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How to overcome noise, hear, and carry on a conversation, no matter how loud the venue.

Charlie Heller
February 15, 2018

It happens to everyone: after months of planning, schedule changes and last minute cancellations, you've finally got everyone together for a night of drinks and camaraderie at the bar. Except, you suddenly realize with horror, no one can hear each other. Don't panic. All is not lost. Food & Wine talked to sound designer and mixer Kevin Hastings about the science of bar sound, what to watch out for, and what to do when all else fails and you just want to hear your friends.

The problem is "frequency masking"                              

"Frequency masking is when a sound is covered up by a slightly louder sound of a similar pitch," Hastings explains. Since most people's voices fall into the same general frequency range, everyone there ends up competing with each other to be heard.

The biggest culprits? Music and crowds

While acoustics can get fairly complicated, Hastings says the main obstacles to hearing your conversation are pretty intuitive. Most music covers the entire 20 Hz to 20 kHz range of human hearing, so much of that overlaps with voices. If those parts are even just a bit louder than your voice, you get frequency masking, and have to raise your voice.

And if a bar is crowded, more voices will overlap, so everyone will have to speak louder, causing everyone else to have to speak even louder, in a vicious, high-volume cycle, which you've no doubt experienced.

The bar itself can exacerbate noise too

"I see a lot of bars with bare walls and hard surfaces everywhere," Hastings says, "which can cause the sound to bounce around." Bars with a carpeted floor or padded booths might be a bit more forgiving.

The best strategy is avoidance

Hastings says the most foolproof way to make sure you can hear your friends at the bar is to simply avoid places with large crowds or loud music, or change bars if the one you're at gets too loud. As a more general tip, he also suggests taking some time to actively listen, and really hear and understand all the things that contribute to the noise.

But the right earplugs can also do the trick

"My preference is to leave and go to a quieter bar," Hastings says, "but since I tend to lose that argument, I carry high fidelity earplugs everywhere." No, he's not talking about the muffled foam bits they give out for free at concerts, but the pro-quality kind, which are designed to reduce overall noise without distorting the frequencies you want to hear (like voices), keeping everything crystal clear. Hastings uses Earasers ($40), which don't just keep everything audible at those noisy-but-beloved bars, but are small enough that no one else can even tell you're wearing them, so you won't even have to mention the sound.