The What, Where, Why and How of Sound Masking

Do you frequently lose your focus at work because the office is so noisy? Maybe you find it hard to get work done because your space is too quiet, and any noise is a jolting interruption. A sound masking system may help! Following is an overview of the what, where, why, and how of sound masking technology.

What is sound masking and why is it used?

Sound masking is the addition of a familiar-sounding, air-conditioning-like background sound to an environment. Masking covers up or “masks” human speech and helps mitigate the distraction of other sounds, making an environment more comfortable, workers more productive and creating speech privacy. Here’s an analogy. Imagine that you are in a darkened room and a child is flicking a flashlight on and off. The light is noticeable and distracting. Now imagine, the lights are on. The same flashlight is being flicked on and off—but without notice—it has been “masked.” This is how sound masking works.

Source: Cambridge Sound Management

Source: Cambridge Sound Management

Where is sound masking used?

Sound masking is used anywhere speech privacy or speech confidentiality is desired or required and in any workspace to reduce distractions and improve productivity. The most typical installations are open office plans, private offices, and public spaces.

Source: Cambridge Sound Management

Source: Cambridge Sound Management

  • Open Office Plans: Open offices are often either too quiet—hearing the occasional pin drop breaks concentration—or too noisy--the conversations of co-workers are distracting and affect productivity. Installing a sound masking system is the first and most cost-effective step to improving speech privacy in your open office and a highly productive open office work environment with fewer distractions. Appropriate ceiling tiles and higher cubicle walls can further contribute to improved open office acoustics, but are often more costly and ineffective by themselves.

  • Private Offices: Private offices and other enclosed spaces, while appearing to provide privacy, often do not. Frequently the walls are of lightweight materials or extend only to the ceiling tiles and not all the way to the ceiling deck. Often these decisions are made for cost reasons and for flexibility of reconfiguring the office space. Adding a sound-masking technology system to a private office greatly improves speech privacy by rendering private conversations completely unintelligible to listeners in the adjacent office, hallway or at the water cooler.

  • Public Spaces: Reception areas, pharmacies, waiting rooms, banks and public hallways next to private offices are all great candidates for sound masking systems. Without sound masking, private conversations can be heard in the adjacent public spaces. Installing a sound masking system renders private conversations unintelligible by nearby listeners, ensuring speech privacy, and it is often the most cost-effective way to ensure speech privacy and comply with the speech privacy requirements of HIPAA and GLBA regulations.

What sounds can provide sound masking and why is one preferable to another?

Any sound can mask speech, if it is loud enough. Rain, water flow, background music, and HVAC systems and locally controllable sources like radios, “white noise” devices you can buy for $50, or background music all can be used to mask unwanted sound.

However, as in the light analogy, you can mask the child’s flashlight with a floodlight or you can raise the light in the room only to a level where it simply dims the impact of the flashlight. This is how a dedicated sound masking systems works. The sound produced mirrors the spectrum of the human voice. It does not have be loud to be effective.

In addition, sound masking systems provide a uniform sound throughout the targeted space. Listeners do not move in and out of “hot” spots. The sound, a pleasant, non-repeating “whoosh,” blends into the background along with distracting and private conversations.

TechTalk Podcast on Sound Masking

To learn more about sound-masking solutions for your space, listen to our TechTalk podcast, "Sound Masking for Noisy and Quiet Offices."

Need help with a sound masking solution?

Contact Integrated Building Systems to ask questions and set up an on-site evaluation of your space. Our technology experts will help you plan and budget for a cost-effective solution, including sound masking and acoustic room analysis and design.

Architects, interior designers, and office furniture vendors: Integrated Building Systems offers an educational program, "Speech Privacy & Sound Masking in Modern Architecture." Learn more and sign up for this course at your office or ours!