from the iPhone WordPress app! I am sitting at a deli cafe on the SFU called Nature’s garden. Abba playing in the background, sunshine bathing the windows in light, and a quite loudish fridge dislpay unit near me providing a constant roaring buzz, distant voices and cooking sounds from inside the kitchen, distant engine roar of buses from the loop depot nearby coming through the open door.

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.

Aural Postcard: the Cafe

March 29, 2010 Posted by Milena D

I am titling this “the Cafe” because I find this to be a quintessential place that certain people (like myself) frequent a lot, and it becomes a kind of a milieu or natural habitat of the student/consultant/unemployed – people who have flexible weekday hours but have decided to spend their time on higher pursuits than daytime television – partaking in laptop envy in trendy/less trendy cafes.

I find the soundscapes in these places generally interesting, curious, sometimes offensive (aurally) but in any case – a “place” to contend with. I will upload some sounds soon, but for now let’s just enjoy a few pictures here:

Blenz2 OurTown1 Bump-n-grind2

This first picture we have the Blenz particularly frequented by undergrads studying in study groups, self-employed yuppies who want to be seen working. My friend and I went to do some quiet writing, etc. and this reading is taken in a pretty low-level ambiance around 4 in the afternoon. Super loud music trying to emulate a dance club. The second snapshot is a hippy coffee shop in the Main Area – Our Town. Shabby decor meets lots of people working on computers, reading, etc. the occasional conversation. Just a homey, busy, lively atmosphere sans the blaring music. Third place is bump n grind. Commercial Drive swank, something to dampen the superb sound system which employees use to crank up their favourite rock-folk swill. Too pretentious to me. A weird combo between too quiet – yet far too loud to concentrate.


Aural Postcard: Afternoon at Blenz

March 2, 2010 Posted by Milena D

So I was recently at a Blenz downtown, studying with a friend, and noticed the ambience, so I decided to record and measure it a bit. I especially wanted to measure the super-duper hand dryer in the washroom. I’ve seen it before and it is head and shoulders louder than any other regular hand dryers. Here goes…

Annotation: The two pictures are taken with “dB” iPhone app, which I’ve discussed before, is unweighted and sometimes yields higher-than-actual readings. Thus I try to cross-check it with my A-weighted “SPL” app from Studio Six Digital. The real measurement was in the 60 dBs – which is visible in the more distributed spectrum snapshot in the third picture, made with Signal Scope iPhone app form Faber Acoustical – on a A-weighted scale.  (both SPL and Signal Scope are not professionally calibrated but use a default calibration that the manufacturers promise are accurate between +/- 3dB)


Narrative: The thing that made me want to write about and notice this coffee shop’s ambience was the weird owner who sat near us. This particular Blenz in Yaletown has a large oblong conference-style table with individual plugs obviously adapted for laptop users to come in and work. The owner himself was there with his laptop and phone, and he really reminded me of these sleazy restaurant owners who love to make you feel like you’ve come to disturb them in their house and they get to come over and disturb you back. This guy was spread out, loud on his phone, and perfermey on his computer. What that translated to sonically was the weird choice of “background music” in the cafe. Now, every cafe has background music, I know that, but in this case it was clear to me that this guy chose it. It was rave/techno style turned quite high up. It’s like he wanted to pretend it was a night club and not a Blenz with a workstation table for students and self-employed moaners to come procrastinate in. So, yep, my main point is this clash of worlds that I perceived (completely subjectively, obviously) between the image the owner wanted to portray and the atmosphere he wanted to surround himself with, and the intended practical purpose of the space which was for people to quietly work on their machines, maybe meet in study groups, for which, presumably, they’d need silence, at least relative quietude. Instead, the ambience, combined with music, and the regular sounds that happen in a coffee shop already – loud steamers, espresso makers and blenders – was quite busy (hear below). There is a vicious circle with noise – whenever there is an elevated keynote background, all other sounds have to compete, and thus rise above it, and other sounds have to rise above those, and so on.