How to Soundproof a Ceiling (So You Can Still Like Your Upstairs Neighbors)

published Oct 27, 2020
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Something about 2020 has a lot of people extra interested in soundproofing their apartments. It’s almost as if listening to your upstairs neighbor hurl themselves through a cardio routine and then blast the television all day long is doing something to your nerves. (No? Just me?) 

Luckily, soundproofing your ceiling isn’t as intimidating as it may sound. Depending on the style of ceilings in your space and the type of sound leakages you’re experiencing, it could even be a DIY project. 

Just in case you do end up needing a pro, I reached out to a couple to walk you through the process: Austin Kreutzjans, an Application Specialist at Auralex Acoustics, and Trademark Soundproofing CEO Yanky Drew were kind enough to share their expertise. So whether you’re plagued by heavy footfalls, crystal-clear conversations, or a wailing infant, here’s the step-by-step of how to soundproof your ceiling and get your eardrums some relief.

First, figure out what you’re hearing

Before you dive into this project, you need to figure out what you’re working with—and that means determining what kinds of sounds you’re hearing.

Ceiling soundproofing is designed to cut down on two types of noise: impact noise and airborne noise.

Impact noise is a sound like footsteps or a chair dragging across the floor in the apartment above you, says Drew, and it travels through the structure itself, reverberating its way down to you.

Airborne noise would be things like voices or music, and it travels in waves, moving through open spaces within the structure.  

The final type of sound is flanking noise, which typically comes from the outdoor environment, and won’t be helped much by soundproofing your ceiling.

Soundproofing your ceiling will cut down slightly on impact noises from above, Drew advised, but it’s better for airborne noise, so he recommends it for folks who are looking specifically for “more privacy and a quieter environment.”

Next, check out your ceiling

Once you’re certain that what you’re hearing is definitely airborne or impact noise, then you’ll need to figure out what type of ceilings you have. The two types are standard drywall, which is an open expanse of smooth material, or suspended, which are also called drop ceilings. Suspended ceilings are made of framed-out tiles and usually installed to hide ductwork or plumbing.

Because drop ceilings already come with extra space for noises to bounce around in, they tend to be more difficult to soundproof than drywall ceilings—but not impossible. 

Decide on the scope of your project

Soundproofing is the type of project that can expand to fit any guidelines you give it, so take a moment before getting started to consider how much you want to take on (read: whether you’re able and willing to remove your existing ceiling to make modifications, or whether soundproofing your existing ceiling is the move).

“Speaking to an expert pre-construction can save you a lot of aggravation and money,” says Drew, and Kreutzjans concurs: “The best advice I would give DIYers is to do your research on the products you are buying and understand the project at hand before diving in,” Kreutzjans says.

Choose your noise-fighting elements

There are four main factors that can help disrupt sounds on their way to your ears:

  • decoupling
  • absorption
  • mass
  • damping

To notice any reduction in sound, you’ll need to use multiple elements in concert, and the most effective methods will utilize all four. Here’s how each works:

Absorption: Filling an open area with a low-density material like fiberglass, mineral wood, or foam that’s designed to soak up airborne noise. This step is especially crucial for drop ceilings.

Damping: Applying a chemical compound with the ability to dissipate sounds into heat energy. 

Decoupling: Separating elements within your ceiling to disrupt the travel of soundwaves through the structure to cut down on impact noise. Drop ceilings are already decoupled by design, but for drywall ceilings, this will require a construction project.

Mass: Adding another layer of material for airborne sounds to pass through before they make it to you, like an additional sheet or two of drywall.

Add the soundproofing

If your soundproofing project needs to stay small and budget-friendly, adding mass in the form of drywall is the way to go. A single layer of drywall will help a bit, but do a double layer if you can, ideally in conjunction with a damping compound. Green Glue is one popular option.

For best low-cost results, Kreutzjans recommends sandwiching one layer of a vinyl dampener like Auralex’s Sheetblok between two layers of drywall, while Drew notes that barriers like Mass-Loaded Vinyl are worth their weight in gold.

Regardless of which methods and materials you end up going with, you’ll need to cut your new layer to size, then attach it to ceiling joists with screws or nails, making sure to support the whole area during fastening. Then seal the perimeter with an acoustic caulk, give it a layer of spackle, and you’re ready to paint. 

If you can gain access to your ceiling area, however, then you can expand your project to incorporate more sound-minimizing features. That could mean adding insulation for absorption, boosting damping with coats of sound-dampening paint, replacing rigid, vibration-prone ductwork, or introducing the element of decoupling with soundproofing clips and hat channels or floating ceiling joists.

Note that if you are able to add insulation, Drew advises DIYers to “avoid spray foam and other exotic insulation; regular fiberglass insulation works just as well.”

Finally, moderate your expectations

No matter the size of your project, one of the many things both our experts agreed on is that you should go into the soundproofing process expecting to moderate sounds, rather than eliminate them altogether. 

In fact, Kreutzjans notes that the term itself is a bit of a misnomer: “We try to avoid the word “soundproofing” altogether,” he says, instead steering clients toward the term “sound isolation” instead.

“Frequently, we find it’s important to remind people that acoustic wall panels are not designed to stop the transfer of sound from a room. No matter their core materials, acoustic wall panels are used to help improve the sound inside a room,” Kreutzjans says.

So be wary of a single product promising soundproofing capabilities. While it is possible to notice a big difference from ceiling soundproofing, to achieve that goal, you’ll need to incorporate multiple methods that encompass all the sound-disruption factors listed above.