All too often, apartment living is filled with sound and neighborly fury.

As a longtime building inspector, home columnist and frequent guest on public radio, Al Ubell has heard it all--and lots of it.

Children overhead, conversations next door, honking horns here, rattling machinery there.

Another common complaint? The sound of music. "People involved in the arts, dance, they want to practice," Ubell said. "The people alongside, above and below, complain. With good reason."

Tenants can live in harmony, if not absolute quiet, and steps can be taken to achieve this end--"I could almost write a book," Ubell said.

Soundproof, however, is not an option. " 'Soundproof' is an oxymoron," he said.

Beyond the typical situations where one person's symphony is another's cacophony, a building's form offers clues as to the type of noise likely to be prevalent there.

Kevin Miller, president of Miller Henning, an acoustical consulting firm in McLean, points out that in low-rise construction, you tend to get more loud sounds overhead--"vertical noise"--because of the prevalence of wood joist construction. Wood easily conducts the sound of people dropping things, scraping chairs, and such.

"In high-rises, normally you have concrete floors, and that problem essentially goes away," Miller said. But high-rises have their own problems: trash chutes, rooftop fans and indoor sports facilities.

And of course in any building with thin walls, horizontal sound--hearing your next-door neighbors--is a problem.

Then there's exterior noise--the trucks, buses and jackhammers of the world beyond. Upgrading windows is "the first line of defense," Miller said. Though changing windows is not an option for most apartment dwellers, an inquiry into the sorts of windows in place may be edifying.

As an example, Miller cites the one-inch double-pane insulating glass so prevalent in office buildings today.

The small air cavity in such a window muffles higher-frequency sound, but droning traffic noise, which peaks at the bottom end of the human voice scale, is middle to low frequency, and the small cavity acts like a spring in that case.

"That window does worse at [low frequency] than a single pane of glass," Miller said.

Accommodating landlords may want to know that a storm window can dampen traffic noise, and the window's two- to three-inch air cavity avoids the lower-frequency spring phenomenon. Even greater soundproofing can be had, Miller said, by adding a second window as a storm window.

In general, the older the building, the more sound-resistant it is, Ubell said. The European artisans who built our older buildings tended toward masonry, since that was what they were used to. But materials such as wood and steel were soon incorporated into structures, making them lighter, and so increasing the perception of sound. Sound travels through masonry, too, but at a level that's not perceived as readily.

Time itself may heal noise problems. "When a building gets old the dust from the atmosphere starts to fill up cavities . . . and acts to some degree as a sound-absorbing material," Ubell said. "The accumulation of years helps stifle some of the sound--not a high percentage, but it's a cumulative effect."

As we enter the millennium, however, it seems simple peace and quiet are becoming more of a luxury.

"Sound protection is not a high priority with developers of low- and middle-income housing," Ubell said.

"The wealthy have consultants, hire people like myself," he said, claiming "a lot of celebrities"--unnamed--as clients.

So, silence really is golden. But perhaps there's reason for hope in the work of acousticians like Miller, who team up with developers in the building phase and beyond to help control the noises multi-unit housing is heir to.

As Miller points out, developers are not required to employ an acoustician the way they are a structural engineer. It speaks well for their concern about environmental noise when they do, he said.

Or perhaps those landlords realize there's demand from apartment dwellers for serene surroundings--something they have figured out just by keeping their ears to the ground.

CAPTION: Kevin Miller, right, president of an acoustical consulting firm, with Patrick Rhodes, project manager for a Leisure World complex under construction in Leesburg. Miller says upgrading windows "is the first line of defense" against noise.