Years ago, I had my first experience with prolonged insomnia when new neighbors moved into the upstairs apartment and started living at around midnight every single night.
I would go to bed at perhaps 11 pm and soon thereafter the couple upstairs would come home and start walking back and forth—on top of my bedroom.
When I went to bed earlier, stomping would wake me up several times until I couldn’t fall back asleep.
It didn’t really matter when I tried to retire for the night. A few bouts of heavy walking were virtually guaranteed.
In the end, I would lie in my bed wide awake, unable to get any sleep until the early morning.
Yes, I talked to them—several times, but this didn’t solve the problem. It only soured the relationship over time.
I have since moved apartments/houses and cities multiple times for professional and private reasons.
Some neighbors are cooperative and some are light walkers so you hear nothing while their successors may walk on their heels, creating vibrations and resonances in the building.
Many people try their best, but sometimes the structure amplifies everything they do…
Through the years I have found that footfall noise coming from above is among the most difficult noise problems to mitigate.
I can tell you this though: after my first prolonged encounter with insomnia, I became passionate about tackling this problem.
In theory, the three best solutions are:
- Moving to your own detached house.
- Living on the top floor and being considerate yourself.
- Moving into a state-of-the-art soundproofed building with decoupled floors.
But, for various reasons, these solutions weren’t always available to me, and they may not be an option for you.
So in this post, I am going a different route: one that aims to counter footfalls using some peculiarities in human hearing and sound.
The footstep noise challenge
What can you do against footstep noise when you can’t move, have little influence over your neighbors, and can’t make any structural soundproofing modifications?
Is there even a solution?
More recently, I have been living in yet another city apartment:
My ceiling (=upstairs neighbor’s floor) is made of concrete.
The upstairs neighbor, a small lady, has tiles on her floor and she mostly walks barefoot. From the sound her walking makes, I suspect she walks on her heels.
She isn’t stomping or jumping or anything, and she mostly goes to bed at a normal time, so I definitely don’t want to bother her.
Still, her walking is on the heavy side. (I rarely heard her predecessor.)
Note: You often can’t tell from the size of a person whether they are a going to be a heavy walker.
“OK,” I thought, “Don’t get upset. This is an opportunity to try again and find an effective solution that might help me and you in the future.”
Let’s listen to some of these footsteps and look at the frequencies
(Use headphones to appreciate how this sounds.)
These footstep impact sounds (from someone walking barefoot on a tiled concrete floor) are mostly low-frequency sounds.
In the case of my upstairs neighbor, I measured the dominant frequencies as in the range from around 40 to 150 Hz, with pronounced peaks at about 50, 65 and 130 Hz.
Here is frequency analysis for two of the footstep sounds you have just heard:
How well do foam earplugs work against these walking noises from above?
When it comes to nighttime noise, my first line of defense is wearing good foam earplugs. Through trial and error I have found a selection of earplugs that I find comfortable and effective.
In my experience, wax and silicone putty earplugs don’t stand a chance against this kind of noise.
Deep earplug insertion is crucial if you want to get relief.
To be effective against the low-frequency sounds you have just heard, it is paramount that you insert your earplugs quite deeply. The deeper you can get them in while still being comfortable, the better they are going to reduce footstep noise.
Just do the best you can.
But don’t discount comfort in the search for perfection: the best noise-blocking earplugs are useless if you can’t tolerate them for the whole night and your ears start hurting.
Low-frequency impact sounds are challenging, even for good earplugs.
What I have noticed time and again though is that even with optimally inserted earplugs the impact sounds from someone walking heavily can often still be heard.
Because earplugs make everything quieter, footfalls can stand out.
Yes, they are also quieter but they are still there, appearing suddenly when you are about to drift away.
In fact, against a quiet backdrop (or when wearing earplugs), most intermittent noises can be startling even if they are not very loud.
Adding “dark-brown” noise as a secret sauce?
To help with most types of intermittent noise, you can play a white noise machine to boost earplug performance and solve the problem of “too quiet.”
Note: When referring to white noise in this post, I am talking about a whole family of broadband noises, not just “true” white noise (which has the same intensity at all frequencies and is too high-pitched for many purposes).
Some white noise machines allow you to choose between different broadband noises. These noises are usually named after colors (white noise, pink noise, brown noise, etc.): the darker the color, the lower-pitched the noise.
Here is one variation of what I call dark-brown noise (own creation, best appreciated with headphones):
In general, I like the noise colors that sound like a very regular waterfall.
I often use “waterfall-like” noise to increase the overall room noise level so that intermittent noises, such as barking and creaking disappear.
Playing broadband noise to make other sounds disappear is called noise masking (see also auditory masking).
But, an unwanted sound can only be masked effectively by noise that encompasses the frequency range of the sound you want to mask (or is at least very close to that frequency range).
What’s more, the masking noise has to have enough power in the to-be-masked sound’s frequency range.
The frequencies are the challenge with footfalls:
Even if you play white noise twice as loud as the footfalls, if the white noise frequency range doesn’t get close to the dominant frequencies present in the footfalls, you will keep hearing them.
The white noise and the footfalls just appear like different instruments in an orchestra.
Unfortunately, most white noise machines don’t generate enough sound power in the frequency range from 40 to 150 Hz to effectively mask louder footsteps.
Their speaker is simply too small.
And, the generated noise is not optimized for this frequency range either because that would overwhelm the small speaker.
It is one thing to mask a barking dog with peaks at 400 to 500 Hz and another thing to mask 40-150 Hz impact sounds.
“But,” I thought to myself:
“In principle I should be able to mask the footfalls I am hearing in my apartment if I can produce loud enough noise in the range from 40 to 200 Hz.”
Unfortunately, most small speakers can’t do that.
I needed a large speaker.
A while ago, I had acquired a portable PA-speaker for a completely different purpose. Usually these portable PA systems are used as Karaoke speakers for aspiring singers and at county fairs for sales presentations.
Anyway, this speaker can produce sound levels that dwarf any white noise machine, and I figured it should be able to produce enough power at (or close enough to) the frequencies I needed.
(If you have good Hi-Fi speakers or a subwoofer system, they should do the trick as well.)
So I hauled the PA-speaker into my bedroom, put it on a chair, and connected it to a white noise machine with a headphone jack (the Lectrofan EVO).
I chose lower-pitched “dark-brown” noise (i.e., one of noises #2 – #4 on the EVO) and played it at around 60 dBA (=A-weighted decibels, measured with a sound level meter close to my pillow).
So, does the PA speaker work against the impact sound of footfalls?
Well, ever since I started using this PA speaker in my bedroom as white noise speaker, I stopped noticing footfalls.
At times, I have it off and hear footsteps. On it goes…
It does indeed mask the walking sounds from the lady upstairs.
And if 60 dB wasn’t enough, I could increase the volume.
Obviously, there is a limit to how loud I should be playing this machine to mask walking noises, but so far it is working well.
Wearing foam earplugs (!), I feel OK going to perhaps 65-68 dBA.
(Even 100 dBA+ would be no problem for this speaker, but it would damage my/your hearing.)
There are a couple of caveats.
- First, dark-brown noise played at 60 dB is already a bit loud for my taste. I don’t want to listen to sound at this level for the whole night and I want to protect my hearing.
But that’s not difficult to solve: As mentioned, I wear foam earplugs to reduce the noise to a comfortable level.
- Second, lower-frequency noise can create rumbling in the bedroom. Earplugs help with this too. But there is more…
Emphasizing the lower frequencies critical for masking and rolling off higher frequencies is important for keeping the overall loudness at an acceptable level.
The trick is to fine-tune the bass frequencies so that you get just enough of them to mask the footfalls, but not increase them to a level where rumbling and booming would keep you awake.
Played through the PA speaker, the lowest-pitched noise (#1) on my white noise machine causes too much rumbling, but noises #2 to #4 work.
And, all of them have the higher frequencies rolled off rather steep, which is good for what I wanted to achieve.
Higher frequencies (in my case from 300 Hz) contribute very little to masking footfalls.
This has to do with how our hearing works. Different areas in the inner ear (cochlea) are sensitive to different frequency ranges.
The masking noise needs to stimulate the same band(s) in which the footfall sounds lie.
If, for example, you are using higher-pitched pink noise, its higher frequency parts don’t help with masking footfalls, yet increase the overall loudness.
To get the sound level in the footfall frequency range high enough while keeping the overall loudness at an acceptable level, I recommend you try dark-brown noise (for more on settings below).
The exact noise shape will vary with the frequency response of the speaker you use and what other outside noises you need to mask.
Why did I set it up this way and do you need the same equipment?
I already had the PA speaker and the white noise machine, so I just repurposed them.
OK, now you may be wondering, “Do I have to get that equipment?”
Well, not necessarily, unless you enjoy singing as well.
While these Karaoke PA speakers aren’t very expensive, you may not need one.
Your home audio system may actually provide a better response in the critical frequency range.
Here is what you can do to test whether this works for blocking footfalls in your bedroom
If you have an audio system with decent speakers (perhaps even with a subwoofer) that you can set up in your bedroom, use this.
Orient the speakers so that they face away from you and slightly upwards (i.e., they project sound towards the ceiling).
(I put my speaker on a chair close to the foot-end of my bed and tilt it slightly.)
Run the myNoise white noise app (free) on your phone/iPad and connect the phone to your audio system (e.g., using your headphone jack or Bluetooth. Lightning port adapters for iPhones are also available.)
Alternatively, you can also connect a computer to your audio system and use the myNoise website.
myNoise (generator White Noise & Co) has a built-in equalizer, allowing you to fine-tune the white noise to your needs and your speakers.
This is exactly what we need to create “dark-brown” noise.
This is how I set the equalizer in myNoise to use it with my PA speaker:
Tweak these settings as needed for your speakers and comfort.
So how loud do you play this noise?
You could put in your earplugs and increase the volume so that you can hear the noise permeating the room, yet you remain comfortable.
In the beginning however, I recommend you use a sound level meter app, such as the NIOSH app, for your phone (or a dedicated sound level meter) to get a feel for the sound level and how that relates to perceived loudness:
Increase the volume to set the sound level to about 60 dBA (=A-weighted) to begin with, measured from where your pillow is.
Put in your earplugs and see how you feel.
Adjust the volume depending on how loud you need the noise to mask the footfalls in your apartment.
If necessary, I would perhaps go up to 65-70 dBA (with earplugs).
If you can get away with less than 60 dB, that would be even better.
Note: 70 dB is about twice as loud as 60 dB (not 20% louder).
This setup should also work without earplugs, but I would not listen to constant noise that loud throughout the night.
Important: Please don’t expose a child to these sound levels!
Will this work for you?
I don’t know your house/ceiling type and whether you have an elephant upstairs, so I can’t give you a definitive answer.
Also, I can’t test all possible configurations and walking styles.
But, based on my experience, I would give it a try.
Do active noise cancelling headphones work against footfall noise?
I am mostly a side sleeper, so wearing over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones at night is less than ideal.
I can make it work, but I still prefer putting in foam earplugs and playing an external white noise generator. This allows me to twist and turn all I want.
But I wanted to know whether active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones) can actually cancel the impact noise from the lady walking in the upstairs apartment.
Many people think of ANC headphones as being good primarily with constant lower-frequency noise such as engine noise from vehicles and cabin noise in airplanes.
But the algorithms in the best noise cancelling headphones are so good that they can significantly reduce intermittent low-frequency noises as well.
In principle, they should work against noise in “my” footfall frequency range (40-150 Hz).
Indeed, both over-ear models worked:
Subjectively, the WH1000XM3 cancelled about 90% and the QC35 about 85% of the walking noises. The Sony headphones performed a little better, but both worked surprisingly well.
Playing dark-brown noise (similar to the equalizer settings above) though the headphones at a moderate volume, I was able to mask the rest of the footfalls reaching my ear.
So if you are a back sleeper, these two ANC headphones could be an alternative.
The in-ear QC20 reduced the footfalls by about 75%; they provided some relief, but both over-ear models were clearly better. Playing louder brown noise through the QC20, they can be an OK option if you don’t like earplugs at all.
Depending on your house and upstairs neighbor, your mileage may vary.
Somewhat surprisingly, noise masking with a big speaker and shaped brown noise (=dark-brown noise) does work against the walking sounds my upstairs neighbor makes.
Furthermore, at the required volume, people in other apartments seem not to find the noise coming from the PA speaker disturbing.
I have found this little project well worth the tinkering and the effort.
It is great not to be at the mercy of my upstairs neighbors. With the flick of a switch I can get relief.
If not, I can always play AC/DC…