The Drummer Next Door

Hi Joshua,

I am a professional touring musician (drummer). I recently purchased a house in Round Rock. I have been sound checking and playing for the last few weeks. All I can find on the laws here online is that between the hours of 7am and 10:30 pm “reasonable noise levels are acceptable” in residential areas. Unfortunately my neighbors felt it necessary to have the police come by last Saturday (at 9pm) which I was repremanded and informed I would be getting a citation if they came back. The noise level measures 10 db at the side walk . It is noticable but sounds like a radio (to me) and I am speculating that it can’t be heard in the other houses. Can you advise me on what specific levels are acceptable in my area and how I can respectfully deal with the local law enforcement if I am with in my legal right? I do not want to upset my neighbors by any means but I need to play and quite frankely if I have to listen to 10 kids, dogs barking all night and the occasional domestic dispute I don’t think I should have to abstain from practice as long as I am legally with in my rights. Thank you for your time. It seems musicians are easy targets for this vague regulation.

The Round Rock noise ordinance has fairly high sound level limits, but the language concerning audibility is otherwise quite strict. The section that applies to you is 14-213.b.8…

Radios, television sets, musical instruments and similar devices.

a. Operating or playing, or allowing the operation or playing of a radio, television, phonograph, musical instrument, or similar device that reproduces or amplifies sound so it creates a noise disturbance for any person other than the operator of the device.

b. Operating or playing any such device so as to cause a noise disturbance.

c. Operating or playing any self-contained, portable, handheld music or sound amplification or reproduction equipment in a public space or public right-of-way so as to cause a noise disturbance.

…which relies on the “noise disturbance” definition in 14-210…

Noise disturbance means any sound which:

(1) Disturbs a reasonable person of normal sensitivities;
(2) Exceeds the sound level limits set forth in this article; or
(3) Is plainly audible as defined in this section.

…which relies on the “plainly audible” definition in the same section…

Plainly audible means any sound or noise from any source that can be clearly heard by a person with normal hearing faculties at a distance of 200 feet or more from the real property line of the source of the sound or noise.

…So it would seem that if your playing isn’t audible 200 feet beyond your property line, you’re in the clear. In reality, I doubt that’s
the case, especially in light of 14.211.b.3…

The official need not determine the particular words or phrases being said or produced, or the name of the song or artist producing the
noise. The detection of a rhythmic bass reverberating type of noise is sufficient to constitute a plainly audible noise.

Just the sound of your kick drum, which is likely to be “detectable” more than 200 feet away, would be enough to put you into the “plainly audible” definition and mean that you are not in your legal right to play at any time of day. It’s very strict, yes, but that’s how it’s written.

About your noise measurement, what do you mean by “10 db”? What type of instrument did you use to measure that, and what were the settings?  The Round Rock ordinance specifies using A-weighted with the “slow” time constant. It’s extremely unlikely that you measured 10 dBA anywhere in your neighborhood, as this is far below typical background noise levels in a residential area.

Sound can transmit through more mediums than just the air. While it may seem like your playing shouldn’t be audible inside another house based on how it sounds outside, it’s very possible that it is actually more audible inside a nearby house than it is outside. I know it
isn’t intuitive, but it happens more often than you think, particularly with drums.

Your kick drum sits on the floor, and your toms and snare are pointed towards the floor and walls. A drum kit is an efficient machine for
injecting vibration energy into the ground through your building structure, particularly if your house has a slab foundation. That
vibration energy can travel quite efficiently through soil to your neighbors’ house, where it radiates from their walls and floors as
audible sound. Inside the house, it wouldn’t be possible to tell whether the sound arriving there is traveling through air or soil or both, but it doesn’t matter because the effect is the same.

Here is my advice:  Forget about sound levels and take full advantage of psycho-acoustics.

Before you do anything else, and this really is important, have a short conversation with your neighbor. Let them know that it’s not your intention to disturb them. See if you can establish a practice schedule with them and promise to always be done at a particular time, and be sure to stick to that schedule. Tell them you’re a professional musician and that practice is an important part of your livelihood.

There is plenty of research that shows a person’s reaction to a sound is affected in a major way by their knowledge of and disposition to
the sound. If they have no sense of when a sound will start or when it will end, and they have no sense that the person making the sound cares about their well-being, the sound will seem especially annoying. However, if a person knows that the noise-maker is concerned about them, and knows when to expect the sound and that it will end at a particular time, the sound seems less annoying, meaning they’re less likely to call the police.

Be friendly, be understanding of their position, don’t be demanding or act like you’re entitled to anything, and you can buy yourself 10 dB
with a single conversation. An offer of a plate of cookies might be worth another 3.

The next thing to do is to get some 2x4s and plywood and build a platform for your drum kit. 12″ high ought to do it. Make feet by standing 2x4s on end. The idea is to minimize the area of contact between the drum platform and your floor, as this will be the pathway
for vibration to get into your building structure and into the soil. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to place some insulation under the platform,
either. You don’t need to stuff it under there, just lay it loose and it will do its job.

When you talk to your neighbor tell them you’re going to build a drum platform designed by an acoustical engineer and that it should reduce the amount of sound reaching their house. Maybe even show them the platform when it’s finished. If they expect the platform to make the sound quieter, it WILL seem quieter, even if sound levels are actually unchanged. We tend to hear what we expect to hear (how else could Monster Cable get away with asking $50 for a 4′ cable?).

And finally, if you have windows in your practice room, cover them up. Build some temporary panels out of 3/4″ plywood that you can place across your windows. They don’t need to be permanent, they just need to do a good job of keeping sound from going out the windows, which is by far how most sound usually leaves a building. Be sure your panel overlaps the edges of the window by at least a few inches. Put some weather-stripping around the edges of the panel so that it forms a nice seal with the wall. Blocking off the windows will probably make a pretty big difference. And of course, be sure to let your neighbor know you’re doing this.

In answer to my response and my question about how he measured sound…

I have an application on my phone which is fairly accurate and it uses the mic input to measure sound waves and turns it into a relative decibel reading. I agree with you about contacting the neighbors, I have not had a chance to meet them yet and tell them about myself and what steps I am taking to prevent noise from leaving the house. Thank you again for the advise. Though to me the noise is low and unoffensive I do not think for a minute that my neighbors right to solitude should be violated. I just want to be able to practice uninterrupted  and definitely with out police involvement.

Thanks so much Joshua!

Those smartphone applications are handy, but they’re not good for measuring anything impulsive or low frequency, as the microphones they put in smartphones just aren’t capable of handling those types of sounds.  Drums are both impulsive and low frequency, so it’s really not a good tool for that type of measurement.  Also, A-weighting (what the ordinance uses) discounts low frequencies very aggressively, so even with a professional sound level meter you wouldn’t be able to make much in the way of meaningful conclusions based on measurements.  In this case I think it’s most pragmatic to abandon technical argument and approach the problem from a public relations and psycho-acoustics angle, which seems to be your game plan.

This works both ways.  If you’re reading this article and you are on the side receiving the noise from a neighbor, it’s worth taking the time to talk to them before you call the police.  Your neighbor may not realize that their activity is disturbing you.  If their first message from you is a visit from the police, it’s likely to put them into a defensive mindset and assume that you are an unreasonable person.  Save the calls to the police until after diplomacy has failed.  A single conversation could solve the issue and put you on good terms with the people you live next to.

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