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Distortion is the alteration of the original shape (or other characteristic) of something. In communications and electronics it means the alteration of the waveform of an information-bearing signal, such as an audio signal representing sound or a video signal representing images, in an electronic device or communication channel.


Distortion is usually unwanted, and so engineers strive to eliminate or minimize it. In some situations, however, distortion may be desirable. For example, in noise reduction systems like the Dolby system, an audio signal is deliberately distorted in ways that emphasize aspects of the signal that are subject to electrical noise, then it is symmetrically "undistorted" after passing through a noisy communication channel, reducing the noise in the received signal. Distortion is also used as a musical effect, particularly with electric guitars.

The addition of noise or other outside signals (hum, interference) is not considered distortion, though the effects of quantization distortion are sometimes included in noise. Quality measures that reflect both noise and distortion include the signal-to-noise and distortion (SINAD) ratio and total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N).

Electronic signals

Graph of a waveform and some distorted versions of the same waveform Distorted waveforms square sine.svg
Graph of a waveform and some distorted versions of the same waveform

In telecommunication and signal processing, a noise-free system can be characterised by a transfer function, such that the output can be written as a function of the input as

When the transfer function comprises only a perfect gain constant A and perfect delay T

the output is undistorted. Distortion occurs when the transfer function F is more complicated than this. If F is a linear function, for instance a filter whose gain and/or delay varies with frequency, the signal suffers linear distortion. Linear distortion does not introduce new frequency components to a signal but does alter the balance of existing ones.

This diagram shows the behaviour of a signal (made up of a square wave followed by a sine wave) as it is passed through various distorting functions.

  1. The first trace (in black) shows the input. It also shows the output from a non-distorting transfer function (straight line).
  2. A high-pass filter (green trace) distorts the shape of a square wave by reducing its low frequency components. This is the cause of the "droop" seen on the top of the pulses. This "pulse distortion" can be very significant when a train of pulses must pass through an AC-coupled (high-pass filtered) amplifier. As the sine wave contains only one frequency, its shape is unaltered.
  3. A low-pass filter (blue trace) rounds the pulses by removing the high frequency components. All systems are low pass to some extent. Note that the phase of the sine wave is different for the lowpass and the highpass cases, due to the phase distortion of the filters.
  4. A slightly non-linear transfer function (purple), this one gently compresses the peaks of the sine wave, as may be typical of a tube audio amplifier. This generates small amounts of low order harmonics.
  5. A hard-clipping transfer function (red) generates high order harmonics. Parts of the transfer function are flat, which indicates that all information about the input signal has been lost in this region.

The transfer function of an ideal amplifier, with perfect gain and delay, is only an approximation. The true behavior of the system is usually different. Nonlinearities in the transfer function of an active device (such as vacuum tubes, transistors, and operational amplifiers) are a common source of non-linear distortion; in passive components (such as a coaxial cable or optical fiber), linear distortion can be caused by inhomogeneities, reflections, and so on in the propagation path.

Amplitude distortion

Amplitude distortion is distortion occurring in a system, subsystem, or device when the output amplitude is not a linear function of the input amplitude under specified conditions.

Harmonic distortion

Harmonic distortion adds overtones that are whole number multiples of a sound wave's frequencies. [1] Nonlinearities that give rise to amplitude distortion in audio systems are most often measured in terms of the harmonics (overtones) added to a pure sinewave fed to the system. Harmonic distortion may be expressed in terms of the relative strength of individual components, in decibels, or the root mean square of all harmonic components: Total harmonic distortion (THD), as a percentage. The level at which harmonic distortion becomes audible depends on the exact nature of the distortion. Different types of distortion (like crossover distortion) are more audible than others (like soft clipping) even if the THD measurements are identical. Harmonic distortion in radio frequency applications is rarely expressed as THD.

Frequency response distortion

Non-flat frequency response is a form of distortion that occurs when different frequencies are amplified by different amounts in a filter. For example, the non-uniform frequency response curve of AC-coupled cascade amplifier is an example of frequency distortion. In the audio case, this is mainly caused by room acoustics, poor loudspeakers and microphones, long loudspeaker cables in combination with frequency dependent loudspeaker impedance, etc.

Phase distortion

This form of distortion mostly occurs due to electrical reactance. Here, all the components of the input signal are not amplified with the same phase shift, hence making some parts of the output signal out of phase with the rest of the output.

Group delay distortion

Can be found only in dispersive media. In a waveguide, phase velocity varies with frequency. In a filter, group delay tends to peak near the cut-off frequency, resulting in pulse distortion. When analog long distance trunks were commonplace, for example in 12 channel carrier, group delay distortion had to be corrected in repeaters.

Correction of distortion

As the system output is given by y(t) = F(x(t)), then if the inverse function F−1 can be found, and used intentionally to distort either the input or the output of the system, then the distortion is corrected.

An example of a similar correction is where LP/vinyl recordings or FM audio transmissions are deliberately pre-emphasised by a linear filter, the reproducing system applies an inverse filter to make the overall system undistorted.

Correction is not possible if the inverse does not exist—for instance if the transfer function has flat spots (the inverse would map multiple input points to a single output point). This produces an uncorrectable loss of information. Such a situation can occur when an amplifier is overdriven—causing clipping or slew rate distortion when, for a moment, the amplifier characteristics alone and not the input signal determine the output.

Cancellation of even-order harmonic distortion

Many symmetrical electronic circuits reduce the magnitude of even harmonics generated by the non-linearities of the amplifier's components, by combining two signals from opposite halves of the circuit where distortion components that are roughly the same magnitude but out of phase. Examples include push-pull amplifiers and long-tailed pairs.

Teletypewriter or modem signaling

In binary signaling such as FSK, distortion is the shifting of the significant instants of the signal pulses from their proper positions relative to the beginning of the start pulse. The magnitude of the distortion is expressed in percent of an ideal unit pulse length. This is sometimes called bias distortion.

Telegraphic distortion is a similar and older problem, distorting the ratio between mark and space intervals. [2]

Distortion in art

In the art world, a distortion is any change made by an artist to the size, shape or visual character of a form in order to express an idea, convey a feeling, or enhance visual impact. Such distortions or "abstractions" primarily refer to purposeful deviations from photorealistic perspective or from realistic proportionality. Examples include "The Weeping Woman" by Picasso and "The Adoration of the Shepherds" by El Greco, whose human subject matters are irregularly and (as is often with physical distortions) asymmetrically proportioned in a way that is not possible in standard perspective.

Audio distortion

A graph of a waveform and the distorted version of the same waveform Distortion waveform.svg
A graph of a waveform and the distorted version of the same waveform

With respect to audio, distortion refers to any kind of deformation of an output waveform compared to its input, usually clipping, harmonic distortion, or intermodulation distortion (mixing phenomena) caused by non-linear behavior of electronic components and power supply limitations. [3] Terms for specific types of nonlinear audio distortion include: crossover distortion and slew-induced distortion (SID).

Other forms of audio distortion are non-flat frequency response, compression, modulation, aliasing, quantization noise, wow and flutter from analog media such as vinyl records and magnetic tape. The human ear cannot hear phase distortion, except that it may affect the stereo imaging.

In most fields, distortion is characterized as unwanted change to a signal. Distortion in music is often intentionally used as an effect when applied to an electric guitar signal in styles of rock music such as heavy metal and punk rock.


In optics, image/optical distortion is a divergence from rectilinear projection caused by a change in magnification with increasing distance from the optical axis of an optical system.

Map projections

In cartography, a distortion is the misrepresentation of the area or shape of a feature. The Mercator projection, for example, distorts by exaggerating the size of regions at high latitude.

See also

Related Research Articles

Amplifier electronic device/component that increases the strength of a signal

An amplifier, electronic amplifier or (informally) amp is an electronic device that can increase the power of a signal. It is a two-port electronic circuit that uses electric power from a power supply to increase the amplitude of a signal applied to its input terminals, producing a proportionally greater amplitude signal at its output. The amount of amplification provided by an amplifier is measured by its gain: the ratio of output voltage, current, or power to input. An amplifier is a circuit that has a power gain greater than one.

Amplitude distortion is distortion occurring in a system, subsystem, or device when the output amplitude is not a linear function of the input amplitude under specified conditions.

The total harmonic distortion is a measurement of the harmonic distortion present in a signal and is defined as the ratio of the sum of the powers of all harmonic components to the power of the fundamental frequency. Distortion factor, a closely related term, is sometimes used as a synonym.

Power inverter Device that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC)

A power inverter, or inverter, is a power electronic device or circuitry that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). The resulting AC frequency obtained depends on the particular device employed. Inverters do the opposite of “converters” which were originally large electromechanical devices converting AC to DC.

Frequency response is the quantitative measure of the output spectrum of a system or device in response to a stimulus, and is used to characterize the dynamics of the system. It is a measure of magnitude and phase of the output as a function of frequency, in comparison to the input. In simplest terms, if a sine wave is injected into a system at a given frequency, a linear system will respond at that same frequency with a certain magnitude and a certain phase angle relative to the input. Also for a linear system, doubling the amplitude of the input will double the amplitude of the output. In addition, if the system is time-invariant, then the frequency response also will not vary with time. Thus for LTI systems, the frequency response can be seen as applying the system's transfer function to a purely imaginary number argument representing the frequency of the sinusoidal excitation.

Audio system measurements

Audio system measurements are a means of quantifying system performance. These measurements are made for several purposes. Designers take measurements so that they can specify the performance of a piece of equipment. Maintenance engineers make them to ensure equipment is still working to specification, or to ensure that the cumulative defects of an audio path are within limits considered acceptable. Audio system measurements often accommodate psychoacoustic principles to measure the system in a way that relates to human hearing.

Intermodulation non-linear effect in amplitude modulation

Intermodulation (IM) or intermodulation distortion (IMD) is the amplitude modulation of signals containing two or more different frequencies, caused by nonlinearities or time variance in a system. The intermodulation between frequency components will form additional components at frequencies that are not just at harmonic frequencies of either, like harmonic distortion, but also at the sum and difference frequencies of the original frequencies and at sums and differences of multiples of those frequencies.

Voltage-controlled oscillator Electronic oscillator controlled by a voltage input

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. VCOs are used in synthesizers to generate a waveform whose pitch can be adjusted by a voltage determined by a musical keyboard or other input.

Linear electronic oscillator circuits, which generate a sinusoidal output signal, are composed of an amplifier and a frequency selective element, a filter. A linear oscillator circuit which uses an RC network, a combination of resistors and capacitors, for its frequency selective part is called an RC oscillator.

Function generator Electronic test equipment used to generate electrical waveforms--

A function generator is usually a piece of electronic test equipment or software used to generate different types of electrical waveforms over a wide range of frequencies. Some of the most common waveforms produced by the function generator are the sine wave, square wave, triangular wave and sawtooth shapes. These waveforms can be either repetitive or single-shot. Integrated circuits used to generate waveforms may also be described as function generator ICs.

In electronics, a frequency multiplier is an electronic circuit that generates an output signal and that output frequency is a harmonic (multiple) of its input frequency. Frequency multipliers consist of a nonlinear circuit that distorts the input signal and consequently generates harmonics of the input signal. A subsequent bandpass filter selects the desired harmonic frequency and removes the unwanted fundamental and other harmonics from the output.

Class-D amplifier Audio amplifier based on digital switching

A class-D amplifier or switching amplifier is an electronic amplifier in which the amplifying devices operate as electronic switches, and not as linear gain devices as in other amplifiers. They operate by rapidly switching back and forth between the supply rails, being fed by a modulator using pulse width, pulse density, or related techniques to encode the audio input into a pulse train. The audio escapes through a simple low-pass filter into the loudspeaker. The high-frequency pulses are blocked. Since the pairs of output transistors are never conducting at the same time, there is no other path for current flow apart from the low-pass filter/loudspeaker. For this reason, efficiency can exceed 90%.

Clipping (audio) Form of waveform distortion

Clipping is a form of waveform distortion that occurs when an amplifier is overdriven and attempts to deliver an output voltage or current beyond its maximum capability. Driving an amplifier into clipping may cause it to output power in excess of its power rating.

Gain compression

Gain compression is a reduction in "differential" or "slope" gain caused by nonlinearity of the transfer function of the amplifying device. This nonlinearity may be caused by heat due to power dissipation or by overdriving the active device beyond its linear region. It is a large-signal phenomenon of circuits.

A total harmonic distortion analyzer calculates the total harmonic content of a sinewave with some distortion, expressed as total harmonic distortion (THD). A typical application is to determine the THD of an amplifier by using a very-low-distortion sinewave input and examining the output. The figure measured will include noise, and any contribution from imperfect filtering out of the fundamental frequency. Harmonic-by-harmonic measurement, without wideband noise, can be measured by a more complex wave analyser.

Valve RF amplifier Device for electrically amplifying the power of an electrical radio frequency signal

A valve RF amplifier or tube amplifier (U.S.), is a device for electrically amplifying the power of an electrical radio frequency signal.

In an electric power system, a harmonic of a voltage or current waveform is a sinusoidal wave whose frequency is an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency. Harmonic frequencies are produced by the action of non-linear loads such as rectifiers, discharge lighting, or saturated electric machines. They are a frequent cause of power quality problems and can result in increased equipment and conductor heating, misfiring in variable speed drives, and torque pulsations in motors and generators.

Tube sound Characteristic quality of sounds from vacuum tube amplifiers

Tube sound is the characteristic sound associated with a vacuum tube amplifier, a vacuum tube-based audio amplifier. At first, the concept of tube sound did not exist, because practically all electronic amplification of audio signals was done with vacuum tubes and other comparable methods were not known or used. After introduction of solid state amplifiers, tube sound appeared as the logical complement of transistor sound, which had some negative connotations due to crossover distortion in early transistor amplifiers. The audible significance of tube amplification on audio signals is a subject of continuing debate among audio enthusiasts.

Audio analyzer

An Audio Analyzer is a test and measurement instrument used to objectively quantify the audio performance of electronic and electro-acoustical devices. Audio quality metrics cover a wide variety of parameters, including level, gain, noise, harmonic and intermodulation distortion, frequency response, relative phase of signals, interchannel crosstalk, and more. In addition, many manufacturers have requirements for behavior and connectivity of audio devices that require specific tests and confirmations.

In electronics, power amplifier classes are letter symbols applied to different power amplifier types. The class gives a broad indication of an amplifier's characteristics and performance. The classes are related to the time period that the active amplifier device is passing current, expressed as a fraction of the period of a signal waveform applied to the input. A class A amplifier is conducting through all the period of the signal; Class B only for one-half the input period, class C for much less than half the input period. A Class D amplifier operates its output device in a switching manner; the fraction of the time that the device is conducting is adjusted so a pulse width modulation output is obtained from the stage.


  1. Moscal, Tony (1994). Sound Check: The Basics of Sound and Sound Systems. Hal Leonard. p. 55. ISBN   9780793535590.
  2. "Telegraphic Type Services Standard Interface Specifications" (PDF). The Mindway. July 1970.
  3. Audio Electronics by John Linsley Hood; page 162

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates  public domain material from the General Services Administration document: "Federal Standard 1037C".(in support of MIL-STD-188)