Music to their ears

“It’s important that such an important component as sound, which helps set the atmosphere of a venue, be done right,” says sound consultant Richard Hallam.

“It’s important that such an important component as sound, which helps set the atmosphere of a venue, be done right,” says sound consultant Richard Hallam.

As sound is becoming more important in the dining out experience, restaurateurs should hear the music and invest in a quality sound system. By Miles Clarke

Ever notice how bad the radios are in hotel rooms? The owners might have spent half a million dollars on the room, and then lash out only $29 on a clock-radio alarm.

Things are much the same with restaurants, where the sound system is often the last budget item and the one that is slashed to make do until trading conditions are right.

Background music matters, and of all the aspects of the dining experience, this is right up there with food and service when customers decide whether to return or recommend your enterprise.

Steve Kirtland, at Advanced Audio in Melbourne, has been involved in the planning and installation of restaurant sound systems for many years, and often despairs at the number of times his company is called in too late. “We really need to come in at the design phase, when we can specify where the cabling needs to be run and the placement of the speakers.

“It simply costs more to install in a nearly complete restaurant, and often at a time when money’s really tight,” he says.

Independent sound consultant Richard Hallam, of Your Sound Investment (YSI) in Melbourne, says there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to sound. “Diners are increasingly sophisticated, and people won’t tolerate being blasted by a couple of speakers to cover the entire dining area.

“The surfaces used can bounce a lot of noise about—particularly those hard edges and the raw cement finish that’s so popular. So we have to look at ways of making the sound system work on a variety of levels, and sometimes this requires a change of texture to ceilings and walls,” he says.

Hallam also has to frequently find ways to disguise cabling on heritage buildings, where walls cannot be tampered with or marked.  “It can be a long process for a new restaurant, and even if I’m called in at the design phase, by the time the installation comes around the specifications may have changed significantly.

“It’s important that such an important component as sound, which helps set the atmosphere of a venue, be done right,” he says.

While it’s common to spend $7,000-$15,000 for a system that has ‘zones’, with a dozen unobtrusive speakers providing differing levels of sound within a particular venue, it can also be done for a lot less. “I did one for around $3,000, where the restaurateur spent around $700 for an amplifier and multi-disk CD player, and the rest on a set of speakers set into the ceiling. It’s by no means ideal, but it works,” says Hallam.

A lot of effort has gone into assuring the sound works perfectly at Melbourne’s Cookie Restaurant, as well as at Revolver Upstairs, a cabaret venue located in the same building. “We have four different zones in the restaurant—bar, cocktail area, restaurant and reception area, which is where our guests get their first positive impression of the restaurant,” says technician John Hall, who runs the systems.

“The floor staff can control the sound in the zones, but cannot turn it above or under certain specified levels. The idea is to make it as simple as possible,” Hall explains.

Richard Hallam believes iPods and iTunes programs are excellent for controlling music output during a food service session. “Provided the music is imported into the iTunes program in optimal conditions and with the right settings, the compression doesn’t affect the overall sound,” he says. “The restaurant manager can set the playlist and just forget about it for the day. This means that you can set changes of tempo to coincide with the change of pace in the restaurant or café.”

Sound experts say restaurateurs should not attempt to do things that a sound system wasn’t designed for. This could include using it as a PA system, or cranking up the volume for entertainment.

National sales manager for Bose Professional, Philip Langley, says a common mistake is for restaurant and bar owners to underestimate the volume that customers can generate, particularly on a busy Friday evening. “You might have upwards of 90 decibels coming from your customers, and then there’s also the amount of noise their bodies absorb. You need to include all these factors when seeking an audio solution.”

Bose Modeller is a computer program that lets a ‘virtual’ restaurant be created with all the various elements rendered in, such as carpets, customers and reflective surfaces. The customer can then hear exactly how the selected Bose system will operate under those specific trading conditions.

Langley points out that customers are increasingly investing in high-quality sound systems at home, and quickly recognise a substandard system when they hear it. “When it comes to audio in a restaurant or bar, you get what you pay for.”

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