SOUNDS OF FLEDGLING MUSICIANS QUIETED BY A 'WHISPER'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not all music was meant to be heard.

That's what Ben White of Columbia was banking on when he gave up an $80,000-a-year income and invested $75,000 of his and his family's savings in WhisperRoom, what could be the cure for junior's discordant first try at the violin.

"It's something that I invented out on my patio," says White of his practice room on wheels, which has a patent pending and appears tobe the only such product on the national market.

The WhisperRoom's 5-inch-thick walls can reduce a blaring saxophone to soft background music that won't bother the neighbors, says White, 35.

One of his potential markets is the parents of music students.

"You're in there so your parents don't have to listen to you going through the basics and everything," which "sounds sorta harsh sometimes," he said.

White also hopes to sell the WhisperRoom to professional musicianswho need to practice or teach at home, to public school and college music programs and to music stores. He and sales manager Sharon Jelley of Columbia are shooting for 10 sales a month to sustain the business's staff of five and 2,700 square-foot office/warehouse on Red Branch Road.

"Of course we want to go bigger than that," White says, explaining that if business takes off, he will probably keep a sales office in Columbia and move his manufacturing facility in his home state of Tennessee.

The room comes in two sizes, both 7 feet, 10 inches high. The small size, at a price of $3,795, is 4 feet square and can accommodate one person and anything but large instruments, such asa tuba.

The large size, at $4,495, is 4-by-6 feet, can hold a musician and instructor and larger instruments. Cheaper models with 3-inch thick walls are being produced and have not been priced.

Because the sale price is prohibitive for struggling musicians, White is considering leasing the room for $150 a month.

"It's wonderful, its absolutely wonderful," says Deanna Bogart, a local jazz musician who had trouble finding time to play when it wasn't disturbing other residents of her Glenwood farmhouse.

"I don't keep people awake as often, and I don't have great moments that pass me by," said Bogart, whois using a WhisperRoom on loan and is contemplating leasing it with an option to buy.

Besides just practicing music without disturbinganyone, Bogart said, "I can sing, or I can go and yell and scream ifI need some primal therapy."

Bogart says White approached her after a performance and got her interested in his invention, which she is now endorsing in his business literature.

"Of course my husband was even more interested in it," she adds. "And when you move you cantake it with you, because you can spend a lot of money soundproofinga room."

White admits that a room can be altered to reduce sound for less than a WhisperRoom costs, but it can't be moved and the factthat the WhisperRoom does not touch the floor or walls makes its muffling more effective.

At 800 pounds on six wheels, the WhisperRoomis about as portable as a large piece of furniture. Its floor, ceiling and four walls are assembled by two people in about a half-hour using rubber-covered wooden gaskets with ridges that fit into groves onadjoining pieces and secured by a series of nylon straps.

Two small fans in the floor circulate air in and out through sound-baffled air channels, and options include internal connections for microphone,speaker and telephone lines. An electrical outlet is standard, however.

"This gives you a window so you don't get claustrophobic," shouted White above the jazz music blasting from two speakers inside hisgray prototype room.

When he closed the door with its large double-paned window, the music stopped, then could be heard again faintly once the listener's ears adjusted to the change in decibels.

Results of tests commissioned by White showed that while the room is not sound proof, it reduces sound by 30 decibels, which is perceived as one-sixth as loud, for low tones such as a tenor sax.

For high tonessuch as the piercing sounds violins are capable of, the room reducessound by 59 decibels, which is perceived as one-twelfth as loud. Thecheaper version is rated for reductions of 25 and 57 decibels, respectively.

"It's like the difference between pushing a power lawn mower or sitting in your living room carrying on a conversation," said Pete Phelps of Columbia, the acoustical consultant who tested the rooms.

White worked 10 years as a computer software expert for Lockheed, nearly half of that on assignment in the Baltimore area from his home base in Austin, Texas.

White caught the music bug himself while living in Columbia 4 1/2 years ago. Awakening from an autumn nap next to Lake Kittamaqundi, he became enchanted by a teen-ager's saxophone music.

After leasing his own alto saxophone, "I started practicing three hours a day," and pushed his neighboring condominium owners' patience to the limit.

"Usually I tried to play when they were not around; I didn't want to bother them."

So to give him a place to practice without disturbing them, White built himself a 5-foot by6-foot black-carpet covered, fiberglass-insulated practice room on wheels.

"Several friends that came over said, 'thats a good idea, you ought to patent it.'"

So in January 1990, once he became convinced that his practice-room-on-wheels would fly, he quit his job, applied for a patent and set about starting his small manufacturing business on Red Branch Road in Columbia.

Lawyers he hired to do a patent search found that the closest thing to White's invention was the Sound Module Room, a steel-walled product made by the $33 million Wenger Corp. in Minnesota.

But that product has no floor and is mainly installed as a permanent structure in schools and colleges, in renovations or new construction, said Peter D. Ostlund, product manager forWenger's room.

So far, White has two sales to show for his $155,000 gamble.

"You try not to think about it; you just hope it works out," said White of his venture into the business world. One lucky factor, he noted, is that the economy went sour during his initial marketing, when he did not expect to be making money anyway.

The company, which was incorporated in October, has not done any advertising yet, but White hopes to interest music product distributors by displaying it at music conferences. He has already been to International Association of Jazz Educators in Washington and the saxophone Symposium in Fairfax, Va. and plans to attend two others in April and June to promote the room.

It was at the Washington conference that the WhisperRoom caught the eye of a Wenger Corp. representative. The Wenger Corp.'s Ostlund, who got a report on the new product, says the WhisperRoom is unique because it has wheels, but expressed doubts about the home market for isolation rooms.

While Wenger's rooms are mainly sold for schools, he said, "we have supplied some rooms to some professional musicians in the New York area, but it's real hit or miss."

This weekend, the room will be used at the 19th Annual New York CityBrass Conference, which is sponsored by Charles Colin Publications, a brass music publishing house.

"I'm putting one of these WhisperRooms down in my office area for musicians to try trumpets and trumpetmouthpieces," said Allan S. Colin, company vice president, who addedthat it would be impossible for him to work unless the room worked.

"I'm very impressed with it. The value of this thing is fantastic for those who live in apartments and for all musicians who need a place to practice, especially in New York City where space is at a premium.

"It's to the musician's advantage to purchase the WhisperRoom rather than get in a lawsuit for three times the amount by a neighborwho's being disturbed."

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