Detector (radio)

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In radio, a detector is a device or circuit that extracts information from a modulated radio frequency current or voltage. The term dates from the first three decades of radio (1888-1918). Unlike modern radio stations which transmit sound (an audio signal) on an uninterrupted carrier wave, early radio stations transmitted information by radiotelegraphy . The transmitter was switched on and off to produce long or short periods of radio waves, spelling out text messages in Morse code. Therefore, early radio receivers had only to distinguish between the presence or absence of a radio signal. The device that performed this function in the receiver circuit was called a detector. [1] A variety of different detector devices, such as the coherer, electrolytic detector, magnetic detector and the crystal detector, were used during the wireless telegraphy era until superseded by vacuum tube technology.

Radio Technology of using radio waves to carry information

Radio is the technology of signaling or communicating using radio waves. Radio waves are electromagnetic waves of frequency between 30 hertz (Hz) and 300 gigahertz (GHz). They are generated by an electronic device called a transmitter connected to an antenna which radiates the waves, and received by a radio receiver connected to another antenna. Radio is very widely used in modern technology, in radio communication, radar, radio navigation, remote control, remote sensing and other applications. In radio communication, used in radio and television broadcasting, cell phones, two-way radios, wireless networking and satellite communication among numerous other uses, radio waves are used to carry information across space from a transmitter to a receiver, by modulating the radio signal in the transmitter. In radar, used to locate and track objects like aircraft, ships, spacecraft and missiles, a beam of radio waves emitted by a radar transmitter reflects off the target object, and the reflected waves reveal the object's location. In radio navigation systems such as GPS and VOR, a mobile receiver receives radio signals from navigational radio beacons whose position is known, and by precisely measuring the arrival time of the radio waves the receiver can calculate its position on Earth. In wireless radio remote control devices like drones, garage door openers, and keyless entry systems, radio signals transmitted from a controller device control the actions of a remote device.

Information that which informs; the answer to a question of some kind; that from which data and knowledge can be derived

Information is the resolution of uncertainty; it is that which answers the question of "what an entity is" and thus defines both its essence and nature of its characteristics. Information relates to both data and knowledge, as data represents values attributed to parameters, and knowledge signifies understanding of a concept.

Radio frequency (RF) is the oscillation rate of an alternating electric current or voltage or of a magnetic, electric or electromagnetic field or mechanical system in the frequency range from around twenty thousand times per second to around three hundred billion times per second. This is roughly between the upper limit of audio frequencies and the lower limit of infrared frequencies; these are the frequencies at which energy from an oscillating current can radiate off a conductor into space as radio waves. Different sources specify different upper and lower bounds for the frequency range.


After sound (amplitude modulation, AM) transmission began around 1920, the term evolved to mean a demodulator, (usually a vacuum tube) which extracted the audio signal from the radio frequency carrier wave. This is its current meaning, although modern detectors usually consist of semiconductor diodes, transistors, or integrated circuits.

Amplitude modulation in amplitude modulation, the amplitude (signal strength) of the carrier wave is varied in proportion to the waveform being transmitted

Amplitude modulation (AM) is a modulation technique used in electronic communication, most commonly for transmitting information via a radio carrier wave. In amplitude modulation, the amplitude of the carrier wave is varied in proportion to that of the message signal being transmitted. The message signal is, for example, a function of the sound to be reproduced by a loudspeaker, or the light intensity of pixels of a television screen. This technique contrasts with frequency modulation, in which the frequency of the carrier signal is varied, and phase modulation, in which its phase is varied.

Vacuum tube Device that controls electric current between electrodes in an evacuated container

In electronics, a vacuum tube, an electron tube, or valve or, colloquially, a tube, is a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied.

An audio signal is a representation of sound, typically using a level of electrical voltage for analog signals, and a series of binary numbers for digital signals. Audio signals have frequencies in the audio frequency range of roughly 20 to 20,000 Hz, which corresponds to the lower and upper limits of human hearing. Audio signals may be synthesized directly, or may originate at a transducer such as a microphone, musical instrument pickup, phonograph cartridge, or tape head. Loudspeakers or headphones convert an electrical audio signal back into sound.

In a superheterodyne receiver the term is also sometimes used to refer to the mixer, the tube or transistor which converts the incoming radio frequency signal to the intermediate frequency. The mixer is called the first detector, while the demodulator that extracts the audio signal from the intermediate frequency is called the second detector.

Superheterodyne receiver common type of radio receiver that shifts the received signal to an easily-processed intermediate frequency

A superheterodyne receiver, often shortened to superhet, is a type of radio receiver that uses frequency mixing to convert a received signal to a fixed intermediate frequency (IF) which can be more conveniently processed than the original carrier frequency. It was invented by US engineer Edwin Armstrong in 1918 during World War I. Virtually all modern radio receivers use the superheterodyne principle.

Frequency mixer nonlinear electrical circuit that creates new frequencies from two signals applied to it

In electronics, a mixer, or frequency mixer, is a nonlinear electrical circuit that creates new frequencies from two signals applied to it. In its most common application, two signals are applied to a mixer, and it produces new signals at the sum and difference of the original frequencies. Other frequency components may also be produced in a practical frequency mixer.

Intermediate frequency frequency to which a carrier wave is shifted as an intermediate step in transmission or reception

In communications and electronic engineering, an intermediate frequency (IF) is a frequency to which a carrier wave is shifted as an intermediate step in transmission or reception. The intermediate frequency is created by mixing the carrier signal with a local oscillator signal in a process called heterodyning, resulting in a signal at the difference or beat frequency. Intermediate frequencies are used in superheterodyne radio receivers, in which an incoming signal is shifted to an IF for amplification before final detection is done.

In microwave and millimeter wave technology the terms detector and crystal detector refer to waveguide or coaxial transmission line components, used for power or SWR measurement, that typically incorporate point contact diodes or surface barrier Schottky diodes.

A coherer detector, useful only for Morse code signals. Tapping coherer.jpg
A coherer detector, useful only for Morse code signals.

Amplitude modulation detectors

Envelope detector

A simple envelope detector Simple envelope detector.svg
A simple envelope detector
A simple crystal radio with no tuned circuit can be used to listen to strong AM broadcast signals Simplest crystal radio circuit.svg
A simple crystal radio with no tuned circuit can be used to listen to strong AM broadcast signals

One major technique is known as envelope detection. The simplest form of envelope detector is the diode detector that consists of a diode connected between the input and output of the circuit, with a resistor and capacitor in parallel from the output of the circuit to the ground to form a low pass filter. If the resistor and capacitor are correctly chosen, the output of this circuit will be a nearly identical voltage-shifted version of the original signal.

Envelope detector

An envelope detector is an electronic circuit that takes a (relatively) high-frequency amplitude modulated signal as input and provides an output which is the envelope of the original signal.

Diode abstract electronic component with two terminals that allows current to flow in one direction

A diode is a two-terminal electronic component that conducts current primarily in one direction ; it has low resistance in one direction, and high resistance in the other. A diode vacuum tube or thermionic diode is a vacuum tube with two electrodes, a heated cathode and a plate, in which electrons can flow in only one direction, from cathode to plate. A semiconductor diode, the most commonly used type today, is a crystalline piece of semiconductor material with a p–n junction connected to two electrical terminals. Semiconductor diodes were the first semiconductor electronic devices. The discovery of asymmetric electrical conduction across the contact between a crystalline mineral and a metal was made by German physicist Ferdinand Braun in 1874. Today, most diodes are made of silicon, but other materials such as gallium arsenide and germanium are used.

Resistor Passive electrical component providing electrical resistance

A resistor is a passive two-terminal electrical component that implements electrical resistance as a circuit element. In electronic circuits, resistors are used to reduce current flow, adjust signal levels, to divide voltages, bias active elements, and terminate transmission lines, among other uses. High-power resistors that can dissipate many watts of electrical power as heat, may be used as part of motor controls, in power distribution systems, or as test loads for generators. Fixed resistors have resistances that only change slightly with temperature, time or operating voltage. Variable resistors can be used to adjust circuit elements, or as sensing devices for heat, light, humidity, force, or chemical activity.

An early form of envelope detector was the crystal detector, which was used in the crystal set radio receiver. A later version using a crystal diode is still used in crystal radio sets today. The limited frequency response of the headset eliminates the RF component, making the low pass filter unnecessary.

More sophisticated envelope detectors include the grid-leak detector, the plate detector, the infinite-impedance detector, transistor equivalents of them and precision rectifiers using operational amplifiers.

Grid-leak detector

A grid leak detector is an electronic circuit that demodulates an amplitude modulated alternating current and amplifies the recovered modulating voltage. The circuit utilizes the non-linear cathode to control grid conduction characteristic and the amplification factor of a vacuum tube. Invented by Lee De Forest around 1912, it was used as the detector (demodulator) in the first vacuum tube radio receivers until the 1930s.

Plate detector (radio)

In electronics, a plate detector is a vacuum tube circuit in which an amplifying tube having a control grid is operated in a non-linear region of its grid voltage versus plate current transfer characteristic near plate current cutoff in order to demodulate an amplitude modulated carrier signal. This differs from the grid leak detector, which utilizes non-linearity of the grid voltage versus grid current characteristic for demodulation. It also differs from the diode detector, which is a two terminal device.

The precision rectifier, also known as a super diode, is a configuration obtained with an operational amplifier in order to have a circuit behave like an ideal diode and rectifier. It is very useful for high-precision signal processing. With the help of precision rectifier the high-precision signal processing can be done very easily

Product detector

A product detector is a type of demodulator used for AM and SSB signals, where the original carrier signal is removed by multiplying the received signal with a signal at the carrier frequency (or near to it). Rather than converting the envelope of the signal into the decoded waveform by rectification as an envelope detector would, the product detector takes the product of the modulated signal and a local oscillator, hence the name. By heterodyning, the received signal is mixed (in some type of nonlinear device) with a signal from the local oscillator, to give sum and difference frequencies to the signals being mixed, just as a first mixer stage in a superhet would produce an intermediate frequency; the beat frequency in this case, the low frequency modulating signal is recovered and the unwanted high frequencies filtered out from the output of the product detector.

Product detector circuits are and so essentially ring modulators or synchronous detectors and closely related to some phase-sensitive detector circuits. They can be implemented using something as simple as ring of diodes or a single dual-gate Field Effect Transistor to anything as sophisticated as an Integrated Circuit containing a Gilbert cell.

Frequency and phase modulation detectors

AM detectors cannot demodulate FM and PM signals because both have a constant amplitude. However an AM radio may detect the sound of an FM broadcast by the phenomenon of slope detection which occurs when the radio is tuned slightly above or below the nominal broadcast frequency. Frequency variation on one sloping side of the radio tuning curve gives the amplified signal a corresponding local amplitude variation, to which the AM detector is sensitive. Slope detection gives inferior distortion and noise rejection compared to the following dedicated FM detectors that are normally used.

Phase detector

A phase detector is a nonlinear device whose output represents the phase difference between the two oscillating input signals. It has two inputs and one output: a reference signal is applied to one input and the phase or frequency modulated signal is applied to the other. The output is a signal that is proportional to the phase difference between the two inputs.

In phase demodulation the information is contained in the amount and rate of phase shift in the carrier wave.

The Foster-Seeley discriminator

The Foster-Seeley discriminator [2] [3] is a widely used FM detector. The detector consists of a special center-tapped transformer feeding two diodes in a full wave DC rectifier circuit. When the input transformer is tuned to the signal frequency, the output of the discriminator is zero. When there is no deviation of the carrier, both halves of the center tapped transformer are balanced. As the FM signal swings in frequency above and below the carrier frequency, the balance between the two halves of the center-tapped secondary is destroyed and there is an output voltage proportional to the frequency deviation.

Ratio detector

A ratio detector using solid-state diodes Ratio detector.png
A ratio detector using solid-state diodes

The ratio detector [4] [5] [6] [7] is a variant of the Foster-Seeley discriminator, but one diode conducts in an opposite direction, and using a tertiary winding in the preceding transformer. The output in this case is taken between the sum of the diode voltages and the center tap. The output across the diodes is connected to a large value capacitor, which eliminates AM noise in the ratio detector output. The ratio detector has the advantage over the Foster-Seeley discriminator that it will not respond to AM signals, thus potentially saving a limiter stage; however the output is only 50% of the output of a discriminator for the same input signal. The ratio detector has wider bandwidth but more distortion than the Foster-Seeley discriminator.

Quadrature detector

In quadrature detectors, the received FM signal is split into two signals. One of the two signals is then passed through a high-reactance capacitor, which shifts the phase of that signal by 90 degrees. This phase-shifted signal is then applied to an LC circuit, which is resonant at the FM signal's unmodulated, "center," or "carrier" frequency. If the received FM signal's frequency equals the center frequency, then the two signals will have a 90-degree phase difference and they are said to be in "phase quadrature" — hence the name of this method. The two signals are then multiplied together in an analog or digital device, which serves as a phase detector; that is, a device whose output is proportional to the phase difference between two signals. In the case of an unmodulated FM signal, the phase detector's output is — after the output has been filtered; that is, averaged over time — constant; namely, zero. However, if the received FM signal has been modulated, then its frequency will vary from the center frequency. In this case, the resonant LC circuit will further shift the phase of the signal from the capacitor, so that the signal's total phase shift will be the sum of the 90 degrees imposed by the capacitor, and the positive or negative phase change imposed by the LC circuit. Now the output from the phase detector will differ from zero, and in this way, one recovers the original signal that was used to modulate the FM carrier.

This detection process can also be accomplished by combining, in an exclusive-OR (XOR) logic gate, the original FM signal and a square wave whose frequency equals the FM signal's center frequency. The XOR gate produces an output pulse whose duration equals the difference between the times at which the square wave and the received FM signal pass through zero volts. As the FM signal's frequency varies from its unmodulated center frequency (which is also the frequency of the square wave), the output pulses from the XOR gate become longer or shorter. (In essence, this quadrature detector converts an FM signal into a pulse-width modulated (PWM) signal.) When these pulses are filtered, the filter's output rises as the pulses grow longer and its output falls as the pulses grow shorter. In this way, one recovers the original signal that was used to modulate the FM carrier.

Other FM detectors

Less common, specialized, or obsolescent types of detectors include: [8]

Phase-locked loop detector

The phase-locked loop detector requires no frequency-selective LC network to accomplish demodulation. In this system, a voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) is phase locked by a feedback loop, which forces the VCO to follow the frequency variations of the incoming FM signal. The low-frequency error voltage that forces the VCO's frequency to track the frequency of the modulated FM signal is the demodulated audio output.

See also

Related Research Articles

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An electronic oscillator is an electronic circuit that produces a periodic, oscillating electronic signal, often a sine wave or a square wave. Oscillators convert direct current (DC) from a power supply to an alternating current (AC) signal. They are widely used in many electronic devices ranging from simplest clock generators to digital instruments and complex computers and peripherals etc. Common examples of signals generated by oscillators include signals broadcast by radio and television transmitters, clock signals that regulate computers and quartz clocks, and the sounds produced by electronic beepers and video games.

Amplifier electronic device that can increase the power of a signal

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Demodulation is extracting the original information-bearing signal from a carrier wave. A demodulator is an electronic circuit that is used to recover the information content from the modulated carrier wave. There are many types of modulation so there are many types of demodulators. The signal output from a demodulator may represent sound, images or binary data.

Ring modulation

In electronics, ring modulation is a signal-processing function, an implementation of frequency mixing, performed by multiplying two signals, where one is typically a sine wave or another simple waveform and the other is the signal to be modulated. A ring modulator is an electronic device for ring modulation. A ring modulator may be used in music synthesizers and as an effects unit.

Phase detector Circuit that generates a voltage signal which represents the difference in phase between two signal inputs

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A variable frequency oscillator (VFO) in electronics is an oscillator whose frequency can be tuned over some range. It is a necessary component in any tunable radio receiver or transmitter that works by the superheterodyne principle, and controls the frequency to which the apparatus is tuned.

The Foster–Seeley discriminator is a common type of FM detector circuit, invented in 1936 by Dudley E. Foster and Stuart William Seeley. The circuit was envisioned for automatic frequency control of receivers, but also found application in demodulating an FM signal. It uses a tuned RF transformer to convert frequency changes into amplitude changes. A transformer, tuned to the carrier frequency, is connected to two rectifier diodes. The circuit resembles a full-wave bridge rectifier. If the input equals the carrier frequency, the two halves of the tuned transformer circuit produce the same rectified voltage and the output is zero. As the frequency of the input changes, the balance between the two halves of the transformer secondary changes, and the result is a voltage proportional to the frequency deviation of the carrier.

Voltage-controlled oscillator

A voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) is an electronic oscillator whose oscillation frequency is controlled by a voltage input. The applied input voltage determines the instantaneous oscillation frequency. Consequently, a VCO can be used for frequency modulation (FM) or phase modulation (PM) by applying a modulating signal to the control input. A VCO is also an integral part of a phase-locked loop.

Tuner (radio) frequency selection subsystem for a radio receiver

A tuner is a subsystem that receives radio frequency (RF) transmissions like radio broadcasts and converts the selected carrier frequency and its associated bandwidth into a fixed frequency that is suitable for further processing, usually because a lower frequency is used on the output. Broadcast FM/AM transmissions usually feed this intermediate frequency (IF) directly into a demodulator that convert the radio signal into audio-frequency signals that can be fed into an amplifier to drive a loudspeaker.

A television transmitter is a transmitter that is used for terrestrial (over-the-air) television broadcasting. It is an electronic device that radiates radio waves that carry a video signal representing moving images, along with a synchronized audio channel, which is received by television receivers belonging to a public audience, which display the image on a screen. A television transmitter, together with the broadcast studio which originates the content, is called a television station. Television transmitters must be licensed by governments, and are restricted to a certain frequency channel and power level. They transmit on frequency channels in the VHF and UHF bands.

A radio transmitter is an electronic device which, when connected to an antenna, produces an electromagnetic signal such as in radio and television broadcasting, two way communications or radar. Heating devices, such as a microwave oven, although of similar design, are not usually called transmitters, in that they use the electromagnetic energy locally rather than transmitting it to another location.

Radio receiver design includes the electronic design of different components of a radio receiver which processes the radio frequency signal from an antenna in order to produce usable information such as audio. The complexity of a modern receiver and the possible range of circuitry and methods employed are more generally covered in electronics and communications engineering. The term radio receiver is understood in this article to mean any device which is intended to receive a radio signal in order to generate useful information from the signal, most notably a recreation of the so-called baseband signal which modulated the radio signal at the time of transmission in a communications or broadcast system.

A frequency synthesizer is an electronic circuit that generates a range of frequencies from a single reference frequency. Frequency synthesizers are used in many modern devices such as radio receivers, televisions, mobile telephones, radiotelephones, walkie-talkies, CB radios, cable television converter boxes satellite receivers, and GPS systems. A frequency synthesizer may use the techniques of frequency multiplication, frequency division, direct digital synthesis, frequency mixing, and phase-locked loops to generate its frequencies. The stability and accuracy of the frequency synthesizer's output are related to the stability and accuracy of its reference frequency input. Consequently, synthesizers use stable and accurate reference frequencies, such as those provided by crystal oscillators.

Ratio detector

The ratio detector is a type of detector circuit, commonly used in radio receivers for demodulating frequency modulated (FM) signal.


  1. J. A. Fleming, The Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy and Telephony, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1919, p. 364
  2. US 2121103, Seeley, Stuart W.,"Frequency Variation Response Circuits",issued June 21, 1938
  3. Foster, D. E.; Seeley, S. W. (March 1937), "Automatic tuning, simplified circuits, and design practice", Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, 25 (3): 289–313, doi:10.1109/jrproc.1937.228940 , part 1.
  4. US 2497840, Seeley, Stuart William,"Angle Modulation Detector",issued February 14, 1950
  5. US 2561089,Anderson, Earl I.,issued July 17, 1951
  6. Report L.B.-645: "Ratio detectors for FM receivers" (15 September 1945) issued by the Radio Corporation of America, RCA Laboratories Industry Service Division, 711 Fifth Avenue, N.Y., N.Y. Reprinted in Radio, pages 18-20 (October 1945).
  7. Seeley, Stuart W.; Avins, Jack (June 1947), "The ratio detector", RCA Review, 8 (2): 201–236
  8. D. S. Evans and G. R. Jessup, VHF-UHF Manual (3rd Edition), Radio Society of Great Britain, London, 1976 pages 4-48 through 4-51
  9. Charles Travis, "Automatic oscillator frequency control system" U.S. patent: 2,294,100 (filed: 4 February 1935; issued: August 1942). See also: Charles Travis, "Automatic frequency control," Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, vol. 23, no. 10, pages 1125-1141 (October 1935).

Simple block diagrams and descriptions of key circuits for FM transmitters and receivers: