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The Decibel

The equation used to describe the difference in intensity between two ultrasonic or other sound measurements is:

where: DI is the difference in sound intensity expressed in decibels (dB), P1 and P2 are two different sound pressure measurements, and the log is to base 10.

What exactly is a decibel?
The decibel (dB) is one tenth of a Bel, which is a unit of measure that was developed by engineers at Bell Telephone Laboratories and named for Alexander Graham Bell. The dB is a logarithmic unit that describes a ratio of two measurements. The basic equation that describes the difference in decibels between two measurements is:

where: delta X is the difference in some quantity expressed in decibels, X1 and X2 are two different measured values of X, and the log is to base 10. (Note the factor of two difference between this basic equation for the dB and the one used when making sound measurements. This difference will be explained in the next section.)

Why is the dB unit used?
Use of dB units allows ratios of various sizes to be described using easy to work with numbers. For example, consider the information in the table.

 Ratio between Measurement 1 and 2 Equation dB 1/2 dB = 10 log (1/2) -3 dB 1 dB = 10 log (1) 0 dB 2 dB = 10 log (2) 3 dB 10 dB = 10 log (10) 10 dB 100 dB = 10 log (100) 20 dB 1,000 dB = 10 log (1000) 30 dB 10,000 dB = 10 log (10000) 40 dB 100,000 dB = 10 log (100000) 50 dB 1,000,000 dB = 10 log (1000000) 60 dB 10,000,000 dB = 10 log (10000000) 70 dB 100,000,000 dB = 10 log (100000000) 80 dB 1,000,000,000 dB = 10 log (1000000000) 90 dB

From this table it can be seen that ratios from one up to ten billion can be represented with a single or double digit number. Ease to work with numbers was particularly important in the days before the advent of the calculator or computer. The focus of this discussion is on using the dB in measuring sound levels, but it is also widely used when measuring power, pressure, voltage and a number of other things.

Use of the dB in Sound Measurements
Sound intensity is defined as the sound power per unit area perpendicular to the wave. Units are typically in watts/m2 or watts/cm2. For sound intensity, the dB equation becomes:

However, the power or intensity of sound is generally not measured directly. Since sound consists of pressure waves, one of the easiest ways to quantify sound is to measure variations in pressure (i.e. the amplitude of the pressure wave). When making ultrasound measurements, a transducer is used, which is basically a small microphone. Transducers like most other microphones produced a voltage that is approximately proportionally to the sound pressure (P). The power carried by a traveling wave is proportional to the square of the amplitude. Therefore, the equation used to quantify a difference in sound intensity based on a measured difference in sound pressure becomes:

(The factor of 2 is added to the equation because the logarithm of the square of a quantity is equal to 2 times the logarithm of the quantity.)

Since transducers and microphones produce a voltage that is proportional to the sound pressure, the equation could also be written as:

where: delta I is the change in sound intensity incident on the transducer and V1 and V2 are two different transducer output voltages.

Revising the table to reflect the relationship between the ratio of the measured sound pressure and the change in intensity expressed in dB produces:

 Ratio between Measurement 1 and 2 Equation dB 1/2 dB = 20 log (1/2) - 6 dB 1 dB = 20 log (1) 0 dB 2 dB = 20 log (2) 6 dB 10 dB = 20 log (10) 20 dB 100 dB = 20 log (100) 40 dB 1,000 dB = 20 log (1000) 60 dB 10,000 dB = 20 log (10000) 80 dB 100,000 dB = 20 log (100000) 100 dB 1,000,000 dB = 20 log (1000000) 120 dB 10,000,000 dB = 20 log (10000000) 140 dB 100,000,000 dB = 20 log (100000000) 160 dB 1,000,000,000 dB = 20 log (1000000000) 180 dB

From the table it can be seen that 6 dB equates to a doubling of the sound pressure. Alternately, reducing the sound pressure by 2, results in a – 6 dB change in intensity.

“Absolute" Sound Levels

Whenever the decibel unit is used, it always represents the ratio of two values. Therefore, in order to relate different sound intensities it is necessary to choose a standard reference level. The reference sound pressure (corresponding to a sound pressure level of 0 dB) commonly used is that at the threshold of human hearing, which is conventionally taken to be 2×10 −5 Newton per square meter, or 20 micropascals (20 μPa). To avoid confusion with other decibel measures, the term dB(SPL) is used.