Sound Effects


When Randall Selland and Nancy Zimmer recently opened their new El Dorado Hills restaurant, they forgot just one thing: a sound check. Modeled and named after their popular East Sac venue, the new Selland’s Market Cafe is 4,200 square feet of pretty, with pressed-tin ceiling tiles, marble countertops and lots of windows. Unfortunately, some of that prettiness backfired. Sound reverberated off the hard surfaces. The restaurant was noisy. Customers complained.

Fortunately, Selland knew exactly who to call: sound engineer Steve Pettyjohn, whose company, The Acoustics & Vibration Group, had previously been brought in to acoustically retrofit Selland’s K Street jewel, Ella. The results, according to Selland, were nothing short of phenomenal. “Four-and-a-half years later, people are still coming up to me and remarking that even when the room is full, they can have a conversation and still hear each other,” he says. “It’s a science, what he does—and it costs to do it. But it’s worth it.” Others apparently agree: Pettyjohn’s client list includes Frank Fat’s, Java City, the now-defunct Celestin’s and Chicago Fire’s newest Folsom location.

So why is Pettyjohn the go-to guy for restaurants (and other businesses) suffering from acoustical agitation? To find out, we went straight to the source.

Q. Why do so many restaurants have sound issues?
The number of reflecting surfaces is the issue: multiple reflections off the surfaces. You have to remember that sound travels 1,130 feet per second. It’s my job to keep the sound from bouncing off multiple surfaces.

Q. What does that involve?
Usually it involves installing sound- absorbing material to the walls and ceiling. I don’t do anything to the floor. With good acoustical treatment, people feel the excitement of the place, but they don’t feel dead tired when they walk out. Fighting to listen and to talk makes you tired.

Q. Do you walk around with a sound meter to check sound levels?
For some restaurants, you might take the sound level meter to find out, but they’re not cheap. You can also pop balloons to measure the reverberation time. We use 17- or 27-inch-diameter balloons. It’s called “impulsive sound,” and your meter measures the decay in the sound. How fast the sound dies—the time it takes to drop—is called the reverberation time.

Q. What was the problem at Selland’s new location?
A week after they opened, he [Randall Selland] called three days in a row to say he needed me to come and do something—that the acoustics were really terrible. The restaurant’s got a tin roof, a concrete floor and lots of glass. It’s sort of like singing in the shower: It makes your voice sound good, but you’re never on key. I’m amazed that most restaurateurs and architects don’t consult a sound engineer before opening a new place. I think a lot of it is that they don’t understand that if it gets too noisy, people aren’t going to come in. Randall got it, and I think he got it because Ella was so successful.

Q. As a restaurant-goer yourself, do you find the acoustics dictate your choices?
Being an acoustician, I choose restaurants based on acoustics. If I can’t talk to the person I’m sitting across the table from, or if I can’t hear the waiter who’s describing the list of specials, I don’t want to eat there.