Figuring out: Dolby Atmos

Figuring out: About this series
They say the best way to really learn about something is to force yourself to explain it to someone. That is the goal of this series. 
I will delve into a topic that I feel don't know enough about and explain my findings. Hopefully, we would both learn something useful!

Logo_Dolby_Atmos.svg.png

More than a gimmick?

Up until some months ago, Dolby Atmos was to me mostly about having speakers on the ceiling in the hope of attracting people back to the cinemas. After getting to know Atmos a little better, I wanted to see what it has to offer and if it is really going to be the new standard in professional audio. Consider this a 101 introduction on Dolby Atmos.

Surround Systems

Before Atmos, let´s start with something familiar. Surround systems have been used for decades to offer a more interesting audio experience for the listener. 5.1 and 7.1 are the more used formats for both cinemas and home setups.

Something important to understand about these systems is that they are channel-based. For example, a 7.1 system would offer us the following channels:

As you can see, these channels can be composed of just one speaker (like the central channel) or by several of them (like the left surround channel). We can send audio to any channel independently but we would have no control on how much is sent to each of the individual speakers that form a channel.

That is basically how all surround systems work, the only thing that varies is the amount of channels.

Dolby Atmos introduces two innovation to the table. Firstly, it uses an object-based approach on top of the previous channel-based system. Secondly, it expands the surround feel by adding speakers to the ceiling and unlocking 3D sound. Let´s look at both of these features:

Object-based

Dolby Atmos allows for 128 channels in total. We can use a certain amount of those for traditional channel-based stems and the rest for the new sound objects. 

Think about these sound objects as individual mono sounds that you can place and move around the room. If you place a sound object on a specific location, Dolby Atmos will play the sound on that location, addressing the nearby speakers individually as needed, regardless on how big the room is or how many speakers there are.

In other words, you are telling Atmos the coordinates of the sound instead of how much the sound is feeding each of the channels. It allows you to place sounds with great precision in big rooms but at the same time, the mix will translate well into smaller rooms or even headphones since Atmos is just using the coordinates of each sound object in 3D space.

3D Sound

The second innovation is probably the flashiest.

If you think about it, stereo is one dimensional, sound moves in a horizontal line. Surround audio is 2D, the soundscape is around you, on a horizontal plane. 3D is the next step: sound would be on a cube or a sphere.

Before Atmos, some surround 9.1 systems tried to achieve this by placing two speakers on top of the front speakers in order to give some "height" to some elements of the mix.

Dolby Atmos goes one step beyond adding speakers to the ceiling itself. Elements like ambiences, FX or music can now be placed overhead, opening the third dimension for the listener.

In theatres, these ceiling speakers usually go in two rows. There are also some extra surround speakers on the walls to make panning smoother when transitioning sounds between onscreen and offscreen. In total, up to 64 individual speakers are allowed on a theatrical Atmos installation.

At home, usually two or four overhead speakers are used, so you'll see configurations like 5.1.2 or 7.1.4. Note how the third set of numbers denotes the number of ceiling speakers. Up to 22 speakers are allowed on home setups.

Since installing ceiling speakers may not always be very practical on a home setting, sometimes sound is "fired" to the ceiling so that it bounces back to the listener giving the impression that it comes from above.

Crafting a soundscape with Atmos in mind

Knowing that a project will be mixed in Atmos changes the approach in terms of sound design and mixing, giving us more tools and challenges to achieve a compelling soundtrack.

For example, building ambiences now has an additional dimension. Imagine a scene inside a car while is raining. You could have different layers of the car engine and the city exterior and then the sound of the rain falling into the roof featured on the overhead speakers. A forest ambience could have discreet mono birds chirping above and around you, some of them static, some of them moving throughout the 3D space.

It's also worth noting that Atmos setups usually include one or more extra subwoofers close to the surrounds and overhead speakers. Although low frequencies are not very directional, it sill makes a difference in terms of sound placement to use the surround subwoofer instead of the one behind the screen.

Additionally, the Atmos standard makes sure that all surround speakers offer the same sound pressure level and frequency response as the onscreen ones. This means that while designing sound objects with a wide frequency range like a fighter jet going by overhead we have the whole spectrum at our disposal. This wasn't the case with previous systems, since the surround speakers did not have enough power and were best suited for simple atmospheric and background sounds.

Atmos makes you think more on where you want the audio to be in a 3D space rather than thinking about which channels and speakers to feed the audio to. It turns the mix into a full frequency canvas to position your elements.

Encoding for Dolby Atmos.

When preparing audio for Atmos, there are two distincts uses we can give to each of the available 128 channels. We can have sound objects as discussed above and we can also have channel-based submixes (beds). These beds can be created in any traditional channel-based configuration like 5.1 or 7.1 and are mapped to individual speakers or arrays of speakers the old fashioned way. In contrast, objects are not mapped to any speaker but saved with metadata that describes their coordinates over time.

This double approach (beds + objects) makes Atmos backwards compatible since we are also creating a traditional channel-based version when creating the masters.

To put all this information together we use a renderer. I won't go into a too much detail here, but Dolby basically offers two ways of doing this:

Dolby Mastering Suite + RMU:
This is the most advanced option, it is used for theatrical applications and Dolby certified rooms. It combines the Dolby Mastering Suite software with the Dolby Rendering and Mastering Unit (RMU), a dedicated Dell server computer that communicates with Pro Tools via MADI and processes all the Atmos information while compensating for any delays in the system. 

The RMU can be used for monitoring, authoring and recording Dolby Atmos print masters. It is also used for creating and loading room calibrations and configurations.

Note that the Dolby Mastering Suite software runs only on dedicated hardware (the RMU), while we would still need a different software package for any Pro Tools systems involved in the Atmos workflow. This would be the Dolby Production Suite, which I'm explaining below. The Dolby Mastering Suite includes three Dolby Production Suite copies but you can also buy the latter separately.

The mighty RMU

Dolby Production Suite:
This is the package that should be installed on the Pro Tools machines. It basically includes the renderer itself, a monitoring application and all the necessary Pro Tools plugins. In case you are using an RMU, this package will allow you to connect with it. If you are not, it will allow you to play, edit and record any Atmos mixes all within the same Pro Tools system.

While the Dolby Atmos Production Suite includes the ability to render Atmos objects, just like you can using the RMU, it has significant limitations. The software is an "in the box" renderer that runs on the same system as your Pro Tools session so if your project is large you may not be able to run it. Also, the software won't be able to compensate for any delays produced in the system.

Having said that, the Dolby Production Suite may be powerful enough for Blue-ray, streaming and VR projects with a limitation of up to 22 monitor outputs. For larger and/or theatrical projects an RMU is necessary, being capable of up to 64 outputs.

Dolby Atmos Everywhere

Atmos in home theatres is not rendered the same way as in cinemas because of limited bandwidth and lack of processing power. Close objects and speakers are clustered together conserving any relevant panning metadata. This simplified Atmos mix can be played through a home Atmos setup, like a 7.1.2.

Since ceiling speakers are cumbersome, home setups are becoming more accessible with the inclusion of sound bars and upward-firing speakers.

Blu-rays can carry an Atmos soundtrack and some broadcasting and streaming companies like Sky or Netflix are starting to offer Atmos content. The 2018 winter olympics was the first live event offered in Atmos.

In the world of video games, Dolby Atmos could be specially promising, enhancing the player's experience with immersive and expressive 3D audio. Currently, Xbox One, the PC and somewhat the PS4 offer dolby Atmos options via either an AV receiver or headphones (behind a paywall). There are a handful of titles ready for Atmos like Overwatch, Battlefield 1 or Star Wars: Battlefront.

Any Atmos mix can be scaled down into a pair of headphones. You don't need surround headphones for this, the Dolby algorithms convert all the Atmos channels into a stereo binaural signal that sounds around you in 360°. Some phones and tablets are starting to support this already.

Final Thoughts

It seems like Dolby Atmos is here to stay and become the new standard the same way stereo and surround sound replaced their older counterparts.

In my opinion, The key quality about Atmos is its object-based technology and scalability. Overhead 3D audio is very cool, but it may not be game changing enough and/or very accessible for the average user. It is still to be seen if binaural headphone technology and upward-firing speakers are going to be good enough to recreate the 3D feel that currently theatres can provide.

Exploring Sound Design Tools: Pickup Coil Microphone

This post belongs to a series where I´m using unconventional microphones to get interesting sounds.
Please h
ave a look at the other posts from the series:

Contact Microphone.
Hydrophone.


To finish up this three part series about unconventional microphones, here are my results while recording with a coil pickup.

This device records the inductance of electromagnetic waves that are generated by any electronic device, allowing you to get all sorts of buzz, fuzz and hum type of sounds. This type of microphone is similar to the one used in electric guitars.

I have been recording everything in sight: computers, hard drives, screens, appliances and all sorts of audio equipment. I was very surprised about the vast array of different sounds that you can get. Sometimes just changing the mic placement a few centimenters gives you a completely different sound, which seems to be a recurring theme throughout this unconventional microphones series.

So, here are some of the sounds I´ve got. You can individually download every sound via freesound.org or download the whole package through this link.

Hum & Buzz

These are probably the most common sounds you are going to get since any electronic device has a transformer that produces these kind of sounds.

As you can hear, different devices produce different timbres:

Hum & Fuzz Effects

These two are interesting. The first one was produced recording a microwave oven and moving the microphone back and forth to create these dopplery whooshes.

The second one was recorded on a blinking electric hob, creating this pulsating alarm-like pattern.

Data & Glitching

Hard drives, printers, phones and computers produce very cool and interesting sounds. It´s worth recording them while idling but also as they boot up.

Conclusions

I´m happy with the results and I´ve definitely got some cool sounds that I will be using in the future. These could be great for sci-fi, user interface or magical sound design. Thanks for stopping by,

Exploring Sound Design Tools: Hydrophone

This post belongs to a series where I´m using unconventional microphones to get interesting sounds.
Please h
ave a look at the other posts from the series:

Contact Microphone.
Coil Pickup.


Continuing with the unconventional microphones theme, this time I've being fooling around with an hydrophone. As you may know, these are designed to better capture sound in water instead of in the air.

I tried recording water movements and props on all sorts of small containers, the kitchen sink and the bathtub. I quickly learned that is important to manage the cable properly since moving or touching it can be quite noisy, specially when trying to get quiet sounds. I was usually using one hand to keep the microphone and cable still and the other to perform the sound.

I also discovered that very small changes in mic placement usually produce vastly different results. On some occasions, just some centimetres were the difference between a close aggressive sound and a distant atmospheric one. I don't know if this is the case because water is denser than air and sound waves move 4.3 faster but it certainly something to keep in mind.

Finally, I have to say I was surprised by how clean the sounds were, although when processing very quiet stuff I did some RX cleaning here and there.

So, on with the recordings. You can individually download every sound via freesound.org or download the whole package through this link.

Bubbles

I first tried to get some bubble sounds. I used a plastic drinking straw to get the small ones and then tried sinking a bowl or a mug with some air inside to get bigger ones.

I tried some effervescent tablets too and got some nice fizzy sounds. 

Movements

Next, I tried some water movements. I quickly found out that submerging the microphone and trying to create water sounds with hand movements doesn't work really well since not a lot of sound energy reaches the mic.

So I tried to record them with the mic just on the surface of the water and got better results that you can hear in the first example below.

I also wanted to get some underwater movements and discovered that the easiest way was to move the microphone itself through a large mass of turbulent water. I did this in a filled bathtub (second recording below).

Steady Water Streams

For this sounds, I was trying to get long samples of water flowing that could be then used for underwater scenes.

To achieve this, you need some kind of water flow. In my case, since I didn't have access to a swimming pool or a jacuzzi, I just recorded the whole filling and emptying process of a kitchen sink and a bathtub.

While doing this, I experimented with different mic placements and amounts of water flowing in. You can get a vast array of result by just changing these two factors as you can hear in these examples:

Metal Kitchen Sink

Here are some other sounds I got in the kitchen sink.

Again, the draining sounds show how important mic placement is. Those changes in the sound intensity were produced by just getting closer or further away from the vortex.

Others

Here are some other random things I tried.

The first one is just me hitting a floating bowl with my finger. The resonance was captured with the mic underwater and close the bowl but not touching it. As the bowl filled more and more, the pitch changed in an interesting manner.

Lastly, the second recording below is how water directly impacting the hydrophone sounds. 

Conclusions

It was nice doing this recording session. I learned that mic placement is crucial when working with these microphones. Having an hydrophone is perhaps kind of a niche purchase, but it could be very useful if you need underwater sounds or want to record anything that involves too much water for conventional microphone to be safe.

Exploring Sound Design Tools: Contact Microphone

This post belongs to a series where I´m using unconventional microphones to get interesting sounds.
Please h
ave a look at the other posts from the series:

Hydrophone.
Coil Pickup.


I bought a JrF contact microphone a while ago to do some experimenting and see the potential these mics have for sound design. Here is what I've discovered.

As you may know, a contact microphone records sound from vibrating solid materials instead of the air. This gives these microphones some unique and interesting sonic qualities. Since we are not capturing the ambience around the recording, results usually feel isolated, without an acoustic context. This can be a blessing, no need to worry about reverb or background noise but also may result in dull boring sounds. I quickly discovered than experimenting and trying different props, microphone positions and methods of producing the sound is key to achieve interesting results.

On the technical side, contact microphones need to be connected to a high impedance input in order to have a good frequency response. If you want to get into more detail about this and contact microphone usage in general this is the place to go.

Now that you know the deal, here are some of my recordings. You can individually download every sound via freesound.org or download the whole package through this link.

Window Glass

I just attached the microphone to a large window and try different things.

The first three sounds were recorded with just damp hands, I was trying different movements and was surprised with some of the results, although most of it is just regular squeaks. 

As you can hear, something so simple creates a surprising amount of low end some times.

Next, I tried to try using a milk frother applied on the glass. These recordings exemplify very well the possibilities of these microphones. Usually, it would be impossible to avoid the sound of the machine itself but with a contact mic we are getting the sound of the glass reacting to the vibration without any of the motor. 

The first two examples show this. The other two are the result of applying the forther to the cable of the mic itself resulting in some weird and tonal sounds.

 

Metal Oven Tray

Next, I tried to record some impacts on a metal oven tray. No thing too remarkable on this one but I got nice clean metal resonances that are always good to have.

On the first recording, you will hear that the three small impacts sound kind of distorted. This happens when the microphone is loose so it vibrates against the surface of the object you are recording. This can be useful if you want to get a dirty sound.

Bicycle

I thought the the wheel spokes would be interesting to record and the sound was surprisingly heavy.

Despite having roughly the same length, different spokes produced very different metal overtones. 

I can see these being use with some dissonance in a horror soundscape.

Electric razor

This razor doesn't have different speeds but I discovered that I can use my finger to slow down the motor and create some interesting power on and power off.

There is a nice amount bass, this could be use as layers for sci-fi or fantasy, weird machines.

For the third sample below I tried to create some malfunctioning engine sounds.

Electric Toothbrush

This one is quite dull but could be used as a layer for a servo door or robot. Also, it has a weird chewbacca kind of tone.

Drying Rack

Nice metal impacts with a lot of resonance. Again, surprised with the amount of bass here.

As you can hear, some of the sound have that distorted quality coming from the microphone being a little loose.

The ratchet/castle door sound was done by just striking the different metal rods with a wooden spoon. Quite cool.

Printer

Lastly, I tried attaching the mic to my printer. The result is not very interesting but it could be nice as layers for a robot or some mechanical thing.

Conclusions

As you can see, metallic objects are probably the most interesting ones to record as they resonate more but I'm sure there are many other creative things to try with a contact microphone that I will explore in the future. Thanks for reading.

All you need to know about the decibel

Here is an bird's eye view on the decibel and how understanding it can be useful if you work as a sound designer, sound mixer or even just anywhere in the media industry.

I've included numbered notes that you can open to get more information. So, enter, the decibel:

The Decibel is an odd unit. There are three main reasons for this: 

1: A Logarithmic Unit

Firstly, a decibel is a logarithmic unit1. Our brains don't usually enjoy the concept of logarithmic units since we are used to things like prices, distances or weights, which usually grow linearly in our every day lives. Nevertheless, logarithmic units are very useful when we want to represent a vast array of different of values.

Let's see an example: If we take a value of 10 and we make it 2, 3 or 5 times bigger, we'll see that the resulting value will get huge pretty fast on a logarithmic scale.2
  1. Note that I will use logarithmic units and logarithmic scales interchangeably.

  2. I'm using a logarithm to base 10. Is the easiest to understand since we use the decimal system.

 
How much bigger? Value on a linear scale Value on a logarithmic scale
1 Time 10 10
2 Times 20 100
3 Times 30 1000
4 Times 40 10000
5 Times 50 100000
 
The reason behind this difference is that, while the linear scale is based on multiplication, the logarithmic scale uses exponentiation.3 Here is the same table but with the math behind it, including the generic formula:
  1. And actually, the logarithm is just the inverse operation to exponentiation, that's why sometimes you will see exponential scales or units. They are basically the same as a logarithmic ones.

 
How much bigger? Value on a linear scale Value on a logarithmic scale
1 Time 10 (10*1) 10 (101)
2 Times 20 (10*2) 100 (102)
3 Times 30 (10*3) 1000 (103)
4 Times 40 (10*4) 10000 (104)
5 Times 50 (10*5) 100000 (105)
X Times 10*X 10X
 

As you can see, with just a 5 times increment we get to a value of a hundred thousand. That can be very convenient when we want to visualise and work with values on a set of data ranging from dozens to millions. 

Some units work fine on a linear scale because we usually move within a small range of values. For example, let's imagine we want to measure distances between cities. As you can see, most values are between 3000 and 18000 km, so they fit nicely on an old fashioned linear scale. It's easy to see how the distances compare.

Now, let's imagine we are still measuring distances between cities, but we are an advanced civilization that has founded some cities throughout the galaxy. Let's have a look:

As you can see, the result is not very easy to read. Orion is so far away that all other distances are squashed on the chart. Of course, we could use light years instead of km and that would be much better for the cities on other stars but then we will have super low, hard to use numbers for the earth cities. Another solution would be measure earth cities in kllometres and galaxy cities in light years but then we wouldn't be able to easily compare the values between them. 

The logarithmic scale offers us a solution for this problem since it easily covers several orders of magnitude. Here is the same distance chart, but on a logarithmic scale, I just took the distances in kilometres and calculated their logarithms.

This is much more comfortable to use, we can get a better idea of the relationships between all these distances.

Like the city examples above, some natural phenomena that span through several orders of magnitude, are more comfortably measured with a logarithmic scale. Some examples are pH, earthquakes and... you guessed it, sound loudness. This is the case, because our ears are ready to process both very quiet and very loud sounds.4
  1. It seems like we animals experience much of the world in a logarithmic way. This also includes sound frequency and light brightness. Here is a cool paper about it.

So the take away here is that we use a logarithmic scale for convenience and because it gives us a more accurate model of nature.

2: A Comparative Unit

Great, so we have now an easy to use scale to measure anything from a whisper to a jet engine, we just need to stick our sound level meter out of the window and check the number. Well, is not that simple. When we say something is 65dB, we are not just making a direct measurement, we are always comparing two values. This is the second reason why decibels are odd, let me elaborate:

Decibels are really the ratio between a certain measured value and a reference value. In other words, they are a comparative unit. Just saying 20dB is incomplete in the same way that just saying 20% is incomplete. We need to specify the reference value we are using. 20% percent of what? 20dB respect to what? So, what kind of reference value could we use? This brings me to the third reason:

3: A Versatile Unit

Although most people associate decibels with sound, but they can be used to measure ratios of values of any physical property. These properties can be related to audio (like air pressure or voltage) or they may have little or nothing to do with audio (like light or reflectivity on a radar). Decibels are used in all sort of industries, not only audio. Some examples are electronics, video or optics.

OK, with those three properties in mind, let's sum up what a decibel is.

A decibel is the logarithmically expressed ratio between two physical values

Let that sink in and make sure you really get those three core concepts.
Now, let's see how we can use them to measure sound loudness, that's why we were here if I remember correctly.

In space, nobody can hear you scream

14784812262_6f1534b0e2_b.jpg

As much as Star Wars is trying to convince us on the contrary, sound's energy needs a physical medium to travel through. When sound waves disturb such mediums, there is measurable pressure change as the atoms move back and forth. The louder the sound, the more intense this disturbance is.

Since air is the medium through which we usually experience sound, this gives us the most direct and obvious way of measuring loudness: we just need to register how pressure changes on a particular volume of air. Pressure is measured in Pascals, so we are good to go. But wait, if this is the most direct way of measuring loudness couldn't we just say that a pair of speakers are capable of disturbing the air with a pressure of 6.32 Pascals and forget about decibels?

Well, we could, but again, it wouldn't be very convenient. While the mentioned speakers can reach 6.32 Pascals and this seems like a comfortable number to manage, here are some other examples, from quiet to loud:

 
Source Sound Pressure in Pascals (Pa) Sound Pressure (mPa)
Microsoft's Anechoic Chamber 0.0000019 0.0019
Human Threshold of Hearing @ 1 KHz 0.00002 0.02
Quiet Room 0.0002 0.2
Normal Conversation 0.02 20
Speakers @ 1 meter 6.32 6320
Human Threshold of Pain 63.2 63200
Jet Engine @ 1 meter 650 650000
Rifle shot @ 1 meter 7265 7265000
 

Unless you love counting zeros, that doesn't look very convenient, does it? Note how using Pascals is not very confortable with quiet sounds while mPa (a thousandth of a Pascal) doesn't work very well with loud ones. If our goal is to create a system that measures sound loudness, one of the key things we need is that the unit we use can comfortably cover a large range of values. Several orders of magnitude, actually. To me, that sounds like a job for an logarithmic unit.

Moreover, maybe measuring just naked Pascals doesn't seem like a very useful thing to do when our goal is to just get an idea of how loud stuff is. A better way of doing this, could be to compare our measured value to a reference value and get the ratio between the two. This is starting to sound an awful lot like our previous definition of a decibel! We are getting somewhere.

So, what could we use as a reference level to measure the loudness of sound waves on the air? If you have a look at the table above, you'll notice a very good candidate: the human threshold of hearing. If we do this, 0dB would be the very minimal pressure our ears can detect and after that, the numbers would go up in a comfortable scale as we go up in intensity. Even better, if we measure sounds that are below our ear's threshold the resulting number will be negative, indicating not only that the sound would be imperceptible for us but also saying by how much. That's an elegant system right there. I'm starting to dig decibels.

Now, let's look at the previous Pascals table, but adding now the corresponding decibel values:

 
Source Sound Pressure in Pascals dBSPL
Microsoft's Anechoic Chamber 0.0000019 -20.53
Human Threshold of Hearing @ 1 KHz 0.00002 0
Quiet Room 0.0002 20
Normal Conversation 0.02 60
Speakers @ 1 meter 6.32 110
Human Threshold of Pain 63.2 130
Jet Engine @ 1 meter 650 150
Rifle shot @ 1 meter 7265 171
 

That looks like a much easier scale to use. Remember that dBs are used to measure both very quiet things like anechoic chambers and very loud stuff like space rockets. This scale does a better job for the whole range of human audition, it is fine tuned to those microphones we carry around and call ears.

Decibel Flavours

Did you notice that on the table above there is a cute subindex after dB that reads SPL? What's up with that? That subindex stands for Sound Pressure Level and is a particular flavour of decibel. Since decibels can be based on any physical property and since they can use any reference value, we can have many different flavours of decibels depending of which measured property and reference value is more convenient to use in each case.

In the case of dBSPL, this type of decibel is telling us two things. Firstly, that the physical property we are using is pressure. Secondly, that our reference value is the threshold of human hearing. This is fine for measuring loudness on sound waves travelling through the air but, is audio information capable of travelling through other mediums?
AcousticSession.jpg

We have learned to transform the frequency and amplitude information contained in sound waves in the air into grooves in a record or streams of electrons in a cable. That's a pretty remarkable feat that deserves its own post but for now let's just consider that we are able to "code" audio information into flows of electrons that we can measure.

Since dBs can used with any physical property, we can use units from the realm of electronics like watts or volts to measure loudness in a electrical audio signal. In this sense, both pascals and volts give us an idea of how intense a sound signal is, even though they refer to very different physical properties.

So, we need to establish which units and reference values will be useful to use to build new decibel flavours. We also need to label our particular flavour of dB somehow. This is usually done using a subindex (dBSPL) or a suffix (dBu).

Let's have a look at some of the most used decibel flavours:

dB Unit Property Measured (Unit) Reference Value Used on
dBSPL Pressure (Pascals) 2*10-5 Pascals
(Human Threshold of Hearing)
Acoustics.
dBA, dBB, and dBC Pressure (Pascals) 2*10-5 Pascals
(Human Threshold of Hearing)
Acoustics when accounting for
human sensitivity
to different frequencies.
dBV Electric potential (Volts) 1 Volt Consumer audio equipment.
dBu Electric potential (Volts) 0.7746 Volts Professional audio equipment.
dBm Electric Power (Watts) 1mW Radio, microwave and
fiber-optical communication networks.

As you can see, we can also use units from the electric realm to measure how loud an audio signal is. We will choose the most convenient unit depending on the context. Ideally, when using decibels, the type should be stated although sometimes it has to be inferred by the context.

If you read dB values on a mixer desk, for example, chances are they will be dBu, since this is the unit usually used in professional audio. When shopping for a pair of speakers or headphones, SPL values are usually given. Finally, when measuring things like an office space or a computer fan you will see dBA, dBB or dBC. These units are virtually the same as dBSPL but they apply different weighting filters that account for how we are more sensitive to certain frequencies than others in order to get a more accurate result.

And that's all folks. I left several things out of this post because I wanted to keep it focused on the basics. The decibel has some more mysteries to unravel but I'll leave that for a future post. In the meantime, here are some bullet points to refresh you on what you've learned:

Takeaways

The decibel:

  • Uses the logarithmic scale which works very well when displaying a wide range of values.
  • Is a comparative unit that always uses the ratio between a measured value and a reference value.
  • Can be used with any physical property, not only sound pressure.
  • Uses handy reference values so the numbers we manage are more meaningful.
  • Comes in many different flavours depending on the property measured and the reference value.