Introduction
This unit uses voltage–time graphs to describe the characteristics of different types of signal. The supporting practical, Using an Oscilloscope, introduces the oscilloscope, a key instrument for measuring and displaying voltage–time graphs.
This unit uses voltage–time graphs to describe the characteristics of different types of signal. The supporting practical, Using an Oscilloscope, introduces the oscilloscope, a key instrument for measuring and displaying voltage–time graphs.
About signals
In electronic circuits things happen. Voltage–time (V–t) graphs provide a useful method of describing the changes which take place.Fig.2 shows the voltage–time graph that represents a direct
current
Current I is a flow of charged particles, usually electrons.current (
d.c.
In a d.c., or direct current, circuit, current always flows in the same direction.d.c.) signal.This is a horizontal line a constant distance above the xaxis. In many circuits, fixed d.c. levels are maintained along power supply rails, or as reference levels with which other signals can be compared.
Compare Fig.2 with Fig.3, which shows the voltage–time graphs for several types of alternating current (
a.c.
In an a.c., or alternating current, circuit, current flows first in one direction, then in the other.a.c.) signals.As you can see, the
voltage
Potential difference, or voltage V is a measure of the difference in energy between two points in a circuit. Charges gain energy in the battery and lose energy
as they flow round the rest of the circuit.voltage levels change with time and alternate between positive values (above the xaxis) and negative values (below the xaxis).Signals with repeated shapes are called waveforms and include sine waves, square waves, triangle waves, and sawtooth waves. A distinguishing feature of alternating waves is that equal areas are enclosed above and below the xaxis.
You can investigate some of these waveforms in the simulation of Fig.4.
Click on the figure below to interact with the model.
Move the probe to a new location to see each waveform.
Sine waves
In electronics, sine waves are among the most useful of all signals in testing circuits and analysing system performance.
Fig.5 shows a sine wave in more detail.
Sine waves are described in terms of: 
Period – the time taken for each complete cycle. 
Frequency – the number of cycles completed per second. 
Amplitude – the displacement, or height of the wave. 
Phase – used to identify a particular point in the cycle. 
You can find out more about each these by working through the rest of this section.
Period and frequency
The period is the time taken for one complete cycle of a repeating waveform. It is often thought of as the time interval between peaks, but can be measured between any two corresponding points in successive cycles.
The frequencyf is the number of cycles completed per second. The measurement unit for frequency is the hertz, Hz (1 Hz = 1 cycle per second).
If you know the period, the frequency of the waveform can be calculated from:
Conversely, the period is given by:
In rearrangeable format:
Signals you are likely to use vary in frequency from about 0.1 Hz, through values in kilohertz (kHz), thousands of cycles per second, to values in megahertz (MHz), millions of cycles per second.
Amplitude
In electronics, the amplitude, or height, of a sine wave is measured in three different ways:
The peak amplitudeV_{p} is measured from the xaxis, 0 V, to the top of a peak, or to the bottom of a trough. In physics, 'amplitude' usually refers to peak amplitude.
The peaktopeak amplitudeV_{pp} is measured between the maximum positive and negative values. In practical terms, this is often the easier measurement to make. Its value is exactly twice V_{p}.
Although peak and peaktopeak values are easily determined, it is sometimes more useful to know the root mean square (r.m.s.) amplitude V_{rms} of the wave, where:
and
In rearrangeable format:
Just why the r.m.s. amplitude is useful will be explained shortly.
Move the probe in Fig.6 to see the V–t graph of each signal.
Click on the figure below to interact with the model.
Phase
It is sometimes useful to divide a sine wave into degrees, °, as follows:
Sine waves are generated by rotating electrical machines. A complete 360° turn of the voltage generator corresponds to one cycle of the sine wave. Therefore 180° corresponds to half a turn, 90° to a quarter turn, and so on. Using this method, any point on the sine wave graph can be identified by a particular number of degrees through the cycle.
If two sine waves have the same frequency and occur at the same time, they are said to be in phase:
On the other hand, if the two waves occur at different times, they are said to be out of phase. When this happens, the difference in phase can be measured in degrees, and is called the phase angle, θ. As you can see, the two waves in the second part of the diagram are a quarter cycle out of phase, so the phase angle θ = 90°.
Fig.9 shows another example of sine waves that are out of phase.
Understanding r.m.s.
What is r.m.s. amplitude and why is it important? 
The r.m.s. voltage is the d.c. voltage which will deliver the same average power as the a.c. signal. 
To understand this, think about two lamps connected to alternative power supplies:
The brightness of the lamp connected to the a.c. supply looks constant, but the current flowing in the lamp is changing all the time and alternates in direction, flowing first one way and then the other. There is no current at the instant the a.c. signal crosses the xaxis. What you see is the average brightness produced by the a.c. signal.
The second lamp is powered by a d.c. supply and its brightness really is constant because the current flowing is always the same. It is obviously possible to adjust the voltage of the d.c. supply until the two lamps appear equally bright.
When this happens, the d.c. supply is providing the same average power as the a.c. supply. At this point, the d.c. voltage is equal to the V_{rms} value for the a.c. signal.
Nevertheless, the average power in the two circuits is the same.
A bit of mathematics is needed to explain why the equivalent d.c. voltage is called 'root mean square'. You don't need to know anything about this.
Expand the next section only if you are determined to find out: 
Because the r.m.s. amplitude is the d.c. voltage that will deliver the same average power as the a.c. signal, you need to think about how to calculate the power delivered by the a.c. signal. 
The unit Resistors introduced the following formula for calculating power:

Substituting or gives two additional formulae:
and 
The power developed is different at different times during each cycle. V is changing, and so P must also be changing.
For example, at t = 2 ms on the graph, V = 5.9 V and = 0.35 W. At t = 5 ms, V = 10 V, and = 1.0 W. While at t = 10 ms, V = 0, and P = 0. 
Calculating a P value for every moment in the cycle gives the lower graph in the diagram. This shows how the power produced varies during each cycle. 
The apparent brightness of the lamp depends on the average power. Look again at the power–time graph. You can see that the average power is equal to half the maximum power. 
The average power P_{av} is given by:

Now think about the d.c. voltage V_{d.c.} that would deliver the same average power:

Combining these two formulae:

Rearranging:

Taking the square root of each side gives:
This is the same as the formula for V_{rms} as already defined. 
It is now possible to explain that the r.m.s. value is the square root of the mean, or average, of the square of the voltages during a complete cycle of the a.c. waveform. 
V_{rms} is the single d.c. value which will deliver the same average power as the a.c. signal. 
Waveform calculators
To help you with waveform calculations, you might like to use the Absorb Electronics calculators shown below:Use the calculator to answer the following questions:
To convert from peak amplitude to r.m.s. amplitude, or from r.m.s. to peak, use this calculator:
Listening to waves
You can understand what is meant by 'frequency' and 'amplitude' by comparing the sounds produced when different waves are
played through a loudspeaker.
Not all frequencies are audible. 
The frequency range of human hearing is usually quoted as from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. A good hifi system can accurately reproduce a slightly wider range of frequencies. 
Your ears are particularly sensitive to sounds in the middle range, from about 100 Hz to 3 kHz, corresponding to the range of frequencies dominant in human speech. 
Telephone systems have a poor high frequency performance, but do work effectively in this middle range. 
The pitch of a musical note is the same as its frequency. The intensity or loudness of a musical note is the same at its amplitude.
The animation below can show waveforms of different frequencies and amplitudes. Click on the buttons next to the graph to listen to the corresponding sounds:
Sine wave signals produce a 'pure' sounding tone. If the amplitude is increased, the sound is louder. If the frequency is increased, the pitch of the sound is higher. Comparing one note with another that is double the frequency, you should notice that they sound similar – the sounds are an octave apart.
Other shapes of signal generate sounds with the same fundamental frequency, but which can sound different. Switch to square wave signals in Fig.14. The square wave sound is harsher because the signal contains additional frequencies which are multiples of the fundamental frequency. These additional frequencies are called harmonics (or overtones). Sounds from different musical instruments are distinguished by their harmonic content:
The distinctive sound of the bagpipes depends on the fundamental frequency of the note played and the harmonics produced. Additional pipes, called drones, generate sounds so that the overall effect is rich and complex. Some people like it.
You may be interested to know that an electronic device for checking the pitch of the drones is available.
Making waves
Sine waves can be mixed with d.c. signals. or with other sine waves to produce new waveforms. Here is one example of a complex waveform:'Complex' doesn't mean difficult to understand. A waveform like this can be thought of as consisting of a d.c. component with a superimposed a.c. component. It is quite easy to separate these two components using a capacitor, as is explained in the unit on Capacitors.
More dramatic results are obtained by mixing a sine wave of a particular frequency with exact multiples of the same frequency, in other words, by adding harmonics to the fundamental frequency. Click the button at lower left in the V–t graph below to find out what happens when a sine wave is mixed with its 3rd harmonic (3 times the fundamental frequency) at reduced amplitude:
Keep clicking the button to see the effect of adding the 5th, 7th, and 9th harmonics. The waveform begins to look more and more like a square wave as more odd number harmonics are added in.
This surprising result illustrates a general principle first formulated by the French mathematician Joseph Fourier, namely that any repeating waveform can be built up from pure sine waves plus particular harmonics of the fundamental frequency. Square waves, triangular waves and sawtooth waves can all be produced in this way.
Other signals
This part of the unit outlines the other types of signal you are going to meet. Circuits which generate these signals are
versatile building blocks and many practical examples are given elsewhere in Absorb Electronics.Square waves
Like sine waves, square waves are described in terms of period, frequency, and amplitude:
Peak amplitude V_{p} and peaktopeak amplitude V_{pp} are measured as you might expect. However, the r.m.s. amplitude V_{rms} of a square wave is bigger than that of a sine wave.
Remember that the r.m.s. amplitude is the d.c. voltage which will deliver the same average power as the signal. 
If a square wave is connected across a lamp, the current flows first one way and then the other. 
The current switches direction but its magnitude remains the same. In other words, the square wave delivers its maximum power throughout the cycle. 
In this case, V_{rms} = V_{p}. 
If this is confusing, don't worry. The r.m.s. voltage of a square wave is not something you need to think about very often. 
Although the square wave may change very rapidly from its minimum to maximum voltage, this change cannot be instantaneous. The rise time of the signal is defined as the time taken for the voltage to change from 10 to 90 per cent of its maximum value. Rise times are usually very short, with durations measured in microseconds, μs (1 μs = 10^{−6} s), or nanoseconds, ns (1 ns = 10^{−9} s).
Pulse waveforms
Pulse waveforms look similar to square waves except that all the action takes place above the xaxis. At the beginning of a pulse, the voltage changes suddenly from a low level, close to the xaxis, to a high level, usually close to the power supply voltage:
The low voltage level is often called logic 0, or just 0, while the high voltage is called logic 1, or just 1. Pulses are fundamental in
digital
In a digital circuit, information is represented by discrete voltage levels. A high voltage is called logic 1, or 1, while
a low voltage is called logic 0, or 0. digital systems.Sometimes the 'frequency' of a pulse waveform is called its repetition rate. This means the number of pulses per second, measured in hertz, Hz.
The length of time for which the pulse voltage is high is called the mark, while the length of time for which it is low is called the space. The mark and space do not need to be equal. The markspace ratio is given by:
A markspace ratio = 1.0 means that the high and low times are equal. A mark‑space ratio = 0.5 indicates that the high time is half as long as the low time.
A markspace ratio of 3.0 indicates that the mark period is three times as long as the space period. In general, a markspace ratio greater than 1 indicates that the high time is longer.
Another way of describing the same types of waveform uses the duty cycle, where:
When the duty cycle is less than 50 per cent, the high time is shorter than the low time, and so on.
A subsystem which produces a continuous series of pulses is called an astable.
As you will discover, it is useful to be able to change the frequency of the pulses to suit particular applications. Other pulseproducing subsystems include monostables and bistables.
A voltage ramp is a steadily increasing or decreasing voltage, as shown in Fig.24 below.
The ramp rate is measured in volts per second, V/s. Such changes cannot continue indefinitely, but stop when the voltage reaches a saturation level, usually close to the power supply voltage.
Triangular and sawtooth waves
These waveforms consist of alternate positivegoing and negativegoing ramps. In a triangular wave, the rate of voltage change is equal during the two parts of the cycle, while in a sawtooth wave, the rates of change are unequal.
Sawtooth generator circuits are an essential building block in oscilloscope and television systems.
Audio signals
Sound frequencies which can be detected by the human ear vary from around 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Audio signals usually consist of a mixture of different frequencies:
Sometimes it is possible to see a dominant frequency in the voltage–time graph of an musical signal, but it is clear that other frequencies are present.
Noise
A noise signal consists of a mixture of frequencies with random amplitudes:
Noise can originate in various ways. For example, heat energy increases the random motion of electrons and results in the generation of thermal noise in all components, although some components are 'noisier' than others.
Additional sources of noise include radio signals, which are detected and amplified by many circuits, not just radio receivers. Interference is caused by the switching of many appliances, and 'spikes' and 'glitches' are caused by rapid changes in current and voltage elsewhere in an electronic system.
Designers try to eliminate noise in most circuits, but special noise generators are used in electronic music synthesizers and for other musical effects.
Did you know …? Barcodes
Barcodes appear on all sorts of things including books, CDs, and almost everything you buy at the supermarket. Barcodes are
useful because they are machine readable.
The checkout is connected to a computer network and reads the price of each item from a central database. This makes it easy for the supermarket to set and adjust prices and to collect information for stock control.
Barcode readers, scanners, and wands convert the printed pattern of the barcode into a voltage–time signal consisting of a series of pulses. All these devices shine light onto the barcode and detect variations in the intensity of reflected light. You can understand how this works by seeing what happens when you click the button in this animation:
LEDs inside the scanning wand provide the light source. The lens focuses the light from the LEDs into a beam. As the wand passes over a white area of the barcode, light is reflected back into the wand and is detected by a
photodiode
A photodiode is a sensor device which can be used to detect infrared or other wavelengths of light.photodiode. The photodiode responds much more quickly to changes in light intensity than a lightdependent
resistor
A resistor is an electronic component with a particular resistance values. Resistors limit current.resistor, or
LDR
A lightdependent resistor, or LDR, has a high resistance in the dark, and a low resistance in the light.LDR.When the wand passes over a black bar, or stripe, much less light is reflected. These changes are converted into a pattern of pulses which exactly matches the pattern of bars in the barcode. The electronic circuit operates so that a high voltage, logic 1, corresponds to a bar.
The diagram below explains in more detail how an EAN 8 barcode, one of several common types, is constructed:
 The narrowest element, either a bar or a space, is called a module.
 At each end of the barcode, there is a quiet zone, consisting only of spaces.
 Guard bars at the left and right of the barcode use a single module,
bar–space–bar pattern to indicate where scanning should start and stop.  There is a middle zone separating the left and right sides of the barcode.
 Within the left and right sections of the barcode, each number is represented by seven modules. For example, in the left part
of the barcode, the number 5 is represented by space–bar–bar–space–space–space–bar, that is, 0 1 1 0 0 0 1. Zoom in on the
diagram to see more detail.
 Different codes are used to represent the same number if it appears in the right section of the barcode, instead of the left
section. The coding system has been cleverly designed so that the barcode can be scanned in either direction.
Look out for applications of barcodes and think about why they are used.
Summary
Voltage–time, V–t, graphs are used to represent signals in electronic systems.
Sine waves are of fundamental importance. Essential features of sine waves and other repeating waveforms include (measurement units in brackets):
Period is the time taken for one complete cycle (s, ms, μs).
Frequency f is the number of cycles completed per second (Hz, kHz, MHz).
or
Peak amplitude V_{p} is the maximum displacement from 0 V (V, mV).
Peaktopeak amplitude V_{pp} is the difference between the maximum positive and maximum negative values (V, mV).
Root mean square (r.m.s.) amplitude V_{rms} is the d.c. voltage which will deliver the same average power as the a.c. signal (V, mV).
For sine waves:
and
Phase angle θ is the angular difference between the peak times of two waves of the same frequency (°).
The pitch of a musical note is the same as its frequency. The amplitude of a musical note is the same as its loudness. Exact multiples of the fundamental frequency are called harmonics.
Complex waves are built up by adding d.c. signals or harmonics to the fundamental frequency. All repeating waveforms can by synthesized from sine waves.
Pulses change suddenly between low voltage (logic 0) and high voltage (logic 1) levels. The frequency of a repeating pulse waveform is sometimes called its repetition rate. The low time of the pulse is called the space, and the high time is called the mark. Markspace ratio and duty cycle are used to describe the shape of pulse waveforms.
Ramp, triangular, sawtooth, audio, and noise signals can all be represented as voltage–time graphs.
Voltage–time, V–t, graphs are used to represent signals in electronic systems.
Sine waves are of fundamental importance. Essential features of sine waves and other repeating waveforms include (measurement units in brackets):
Period is the time taken for one complete cycle (s, ms, μs).
Frequency f is the number of cycles completed per second (Hz, kHz, MHz).
or
Peak amplitude V_{p} is the maximum displacement from 0 V (V, mV).
Peaktopeak amplitude V_{pp} is the difference between the maximum positive and maximum negative values (V, mV).
Root mean square (r.m.s.) amplitude V_{rms} is the d.c. voltage which will deliver the same average power as the a.c. signal (V, mV).
For sine waves:
and
Phase angle θ is the angular difference between the peak times of two waves of the same frequency (°).
The pitch of a musical note is the same as its frequency. The amplitude of a musical note is the same as its loudness. Exact multiples of the fundamental frequency are called harmonics.
Complex waves are built up by adding d.c. signals or harmonics to the fundamental frequency. All repeating waveforms can by synthesized from sine waves.
Pulses change suddenly between low voltage (logic 0) and high voltage (logic 1) levels. The frequency of a repeating pulse waveform is sometimes called its repetition rate. The low time of the pulse is called the space, and the high time is called the mark. Markspace ratio and duty cycle are used to describe the shape of pulse waveforms.
Ramp, triangular, sawtooth, audio, and noise signals can all be represented as voltage–time graphs.
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