How Comal and Oliveto Turned to Meyer Sound for Noise Control

How Two East Bay Restaurants Are Dialing Down the Din of Dining


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John Meyer, top, of Meyer Sound had just what John Paluska of Comal wanted and needed.

Photo by Chris Duffey

The “music” is reduced to either an aggressive thump that rattles the ice in your gin and tonic or a hissing tsk tsk tsk that chars the ossicles in your inner ear. The clatter of silverware being dumped into a busing tray and the clang of pans in the open kitchen, not to mention the conversation going on at the table six inches to your right about a brother-in-law’s affair with his Pilates instructor, adds to the din that forces you to shout your sweet nothings to your companion across the table and lean across your plate of pan-roasted monkfish to decipher his response. Such are the aural aspects of the modern dining experience, so typical that some restaurant reviews include bomb symbols to rate the noise level.

But that’s not the case at Comal and Oliveto. In both the downtown Berkeley contemporary Mexican restaurant and the Rockridge Italian fine-dining stalwart you can actually carry on a conversation without raising your voice. And while Oliveto doesn’t pipe music into its sedate upstairs dining room, choosing to sustain a sense of intimacy, Comal keeps a steady rock, folk, R&B, and world music soundtrack going in its more party-like atmosphere—and you can clearly hear the lyrics and all the instruments should you pay attention.

Both restaurants owe their soothing sonic solutions to Meyer Sound of Berkeley and the company’s revolutionary computer-controlled Constellation electronic sound system and Libra sound-absorbent wall panels.

It’s not that restaurateurs and diners have only recently begun caring about the sound environment, says John Meyer, the renowned researcher, engineer, and entrepreneur behind such innovations as the Grateful Dead’s elaborate concert PA system in the 1970s, state-of-the-art studio monitor speakers, and installation systems in nightclubs, theaters, concert halls, subways, museums, cruise ships, and more. “Restaurants have tried for years to address the noise problem, but there isn’t a physical solution,” he says. “Physical things [sound-dampening baffles and the like] have been tried to death, but cancelling sound is really next to impossible.”

Constellation and Libra use dozens or scores of microphones, speakers, and panels of artwork to absorb and reintroduce sounds through a computer system easily controlled by as few as three buttons or on an iPad. Adjustments can instantaneously be made for how full or empty the restaurant might be, maintaining a certain amount of “buzz” while making conversations refreshingly intelligible from one end of the table to the other.

Photo by chris duffey

John Paluska of Comal

Comal owner John Paluska, who in an earlier life managed the rock band Phish, says that his architect looked into Libra panels while designing the restaurant, and that led to the full-blown collaboration with Meyer Sound on the Constellation installation. He compares the sonic results to the shallow depth of field in photography, where you have a sharply focused center—the conversation at your table—in a softly blurred setting; or to sitting in a “microbubble” in which every word is intelligible. “Most customers are not even conscious of it,” he says, “they just know that they’re having a good experience, that it feels right.”

Bob Klein, who co-owns Oliveto with his wife, Maggie, had been impressed by the Comal ambiance and, when John and Helen Meyer came into Oliveto for dinner one night, he engaged them in a conversation about his plans for a restaurant redesign. The result was a Libra/Constellation system that not only makes dinner an opportunity for meaningful, physiologically stress-free conversation, but also broadens the potential for events such as the Oliveto Commons community panel-discussion events.

“It’s frustrating to be someplace with someone you want to talk with and you can’t hear each other,” Klein says. “Once we found out there was something we could do about it, we didn’t want to take any shortcuts. We’re always asking ourselves, what’s the next direction for us? Now that we have this system, it’s really wild—we can put a string quartet in here and have a world-class concert hall.” Perhaps that’s more than you’ve imagined for your next dinner out, but it sure beats bellowing, “How’s your panna cotta, honey?!”

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