Oxford Acoustics' David Woolworth talks about his report on the New Orleans soundscape for City Council.

David Woolworth photo
David Woolworth on the right

David Woolworth is quick to point out that his work is contributing to a "sound ordinance," not a noise ordinance. "There’s sound and unwanted sound, which some would consider noise," he said in an interview Monday. "The same thing you might like, somebody else might not like."

Monday, the report "New Orleans Sound Ordinance and Soundscape Evaluation and Recommendations" that he authored for his Oxford Acoustics sound consulting company was released to the public. It was commissioned by City Council to add some science to the effort to revise the city's sound ordinance. My story on the report and noise ordinance appeared today in The Advocate. For the story, I interviewed Woolworth. Here's that interview, lightly edited for readability.

City Council commissioned this report, correct? When did they commission it?

It officially started in January of 2011. I was in touch with them in August or September of 2011 and went down to meet with them, went over the planned and the existing ordinance and made some comments, and then went on a sound walk with the police in October. I produced a report that’s actually in the appendix of the report. Somewhere along the line, we decided that we would have a professional contract and I would do some work for them. 

It started out that we were just trying to figure out what to do with the proposed ordinance. Because it was a comprehensive revision of the ordinance and things had been thought out from a couple of different sides, there was a lot of resistance from a lot of different places on a lot of different topics. It became a thing that was getting attacked from all these different areas, so eventually they put it away and didn’t pursue it because it became much too complicated. I think that’s what it comes down to. The whole project is really complicated, and you can’t look at it from just one point of view.

You talk in the report a little bit about this and a little bit how you felt that trying to address the noise ordinance a piece at a time was the right way to go. My concern about the working group from the start was that it was going to be like eight mechanics trying to fix your car at the same time; you were going to end up with a whole bunch of people who saw different issues and different priorities, and even though all are trying to do the right thing, the result is something that doesn’t really work at all. What I wonder is if a third way, by having law makers or someone else think through the problem top to bottom, if that would be the best way to solve this problem?

About your lawmakers trying to solve the problem, they need to have expertise. It’s done sometimes with lawmakers, but I don’t know if the results are the results you want. A lot of times these [ordinances] are just copied from other places without understanding what it means. That’s not really the way noise or sound ordinances are done and because New Orleans is so complicated in regards to sound. It requires a lot of people coming in. You need someone who understands what’s going on, the science of it, and science includes how people feel when they wake up. Then it’s not just Is it about sound level or not? Is it continuous sound or is it transient sound? Is it impulses? It’s all of these things that come together, so you need some expertise. 

Also, it’s the metrics. I feel like most people don’t know what the metrics mean. You need people from the commercial end, whether that be entertainment or construction, and then you need people from the residences to all come together to make decisions sensibly. So you do need a committee. 

I think eight mechanics fixing a car would be easier than fixing this. There would be a lot more consensus among mechanics fixing a car than trying to fix this problem. As far as the sound ordinance group, I attended two meetings and there were some useful suggestions, but I think what is important is not getting caught up on the differences and trying to get to the common ground, and then find ways to get those things in place because once you get those improvements, cooperation and trust, then you can work on some of the harder details. But you will have improved the working conditions and soundscape conditions where the residents have gotten relief. And maybe the people getting ticketed or lawsuits too, the sound producers. This is because you have reached an understanding. It doesn’t mean that ultimately everything will be solved. Just because you have a speed limit doesn’t mean that people won’t speed. You have to still expect to have a problem here and there, but in the case where people agree to do something - like obey the speed limit or the sound ordinance - and have repercussions for people who do not, and understand that that might be a persuasive reason or incentive to obey the ordinance because then you don’t get tickets. Then, if someone is complaining and you are within the specific bounds, you are protected to some extent. I think that’s where people want to be.

So what do you see as the first step? What needs to happen?

The first step is to create a consistent enforcement, some arm of the executive that enforces and consistently deals with it. They need an arm that answers complaints and investigates them, and they need that same enforcement to provide education and be proactive to help people be within the law. So anyone who wants to be within the law can get that aid. I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to get tickets and be at war with other people, although there are some. I think that most people want to go to work and do their job and if it involves entertainment or anything that makes sound, they don’t want the hassle of tickets. 

Most owners of entertainment businesses frequently ask, “What do I need to do?” When I hear that enough times, I say, Well, part of the function of the enforcement officer is to walk around and work with the people. So, in the first stage there should be a period where we set it up for people to visit these places and find out what’s going on exactly. Then [the enforcement officers] can try to help them understand what to do. The city can’t provide consultant services per se, but they can certainly say this is within the law and this is not. They can also help [business owners] in their efforts to self-regulate and if they do their own self-regulation, it protects them. If they have a meter, then they can go out and check themselves and take readings all the time. They can effectively protect themselves by doing their own monitoring, in a sense. 

One of the things you draw a lot of attention to in the report is the difference between dBA and dBC, and the significance of low frequency sound. This is a problem that didn’t exist when the sound ordinance was first written prior to 1959. Nobody had either the ability to generate that low of frequency, nor was there the technology to amplify that frequency. I gather from the report that the dBC is probably a bigger issue than the dBA. Am I reading that right?

It depends on the particular situation, but in terms of entertainment, dBC would be something of concern. It would also be important for industrial applications, transportation applications so I don’t think it’s limited to entertainment. But for modern entertainment, and amplified entertainment, those would be something that dBC is important to. 

dBC addresses low frequency. I spoke to a gentleman in Treme, an older fellow who said, “We’ve always had these things going on.” Then I asked, “Did you always have these boom cars and boom boxes and loud sound systems?” and he said “No.” So it may be that the activity level is similar, but the actual character of the sound is changed. There might be a lot more low frequency. And when it travels so far, so easily, through buildings easily or into buildings, then that needs to be addressed. 

Another thing you pay particular attention to is the notion that a venue has to be 10 decimals above ambience in the entertainment district to be in violation of the sound ordinance. You say in the report that this is unenforceable. 

The enforcement people say is too much or too difficult.  So if the police say that it is too difficult, then that’s a sign that there’s a problem. Then the trainer, a person who has done a lot of training in New Orleans, also reported back that it doesn’t work. The entertainment district, specifically Bourbon Street, it’s too complicated there to achieve. 

The other part about it is when [the ordinance] was written, the spirit of it was completely different. There’s a letter [some fellow] wrote in ’95, and he established this ambient measuring, and when you look at the way it was being interpreted, he said, “It’s not being interpreted properly.” 

And another problem is how can another worker check to see if they are within the law? It’s very difficult because they can’t even check themselves. That’s another argument to say why this is not an effective way to deal with it.

How do you measure someone’s decibels above ambience when they are helping to create the ambient noise?

The procedure is complicated, and it could take over a half hour to get a good reading. It takes more than half an hour when dealing with all the other disruptions out there on the street, the circus that’s really going on. So I suggested some other ways to do it that are more localized and maybe a little easier and maybe a little more clear and that address the low frequencies at the same time. I’m hoping that something like that is adopted. 

While something can be put into place, it needs to be checked. But here I’m suggesting something like a cap where we can say, “Here’s the limit. It’s plenty loud outside and any louder could be unsafe to people, to emergency vehicles, things like that. It’s plenty loud. If you want to make it louder inside, then you have to take measures to control the sound from getting out of the building.” There are all sorts of ways to control it, but we have to make a limit.

One of the things that’s been done in other places is have inner doors or outer doors so you have an additional sound barrier, but in a place like New Orleans where there are so many historic structures, that seems like an unlikely way of trying to help solve the problem. Did you see possible engineering solutions for places like Frenchmen or Bourbon?

Well Frenchmen, all they need to do is enforce the existing Arts and Cultural Overlay regulation which is to shut their doors while they are playing music. That’s all they have to do. That would create a huge improvement in regard to issues on that street. 

In terms of Bourbon, this has been going on for some time. Bourbon Street's open door policy, which was previously a closed policy, has been going on since the late ‘60s. With that in mind and with new fire regulations and things like that, there may be a limited number of solutions. Of course, one might be closing the doors, but engineering-wise, there are solutions that may involve the way we create barriers to sound coming out, the way we engineer the sound systems. There’s all sorts of potential solutions. Each one is unique to the particular venues. As long as people are willing to work on it and try it, then the potential is there to do it.

With more and more clubs going no smoking, then that means in a lot of cases smokers have to go outside, so you have not just the traffic of people leaving or entering the club, but the traffic of smokers going outside to smoke. You have additional opening and closing of the doors. How long does a door have to stay open to affect the noise of the region?

It certainly is a problem. And when we get into these things like mixed use areas around entertainment in other parts of the country, they want to create vestibules and things like that which help reduce that problem. You are going to have that problem unless you can create large enough vestibules where one door can open before another one shuts. But you don’t have the real estate to put it on. 

Where you have the entrance [helps]. St. Rock Tavern for example, had some folks who were across the street, so they worked on soundproofing their bar and said that they would move the main entrance farther away when they have these bands. They’ll shut down the main one and switch it farther down the sidewalk. These are all strategies that can work or improve the situation. Solving some problems might be a lot harder than solving other ones.

You identified a few venues that you thought had taken positive steps toward managing their sound. d.b.a. and Siberia - [Also, Snug Harbor and The Blue Nile]

Those two specifically have done quite a bit. Both of them went through the trouble to soundproof their venues, and I know Siberia runs their own self-monitoring program which is huge because that means that they care about how they impact their neighbors, and they want to be good neighbors and good business owners.

Their stage backed onto St. Claude, so their stage is aiming away from the street. Is that a particularly helpful approach?

It’s specific to each place. Where are the neighbors? Maybe the bass sounds are produced closer to the street which is one advantage, but it’s projecting sound toward the back of the bar and if there is somebody living behind the bar, that could be a problem. In all cases it’s going to be specific to the place. It’s the sound system. It’s everything else. Each place requires it’s own thinking.

Tell me about that first sound walk you did before you were in official capacity. Tell me what you were running into when you walked the French Quarter and on to Frenchmen Street.

We did the Quarter, the police station on Loyola to Bourbon and just walked around. What we found was that the equipment that the officers had was in great working order and that we were getting similar readings for everything. The sound levels were all listed in the report. It certainly was loud, but what was funny was even though everyone was in plain clothes, [the clubs] knew exactly who was out there. Even with all the competition that occurs on the street, the information is telegraphed up and down the street easily and everyone turned down so the levels weren’t as high. 

I went back because nobody knew me and made some more covert measurements and found out the clubs are typically at higher levels when the police aren’t around. That was one of the frustrations that the police had with trying to work with people being too loud on the street. When they saw the police coming, before they could take a measurement, they turned down. It’s a cat and mouse game. The idea is eliminating that part. It doesn’t have to be that way.