The Urban Geographer - Walk Softly and Turn Down the Bass

Dear Urban Geographer:

I’ve just returned to San Antonio after my summer break from college. I moved into a nice new apartment but I’m worried that I might not make any new friends in my building this coming year. Last year started off just great, but by mid-October none of my neighbors would talk to me. As you seem terribly insightful, could you give me some pointers to break my sad cycle of social ineptness?

Your faithful reader,
Confused and Fearful

Dear Confused:
Sorry to hear about your fall-semester anxiety. This should be a time when you are eagerly facing new challenges and exploring real possibilities for personal growth. As you surely know by now, this column is about design and quality-of-life issues. So I’m going to say that subconsciously you’re feeling that your problem has an environmental dimension to it. On that basis, I’ll offer the following diagnosis and easy-to-follow solutions.

First of all, you sound like a good kid, not some troublemaking punk/punkette. But based on your age, I’d venture to say that your problem is noise, specifically noise coming from your apartment. Does this shock you? This would explain why your neighbors are all smiles when you’re moving in, but within six weeks you’re just a sodden meathead to them.

Noise (unwanted sound) is a major type of pollution. Who hasn’t noticed that our acoustic environments, like glaciers, have deteriorated sharply in the recent past? Very little of this pollution comes from pile drivers, rock crushers, or rock concerts, which are all strictly regulated in urban areas.

The truth is that most irritating and disruptive noises come from people making poor choices every day. The guy with his leaf blower at 7:30 in the morning, for example. And I’m sure you know this bit: You’re stopped at a traffic light, your nerves crunched by a car or pickup truck with loud speakers.

But these annoyances are temporary. In an apartment setting there is a low tolerance for noisy neighbors who disregard everyone’s right to peace and quiet. Understandably, disruptive outside noises can make anyone feel frustrated and angry. Basically, your neighbors do not pay rent to hear your stereo or television — it’s that simple. They’ve probably never complained directly because, to them, you’re an inconsiderate clunk with behavior problems. (Who could blame them for skipping a confrontation with you?)

Low-frequency sounds/vibrations are the likely culprit. We’re talking about the bass component of the sound spectrum here. It’s probably not music with piccolos, celestas, or glockenspiels (sweet elfin choirs) that wafts out of your tweeters. Your neighbors likely hear repetitive thumps and rumbles spewing from your woofers into their sacred space. (Ka-boom. Ka-boom-boom.)

These sounds become actual physical vibrations. Sound is transmitted through the medium of air, but structural materials (such as wood) also transmit bass sounds very efficiently. Try to visualize how your apartment is similar to a violin or guitar, with resonant spaces in the floors and walls that amplify and disperse sound vibrations. Sounds from the low end of the spectrum travel easily through a wooden building as large waves.

There is a basic incompatibility between boom-boom makers and apartment living. If you want to make and keep friends, you’ll need to reduce your noisemaking. Here are some amazingly simple solutions.

(1) Move speakers further away from walls to reduce transmission of booming noises into the building. You can also place foam pads or soft cloths under your speakers to dampen the vibrations.

(2) Reduce the bass content of a television or stereo. Most undesirable noise results from setting bass output at high levels. This is an easy fix. New stereos and televisions have audio controls built into the remote. If bass levels are set “HIGH,” your television or radio can sound like a mumbling voice in adjacent apartments. (Remember the voices of off-camera grownups in the Charlie Brown cartoon specials? “Mwaa-mwaa. Mwaa-mwaa.” It’s just like that.) Resetting the bass to “LOW” will dramatically reduce these.

(3) Buy a good pair of headphones. This is a smart investment for all apartment dwellers, and especially useful during quiet hours. Many new televisions come with a jack for a headset.

(4) Educate yourself and others about your rights. The City of San Antonio has a noise ordinance that clearly addresses disturbance issues. Loud or repetitive noises/vibrations are subject to fines. The ordinance is unequivocal about quiet hours (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), when most people are asleep. You should know that violators can be reported anonymously by calling 207-7273, a non-emergency number.

I wish you luck with this new knowledge, young Confused, and I hope my advice helps.
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