Am/FM Modulation

Amplitude modulation (AM) is a technique used in electronic communication, most commonly for transmitting information via a radio carrier wave. AM 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 the sounds to be reproduced by a speaker, or to specify the light intensity of television pixels. (Contrast this with frequency modulation, also commonly used for sound transmissions, in which the frequency is varied; and phase modulation, often used in remote controls, in which the phase is varied)

In the mid-1870s, a form of amplitude modulation—initially called "undulation currents"—was the first method to successfully produce quality audio over telephone lines. Beginning with Reginald Fessenden's audio demonstrations in 1906, it was also the original method used for audio radio transmissions, and remains in use today by many forms of communication—"AM" is often used to refer to the medium-wave broadcast band (see AM radio).

Amplitude modulation forms[]

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 closely 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. This process is known as heterodyning. Each sideband is equal in bandwidth to that of the modulating signal and is a mirror image of the other. Amplitude modulation that results in two sidebands and a carrier is often called double sideband amplitude modulation (DSB-AM). Amplitude modulation is inefficient in terms of power usage and much of it is wasted. At least two-thirds of the power is concentrated in the carrier signal, which carries no useful information (beyond the fact that a signal is present); the remaining power is split between two identical sidebands, though only one of these is needed since they contain identical information.

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. A suppressed-carrier amplitude modulation scheme is three times more power-efficient than traditional DSB-AM. 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.


A wide range of different circuits have been used for AM, but one of the simplest circuits uses anode or collector modulation applied via a transformer. While it is perfectly possible to create good designs using solid-state electronics, valved (vacuum tube) circuits are shown here. In general, valves are able to more easily yield RF powers, in excess of what can be easily achieved using solid-state transistors. Most high-power broadcast stations still use valves. Anode modulation using a transformer. The tetrode is supplied with an anode supply (and screen grid supply) which is modulated via the transformer. The resistor R1 sets the grid bias; both the input and outputs are tuned LC circuits which are tapped into by inductive coupling

Modulation circuit designs can be broadly divided into low and high level.

Low level[]

Here a small audio stage is used to modulate low power; the output is then amplified using a linear RF amplifier.


The advantage of using a linear RF amplifier is that the smaller early stages can be modulated, which only requires a small audio amplifier to drive the modulator.


The great disadvantage of this system is that the amplifier chain is less efficient, because it has to be linear to preserve the modulation. Hence Class C amplifiers cannot be employed.

An approach which marries the advantages of low-level modulation with the efficiency of a Class C power amplifier chain is to arrange a feedback system to compensate for the substantial distortion of the AM envelope. A simple detector at the transmitter output (which can be little more than a loosely coupled diode) recovers the audio signal, and this is used as negative feedback to the audio modulator stage. The overall chain then acts as a linear amplifier as far as the actual modulation is concerned, though the RF amplifier itself still retains the Class C efficiency. This approach is widely used in practical medium power transmitters, such as AM radiotelephones.

High level[]

the modulation high-level takes place at the final amplifier stage where the carrier signal is at its maximum


One advantage of using class C amplifiers in a broadcast AM transmitter is that only the final stage needs to be modulated, and that all the earlier stages can be driven at a constant level. These class C stages will be able to generate the drive for the final stage for a smaller DC power input. However, in many designs in order to obtain better quality AM the penultimate RF stages will need to be subject to modulation as well as the final stage.


A large audio amplifier will be needed for the modulation stage, at least equal to the power of the transmitter output itself. Traditionally the modulation is applied using an audio transformer, and this can be bulky. Direct coupling from the audio amplifier is also possible (known as a cascode arrangement), though this usually requires quite a high DC supply voltage (say 30 V or more), which is not suitable for mobile units.