On the Job

Acoustical engineer sounds off about noise

Herb Singleton is licensed as a mechanical engineer in Massachusetts because the state licensing board doesn’t recognize acoustics as a separate discipline.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Herb Singleton is licensed as a mechanical engineer in Massachusetts because the state licensing board doesn’t recognize acoustics as a separate discipline.

Noise pollution can cause countless adverse health affects, from high blood pressure to hearing loss. It’s acoustical engineer Herb Singleton’s job to find the source of the racket and find ways to quiet it.

Solving a noise or vibration problem ­often requires detective skills, whether it’s a complaint about trains rumbling by or construction site din. “The primary goal of acoustical engineering is the reduction of unwanted sounds, but it’s often challenging to figure out what’s causing the noise and how to control it,” said Singleton, whose consulting business is based in Springfield.

How does acoustics fall under engineering?


Acoustics is engineering, but it tends to be a mix of electrical and mechanical engineering, with some physics thrown in. Since it’s not a fundamental engineering discipline, it’s not considered by some to be engineering; for example, I’m licensed as a mechanical engineer in Massachusetts because the Mass. board of licensure doesn’t recognize acoustics as a separate discipline.

How do you measure noise levels?

Sound level meters can measure noise, whether it’s a person in the field or unattended noise monitors that run automatically for several days. These instruments are brought back to the lab and run through the computer. There’s a lot more data, but also interfering sounds such as barking dogs or traffic that need to be screened out.

What’s an example of a community noise project you’ve worked on?

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A neighbor lived next to a Sudbury farm that had a noisy chicken coop. He wanted to document noise levels to show that it wasn’t just roosters crowing in the morning, but chickens who were active all day and night. He was able to stop the farm ­expansion.

How do you address train noise and vibration issues?

We can recommend sound mitigation measures by measuring train noise. For example, if steel wheels are spinning on the tracks, they can create an annoying squeaking noise. This can be caused by wheels that flatten over time or have divots in them, in which case the train needs to be maintained or lubrication added to the track.

You’ve been in this field for almost two decades. What changes have you seen?

The biggest change is the availability of low-cost computer hardware that has transformed the practice. Now, we can perform measurements today using relatively inexpensive tools that might have cost thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars back in the late ’90s.

What’s your noise pet peeve?


Restaurant noise. Restaurants are often intentionally designed to be loud, which bothers me because as a customer, I hate screaming to hold a simple conversation.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at
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