decibel

Decibel – A Short And Simple Explanation

A way of expressing a quantity in relative terms is to do the ratio with respect to a reference value. This helps to put a quantity into perspective. For example, in mechanics the acceleration is often expressed in relation to the gravitational acceleration. Instead of saying the acceleration is 22 m/s² (which is hard to relate to unless you know mechanics), we can also say the acceleration is 22 / 9.81 ≈ 2.2 times the gravitational acceleration or simply 2.2 g’s (which is much easier to comprehend).

The decibel (dB) is also a general way of expressing a quantity in relative terms, sort of a “logarithmic ratio”. And just like the ratio, it is not a physical unit or limited to any field such as mechanics, audio, etc … You can express any quantity in decibels. For example, if we take the reference value to be the gravitational acceleration, the acceleration 22 m/s² corresponds to 3.5 dB.

To calculate the decibel value L of a quantity x relative to the reference value x(0), we can use this formula:

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In acoustics the decibel is used to express the sound pressure level (SPL), measured in Pascal = Pa, using the threshold of hearing (0.00002 Pa) as reference. However, in this case a factor of twenty instead of ten is used. The change in factor is a result of inputting the squares of the pressure values rather than the linear values.

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The sound coming from a stun grenade peaks at a sound pressure level of around 15,000 Pa. In decibel terms this is:

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which is way past the threshold of pain that is around 63.2 Pa (130 dB). Here are some typical values to keep in mind:

0 dB → Threshold of Hearing
20 dB → Whispering
60 dB → Normal Conversation
80 dB → Vacuum Cleaner
110 dB → Front Row at Rock Concert
130 dB → Threshold of Pain
160 dB → Bursting Eardrums

Why use the decibel at all? Isn’t the ratio good enough for putting a quantity into perspective? The ratio works fine as long as the quantity doesn’t go over many order of magnitudes. This is the case for the speeds or accelerations that we encounter in our daily lives. But when a quantity varies significantly and spans many orders of magnitude (which is what the SPL does), the decibel is much more handy and relatable.

Another reason for using the decibel for audio signals is provided by the Weber-Fechner law. It states that a stimulus is perceived in a logarithmic rather than linear fashion. So expressing the SPL in decibels can be regarded as a first approximation to how loud a sound is perceived by a person as opposed to how loud it is from a purely physical point of view.

Note that when combining two or more sound sources, the decibel values are not simply added. Rather, if we combine two sources that are equally loud and in phase, the volume increases by 6 dB (if they are out of phase, it will be less than that). For example, when adding two sources that are at 50 dB, the resulting sound will have a volume of 56 dB (or less).

(This was an excerpt from Audio Effects, Mixing and Mastering. Available for Kindle)

Another Home Experiment – Wind Speed and Sound Level

Recently I told you about my home experiment regarding impact speed and sound level. I did another experiment with my sound level meter, this time I was interested in finding out how the sound level varies with the wind speed. So I took my anemometer (yep, that’s a thing) to measure the wind speed and at the same time noted the sound level. I collected some data points and plotted them. Here’s the result:

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As you can see the fit is not that bad (the adjusted r-square is 0.91).

So the sound level grows with the wind velocity to the power of 0.22, meaning that if the wind speed increases by a factor of twenty-five, the sound level doubles. According to the empirical formula, the noise from the wind inside a category 1 and 2 hurricane is comparable to the sound level at a rock concert. This is of course assuming that the formula holds true past the 12 m/s range over which it was determined (which is not necessarily the case, but for now the best guess).

Intensity: How Much Power Will Burst Your Eardrums?

Under ideal circumstances, sound or light waves emitted from a point source propagate in a spherical fashion from the source. As the distance to the source grows, the energy of the waves is spread over a larger area and thus the perceived intensity decreases. We’ll take a look at the formula that allows us to compute the intensity at any distance from a source.

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First of all, what do we mean by intensity? The intensity I tells us how much energy we receive from the source per second and per square meter. Accordingly, it is measured in the unit J per s and m² or simply W/m². To calculate it properly we need the power of the source P (in W) and the distance r (in m) to it.

I = P / (4 · π · r²)

This is one of these formulas that can quickly get you hooked on physics. It’s simple and extremely useful. In a later section you will meet the denominator again. It is the expression for the surface area of a sphere with radius r.

Before we go to the examples, let’s take a look at a special intensity scale that is often used in acoustics. Instead of expressing the sound intensity in the common physical unit W/m², we convert it to its decibel value dB using this formula:

dB ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(I)

with ln being the natural logarithm. For example, a sound intensity of I = 0.00001 W/m² (busy traffic) translates into 70 dB. This conversion is done to avoid dealing with very small or large numbers. Here are some typical values to keep in mind:

0 dB → Threshold of Hearing
20 dB → Whispering
60 dB → Normal Conversation
80 dB → Vacuum Cleaner
110 dB → Front Row at Rock Concert
130 dB → Threshold of Pain
160 dB → Bursting Eardrums

No onto the examples.

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We just bought a P = 300 W speaker and want to try it out at maximal power. To get the full dose, we sit at a distance of only r = 1 m. Is that a bad idea? To find out, let’s calculate the intensity at this distance and the matching decibel value.

I = 300 W / (4 · π · (1 m)²) ≈ 23.9 W/m²

dB ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(23.9) ≈ 134 dB

This is already past the threshold of pain, so yes, it is a bad idea. But on the bright side, there’s no danger of the eardrums bursting. So it shouldn’t be dangerous to your health as long as you’re not exposed to this intensity for a longer period of time.

As a side note: the speaker is of course no point source, so all these values are just estimates founded on the idea that as long as you’re not too close to a source, it can be regarded as a point source in good approximation. The more the source resembles a point source and the farther you’re from it, the better the estimates computed using the formula will be.

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Let’s reverse the situation from the previous example. Again we assume a distance of r = 1 m from the speaker. At what power P would our eardrums burst? Have a guess before reading on.

As we can see from the table, this happens at 160 dB. To be able to use the intensity formula, we need to know the corresponding intensity in the common physical quantity W/m². We can find that out using this equation:

160 ≈ 120 + 4.34 · ln(I)

We’ll subtract 120 from both sides and divide by 4.34:

40 ≈ 4.34 · ln(I)   

9.22 ≈ ln(I)

The inverse of the natural logarithm ln is Euler’s number e. In other words: e to the power of ln(I) is just I. So in order to get rid of the natural logarithm in this equation, we’ll just use Euler’s number as the basis on both sides:

e^9.22 ≈ e^ln(I)

10,100 ≈ I

Thus, 160 dB correspond to I = 10,100 W/m². At this intensity eardrums will burst. Now we can answer the question of which amount of power P will do that, given that we are only r = 1 m from the sound source. We insert the values into the intensity formula and solve for P:

10,100 = P / (4 · π · 1²)

10,100 = 0.08 · P

P ≈ 126,000 W

So don’t worry about ever bursting your eardrums with a speaker or a set of speakers. Not even the powerful sound systems at rock concerts could accomplish this.

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This was an excerpt from the ebook “Great Formulas Explained – Physics, Mathematics, Economics”, released yesterday and available here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G807Y00.