99% Noise

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Dennis Paoletti:
“Here at the San Francisco Main Library-”

Roman Mars:
And that is Dennis Paoletti.

Dennis Paoletti:
“If you walk into the library, there’s a five-story atrium.”

Roman Mars:
He’s an acoustic designer.

Dennis Paoletti:
“And it also is very hard and reflective with all the plaster, concrete, reflective materials.”

Roman Mars:
Companies hire him to make their buildings and boardrooms and cathedrals and public spaces sound better.

Dennis Paoletti:
“In an early scheme, the architect had the main information desk right in the middle of that floorplan in the center of that five-story atrium. The commotion that would go on, it would be disastrous for the people who had to work there. To try to hear the visitors coming in, asking for things and to try to communicate. One of the things we recommend was to just tuck that information desk off the atrium and just tuck it under some of the mezzanines. Pretty simple, pretty minor, but to me, it just made such an improvement. I always liked that solution.”

Roman Mars:
That smart and simple choice to tuck the information desk over to the left side so patrons and librarians could actually hear each other created a wide-open circular entranceway. And no one really knows how to walk across it without bumping into someone else. So this beautiful, 140 million dollar building has an added feature that certainly was not on the architect’s plans. It’s a hack: a jankity retractable movie theater-style velvet rope partition that helps create the proper traffic flow. And there, fifteen feet apart from one another, is a minor triumph and a minor failure of design.


Roman Mars:
In the epic of Gilgamesh, the gods get so infuriated with the noisiness of their human neighbors, that they send a flood to wipe us all out. And when you walk around the city, it’s pretty easy to side with the gods in that scenario.

Roman Mars:
“What is noise?”

Dennis Paoletti:
“Noise, very simply, is unwanted sound. It used to be called environmental noise, but in recent years, people have been looking at a city’s environment as something unique to that city. In San Francisco, the cable cars are always an interesting point of discussion. Is that sound or is that noise? Well, for the tourism business in San Francisco, that’s sound. That’s good. That’s money. But believe it or not, we’ve been called in by people who are annoyed by the sound of those clanking bells or the cables that run under the street.”

Roman Mars: The job of an acoustic design is not just to make things quieter. Sometimes the best way to design a space to have less noise is to add more sound.

Dennis Paoletti:
A reading room in a library.

“Quiet, quiet, quiet.”

Dennis Paoletti:
It is so quiet that anybody flipping a page in a book turns out to distract everyone else. The problem acoustically? The background noise level! It’s literally too quiet. We often come to spaces like that and add background noise.

Roman Mars:
That’s why small parks in cities have fountains. And if they don’t, they need one. They may be visually pleasing, but the sound might even matter more.

Dennis Paoletti:
Fountains give you this comfort level of acoustical privacy. Masking unwanted noise.

Roman Mars:
“What’s your noise?”

Dennis Paoletti:
“You wanna know what annoys me? When I’m home, and that’s my place to relax, the neighbors always start mowing the lawn.”

Roman Mars:
Your action item of the day is to listen. Not to people, people are annoying. Listen to the city. And let me know, what’s your favorite sound. And what’s your noise? And how is it enhanced or drowned out by design of the city you live in or the building you spend most of your time. Leave your comments at 99percentnvisible.org. 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar Design. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design.


  1. Hey, just found your show and have to say that I’m loving it so much I had to go back to the very first episode!

    My Sound: My wonderful bird singing and chirping. I could be totally engulfed in a movie, and just to hear him chirping away makes it that much better. :)

    My Noise: I have to agree, especially in the summer it’s the constant lawn mowing! I’m watching a tv show or trying to get work done and one of my neighbors (up to a block away) decides to mow their lawn. Or the lawn mowing service starts their route. So by the time one mower gets done there’s 5 minutes of peace until the next starts up.This goes on for literally 3-6 hours depending on the weather!

  2. Cathi

    My Sound: Also bird song; we have 2 cockatiels and one alexandrine parrot in the house, and the “happy song” of each brings me joy.

    My Noise: Sirens – primarily Police, but also Ambulance. Living in the outer suburbs of a city of only 1.6million, it seems they are increasing in frequency all the time, and though I know they can also be saving lives, I cannot help that sense of impending doom and disquiet when they blaringly pass by.

  3. josh

    My Sound is the railroad crossing about a mile and a half away from my house on a quiet, still night. Despite the suburban sprawl between my home and the crossing, on those still, quiet nights I can hear the horn and feel the rumble of the trainloads of aggregate passing in the dark.

    My Noise is the booming base in the car stereos that invade every frequency of my peace and quiet at all hours of the day and night.

  4. My sound – footsteps, on any hard surface. I have always loved this sound and it’s been comforting. Carpet makes me sad.
    My noise – cars. The engines, the horns, the wind noise they cause. Especially trash trucks early in the morning on weekends with the banging of trash collecting. Necessary I know but so, so jarring on an early weekend morning.

  5. Harvison Maldonado

    Hi, I just revisited the show, back from the beginning, now with more calm, trying to remind me in 2015 listening to this show.

    My sound is this “Tamales” lady, all Sundays, in the morning, you can tell it’s Sunday just by this sort of Tibetan voice, long in the distance, “Taaaaaaammmmmmaaaallleeeeeeeeeeeesssssssss….. “, you never know where she is coming, but, she is around, I live in a 8 floor building, just in second floor, the sound bounces from all the facades of the neighboring buildings, it´s usually around 10 am, so the sun is up in that small gap between brick and concrete, and lights on my windows, Bogotá is a pretty cold city, so for me that sound is always tied to the warm of my home.

    The Noise… funny enough….. daft punk Random Access memories… hehehe, i know… it was just 2 years ago, a new neighbor came, and he just blasted the same disk over and over… on sundays… just about 10:30am… i started setting posters asking him to turn the volume a bit down… he was on the next building close to mine, but just as a cathedral, that electric beats bounced and focused my ears… ended up changin all my windows to 1″ Insulated Glass, now i lost my noise and my sound… a bit too quiet…

  6. Sanket Shah

    I live next to a water reservoir and they have a small stream running out along the backyard of the house. The the most soothing sound I’ll ever hear. The best part? It’s continuous.

    Don’t have much noise in my area though. It’s heaven

  7. Derick

    Hi!Is there anyone knows the bgm used in the episode?
    The song in 2:00 to 3:10 is just so brilliant!

  8. Einse

    My noise. Because of growing up in a city 100% 360 degrees) surrounded by trains, my noise is the sound of a distant train, low rumble in the dead of night and an occasional horn.

    Note: after listening to every episode for the last 5 or so years I finally listened to Episode 1. Loved so much I posted my noise. Thanks Roman and the 99 PI staff.

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