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“WHY IS IT SO LOUD IN HERE?”
Geoff Turner’s voice reverberates through the empty upstairs dining room at Bar Pilar.
“OH MY GOD! YOU’RE SLEEPING WITH WHO?” he yells, as he bangs his fist against a wooden table and knocks around a chair.
Turner isn’t talking to anyone, but trying to get a sense of the acoustics. “It’s really loud and echo-y in here, so imagine the cutlery and people with drinks,” he says. “I didn’t even realize how bad it was.”
Turner is the guy who restaurants call when neighbors or diners complain about the noise. As a former punk rocker, he knows a thing or two about loud sounds: In the 1980s and early 1990s, he played guitar and sang in D.C. punk band Gray Matter. He ran an independent recording studio for 15 years. Now, Turner is the one-man band behind AcoustiSonics, which does everything from building sound systems to consulting on noise abatement.
Amid the city’s rapid development, that last service has become a hot one. As neighborhoods become denser, noise issues are a frequent source of tension between residents and restaurant owners. One common refrain from neighbors protesting liquor licenses is that an establishment will disturb their peace and quiet. The issue is particularly poignant right now, as Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham has proposed legislation that would create a nighttime noise complaint hotline and response team as well as certain soundproofing requirements for all newly constructed mixed-use buildings. That could mean restaurants will start paying even more attention to volume than they already do.
Sound is equally important to the diners inside. Whether you can hear the person across the table can make or break a dining experience. That’s why Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema includes decibel levels with all his restaurant reviews and why Yelpers rant nearly as much about what’s in their ears as what’s on their plates.
On this particular afternoon, the Bar Pilar team has brought in Turner to recommend some strategies for toning down the noise level in the recently opened second-floor dining room. Co-owner John Snellgrove says they’ve gotten a lot of complaints from customers that it’s uncomfortably loud. StudioSmith’s Bill Smith, who designed the space, says they want the room to feel more romantic and calm than the bar scene downstairs.
“You’re getting bounce off the bricks. It’s basically reflective, reflective, reflective, reflective,” Turner says, pointing in every direction as he repeats the word. He passes around two samples of sound-absorbing panels made of fiberglass in frames covered with “acoustically transparent” fabric. You can paint them and hang them from the ceiling or the walls, Turner says. He has a formula that takes into account the size of the room and the materials of the floor, ceiling, and walls to help determine how much coverage is needed to absorb how much noise.
“We could even put a mural on the ceiling,” Snellgrove says.
“More mermaids with perfect boobs,” jokes Smith.
Ultimately, they decide simple sound-absorption panels that match the ceiling are probably best.
“This problem is not complex,” Turner assures them. “You just don’t want to waste any money.”
Growing up in Bethesda in the ‘80s, Turner was a budding sound engineer. He set up his first sound studio at age 14 with mixers and microphones he borrowed from Walt Whitman High School during holiday breaks.
As a teenager and throughout his twenties, he sang vocals and played guitar for a number of local punk bands. In 1985, he launched a recording studio on 14th Street NW called WGNS, which worked with D.C. indie and punk labels like Dischord, TeenBeat, and Simple Machines. “A lot of bands recorded their first albums with us,” Turner says. “We didn’t advertise. It was all word of mouth.” He recorded music by local indie-rock luminaries like Unrest, Jawbox, and Chisel, and even one song by Foo Fighters, whose Dave Grohl also came up in D.C.’s punk scene.
Turner’s time in the studio taught him the sound skills he uses today. But consulting with restaurants on noise is just one aspect of his work. Turner, now 45, is an audio mixer for several national broadcasts, including The Today Show, Meet the Press, and Al Jazeera English. He’s worked with a big local developer to estimate the sound impact of 40 commercial air conditioning units in an office. Two months ago, he helped rebuild the broadcast facility communications system at the State Department. And currently, he’s working with a PR firm to compose music and create sound effects for an anti-binge drinking video game.
Turner’s first noise abatement gig was at the Black Cat five years ago. Owner Dante Ferrando, who played drums with Turner in Gray Matter, wanted to put in a rooftop bar, but multiple neighborhood groups protested. Turner brought a crowd of people up to the roof and had them yell so he could measure the decibel levels and see how the sound bounced down the alleyways. He presented a report on the findings to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. In the end, Ferrando decided not to pursue the rooftop bar, but it kick-started a new part of Turner’s career.
For his next project, Turner worked with several restaurants, including Haydee’s, Don Juan, and Don Jamie, and a community group called Hear Mount Pleasant that wanted to lift a live music ban imposed in the restaurants’ voluntary agreements with the neighborhood. Hear Mount Pleasant volunteer Natalie Avery, who knew Turner growing up in the local punk scene, brought him in to evaluate the situation.
“I grew up needing a music scene desperately when I was a kid, and the fact that I could, even as an underage person, responsibly go to a club and see bands filled in a lot of gaps in my life,” Turner says. “So when I heard about this, I was all over it.”
He brought a rock band with drums and bass guitar to the restaurants to see how the sound traveled. Some neighbors allowed Turner into their homes so he could troubleshoot the problem “like a plumber would, like an air-conditioning repairman would, like anybody would who’s trying to fix a leak.” Many of the fixes were fairly simple: redirecting the speakers and keeping the windows shut. The battle spanned several years, but the restaurants ultimately were able to lift the live music ban.
“There’s such a fever pitch about the way these issues are handled, and it’s extremely destructive,” Avery says. “That’s why I was so glad to bring Geoff into the Mount Pleasant situation, because there’s got to be a more constructive problem-solving approach.”
Avery, who later served as executive director of the MidCity Business Association and on the ABRA Noise Task Force, has referred Turner to other restaurants and clubs. In the four years since he worked on the Mount Pleasant case, Turner has worked with places like Policy, Lost Society, DC9, Local 16, the rooftop bar at the Donovan House, Masa 14, and El Centro D.F. It’s not just the restaurants or clubs that hire him; sometimes local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions do, too. Turner says he empathizes with both sides in noise disputes: “I don’t sleep well, and I love music. So everybody’s right as far as I’m concerned in these neighborhood battles.”
He says the 14th Street NW and U Street NW corridors as well as H Street NE are the current hot spots for noise issues. “You have people living on top of restaurants in a way that you didn’t have in D.C. before,” Turner says.
One of Turner’s biggest restaurant projects right now is installing a state-of-the-art sound system in Tropicalia, a Brazilian lounge with live music coming to the basement of the building at the northeast corner of 14th and U streets NW. Turner also worked with Tropicalia co-owner Aman Ayoubi to make adjustments to his other restaurant and bar, Local 16, after neighbors complained about the noise.
When the Tropicalia system is done, Turner says it will be among the top three in town, along with The Hamilton and 9:30 Club (neither of which he worked on). But for now, the only sounds coming from the subterranean space are those of saws and hammers. Before his meeting at Bar Pilar, Turner joined Ayoubi to check on the progress.
“Every aspect, every corner of this place, there’s local artists involved with it,” Ayoubi says. “And I think about Geoff as a local artist, too.”
Ayoubi points out the still-in-construction DJ booth, which Turner designed and built. “There’s no sound guy that personally designs a sound booth,” Ayoubi says. He notes the slanted surface, which is meant to prevent people from putting their drinks down next to the expensive equipment. “Do you really think that many sound designers think that far?” Ayoubi says. “Every single detail, he takes pride in what he does.”
Indeed, Turner is already thinking ahead to potential noise issues after the lounge opens. “The best thing about it is it’s in the basement,” Turner says. “So I’m not going to have come and inspect my work later on for noise complaints.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery