Help me drown out this horrific noise so I can sleep, PLEASE!
November 10, 2009 12:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I muffle or deal with an incredibly loud noise so I can sleep?

A couple of months ago I moved to a fantastic new apartment- fantastic in all ways but one. The subway shuttle (an aboveground train) goes by every 20 minutes. Actually it goes in each direction so it's twice every 20 minutes. 24 hours a day. The tracks run alongside the building, about twenty feet from the edge of the building, directly under my bedroom window. Sometimes, when it's running slowly, it's only very loud. When it's running at full speed, like it usually does, I can't describe how loud it is. It is as loud as a train sounds when it goes by you at full speed while you're standing on the platform. Which is very, very loud.

I don't think I've slept through the night since I've been here. I don't wake up every time it goes by, I think, but at least four or five times every night I find myself all of a sudden wide awake and confused, wondering if the building's being bombed or what the hell is going on. I am exhausted.

It's so loud it makes no noticeable difference if the windows are open or closed. I tried a white noise machine- laughable. It's orders of magnitude louder than that. I've tried earplugs- no brand I find even begins to make a dent in the noise. Even in August, when I first moved here and the windows were shut and the air conditioning was on full blast, THAT didn't make a dent in the noise.

Does anyone have any suggestions? I'm subletting, so I can't do anything permanent or lasting to the house, but is there any kind of temporary soundproofing that I could do to the windows, maybe? Or any other ways to go with this? I am so freaking tired. I have no energy all day long because I don't think I've gotten more than two straight hours of sleep in months. Other people in the building say they just adjusted after a while, but that doesn't seem to be happening to me, and I need to find a way to live with this before I go nuts.

Thanks in advance...
posted by Dormant Gorilla to Home & Garden (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could try having earplugs custom-made for yours ears, or possibly get noise-canceling or construction-worker-calibre headphones, assuming you could sleep with the latter. You, or someone else, can probably say whether this stands a chance of success in the situation you describe (though I've heard headphones are better with constant noise than intermittent train platform hell).

Other than that, is there a couch in another room that's farther away from the street? Preferably a room with a door?
posted by Beardman at 12:25 PM on November 10, 2009

"Yours ears", while it is a ring to it, is not what I meant to write. But what the hell, let's go with it.
posted by Beardman at 12:26 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: Oh should have said- the setup of the apartment is that the living room is on the exact same side, next to the bedroom, so the train runs directly outside it too.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2009

I think you'll get the most bang out of using several options at once. First, is there any way you can sleep on the other side of the apartment, furthest from the window? Then, I would try both earplugs and headphones/radio. Further soundproofing the room and any room on that side of the building may help as well, even if you sleep in the living room. Lastly, consider taking a sleep aid of some kind, like Tylenol PM.
posted by soelo at 12:29 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I lived next to a kid who used to party so hard that he set off the fire alarm almost every night, the only thing that worked on the worst nights was to put in some serious earplugs and then turn on classical music at such a volume that I couldn't hear anything. Depending on how understanding your neighbors are, maybe you could try earplugs with headphones over them.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:30 PM on November 10, 2009

My SO swears by playing white noise loudly (he uses a white noise iPhone app to be specific) to block out loud sounds from the other side of the bedroom wall. I personally had a hard time falling asleep to it the one time he ran it while I was there but it seems to work wonders for him so YMMV.
posted by kthxbi at 12:30 PM on November 10, 2009

I'm someone who is really fussy about noise and sleeping. I see them as two separate issues and sometimes the fussiness really becomes the thing that is keeping me from sleeping. I have no idea if you are like this or not. So, my ideas...

1. you are unlikely to be able to make much of a dent in the noise, it seems that you have tried all the sensible things. What I would do if this were me I'd move my bed into another room, even if it's the kitchen or the bathroom or whatever.
2. you can then close off the bedroom, use it as an office, muffle the noises with a carpet or something over the window, etc
3. think about if you're having anxiety over not sleeping. If this is the case you might want to try anxiety reducers like exercise, warm milk before bed, some sort of a routine or even anti-anxiety meds. I know this is not for everyone, but at least for some people the anxiety of being unable to sleep is almost worse than the lack of sleep itself. Only you know which sort of person you are.

And I'd make plans. If you literally can not live there, you should not live there. Figure out an exit strategy of some sort [stay at a friend's place some nights in the meantime so you're not cracked out constantly] and look into breaking the agreement or finding another way out of it.
posted by jessamyn at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

...even if you sleep in *another* room...

Really, I'd try any room not on that side, kitchen, bathroom, closet if I could fit in it.
Sleep deprivation can cause lots of other problems. Can you/do you want to get out of the lease? If it's causing medical problems, it might be worth a try.
posted by soelo at 12:32 PM on November 10, 2009

Upon further review, you seem to already have tried a white noise machine ... so much for my great advice
posted by kthxbi at 12:38 PM on November 10, 2009

Yikes, I looked at an apartment next to that shuttle years ago. Right in the middle of the broker's spiel about the wonders of the apartment the train went by and he had to look awkwardly at the ceiling until it was quiet enough to talk again. Had to turn that place down.

This may be similar to white noise/air conditioner solutions, but I've found that having a fan blowing over my head can be very effective in cutting out noise. I used to live in a very loud neighborhood and, in the summer, I would clip a small fan to the headboard of my bed so that the air would basically blow down into my ears. It went a long way towards neutralizing the noise that I was dealing with, once I got used to sleeping while having air moving over my face.

As suggested above, you could try custom earplugs. I have musician friends who have fairly high-tech little plugs and they love them. I don't know specific brands they use, though.
posted by otolith at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for these suggestions- I'll address a few just to clarify. Firstly I've kind of already moved the bed to the place furthest away from the windows- nowhere else to put it, really, and it didn't make a discernable difference. Second- I do want out. I'm thinking it's just kind of a dealbreaker and it's bad enough to make me want to move- however, I'm subletting from a friend till June, and he's out of the country, and if I bail it will leave him in a very bad place, and he's already said he doesn't want to deal with finding someone new or someone he might not trust. So for all intents and purposes this is not an option.

No amount of white noise is gonna make a dent in this. Construction workers' earmuffs are a fantastic idea though, so if anyone has recommendations as to what specs I should be looking for? My understanding is that noise canceling headphones can't work with intermittent sounds because they don't know when to deliver the white noise to cancel out the sound, if that makes any sense, so I would need something that just really muffles it.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:40 PM on November 10, 2009

Some of my pyro friends have electronic shooter's muffs that allow them to converse normally between blasts. They're pricy, but seem to do the trick. Maybe look into shooter's muffs? I don't know any brands, unfortunately, as I only do pyro once a year.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:48 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about making some window plugs to muffle things down a notch? At least it might help you get a little more mileage out of a white noise machine.
posted by scody at 12:49 PM on November 10, 2009

These will, more or less, reduce the perceived noise level by 29 decibels. The most you can reduce is 35 db, but that's with earplugs and ear muffs at the same time.
posted by Damn That Television at 12:49 PM on November 10, 2009

A professional piccolo player recommended using synthetic cotton balls. He says they work better than any earplugs.

(Piccolos are really stinking loud by the way. Deafeningly so.)
posted by chicago2penn at 12:57 PM on November 10, 2009

The best ear plugs that seem to be commonly available reduce the sound level by around 33dB. These are the squishy orange foam ones you can get at the drug store, for example. It seems likely you've already tried this kind or a similar kind.

I guarantee nothing you can do with soundproofing materials will even come close to what these earplugs do. Which is to say, if the earplugs aren't helping at all, neither will any kind of soundproofing.

If you can get a white noise generator that can actually drown out the loudness of the train, you might find you can get used to a constant din easier than an intermittent one. Especially if you also use earplugs to knock the volume down a bit.

However, you're probably going to have to move to solve this problem.
posted by FishBike at 12:58 PM on November 10, 2009

I assume that most of the noise comes in though the living room and bedroom windows. The note about window plugs sounds right. What I picture is a plywood panel hinged to the inside of the windows. Glue a large chunk of foam rubber, which fills the window opening completely, to the plywood. Close the panel against the window and hook it there. Would that work?
posted by Midnight Skulker at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2009

I'd like to add that if you do eventually find some kind of solution, please be careful to take precautions for your safety. I had a friend who went to sleep in her apartment while wearing earplugs and taking a sleep aid. She woke up in a hospital with life-threatening burns. Her apartment had caught on fire and she never heard the alarms.

So please look into getting a strobe light or a similar product if you are successful in drowning out all noise. It does sound like you are in a difficult situation and I wish you luck!
posted by bristolcat at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2009

Can you build a little cave around your bed? Make it into a mini bedroom and use the same wall soundproofing that musicians use in their studios. Build it as a temporary structure, the same size as your bed, with a doorway at the end.
posted by Vaike at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2009

If your "friend" wasn't nice enough to warn you about how truly horrific this noise was going to be, I wouldn't worry about putting him in a tough spot by bailing.

But, if you want to stick it out, my suggestion would be to accustom yourself to some music that you can leave on repeat all night when sleeping. Maybe your senses will sort of adjust and notice the continuity of the music and that may help. I am suggesting this because perhaps the "shock" of the 'quiet quiet quiet quiet OMG LOUD quiet quiet' cycle is part of the problem. The music isn't so much to drown out the noise of the shuttle, but to trick your body into noticing it less. I would suggest starting with it in headphones, but out of consideration for the safety suggestions above eventually transitioning to speakers.

What is your appetite for speaking with your doctor about trying Ambien or something similar? I'm not going to suggest it, per se, but it is an option that's out there. At this point, your body may be so habituated to waking up frequently that even if the noise were to disappear, you'd still be up a few times a night.
posted by bunnycup at 1:18 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you can afford it, something like this might work on the wall or the window opening. Make sure the pointy bits are facing outward.
posted by dacoit at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2009

I lived next to a construction site for a while, and to block out the noise I started sleeping with pillows under and over my head. Some people have told me this is dangerous, but I am never awakened by noises.
posted by matkline at 1:38 PM on November 10, 2009

I'd take the above suggestion to make a structure around your bed. Even if it's got to be out of a few layers of cardboard, you can affix foam and other baffling materials on both the inside and outside or between layers of cardboard, and then either a fan or a white noise machine inside your bed-cubby.
posted by lemniskate at 1:40 PM on November 10, 2009

Do you have an mp3 player? You could try buying a pair of noise-cancelling in-ear earphones in the hope that pumping music in while at the same time keeping at least some of the noise out might help.

I use that method on Friday and Saturday nights because I live in a flat with ill-fitting old windows above a pretty dodgy pub. There's really loud music, louder karaoke, and shouting matches and fights outside every weekend until 3am, but as long as I have the earphones positioned correctly in my ears I can cover the loudest bits enough to sleep through it.
posted by Ildeth at 2:14 PM on November 10, 2009

Oh man. Short of completely rebuilding the wall and changing the windows, I don't see a good solution here. If I owned the place I'd add layers of acoustical drywall and put in some laminated double paned windows that have a good attenuation rating.

You could try hanging some deep pile carpet over the windows at night, with the pile facing out. The windows are the most likely culprit for the majority of the noise (at least high frequencies) and deadening them might make the rest more bearable.

Good luck. You have my sympathy.
posted by empyrean at 2:17 PM on November 10, 2009

From my experience with subways, a lot of the noise is going to be the low-frequency rumbling that is basically unsoundproofable. I say move. Try to help your friend, realize that it may poison the friendship, but if you don't have your health/sanity, what have you got?
posted by rikschell at 2:29 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was trying to drown out noise, I slept with shooter's earmuffs/ear defenders (bought from a gun store -- about $20, I think) with earphones playing music underneath. You'll have to sleep on your back, which might be a problem if you can't sleep that way or snore a lot and wake yourself up, though. I got used to sleeping with music playing, and even now sleep with the radio on.

I also had limited luck with propping a spare futon against a window, which deadened some sound. Do you have a spare mattress you could do that with, perhaps?

Is there a bathroom you could sleep in that's away from the noise? A friend slept on a futon on a board on the top of her bathtub when she had guests over, and it looked pretty comfortable. Or you could curl up in the actual tub, if it's big enough for you to stretch out in.

I really feel for you. Interrupted sleep is torture. Good luck.
posted by vickyverky at 3:41 PM on November 10, 2009

I like the noise cancelling headphone thing- as long as there isn't a cord. That can be dangerous.

I also like the window-plug thing. (I'm picturing a brick building with single pane glass). To that level and kind of noise, a window is basically transparent. If it was me, I'd build something. Either the hinges as suggested, or four eye-bolts into the wall (easily repairable) and four of those sliding door bolt deals. Put foam of varying types into the cavity (different kinds to dampen different frequencies), and on the last layer that points out toward the window, some of that really soft egg-crate stuff like what they use to pack delicate devices in. And have it pushing fairly hard against the window- not so hard that the window can break, but hard enough that the window cannot vibrate and resonate. If you can't find a way to garbage pick appropriate foams, that stuff can be expensive. But way less than moving.

Third, I'd put the bed up on some kind of noise/vibration dampening posts. Maybe four flower-pots full of ballistic gel? Maybe stuff some old blankets or pillows into boxes and set the bed posts into them?

Finally, I once got a pillow at Target that was perfect for sound dampening. It was maybe $25, if the regular ones were $14. I forget what it was called, and I could never find it again. But they way it worked for me was that it was a normal shaped pillow, but the foam fill was EXACTLY the right density such that I could set it on edge, and sink my head into it, and the sides would fold up and cover my ears with the perfect amount of pressure. Perfect, I tell you. (It was not one of those husk ones- although those might work well too- it was synthetic batting just like a regular cheap pillow. Just somehow different.
posted by gjc at 3:58 PM on November 10, 2009

I also use a fan for white noise and find it works well (if you've only been trying white noise machines.) You can crank it up really high and leave it near your head and it drowns a lot out (in my experience: loud parties and car alarms) but will not make it difficult to sleep.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:01 PM on November 10, 2009

Call up your local otolaryngology clinic (ear doctor) and ask about custom molded earplugs. They will take a silicon mold of your inner ear and create a plug from that. Looks like a hearing aid and has a dial you can turn to turn up or down the volume of...reality. I don't know if they can block sound 100%, but I'm sure it's pretty significant. Pro musicians all now use these things when doing concert tours--they can hear the music just fine but just at a reasonable volume. May be kind of pricey.
posted by zardoz at 4:36 PM on November 10, 2009

You can try two sets of hearing protection - the in-ear foamy or rubber kind and then cover those with over the ear (earmuff style) headphones.

Earplugs have a noise reduction rating - higher numbers are better.

I don't think the acoustical foam or eggcrate is going to do much for you.
posted by kenliu at 4:47 PM on November 10, 2009

I don't have any suggestions on the soundproofing (I'd move), but I would strongly advise you to get away SOON and spend a couple of nights in a nice, quiet hotel so you can get the sleep you need.

As the parent of a tiny child, I can tell you that having a disrupted sleep cycle for months and months and months on end can do all sorts of funky things to you, including bring on depression. You need to make getting some sleep a priority.
posted by anastasiav at 5:03 PM on November 10, 2009

I used to live right next door to an airport. I literally got used to the noise. The people telling you they are accustomed to the noise are not lying to you. That really might be the best option here.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:29 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you, there is really good stuff here. I want to go the headphones-and-earmuffs route, but the person who pointed out that this would be really dangerous in case of a fire has a really good point so I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that.

You guys have kind of made me see that if it's at the point where I need to sleep in my bathtub with spare mattresses lining the walls and synthetic cotton in my ears, I might be justified in bailing on this place. The sleep deprivation has been creeping up on me and I am gradually getting more and more out of it and depressed. I'm honestly not functioning all that way lately. I'd been thinking that I was overreacting and the thought of breaking the sublet makes me feel awful, especially since the friend whose place this is seems to have adjusted to the noise and doesn't really see the problem, but your reactions have made me reconsider the situation and realize that it really, really sucks and I might have to move. Thank you for giving me a new perspective on this.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 8:07 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: Can you mark a whole thread as best answer? I would if I could.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 8:12 PM on November 10, 2009

If you do make the window plugs, normal foam and carpet actually are not the best sound insulators, they are good at stopping sound reflections. All that egg-crate foam in recording studios, restaurants, clubs and NASA labs - those are to stop echos and reduce the overall noise in the room from sound originating in the room. The ability for acoustical foam to reduce reflections is specified by NRC - Noise Reduction Coefficient.

What you are looking for is a sound barrier. For sound barriers you want to stop the vibrations from coming through and that is usually by either mass like mass loaded vinyl barrier sheets or by reducing how sound can travel though the material by creating separations (like a dual pane window, the airgap in the middle helps keep the outer pane from passing the vibrations to the inner pane). Music studios are often rooms within a room with as few contact points between the inner room and the outer room. Sound barriers are measured with STC, or Sound Transmission Class.

For what you need I would look into getting some sheets of the mass loaded vinyl or specialized blankets that have the mass loaded vinyl in them (expensive) and hanging it over your windows, making sure there are no airgaps all the way around. Lots of gaffers tape maybe? There are also sound blocking panels but those would be more expensive.
posted by cftarnas at 11:53 PM on November 10, 2009

In a situation remarkably similar to this, a friend of mine could not sleep at all. One wretched night, in a fit of absolute desperation, he went to bed in an open-faced motorcycle helmet.

He reported it to be comfortable for back or side sleeping, and in combination with squishy orange ear cones, a big help. Also, it made him look surprisingly bad-ass.
posted by Sallyfur at 4:46 AM on November 14, 2009

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