Don’t Bring in the Noise

Musically talented renters learn to practice without annoying their neighbors


Blaine Misner lives in a “band house,” which offers plenty of room for the snare drums, guitars and amplifiers that he and his roommates need to practice.

Stacks of amplifiers line the walls of Blaine Misner’s red-brick house. Four snare drums take up most of the dining-room table, and guitars hog the couches like lazy roommates.

“There’s so much gear, this is starting to look like a house from ‘Hoarders,’ ” Misner says.

Misner, the guitarist for Pet Parade, has always lived in so-called “band houses.” Roomy ramblers on the outskirts of town, they provide everything a musician needs: plenty of space for gear and sturdy sound-muffling construction.

“I’m in four bands, and they all practice in my basement,” says Misner, 29, who also works as a sound engineer at Cue Recording. “My roommate is in a band that practices in the basement. Bands we don’t even know will show up to practice in the basement.”

Living in a house that can double as a practice space — or having a friend who has one — is the most affordable option for many musicians in the District.

“D.C. was never a manufacturing town, so we just don’t have all those old warehouse spaces and run-down commercial properties like Baltimore or Philadelphia,” Misner says. “That’s why everyone has to practice where they live.”

That’s created problems for local band Southern Problems. When the post-punk group formed in 2010, drummer Andrew Graeber, 27, lived in the perfect band-house in Petworth. But then gang violence erupted in the otherwise peaceful neighborhood, says the band’s singer Andy Bowen, 27.

“There were daytime shootouts, there were nighttime shootouts … and we kept on going there and practicing,” she says.

When a family of three was carjacked and shot nearby, Graeber decided to move to a studio apartment in Georgetown.

It was an improvement in personal safety, Bowen says, but not the ideal place to rock. The band was particularly worried about annoying the neighbors with its full drum-set.

“We made a kick-drum out of a shoebox because we felt that was probably the loudest part of the ensemble,” she says. They also adhered to a tight schedule — ending practices by 10 p.m. at the latest.

In Rosslyn, Andy Minor, 26, who lives in an apartment, also tries to play his tuba only during early-evening hours. But that rule recently fell by the wayside after a few drinks with an old friend.

“Sometimes you drunkenly take the horn out at 2 a.m., and so it goes,” he says.

The next day, he ran into his upstairs neighbor.

“He was like, ‘Listen, when you play, I can hear you clearly through the ceiling and I guarantee everyone in the building can hear you really well,’ ” Minor says. “He also said that he used to be a band director and I sounded really good, but at the same time, he sounded really upset.”

Unfortunately for Minor, there’s almost nothing that tuba players can do to muffle their practice sessions, says Don Zientara, owner of Inner Ear Studios (innerearstudio.com) and the producer and sound engineer for many notable D.C. bands, including Fugazi and Minor Threat. Real soundproofing entails major construction, which is cost-prohibitive for most homeowners and completely out of reach for most renters, he says.

“The lower the frequency, the denser the wall has to be,” he says. “We’re talking cinder blocks with the holes filled with sand, sheet lead curtains, several walls with airlocks … not cheap, not easy.”

Flutists, however, can do more to keep the neighbors happy.

“A high-frequency wave … that is measurably soft, in a room with a lot of plush furniture, drapes, plants, etc., will not travel too far,” he says. “Once that wave hits the easy chair, it’s toast.”

Misner recommends lining your walls with tall bookshelves — for several reasons.

“All those books, man, they’re absorbing sounds, and they make you look cool,” he says. “They make it look like you read, and then you might actually read and become smarter and stop being a musician and make some money.”

Which Instrument Is Most Annoying?

Apartment-dwellers may want to pick up the violin instead of the trombone. The louder and lower-pitched the instrument, the more likely it will bother your neighbors.

Normal conversation: 60 decibels
Piano: 65 db
Violin: 94 db
Flute: 98 db
Trombone: 100 db
Rock band: 120 db

A Material World

Musicians looking for apartments to rent must remember the moral of “The Three Little Pigs”: Brick is way better than wood. “The denser the material, the more sound it will keep inside,” says architect-by-day and guitarist-by-night Richard Schmitt. Acoustics experts also suggest you:

Install drapes: Windows are a prime culprit for sound leaks.
Weather-strip: Drafts and sound waves can sneak beneath doors.
Think plush: Trade that molded plastic chair for an overstuffed love seat.
Get a throw rug: The thicker the better for absorbing sound.
Just say no to minimalism: More stuff means more sound absorption. S.D.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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