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Designing Outdoor Soundscapes
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Designing Outdoor Soundscapes

Today’s compact technology has made designing and installing outdoor sound systems more accessible than in years past, says Scott Cohen. It’s not rocket science but, as he explain, knowing a thing or two about sonic amenities can go far in elevating client enjoyment.

By Scott Cohen

When designing an outdoor residential environment, sound is often the forgotten factor. Yet, it’s one of the elements that delivers the greatest impact on the experience of being in a place. It controls the vibe, the mood, the ambiance. It can soothe tired nerves or generate excitement.

In commercial spaces, sound is almost always there, whether we’re shopping, sitting in a restaurant, or enjoying an amusement park, resort, or a casino.  In such venues sound is a constant companion that enhances, and even defines, the experience.

In my own backyard, I might play Caribbean music with steel drums and serve pina coladas, creating a tropical atmosphere. Or, I can play 90s hard rock or dance music and serve margaritas, transforming my space into a nightclub. Sound, especially music, evokes memories, makes us feel romantic, inspires us to move our bodies, and can blend beautifully with nature.

Like all technologies these days, outdoor sound systems have dramatically evolved. Years ago, setting up a system in a backyard was a lot more involved than it is now. Speakers were much bigger, and the head-in equipment, the tuners, equalizers, pre-amps and amplifiers were big and cumbersome; and, overall, product options were far more limited.

Nowadays, everything’s smaller and the systems connect with your smart phones, pads and computers, giving you unlimited programing options with streaming services like Pandora, satellite radio, Spotify and Apple Music. It all can be streamed directly to your outdoor sound system.

In addition to music, you can play sports, or audio from any other type of programming, and you can even play nature soundtracks. The possibilities are limitless.


Of course, it helps to know a thing or two about designing a system. Oftentimes, we’ll see systems where you have a couple of speakers underneath a shade structure, blasting sound that is too loud for conversation when you’re near the sound source, and not heard well at all as you move away from it. That kind of set up might work in a sports arena or concert hall, but in an outdoor backyard environment, it’s all wrong.

Instead, we always opt for a distributed sound system, where the speakers are located at intervals throughout the yard, evenly spreading the sound through the space that’s not too loud and not too quiet. You create sound that is more ambient, where you can have a conversation and still enjoy the music.

In high-use areas, we might locate extra speakers and put them on a separate volume control, so you can crank it up for dancing and a more active party atmosphere.

Speaker technology these days is amazing with more sound coming out of surprisingly small units. Today’s speakers are about the size of a light fixture and they can deliver high quality sound while virtually disappearing into the landscape.


Although there are wireless speaker systems, we find it much simpler to go with speakers that are wired using direct burial cable. It’s always a big help to consider the speaker locations during the planning stages, to both maximize sound distribution and to plan for the wire runs.

Many speakers are directional and can be used to provide sound in one area, but not in another, which can be a huge help where neighbors are concerned. Entertaining yourself and your guests should not mean sharing it with the surrounding properties. 

For those who want to take a deep dive into acoustics, there are some interesting more advanced options. For example, there are special sub-woofer speakers that are buried in the ground to create vibrations where you feel the music as much as hearing it, and there are underwater speakers.

While it’s true that exterior design is a largely visual medium, don’t forget that your ears play a big role in how much you enjoy being there.  

Scott Cohen is a “garden artisan” and president of Green Scene Landscaping & Pools, a watershape design and construction firm based in Chatsworth, Calif. A widely published author and popular speaker, Cohen is known for his gardens that combine outdoor living with inspired artistic details.

Photo by wavebreakmedia | Shutterstock

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