The Music Venue Assistance Program and Noise Mitigation Case Study

Item 14 of February 2nd’s City Council meeting was discussion and approval of a resolution to change the name of the existing Music Venue Relocation Program to the Music Venue Assistance Program, and to provide $40,000 from the Downtown Development Fund for a music venue noise mitigation case study.  The action items in the resolution are worded as follows.

  • The City Manager is directed to change the name of the Downtown Venue Relocation Program to the Music Venue Assistance Program.
  • The City Manager is directed to initiate, fund, and oversee a sound mitigation case study of a relevant music venue in an amount up to $40,000 from the Downtown Development Fund.
  • The City Manager is directed to engage cross-departmental staff to work with the Music Commission to develop recommendations, based in part from the case study, to mitigate sound from music venues and report recommendations to Council on or before July 20, 2012.
  • Subject to Council approval and availability of funds, the City Manager is directed to add the amount of $100,000 per fiscal year to the Downtown Development Fund for the Music Venue Assistance Program until the amount available for the program is $750,000 [or other funding recommendation, pending results from the case study].

The previously existing Music Venue Relocation Program holds  $224,000 that was meant to be available to loan to music venues forced to relocate.  The original intended recipient was Liberty Lunch, but that relocation never panned out.

With the change of the fund’s name, its purpose is converted to making low-interest loan money available to music venues who want to implement noise mitigation measures.  I think this is a very smart move, as resistance to building improvements for noise purposes is naturally due to cost in most cases.

Having access to a lump of cheap money means venues can implement a variety of effective mitigation measurements simultaneously.  The typical, low-cost approach is to consider a variety of mitigation techniques and try them out one by one, often starting with the cheapest.  This means that small, single ideas are implemented without much to show in terms of results.  The best approach is usually to make significant, coordinated changes that are known to be effective, and having money available for this at a discount rate will make this much easier for venues to accomplish.

I’m not as convinced of the value of the case study.  As I understand it, the point is to explore some noise mitigation ideas to show that noise mitigation is possible and to learn a little about what does and doesn’t work.  Such knowledge can be used to start a sort of play back used by the Music Department to offer recommendations to venues seeking advice.

While there is sense in this, it does seem like re-inventing the wheel.  Noise issues like those we experience in Austin are far from unique.  They’re regularly studied and often solved all over the world.   There is a wealth of information available in the form of case studies and other papers in the journals of professional societies such as the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE) and the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).

One has to wonder why the city doesn’t spend the money retaining one or more acoustical engineering firms to provide this kind of information.  $40,000 can buy a substantial amount of time from a noise control expert; certainly more than enough to commission the writing of a set of guidelines for improving noise isolation of music venues.

Perhaps the underlying purpose of the case study is to show Austin that co-existence of music venues and residences can be improved through the use of effective noise control that doesn’t diminish the live music experience.  This I can understand, as I’ve often found that the very concept of acoustical engineering as a field distinct from “sound engineers” is unknown among those involved in the Downtown Austin discussion.  A clear example of what can be done set in an environment people are familiar with could do quite a bit to raise awareness of the potential benefits of good planning for noise reduction.  I can see the value in that approach.

In order to maximize the opportunity, a venue will need to be chosen that suffers from a range of problems.  Since each venue has a particular set of characteristics, it seems unlikely that studying a single location would yield $40,000 worth of information.  Maybe the study would produce better results if multiple venues were considered.

Whether or not an acoustical engineering firm is part of the case study, I implore the Music Department to take good, meaningful before and after sound level measurements (or, better yet, have measurements taken by a knowledgeable professional).  This case study will be a great opportunity to put some real numbers to the noise the venue produces before and after.  Limiting measurements to simple, police style A-weighted levels at the property line would be an unfortunate loss of some very valuable information.

1/3-Octave values should be taken in Leq and Ln (statistical values), and measurements should be made at a number of key locations that will allow the true noise reduction to be described.  Measurement positions should include multiple locations inside the venue, including at the mixer and at enough spots in the audience to make a valid determination of whether the music is “loud enough” for the crowd.  Outside the venue measurements must be taken at the nearest residences, so that the actual noise impact can be described.  Of course property line measurements will be taken, but their only real value is in comparison to our curious source-oriented noise ordinance.

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