The Shriek of Silence

“Our work is a subjective observation of sound,” said David Berg. As a scientist of sorts for the Acoustics and Audio Group at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Berg listens for a living. For instance, if you ever wondered what noise a cell phone’s seemingly silent display makes, he has the wherewithal to tell you. Not only that, but he can analyze the tiny purr and determine whether it can be improved upon. To do so, he would probably retreat to a room at the center of the Labs, a spot the Guinness Book of World Records has named the quietest place on earth.

Berg is a tall fellow, a man with ears sensitive enough to catch sounds the rest of us miss. He is constantly listening, at one point bending his body like a dowsing rod to check the hum of a fridge. “Oh sure, I measured that,” he said, regarding the Kenmore. “It’s quiet. Stupidly quiet.” His office used to be the sound booth for Sound 80, the world’s first direct-to-digital studio, famous for capturing most of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album and the song “Funkytown.” Another part of the former studio is now a training room where paying customers scrutinize various noises. Does the burp from a particular Harley’s tailpipe seem rugged? Does a vacuum cleaner’s screech inspire confidence in its sucking ability? Does an airplane’s engine whine assure passengers that it won’t plummet to earth? “It’s the quality of the sound, not the level,” Berg explained. “For instance, we dispensed with the notion that a vacuum has to sound annoying to be effective. It can be quiet and still sound as if it works.”

Berg has had a love affair with sound for most of his life. He’s played in several bands, most recently an alt-country group called the Famous Volcanoes, and left the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire years ago to pursue his love of audio and electronics, receiving most of his training on the job at Orfield.

The quietest spot on earth is the Anechoic Chamber, a room within a room, a double-walled, fabricated steel structure on springs, padded on the interior with wedges of fiberglass. The chamber is dark and comfortable, as quiet as a bedroom in the middle of the night—well, obviously, quieter. As you enter, you walk on a tight grid of wires, allowing the sepia-colored wedges beneath to absorb every dollop of sound. Berg proved this by clapping and hollering. The noise died abruptly, the claps diminishing into strange, flat boings. You could hear every heartbeat in your ears, a subtle rhythm that eventually gave way to an annoying approximation of tinnitus.

“This is the direct opposite, the Reverb Room,” he said, wandering into a place that looked like a box made of concrete block and echoed like a handball court. At the center of the room was a rotating microphone boom that captured every noise bouncing off the walls or the corrugated tin panels mounted in the corners. Berg whooped, and his voice caromed endlessly, mixing with the sound of footsteps to create a deafening roar. He pulled out what looked like a mechanical centipede, a tapper that hammers the floor of the Reverb Room. “You’d be surprised how many condos are built without adequate insulation!” he yelled, his voice amplifying the already painful cacophony. And in fact, this room soon would be used to test the insulating capabilities of drywall, windows, and doors.

Berg’s iTunes collection features his favorite music as well as speeches, the din from vehicles, and the subtle grinds of an assortment of household appliances. He enjoys making and studying noise, and also showing off the gadgets at Orfield Labs. Besides the Head and Torso Simulator, which looks like a talking crash-test dummy, there were various small microphones in little wooden boxes, accelerometers to measure vibrations, and acoustic calibrators. Berg demonstrated the effectiveness of these instruments by clapping, stomping his feet, yelling, and whispering—anything to make noise that could be recorded and dissected.

His skills and proclivities come in handy more often than you may think. Berg has recorded preachers giving sermons, manipulating three-dimensional computer models of their churches, in order to help them cut down on echoes. In one case, a church asked the folks at Orfield to leave room for a bit of fancy reverb so the organ could really drive home the point. The Labs are also assisting a company with a machine whose sole purpose is to create babble, thus masking conversations between work cubicles. Berg tests every device with a holler or a hiss, a burst of laughter, or an imitation of a foghorn. At one point he declared with a scowl, “Hard drive’s loud,” addressing a machine that seemed, to less discerning ears, completely silent. earth.