Understanding Decibels (part 2)

In the first article we saw that a decibel is not a fixed unit, rather, it is a ratio between two levels.  A decibel reading on its own is meaningless if it isn’t referenced to something. Unless it is spelled out, that reference something is normally 0dB. The mic input on a camera or mixer might say -50dB, that would mean it is 50 dB lower than 0dB. The line out of a mixer or DVD player might be -10dB, meaning it is 10dB lower than 0dB. The stereo out of a mixer might be +4dB, meaning it is 4dB above 0dB.

What is 0dB?

In simple terms, 0dB is the reference level. It is the level that is being referred to. When the measured level is neither above or below the reference level, then the difference in level is obviously zero, hence our reference level is called 0dB. So what is this level? In most situations with audio, 0dB will refer to Line Level. That is, the nominal level that comes from a mixer, keyboard, camera, or DVD player etc.

What level is Line level?

This is the $64,000 question, because there are various levels that are referred to as line level. A good specification table for a camera, amplifier, mixer or recorder will always say what voltage level they are using as 0dB. There are several conventional line levels that can normally be used if no other information is stated.  The secret is to pay close attention to the letter after dB.

  • 0dBV refers to 0dB being one volt (1V)
  • 0dBu refers to 0dB being 0.775 volts
  • 0dBm refers to 0dB also being 0.775 volts, but the power formula for decibel calculations needs to used, meaning 1dBm is close to 2dBu.

Don’t get too bogged down in all this, just make sure you compare apples with apples. That is, if you are looking at two cameras or recorders or mixers and comparing the microphone input sensitivity, make sure both specifications are dBV, or both are dBu or dBm. Before we look at some real world examples, we need to appreciate that 1 volt is a high level for line levels, and not commonly seen in consumer electronics. The “standard” line level in consumer electronics is normally -10dBV, which is 316 millivolts or 0.316 volts.  That is why the tape out of a mixer is often -10dBV. The same level is used for line in on digital recorders, TVs, VCRs and cameras with line in.

Camera Specifications

The popular Panasonic GS500 (similar to most cameras) states that the audio output level (line) is -10dBV (316mV). This is good because this matches the standard consumer line level found in VCRs and TVs. So when we plug the line out from the camera into the line in of a recorder or TV, the levels match and all sounds good.

The specifications also say “Mic input: mic sensitivity -50dB (0dB=1volt)”. Knowing the reference is 1 volt, and that 50dB is a ratio of 316 (see table) we can calculate the mic input is expecting 3.16 millivolts (1 divided by 316). This is about the level from a normal microphone so all will be good when a microphone is plugged in.

When a sensitive or high output microphone (eg Rode Videomic) is used, it is useful to reduce the output on the microphone so as not to overload the camera input. Hence most users switch in the 10dB attenuator on the Rode Videomic.

Mixer Specifications

A common mixer used in churches and schools is the Yamaha MG series. Its specifications are also representative of many mixers. A quick glance at the specifications reveal both dBu and dBV are used. However at the bottom of the page, they do conveniently state that 0dBu=0.775 volts and 0dBV=1 volt. They also helpfully give the equivalent voltages alongside each dB value. Let’s look at some of the specifications that will interest us if we want to connect to a mixer output.

The stereo out has a nominal output of +4dBu (1.23volts) with maximum +24dBu (12.3volts). It should be obvious that we shouldn’t connect this straight into the mic in on our camera! If we need to connect to this output, we would need to reduce the level by at least 50dB.

The better output might be the tape out. The specifications state “Record out: -10dBV (0.316 volts)”. This is closer to -50dBV (3.16mV) but still 40dB higher than nominal level for the mic input . So we need to reduce even this output by 40dB, or by a factor or 100. The other common output often used from a mixer is the headphone output. Some calculations reveal this can have a level between -9dBV to +4.77dBV, depending on the signal level and headphone volume control. This should be used only as a very last resort, and then still using at least a 40dB attenuator.

40dB attenuator

Having a range of attenuators, or a variable attenuator is useful. However a 40dB attenuator will assist in most situations. So what is a 40dB attenuator, and how do you make one? Simply put, a 40dB attenuator reduces (attenuates), or divides the signal by a factor of 100. Most music shops will sell what is often called a DI box. The DI stands for Direct Input, or Direct Injection. Either way, it is simply a box which allows instruments (like keyboards and guitars) to be directly plugged into the microphone input of a mixer. These DI boxes also change the signal to a balanced line to be able to run a longer microphone lead (more on this in a coming article). Many DI boxes have a switch which will enable you to select -40dB, -20dB or 0dB attenuation.

If you need to buy a DI box, here is a link to some of Amazon’s range of DI Boxes.

If you are trying to connect from a mixer (line out) to a video camera or laptop with only a Microphone input socket, then it is easy enough to build a simple 40dB attenuator with two resistors, (a 10K and 100 ohm resistor) and a capacitor. The circuit looks like this:   understanding decibels, 40dB attenuator

This circuit simply divides the input which makes the output 1/101th of the input. It can be made up by anyone who knows a little about electronics and can solder. Similar circuits appear in any number of forums with slight variations. They should all work. The capacitor is used to block any DC voltage coming from the camera or from the mixer, it is not always needed.

Here is a drawing of how you might use this as an attenuator built into a 6.35mm (1/4″) plug (this plugs into the mixer – you’ll need a 3.5mm (1/8″) plug for the mic input). Don’t forget to fit the plug cover on the cable before soldering the resistors and plug on. This doesn’t use the capacitor, but you could fit it in the plug at the other end of the cable if required.

If you want make an attenuator with a different attenuation, use can use my simple decibel calculator for audio.

I hope this has helped in understanding levels and decibels, and the why and how of connecting line level to microphone inputs.

This article is based on one I originally wrote for my friends at CamcorderUser.net, and has been refined by their helpful comments

 

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César

Hi Geoff, I am doing a project for school, part of which involves seeing how loud a piece of music has to be for people with profound hearing loss to be able to experience it through vibrations. This would be measured in decibels. I am completely new to the world of decibels, so I am trying to grasp how I could be able to control the volume level in decibels so I could make each person feel the exact same level of vibrations regardless of what computer they would be using. So does 0dB vary from device to device, or… Read more »

Jim Chapman (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Geoff: Previously, I had asked for your advice regarding setting up a PA system for our Tenants’ Association. Your response has lead me to another question, if you don’t mind. That is, if I take a line output from the mixer and want to send it into a secondary amplifier at Mic level over a Balanced line. From your diagram of an attenuator circuit (mixer to cam mic in), it appears to be Unbalanced. How would I change the wiring and what values of resistors would be required. I am thinking I will need somewhere between 40 and 50dB attenuation… Read more »

Greg the wannabe geek

Geoff thank you for this great resource. I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around the decibel concept but have ran into somewhat of a roadblock. I’ve noticed that a majority of gain/trim controls on a variety of soundboards are labeled with scales such as -10 to +25 or +15 to +60. In others however, like the popular Yamaha MGP series, the gain control is labeled -16 to -60, or with the 26dB switch selected, +10 to -34. Assuming gain knobs are designed to turn the same direction i.e. clockwise to increase and cc to decrease as intuition would… Read more »

Tim Greenwood (Los Angeles, USA)

Hello Geoff, Your article has given me inspiration. I am working with a small community theater that wanted a wireless headset back stage tied to their Clear-Com intercom unit. My observation is that the cheapest wireless is a home cell phone on intercom setting. So here is my imagination: the Clear Com ( and competitor RTS-Telex) have a full time duplex telephone style intercom that is operated with a belt pack amplifier at each user’s side, and the user is hearing and speaking through a headset to listen and a microphone to speak. How about I build two of your… Read more »

johan anindito (Bontang, Indonesia)

Hi Geoff,

Thank you for this great article, it helps me a lot to understand the basic of decibel.
One thing that i still don’t understand: what is the function of gain dial in a mixer? Does it work similar with attenuator?

Thank you very much

Prat

Thanks Geoff for the reply! I am going to give the 40dB a shot. I do have a couple of questions. When I went to the store today and asked for the above mentioned resistors, he asked me for the wattage! I looked at him like he had 2 heads but apparently it is a valid question. What wattage resistors would I need? Also, I am assuming you are using a stereo (ano not mono) 1/4 inch plug that will go into the mixer?

Prat

Geoff,

I want to make a 60DB attenuator because my camera the Panasonic MD 9000 has a mic sensitivity of -60dBV. As per the diagram above:

1. Would I need to replace the the 100ohms resistor by a 1000 ohms resistor?

Or

2. Or would I need to replace the 10,000 ohms resistor by a 100,000 Ohms resistor?

Prat

EXCELLENT ARTICLE!! As a complete noob, just the kind of article I was looking for. Time to buy a soldering iron! Thanks!!