Signal to Noise Ratio Estimation


When analyzing passive array data most seismology analysis focuses on “transient signals” that are the wiggly lines that are the core data of seismology. One of the most basic quantitative measures of “goodness” of a particular signal is what is universally called signal-to-noise ratio. Robust estimates of signal-to-noise ratio are an essential component of any workflow that doesn’t resort to brute force interactive trace editing by a human. A fundamental problem we recognized in building this component of MsPASS is that there is no standard definition of how to measure signal-to-noise ratio. The reason is that not all metrics perform equally on all signals. For that reason we decided it was necessary to supply a range of options for signal-to-noise estimation to allow anyone to develop a “robust” set of automated criteria for data editing.

It is useful to first give a generic definition of signal-to-noise ratio. Sections below describe specific metrics based on the following generic formula:

\[snr = \frac{signal\_metric}{noise\_metric}\]

i.e. we divide some measures of the signal amplitude by some measure of noise amplitude. There are complexities in defining what “the signal” and “noise” mean and what measure is used for each. We can address the first in a common way for all MsPASS implementations. Choices for the second are discussed below.

All MsPASS algorithms are driven by definitions of the time windows that define the part of an input datum is signal and noise. All current implementations are driven by a simple data object we call a TimeWindow. You can read the docstring but everything useful about this object can be gleaned from running this code fragment in the mspass container:

from mspasspy.ccore.algorithms.basic import TimeWindow
win = TimeWindow(-5.0,20.0)
print("Time window range:  ",win.start,"<=t<=",win.end)

The time window here would be appropriate if the datum it used for had been converted to “relative time”. The example could be appropriate to define a signal window if the data had been converted to “relative time” (see section Time Standard Constraints) with zero defined as a measured or predicted phase arrival time.

All algorithms to estimate snr require a TimeWindow defining what section of data should be used for computing some metric for signal and noise to compute the ratio. The metric applied to each window may or may not always be the same.

Time Window Amplitude Metrics

The most common measure of amplitude is the root mean square error that is a scaled version of the L2 vector norm:

\[| \bf{x} \|_{rms} = \sqrt{\frac{\sum\limits_{i=n_s}^{n_e} x_i^2 }{n_e - n_s -1}}\]

where \(n_s\) is the data index for the start time of a time window and \(n_e\) is the index of the end time. In the snr docstrings this metric is given the tag rms.

The traditional metric for most earthquake magnitude formulas is peak amplitude. In linear algebra language peak amplitude in a time window is called the \(L_\infty\) norm defined as:

\[| \bf{x} |_{\infty} = max ( \mid x_{n_s}\mid , \mid x_{n_s + 1}\mid , \cdots , \mid x_{n_e}\mid )\]

For those unfamiliar with this jargon it is little more than a mathematical statement that we measure the largest sample amplitude. In the snr docstrings this metric is given the tag peak.

MsPASS also provides a facility to calculate a few less common metrics based on ranked (sorted) lists of amplitudes. All create a vector of \(N=n_s - n_e -1\) absolute values of each sample in the time window (\(\mid x_i \mid\)) and sort the values in increasing order. The MsPASS snr module supports two metrics based on a fully sorted list of amplitudes:

  1. The tag median is used to compute the standard quanity called the median, which is defined the center (50% point) of the sorted list of amplitudes.

  2. The generic tag perc is used for a family of metrics using sorted amplitudes. Users familiar with seismic unix will recognize this keyword as a common argument for plot scaling in that package. MsPASS, in fact, adapted the perc metric concept from seismic unix. If used it always requires specifying a “percentage” describing the level it should define. e.g the default of 95 means return the amplitude for which 95% of the samples have a lower amplitude. Similarly, perc of 50 would be the same as the median and 100 would be the same as the peak amplitude.

Low-level SNR Estimation

The basic function to compute signal-to-noise ratios has the simple name snr. The docstring describes the detailed use, but you will normally need to specify or default four key parameters: (1) signal time window, (2) noise time window, (3) metric to use for the signal window, and (4) metric to use for the noise window. The metric choice is made by using the tag strings defined above: rms, peak, `mad, or perc. Note the perc option level defaults but can be set to any level that makes sense. If perc is used for both signal and noise the same level will be used for both. The following is a typical usage example. The example uses the peak metric for the signal and rms for noise and returns the estimate in the symbol dsnr.

swin = TimeWindow(-2.0,10.0)
nwin = TimeWindow(-120.0,-5.0)
# assume d is a TimeSeries object defined above
dsnr = snr(d,noise_window=nwin,signal_window=swin,

Broadband SNR Estimation

MsPASS implements a set of more elaborate signal-to-noise metrics designed for quality control editing of modern broadband data. An issue not universally appreciated about all, modern, passive array data recorded with broadband instruments is that traditional measures of signal-to-noise ratio are usually meaningless if applied to raw data. From a signal processing perspective the fundamental reason is that broadband seismic noise and earthquake signals are both strongly “colored”. Broadband noise is always dominated by microseisms and/or cultural noise at frequencies above a few Hz. Earthquake’s have characteristic spectra. The “colors” earthquakes generate are commonly used, in fact, to measure source properties. As a result most earthquake records have wildly variable signal-to-noise variation across the recording band of modern instruments. MsPASS addresses this issue through a novel implementation in the function FD_snr_estimator and two higher level functions that use it internally called arrival_snr and arrival_snr_QC. The focus of this section is the algorithm used in FD_snr_estimator. The others should be thought of as convenient wrappers to run FD_snr_estimator.

The “FD” in FD_snr_estimator function is short for “Frequency Domain” emphasizing that FD is the key idea of the algorithm. Specifically, the function computes the power spectrum of the signal and noise windows tha are used to compute a series of broadband snr metrics you can use to sort out signals worth processing further. The algorithm makes a fundamental assumption that the optimal frequency band of a given signal can be defined by a high and low corner frequency. In marginal snr conditions that assumption can easily be wrong. A type example is teleseismic P waves that have signals in the traditional short period and long period bands, but the signal level does not exceed the microseism peak. Nonetheless, the single passband assumption is an obvious first order approach we have found useful for automated data winnowing.

The function attempts to determine the data passband by a process illustrated in the Figure below. The algorithm is a bidirectional search. The lower passband edge initiates at the highest frequency distinguishable from zero as defined by the time-bandwidth product (tbp input parameter). The upper passband edge search is initiated either from a user specified frequency or the default of 80% of Nyquist. Both searches increment/decrement through frequency bins computing the ratio of the signal power spectral density to the estimated noise power spectral density. An input parameter with the tag band_cutoff_snr defines the minimum snr the algorithm assumes is indicating a signal is present. A special feature of the search possible because of the use of multitaper spectra uses the tbp parameter. A property of multitaper spectra is the spectra are smoothed at a scale of the number of frequency binds defined by the time-bandwidth product through the formula:

\[W = T \Delta f\]

where \(T\) is the window length in seconds and \(\Delta f\) is the desired frequency resolution of a spectral estimate in Hz. It is convenient to think of \(Delta f\) in terms of the number of Rayleigh bins, \(\frac{1}{T}\) which is the frequency resolution of the discrete Fourier transform for a signal of duration \(T\).

A key point is that increasing the time-bandwidth products causes the spectral estimates to progressively smoother. For this application we found using tbp=4 with 8 tapers or tbp=5 and 10 tapers are good choices as they produce smoother spectra that produces more stable results. Readers unfamiliar with multitaper spectral methods may find it useful begin with the matlab help file in their multitaper estimator. There is also a large literature applying the technique to a range of practical problems easily found by any library search engine. We chose to use the multitaper because it always produces a more stable estimator for this application because of its reliable smoothing properties.