modulation and types of modulation

Modulation is the process of varying a carrier signal in order to use that signal to convey information. The three key parameters of a sinusoid are its amplitude, its phase and its frequency, all of which can be modified in accordance with an information signal to obtain the modulated signal. A device that performs modulation is known as a modulator and a device that performs the inverse operation of demodulation is known as a demodulator. A device that can do both operations is a modem (a contraction of the two terms). In digital modulation, the changes in the signal are chosen from a fixed list (the modulation alphabet) each entry of which conveys a different possible piece of information (a symbol). The alphabet is often conveniently represented on a constellation diagram. In analog modulation, the change is applied continuously in response to the data signal. The modulation may be applied to various aspects of the signal as the lists below indicate.

Amplitude modulation

Amplitude modulation (AM) is a technique used in electronic communication, most commonly for transmitting audio signals. It works by varying the strength of the transmitted signal in relation to the information being sent, for example, changes in the signal strength can be used to reflect sounds being reproduced. (Contrast this with frequency modulation, in which the transmitting frequency is varied; and phase modulation, in which the phase is varied.) In the mid-1870s, a form of amplitude modulation—initially called “undulatory currents”—was the first method to successfully produce quality audio over telephone lines. Beginning in the early 1900s, it was also the original method used for audio radio transmissions, and remains in use by some forms of radio communication—”AM” is often used to refer to the mediumwave broadcast band (see AM radio). As originally developed for the electric telephone, amplitude modulation was used to add audio information to the low-powered direct current flowing from a telephone transmitter to a receiver. As a simplified explanation, at the transmitting end, a telephone microphone was used to vary the strength of the transmitted current, according to the frequency and loudness of the sounds received. Then, at the receiving end of the telephone line, the transmitted electrical current affected an electromagnet, which strengthened and weakened in response to the strength of the current. In turn, the electromagnet produced vibrations in the receiver diaphragm, thus reproducing the frequency and loudness of the sounds originally heard at the transmitter. In contrast to the telephone, in radio communication what is modulated is a continuous wave radio signal (carrier wave) produced by a radio transmitter. In its basic form, amplitude modulation produces a signal with power concentrated at the carrier frequency and in two adjacent sidebands. Each sideband is equal in bandwidth to that of the modulating signal and is a mirror image of the other. Thus, most of the power output by an AM transmitter is effectively wasted: half the power is concentrated at the carrier frequency, which carries no useful information (beyond the fact that a signal is present); the remaining power is split between two identical sidebands, only one of which is needed. To increase transmitter efficiency, the carrier can be removed (suppressed) from the AM signal. This produces a reduced-carrier transmission or double-sideband suppressed carrier (DSBSC) signal. If the carrier is only partially suppressed, a double-sideband reduced carrier (DSBRC) signal results. DSBSC and DSBRC signals need their carrier to be regenerated (by a beat frequency oscillator, for instance) to be demodulated using conventional techniques. Even greater efficiency is achieved—at the expense of increased transmitter and receiver complexity—by completely suppressing both the carrier and one of the sidebands. This is single-sideband modulation, widely used in amateur radio due to its efficient use of both power and bandwidth. A simple form of AM often used for digital communications is on-off keying, a type of amplitude-shift keying by which binary data is represented as the presence or absence of a carrier wave. This is commonly used at radio frequencies to transmit Morse code, referred to as continuous wave (CW) operation.

Frequency modulation

Frequency modulation (FM) is a form of modulation which represents information as variations in the instantaneous frequency of a carrier wave. (Contrast this with amplitude modulation, in which the amplitude of the carrier is varied while its frequency remains constant.) In analog applications, the carrier frequency is varied in direct proportion to changes in the amplitude of an input signal. Digital data can be represented by shifting the carrier frequency among a set of discrete values, a technique known as frequency-shift keying. FM is commonly used at VHF radio frequencies for high-fidelity broadcasts of music and speech (see FM broadcasting). Normal (analog) TV sound is also broadcast using FM. A narrowband form is used for voice communications in commercial and amateur radio settings. The type of FM used in broadcast is generally called wide-FM, or W-FM. In two-way radio, narrowband narrow-fm (N-FM) is used to conserve bandwidth. In addition, it is used to send signals into space. FM is also used at intermediate frequencies by most analog VCR systems, including VHS, to record the luminance (black and white) portion of the video signal. FM is the only feasible method of recording video to and retrieving video from magnetic tape without extreme distortion, as video signals have a very large range of frequency components — from a few hertz to several megahertz, too wide for equalisers to work with due to electronic noise below -60 dB. FM also keeps the tape at saturation level, and therefore acts as a form of noise reduction, and a simple limiter can mask variations in the playback output, and the FM capture effect removes print-through and pre-echo. A continuous pilot-tone, if added to the signal — as was done on V2000 and many Hi-band formats — can keep mechanical jitter under control and assist timebase correction. FM is also used at audio frequencies to synthesize sound. This technique, known as FM synthesis, was popularized by early digital synthesizers and became a standard feature for several generations of personal computer sound cards.

Phase modulation
Phase modulation (PM) is a form of modulation which represents information as variations in the instantaneous phase of a carrier wave. Unlike its more popular counterpart, frequency modulation (FM), PM is not very widely used (except perhaps for in the inappropriately named FM-synthesis for musical instruments, introduced by Yamaha around 1982.) This is because it tends to require more complex receiving hardware and there can be ambiguity problems with determining whether, for example, the signal has 0° phase or 180° phase.

Phase-shift keying

Phase-shift keying (PSK)is a digital modulation scheme that conveys data by changing, or modulating, the phase of a reference signal (the carrier wave). Any digital modulation scheme uses a finite number of distinct signals to represent digital data. In the case of PSK, a finite number of phases are used. Each of these phases is assigned a unique pattern of binary bits. Usually, each phase encodes an equal number of bits. Each pattern of bits forms the symbol that is represented by the particular phase. The demodulator, which is designed specifically for the symbol-set used by the modulator, determines the phase of the received signal and maps it back to the symbol it represents, thus recovering the original data. This requires the receiver to be able to compare the phase of the received signal to a reference signal — such a system is termed coherent. Alternatively, instead of using the bit patterns to set the phase of the wave, it can instead be used to change it by a specified amount. The demodulator then determines the changes in the phase of the received signal rather than the phase itself. Since this scheme depends on the difference between successive phases, it is termed differential phase-shift keying (DPSK). DPSK can be significantly simpler to implement than ordinary PSK since there is no need for the demodulator to have a copy of the reference signal to determine the exact phase of the received signal (it is a non-coherent scheme). In exchange, it produces more erroneous demodulations. The exact requirements of the particular scenario under consideration determine which scheme is used.

Frequency-shift keying

Frequency-shift keying (FSK) is a form of frequency modulation in which the modulating signal shifts the output frequency between predetermined values. Usually, the instantaneous frequency is shifted between two discrete values termed the mark frequency and the space frequency. Continuous phase forms of FSK exist in which there is no phase discontinuity in the modulated signal. The example shown at right is of such a form. Other names for FSK are frequency-shift modulation and frequency-shift signaling. Minimum frequency-shift keying or minimum-shift keying (MSK) is a particularly spectrally efficient form of coherent frequency-shift keying. In MSK the difference between the higher and lower frequency is identical to half the bit rate. As a result, the waveforms used to represent a 0 and a 1 bit differ by exactly half a carrier period. This is the smallest FSK modulation index that can be chosen such that the waveforms for 0 and 1 are orthogonal. A variant of MSK called GMSK is used in the GSM mobile phone standard.

Minimum-shift keying

Minimum-shift keying (MSK) is a type of continuous phase frequency-shift keying. Similarly to OQPSK, MSK is encoded with bits alternating between quarternary components, with the Q component delayed by half a bit period. However, instead of square pulses as OQPSK uses, MSK encodes each bit as a half sinusoid. This results in a constant-modulus signal, which reduces problems caused by non-linear distortion.

Gaussian minimum shift keying

Gaussian minimum shift keying or GMSK is a kind of continuous phase frequency-shift keying. The baseband modulation is generated by starting with a bitstream 0/1 and a bit-clock giving a timeslice for each bit. This is the type of modulation used in Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). The baseband signal is generated by first transforming the zero/one encoded bits into -1/+1 encoded bits. This -1/+1 signal is then filtered in such a way that the “boxcar” shaped +1/-1 pulses are transformed into Gaussian-shaped signals. The baseband signal is then modulated using frequency modulation, producing a complete GMSK signal. If the Gaussian shapes do not overlap, then the modulation form is called 1-GMSK. If the slots overlap 50% (½), the modulation is called 2-GMSK, and so on. The more the bits overlap, the more significant intersymbol interference (ISI) from adjacent bits will be, and for 4-GMSK and up, the ISI seen at any particular point in time is stronger than the signal from the bit currently being decoded. By looking at greater parts of the signal using advanced decoder techniques (including Viterbi algorithm decoders), high density codings can be decoded efficiently. Currently the highest density coding being used is 5-GMSK.

Audio frequency-shift keying

Audio frequency-shift keying (AFSK) is a modulation technique by which digital data is represented as changes in the frequency (pitch) of an audio tone, yielding an encoded signal suitable for transmission via radio or telephone. Normally, the transmitted audio alternates between two tones: one, the “mark”, represents a binary one; the other, the “space”, represents a binary zero. AFSK differs from regular frequency-shift keying in that the modulation is performed at baseband frequencies. In radio applications, the AFSK-modulated signal is normally used to modulate an RF carrier (using a conventional technique, such as AM FM or ACSSB(R)(LM Mode(R)) for transmission. AFSK is not generally used for high-speed data communications, as it is less efficient than other modulation modes. In addition to its simplicity, however, AFSK has the advantage that encoded signals will pass through AC-coupled links, including most equipment originally designed to carry music or speech. Most early telephone-line modems used audio frequency-shift keying to send and receive data, up to rates of about 300 bits per second. The common Bell 103 modem used this technique, for example. Some early microcomputers used a specific form of AFSK modulation, the Kansas City standard, to store data on audio cassettes. AFSK is still widely used in amateur radio, as it allows data transmission through unmodified voiceband equipment. AFSK is also used in the United States’ Emergency Alert System to transmit warning information. It is used at higher bitrates for Weathercopy used on Weatheradio by NOAA in the U.S., and more extensively by Environment Canada. The CHU shortwave radio station in Ottawa, Canada broadcasts a Exclusive digital time signal encoded using AFSK modulation.

Amplitude-shift keying

Amplitude-shift keying (ASK) is a form of modulation which represents digital data as variations in the amplitude of a carrier wave. The amplitude of an analog carrier signal varies in accordance with the bit stream (modulating signal), keeping frequency and phase constant. The level of amplitude can be used to represent binary logic 0s and 1s. We can think of a carrier signal as an ON or OFF switch. In the modulated signal, logic 0 is represented by the absence of a carrier, thus giving OFF/ON keying operation and hence the name given. Like AM, ASK is also linear and sensitive to atmospheric noise, distortions, propagation conditions on different routes in PSTN, etc. It requires excessive bandwidth and is therefore a waste of power. Both ASK modulation and demodulation processes are relatively inexpensive. This type of modulation can be used to transmit digital data over fiber.

Quadrature amplitude modulation

Quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) is a modulation scheme which conveys data by changing (modulating) the amplitude of two carrier waves. These two waves, usually sinusoids, are out of phase with each other by 90° and are thus called quadrature carriers — hence the name of the scheme. As with all modulation schemes, QAM conveys data by changing some aspect of a carrier signal, or the carrier wave, (usually a sinusoid) in response to a data signal. In the case of QAM, the amplitude of two waves, 90 degress out-of-phase with each other (in quadrature) are changed (modulated or keyed) to represent the data signal. Phase modulation (analogue PM) and phase-shift keying (digital PSK) can be regarded as a special case of QAM, where the amplitude of the modulating signal is constant, with only the phase varying. This can also be extended to frequency modulation (FM) and frequency-shift keying (FSK), as these can be regarded as a special case of phase modulation. Although analogue QAM is possible, this article focuses on digital QAM. Analogue QAM is used in NTSC, PAL and SECAM television systems, where the I- and Q-signals carry the components of chroma (colour) information. “Compatible QAM” or C-QUAM is used in AM stereo radio to carry the stereo difference information.

Continuous phase modulation

Continuous phase modulation (CPM) is a method for modulation of data commonly used in wireless modems. In contrast to other coherent digital phase-modulation techniques where the carrier phase abruptly resets to zero at the start of every symbol (e.g. M-PSK), with CPM the carrier phase is modulated in a continuous manner. For instance, with QPSK the carrier instantaneously jumps from a sine to a cosine (i.e. a 90 degree phase shift) whenever one of the two message bits of the current symbol differs from the two message bits of the previous symbol. This discontinuity requires a relatively large percentage of the power to occur outside of the intended band (e.g., high fractional out-of-band power), leading to poor spectral efficiency. Furthermore, CPM is typically implemented as a constant-envelope waveform, i.e. the transmitted carrier power is constant. Therefore, CPM is attractive because the phase continuity yields high spectral efficiency, and the constant-envelope yields excellent power efficiency. The primary drawback is the high implementation complexity required for an optimal receiver.


A demodulator is an electronic circuit used to recover the information content from the carrier wave of a signal. The term is usually used in connection with radio receivers, but there are many kinds of demodulators used in many other systems. Another common one is in a modem, which is a contraction of the terms modulator/demodulator.