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man covering his ears in noisy restaurant

A Quiet Place

Baseball Hall of Fame member Yogi Berra once famously said, “It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.” For restaurants, it’s not the crowd but the noise that drives people away.

That’s what Dr. Pasquale Bottalico is trying to mitigate with his research.

Dr. Bottalico, an assistant professor in the department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Applied Health Sciences, had his study, “Lombard effect, ambient noise and willingness to spend time and money in a restaurant,” published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America in September 2018.

The Lombard effect describes the unconscious attempt speakers make in noisy environments to maintain a level of speech that allows them to be understood. The objective of Dr. Bottalico’s study was to determine the minimum level of noise in a restaurant that initiates the Lombard effect.

Restaurant noise is a common complaint for diners, with some 25 percent saying they consider noise to be the most irritating component of eating out, according to a Zagat survey cited in the study. Using his undergraduate students, Dr. Bottalico simulated a restaurant setting in one of the SHS sound booths.

“We used typical restaurant noise and we changed the level in a random way … from a medium level to a very loud level,” he said.

What Dr. Bottalico found was that subjects reported a disturbance of their speech when noise reached 52.2 A-weighted decibels (dBA) and that vocal effort began to increase at 57.3 dBA. The sound level of speech increased as ambient noise increased. As background noise increased, it triggered a decrease in the willingness to spend time and money in that establishment.
“After dinner, your throat is sore and you don’t understand why,” he said. “But the Lombard effect is an unconscious effect, so you are not conscious of the fact that you are actually screaming.

“But your voice, your body and your physiology knows that. And I found that this particular effect was never studied in a restaurant and they were not studying it, correlating with the willingness to spend money.”

The Turin, Italy-born professor had done similar studies in the past understanding other aspects of the Lombard effect, including in classrooms, where the object was to construct the perfect learning environment in terms of how sound reverberates from the instructor speaking to the students.

What Dr. Bottalico found was that many classrooms in Europe had much slower reverberation times than in the United States, which led to sounds overlapping and much less clarity of what was being said, thus hampering comprehension by students.

Armed with that data, he was particularly interested in how it translated in other settings, especially after seeing how it dovetailed with restaurants and a declining bottom line.

“I used a similar protocol, but I changed the setting and I changed the noise,” he said.

Dr. Bottalico concluded that restaurants should have ambient noise levels of 50 to 55 dBA – a level much lower than current restaurants.

He said when restaurants eclipse that figure, “it was starting to [indicate] a willingness to leave that place and also to spend less money to eat in that place. It was starting to create a disturbance in the communication.”

A passion for music and voice  

That disturbance is something Dr. Bottalico assiduously attempts to avoid. A trained opera singer who studied music and engineering at two different universities in Italy at the same time, he was in tune at an early age.

“I come from a family that very much loves music,” he said. “But my parents come from a very blue-collar family so they didn’t have the opportunity or the time to study music when they were kids. I remember in my house there was always music playing and my father in particular was very attracted to classical music and opera. So I grew up learning about opera without knowing I was doing that.”

Dr. Bottalico earned his PhD in Metrology, studying acoustics with particular attention to the uncertainty of measurements and statistical analysis of data. For his dissertation, he investigated classroom acoustics.

The transition from music to his current vocation was seamless, Dr. Bottalico said, because when you’re a vocal performer “you need to understand the internal mechanisms you are using. When you are a voice student, it is an obsession because it is not like other instruments, when you can see what you are doing. If you are a piano player, and you have a hard passage, you will keep practicing that passage until your fingers are moving automatically and you are able to do that particular passage.”

He is particularly interested in the professional voice user and singer techniques, as well as the definition and the quantification of vocal load.

Vocal performers, he said, “cannot study too much because you are your vocal instrument so you need to be very careful.”

Because of that, he is sensitive to what straining to be heard -- whether it’s in a restaurant or other setting -- can do to a voice.

Taking next steps and finding solutions

Dr. Bottalico is treating this published study as a pilot and hopes to expand it to focus on an elderly population, especially since Champaign-Urbana is positioning itself as aging-friendly.

“I have a doctoral student in audiology and she's going to start to collect data next semester,” he said, “and the goal will be to create a different group with normal hearing and people with a moderate hearing loss and people with severe loss and try to understand better how this vulnerable population is affected by the problem.”

He said interventions for restaurants with noise problems range from easy to complicated arrangements, but brought up a pizza chain in London that employs domes over tables that keep conversation in and noise out, although the disadvantage is you cannot easily move the tables.

Another restaurant in Los Angeles uses an array of microphones in the ceiling that record noises in real time. That technique allows for a static noise environment that is not dependent on the number of patrons.

“So I’m controlling the reflection by means of artificial acoustics and I can do whatever I want with it,” he said.

Changes can be as easy as changing a tablecloth to muffle sound.

“It’s just a matter of being aware of the problem, and wanting to find a solution.”

If there is a solution to be found, you can be assured that Dr. Bottalico’s voice will be heard.


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