I don’t spend much time in coffee shops when at home, probably because until recently there really wasn’t a good coffee shop near my home. Whenever I’m away from home whether for the day or on a longer trip, however, I find a coffee shop a nice place to catch up on the world and get some work done between more enjoyable activities. I can work in a quiet hotel room for a while, but I often find a little time in the lobby a more productive environment than the traditional quiet hotel room or office.
I’ve always found working in complete silence to be more distracting than having sound in the background. Even just a television or radio turned on in the background can give me enough noise to feel more comfortable. Research also supports a moderate level of background noise prompts more creative thought. The problem with these is the chance of a movie, show, or song pulling you in and distracting you from what you’re working on. Luckily I’m not the only person that prefers something in the background at work and there are plenty of apps and websites built to provide nice background sound. Let’s look at a few.
Do it Yourself
Depending on your preference and task, you might not need any app at all. If you enjoy working to music there is no need to find a new app since you already likely have a favorite player. I have a play list of songs in iTunes that I know so well they require no thought. There’s also the options of popular music apps like Pandora, Spotify, or Slacker that can build a play list for you.
Most of these apps function by playing recorded music, and nothing stops you from doing that yourself. If you like working to nature sounds, take a digital recorder into the woods with you and record the sounds you want. If you enjoy working to rain, put a microphone next to an open window and use an app like Piezo to record the sound, then play the resulting file in your favorite player.
But then, there’s an app for that — a number of really nice apps, at that. Here’s the best apps to help you be creative without having to go to a coffee shop.
This is probably as close as you can get to the coffee shop experience, but without the smell and caffeine. Originally available as a web app, it is also now available as a standalone app in the Mac App Store. It resides in the menu bar where you can play and pause the sounds as needed. There are different coffee shop sounds from a quiet morning to a university sound. They aren’t too repetitive, which has made Coffitivity become my most chosen program when I want just random background sounds. You can also get the app for your iPhone or iPad.
Requires: OS X 10.6+
If you prefer nature to the bustle of a coffee shop, then birdsong.fm is for you. They have no Mac App, but the web page with a default sound of birds singing works well in the background. You can also purchase the MP3 from their web site or use the free iOS app. The iOS app offers a number of additional sounds as in app purchases.
Requires: Web App or iOS 6.1+
I find the sound of rain to be too relaxing to work by, but it can be nice to fill in when winding down the day. This web based app for the nature lover is raining.fm. You can listen to the sound of a steady rain or add in either gentle rolling or sharp crashes of thunder. There is also an iOS app for $1.99.
Price: Free Web or $1.99 iOS App
Requires: Web or iOS 5+
An interesting minimalist writing app, OmmWriter provides a distraction free environment to improve concentration and let you write more effectively. It works by removing distractions to allow the writer to be at one with their ideas — but it doesn’t just remove distractions from the writing space, but also has sounds to pull you in. The free Dana I version comes with three audio tracks, three backgrounds, and three keystoke sounds. You can also purchase the Dana II version with no set price, but takes you to seven audio tracks, eight backgrounds, and seven keystroke sounds.
Price: Dana I free; Dana II $4.11 suggested price
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5+
Developer: Herraiz Soto & Co
More expensive than many apps here, Ambiance offers more than 3,500 sounds divided into many categories. The selection includes sounds from categories such as nature, animals, fire, industrial, military, sports, and urban. The wide selection makes it difficult to think of any type of sound you would want to work to that isn’t represented. You can create custom playlists and mixes of the sounds to match your desired work environment. The app also includes a nice mini mode to keep it out of your way along with a sleep timer option to gradually fade out sounds letting you also use the app to help you relax.
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6+
Developer: Urban Apps, LLC
Here’s another nature sound app that’s free on the Mac App Store and provides the ambient sounds of a city, beach, or forest. The best feature is the choice between distinct day or night sounds for each location. You can add rain sound effect, with thunder, for a $0.99 in app purchase. The includes sounds are nice and the rain effect blends well with them though can overwhelm the background at times.
Price: Free with in app purchase
Requires: Mac OS X 10.7+
Developer: Eltima Software
Another ambient sound app that includes a larger number of sounds than many, but at a lower price point than Ambiance, White Noise brings all that along with a nice design reminiscent of the music player in iOS. From the name it also includes traditional white, brown, blue, and pink noise helpful to block unwanted noise. It also includes more unique ambient sounds such as a cat purring, a clothes dryer, a fan, a hair dryer, a vacuum, and wind. There is also a free light version on the App Store that includes only ten sounds.
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6+
Unique in that unlike most of these apps, Ocean Waves procedurally generates the sound of ocean waves instead of playing a recorded sound. It claims to be able to produce sounds without repeating for hours. You can also save the generated sounds as an audio file. It’s not a perfect simulation, but the sound does seem pretty close to ocean waves and I rarely notice the difference when listening in the background. It also comes with wake up timer to start the sound at a specific time or a sleep timer to end at a chosen time.
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6+
Developer: Katsura Shareware
Noise Machine is a white noise and sound generator designed to help you block out workplace noise and create a more productive work environment to suit your mood. This app targets producing sounds to block out distracting other noise in your environment. It also includes other natural and artificial sounds as with most of the other apps in this list. This app particularly will appeal to those of you who need to work in a coffee shop, but find the noise and bustle distracting. It also works nicely to cut out the other people in a crowded open office.
Requires: OS X 10.7+
There are no shortage of apps to provide background sound while working. I find these backgrounds sounds help me work better, but there are apps also to help block out distracting noise with sound. Many of the apps fit other targets, often sound to help a person fall asleep, but any can provide a nice distraction to help you get work done at your computer.
Do you like any of these apps, or do you have anything else you use to keep you focused while working? Our editor likes listening to movie soundtracks while writing — what’s your audio creativity kryptonite?