What is Audio Noise?
Audio noise measurement is carried out when assessing the quality of audio equipment, such as is used in recording studios, broadcast studios, and in the home (Hi-Fi).
In general, Noise refers to unwanted sound, but in audio systems it is the low-level hiss or buzz that intrudes on quiet passages that is of most interest. All recordings will contain some background noise that was picked up by microphones, such as the rumble of air conditioning, or the shuffling of an audience, but in addition to this every piece of equipment which the recorded signal subsequently passes through will add a certain amount of electronic noise, which ideally should be so low as to contribute insignificantly to what is heard.
Microphones, amplifiers and recording systems all add some electronic noise to the signals passing through them, generally described as hum, buzz or hiss. All buildings have low-level magnetic and electrostatic fields in and around them emanating from mains supply wiring, and these can induce hum into signal paths, typically 50 Hz or 60 Hz (depending on the country’s electrical supply standard) and lower harmonics. Shielded cables help to prevent this, and on professional equipment where longer interconnections are common, balanced signal connections (most often with XLR or phone connectors) are usually employed. Hiss is the result of random signals, often arising from the random motion of electrons in transistors and other electronic components, or the random distribution of oxide particles on analog magnetic tape. It is predominantly heard at high frequencies, sounding like steam or compressed air.
Attempts to measure noise in audio equipment as RMS voltage, using a simple level meter or voltmeter, do not produce useful results; a special noise-measuring instrument is required. This is because noise contains energy spread over a wide range of frequencies and levels, and different sources of noise have different spectral content. For measurements to allow fair comparison of different systems they must be made using a measuring instrument that responds in a way that corresponds to how we hear sounds. From this, three requirements follow. Firstly, it is important that frequencies above or below those that can be heard by even the best ears are filtered out and ignored by bandwidth limiting (usually 22 Hz to 22 kHz). Secondly, the measuring instrument should give varying emphasis to different frequency components of the noise in the same way that our ears do, a process referred to as ‘weighting’. Thirdly, the rectifier or detector that is used to convert the varying alternating noise signal into a steady positive representation of level should take time to respond fully to brief peaks to the same extent that our ears do; it should have the correct ‘dynamics’.