Understanding the Decibel

What is a decibel? A decibel (dB) is a unit of measurement that gages the intensity of sound. The units define how loud a noise source is, ranging on a comparative scale from 0-194. A dB reading of “0” indicates the faintest sound the human ear can detect, while a dB reading of “180” would be the equivalent to standing on a rocket pad during launch.

Your average day is filled with sound sources that typically range from 30-100 dB. Daytime hours average 10 dB more sound pressure than night time hours. Conversational voice levels average a 65 dB rating, while OSHA demands hearing protection for factory workers exposed over an 8 hour period to levels stronger than 85 dB. The pain threshold for human ear starts at about 120 dB.

The decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. This simply means that for every 3 decibels you move up or down the scale from 0-194, you are adding or dropping 50% of your remaining sound pressure levels to your exposure. By dropping 6 decibels, for instance, you first move 3 dB, and then another 3 dB. For each 3 dB you drop, your sound pressure levels will drop another 50% of the remaining sound pressure.   The following table will help illustrate the order of magnitude associated with dB.

dB-Drop                       Survival Rate

1 dB Drop                     79% of your noise has survived
3 dB-Drop                    50% of your noise has survived
6 dB-Drop                    25% of your noise has survived
9 dB-Drop                    12.5% of your noise has survived
10 dB-Drop                  10% of your noise has survived
20 dB-Drop                   1% of your noise has survived
30 dB-Drop                 .01% of yoru noise has survived

Inverse Square Law

Sound intensity will diminish over time and distance. The further away from the noise source you are, the lower your decibel level readings will become. The Inverse Square Law teaches us that for every doubling of the distance between a sound source and the recipient of the sound, a 6 dB drop would occur if there were no echo (as from a mountain top). This would be the equivalent to cutting your noise pressure levels by 75%.  For instance, if you stand 10 feet from a sound source and experience a 90 dB reading, at 20 feet you would experience an 84 dB reading in the absence of echo. Of course, in the real world, sound reflections will blur these results.

These results would be experienced only in an open field, such as the top of a mountain, where no surrounding surfaces would interrupt the path of the sound and reflect it backwards to alter the results. Because of this law, soundproofing treatments are able to trigger stronger absorption results in larger rooms than smaller rooms.    In the smaller rooms, the closer you are positioned to your sound source, the more difficult it becomes to protect the room from original sound as well as distinguish between original sound and reflected sound.    For this reason, slowing reverberation times down in a larger room, such as a gymnasium,  produces a more noticeable acoustic effect than in a smaller room, such as a furnace room.

Adding Decibels

When combining two sound sources together, the question of determining the sum of their decibels is addressed using the following scale.       

If two sound sources differ by 0-1 dB:      add 3 dB to the higher number 

If two sound sources differ by 2-3 dB:      add 2 dB to the higher number

If two sound sources differ by 4-9 dB:      add 1 dB to the higher number

If two sound sources differ by 10+ dB:      add 0 dB to the higher number

This explains that how reflective sounds within a room can grow to become stronger than any one original sound source. For example, if you had a forklift emitting an 87 dB reading driving past a punch press with an 89 dB reading, your overall exposure would be 91 dB (not 176 dB). Conversely, if your voice carried a 70 dB reading at a rock concert emitting 120 dB, your exposure would still be 120 dB.


Decibel levels are controlled by applying soundproofing treatments that attack either the “source” of the noise or the “path” the noise is traveling.  These treatments are briefly reviewed in our Sound Treatments section of this Academy, and specified in more detail in the Applications Guide of this website.    “Source” driven treatments will typically trigger 12-18 dB drops, while “path” driven treatments will typically trigger 3-8 dB drops. The most we’ ever experienced with a “path” driven treatment is a 14 dB drop. For more aggressive industrial soundproofing applications, 30+ dB drops can be achieved only through the use of full strength industrial enclosures featured in our Product Guide.  Remember that regardless of your soundproofing treatment, a mere 3 dB drop in your sound pressure levels will represent a 50% drop in your perceived noise.

dB Readings

Dosimeters are instruments that can accurately measure your decibel level exposure. The question is often posed to NetWell:

Do we need to know what our dB reading is before our soundproofing treatment?”

The answer is usually “no”! Unless your application has been triggered by litigation or potential OSHA fines, where documentation is a must, the need to place an expert onsite to record dB readings is a costly step that you can avoid. Remember our goal with your soundproofing treatment is to give you better control over your noise problem, not to cure it. By reproducing for you the results our treatments have triggered for others, and your understanding of decibel definition, you will soon experience the same reduction in dB levels. Trust our advice, follow our direction and you will soon have your decibels under control!

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