How many times have you been to a restaurant and spent the entire time yelling in the ear of the person your sitting next to or yelling across the table? I’m sure  a couple times, will restaurant owner John Pakuska wants to help solve that problem.

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John Paluska wants his new Berkeley Mexican restaurant Comal to be lively.

It would clash with his image if the restaurant were as quiet as a Carthusian monastery – he was, after all, manager of the rock band Phish for 17 years. But the line between creating a festive atmosphere and making sure diners can hear themselves talk is a fine one for restaurateurs.

So Paluska and Meyer Sound, a world-renowned audio engineering company in Berkeley, teamed up to test a relatively new technology that controls reverberation levels with the press of a button. By using a combination of sound absorption materials, microphones, speakers and a digital processor, Paluska can make his restaurant as loud or as soft as he wants.

It’s the first time a system like this has been used in a restaurant, said John Meyer, founder and president of Meyer Sound.

“We’ve used it in live performance venues including Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley, Cirque du Soleil productions, experimental music rooms, Bob Weir’s (of the Grateful Dead) recording studio, even churches,” he said. “But never in a restaurant. This is our beta test.”

When Paluska started transforming the nearly 3,000-square-foot space, formerly two Shattuck Avenue retail stores, he didn’t want noise levels to discourage customers. A 2011 Zagat survey found that diners ranked noise as their second-highest complaint behind service.

“As a person who loves to eat out and as someone who reads the restaurant press, I know that noise is a hot-button issue for everyone,” Paluska said. “What we wanted to achieve is often mutually exclusive. Either you have a conversational ambiance or a buzzy ambiance. What we’re excited about is that we’re achieving both.”

Yet, Paluska didn’t want his first restaurant to look like a recording studio. So, in March, Meyer and Pierre Germain, one of Meyer’s acoustic engineers, came in to work their magic. First, they installed materials – everything from fiberglass duct liner and wood fiber acoustic panels to recycled denim jeans – that would dampen reverberation.

But they disguised a lot of it as art. A giant print by Deborah O’Grady may seem like just a photograph of a street in Oaxaca, but it’s part of Meyer’s Libra acoustic image system. And just last week Paluska hung an abstract triptych painted by his friend Billy Martin, drummer for the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Martin used Meyer’s acoustic fabric as his canvas.

“We wanted to make sure it was visually creative without compromising esthetics,” Germain said.

Using sound muffling materials in restaurants is nothing new. Restaurant owners across the Bay Area have hired expensive acoustic engineers to help them control noise.

What makes Comal’s different is that when it’s combined with Meyer’s Constellation system – a program that captures the room’s sounds and is able to leak them back into the space – the operator is able to control the level.

To do this, Germain installed a total of 123 speakers, subwoofers and microphones around the restaurant. The microphones pick up sound and send it to a computer where it’s digitally processed and regurgitated on command. Paluska does it all from an iPad as he walks around the restaurant. He can also set up some areas to get more reverberation than others. Currently, he has it so that the bar area in the front is buzzier than the dining space in the back. But from everywhere in the restaurant, he said, patrons are able to carry on a comfortable conversation.

“Even when we’re busy, it’s like you’re in your own capsule where you can still hear music in the background and have a conversation without having to shout,” Paluska said.

The technology can be scaled up or down depending on a project’s specific needs, and the cost can range from $10,000 to more than $100,000, said Helen Meyer, executive vice president of Meyer Sound.

“Some of the determining factors include the size of the space, its programming – including whether there will be live music performances or movie showings – and whether the initial building is properly wired and treated acoustically,” she said.

“This technology would have cost millions of dollars 20 years ago,” John Meyer said, adding that with the advent of video games – he uses the same math chips in the program – it’s now less expensive. And the possibilities are endless.

He looked up at the Oaxaca print hanging on the restaurant wall and said, “The holodeck in Star Trek is not that far away.”