Low-pass filter

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A low-pass filter is a filter that passes signals with a frequency lower than a selected cutoff frequency and attenuates signals with frequencies higher than the cutoff frequency. The exact frequency response of the filter depends on the filter design. The filter is sometimes called a high-cut filter, or treble-cut filter in audio applications. A low-pass filter is the complement of a high-pass filter.


In optics, high-pass and low-pass may have different meanings, depending on whether referring to frequency or wavelength of light, since these variables are inversely related. High-pass frequency filters would act as low-pass wavelength filters, and vice versa. For this reason it is a good practice to refer to wavelength filters as short-pass and long-pass to avoid confusion, which would correspond to high-pass and low-pass frequencies. [1]

Low-pass filters exist in many different forms, including electronic circuits such as a hiss filter used in audio, anti-aliasing filters for conditioning signals prior to analog-to-digital conversion, digital filters for smoothing sets of data, acoustic barriers, blurring of images, and so on. The moving average operation used in fields such as finance is a particular kind of low-pass filter, and can be analyzed with the same signal processing techniques as are used for other low-pass filters. Low-pass filters provide a smoother form of a signal, removing the short-term fluctuations and leaving the longer-term trend.

Filter designers will often use the low-pass form as a prototype filter. That is, a filter with unity bandwidth and impedance. The desired filter is obtained from the prototype by scaling for the desired bandwidth and impedance and transforming into the desired bandform (that is low-pass, high-pass, band-pass or band-stop).


Examples of low-pass filters occur in acoustics, optics and electronics.

A stiff physical barrier tends to reflect higher sound frequencies, and so acts as an acoustic low-pass filter for transmitting sound. When music is playing in another room, the low notes are easily heard, while the high notes are attenuated.

An optical filter with the same function can correctly be called a low-pass filter, but conventionally is called a longpass filter (low frequency is long wavelength), to avoid confusion. [2]

In an electronic low-pass RC filter for voltage signals, high frequencies in the input signal are attenuated, but the filter has little attenuation below the cutoff frequency determined by its RC time constant. For current signals, a similar circuit, using a resistor and capacitor in parallel, works in a similar manner. (See current divider discussed in more detail below.)

Electronic low-pass filters are used on inputs to subwoofers and other types of loudspeakers, to block high pitches that they can't efficiently reproduce. Radio transmitters use low-pass filters to block harmonic emissions that might interfere with other communications. The tone knob on many electric guitars is a low-pass filter used to reduce the amount of treble in the sound. An integrator is another time constant low-pass filter. [3]

Telephone lines fitted with DSL splitters use low-pass and high-pass filters to separate DSL and POTS signals sharing the same pair of wires. [4] [5]

Low-pass filters also play a significant role in the sculpting of sound created by analogue and virtual analogue synthesisers. See subtractive synthesis.

A low-pass filter is used as an anti-aliasing filter prior to sampling and for reconstruction in digital-to-analog conversion.

Ideal and real filters

The sinc function, the time-domain impulse response of an ideal low-pass filter. Sinc function (normalized).svg
The sinc function, the time-domain impulse response of an ideal low-pass filter.
The gain-magnitude frequency response of a first-order (one-pole) low-pass filter. Power gain is shown in decibels (i.e., a 3 dB decline reflects an additional half-power attenuation). Angular frequency is shown on a logarithmic scale in units of radians per second. Butterworth response.svg
The gain-magnitude frequency response of a first-order (one-pole) low-pass filter. Power gain is shown in decibels (i.e., a 3 dB decline reflects an additional half-power attenuation). Angular frequency is shown on a logarithmic scale in units of radians per second.

An ideal low-pass filter completely eliminates all frequencies above the cutoff frequency while passing those below unchanged; its frequency response is a rectangular function and is a brick-wall filter. The transition region present in practical filters does not exist in an ideal filter. An ideal low-pass filter can be realized mathematically (theoretically) by multiplying a signal by the rectangular function in the frequency domain or, equivalently, convolution with its impulse response, a sinc function, in the time domain.

However, the ideal filter is impossible to realize without also having signals of infinite extent in time, and so generally needs to be approximated for real ongoing signals, because the sinc function's support region extends to all past and future times. The filter would therefore need to have infinite delay, or knowledge of the infinite future and past, in order to perform the convolution. It is effectively realizable for pre-recorded digital signals by assuming extensions of zero into the past and future, or more typically by making the signal repetitive and using Fourier analysis.

Real filters for real-time applications approximate the ideal filter by truncating and windowing the infinite impulse response to make a finite impulse response; applying that filter requires delaying the signal for a moderate period of time, allowing the computation to "see" a little bit into the future. This delay is manifested as phase shift. Greater accuracy in approximation requires a longer delay.

An ideal low-pass filter results in ringing artifacts via the Gibbs phenomenon. These can be reduced or worsened by choice of windowing function, and the design and choice of real filters involves understanding and minimizing these artifacts. For example, "simple truncation [of sinc] causes severe ringing artifacts," in signal reconstruction, and to reduce these artifacts one uses window functions "which drop off more smoothly at the edges." [6]

The Whittaker–Shannon interpolation formula describes how to use a perfect low-pass filter to reconstruct a continuous signal from a sampled digital signal. Real digital-to-analog converters use real filter approximations.

Time response

The time response of a low-pass filter is found by solving the response to the simple low-pass RC filter.

A simple low-pass RC filter 1st Order Lowpass Filter RC.svg
A simple low-pass RC filter

Using Kirchhoff's Laws we arrive at the differential equation [7]

Step input response example

If we let be a step function of magnitude then the differential equation has the solution [8]

where is the cutoff frequency of the filter.

Frequency response

The most common way to characterize the frequency response of a circuit is to find its Laplace transform [7] transfer function, . Taking the Laplace transform of our differential equation and solving for we get

Difference equation through discrete time sampling

A discrete difference equation is easily obtained by sampling the step input response above at regular intervals of where and is the time between samples. Taking the difference between two consecutive samples we have

Solving for we get


Using the notation and , and substituting our sampled value, , we get the difference equation

Error analysis

Comparing the reconstructed output signal from the difference equation, , to the step input response, , we find that there is an exact reconstruction (0% error). This is the reconstructed output for a time invariant input. However, if the input is time variant, such as , this model approximates the input signal as a series of step functions with duration producing an error in the reconstructed output signal. The error produced from time variant inputs is difficult to quantify[ citation needed ] but decreases as .

Discrete-time realization

Many digital filters are designed to give low-pass characteristics. Both infinite impulse response and finite impulse response low pass filters as well as filters using Fourier transforms are widely used.

Simple infinite impulse response filter

The effect of an infinite impulse response low-pass filter can be simulated on a computer by analyzing an RC filter's behavior in the time domain, and then discretizing the model.

A simple low-pass RC filter 1st Order Lowpass Filter RC.svg
A simple low-pass RC filter

From the circuit diagram to the right, according to Kirchhoff's Laws and the definition of capacitance:
















where is the charge stored in the capacitor at time t. Substituting equation Q into equation I gives , which can be substituted into equation V so that

This equation can be discretized. For simplicity, assume that samples of the input and output are taken at evenly spaced points in time separated by time. Let the samples of be represented by the sequence , and let be represented by the sequence , which correspond to the same points in time. Making these substitutions,

Rearranging terms gives the recurrence relation

That is, this discrete-time implementation of a simple RC low-pass filter is the exponentially weighted moving average

By definition, the smoothing factor. The expression for α yields the equivalent time constant RC in terms of the sampling period and smoothing factor α,

Recalling that


note α and are related by,


If α=0.5, then the RC time constant is equal to the sampling period. If , then RC is significantly larger than the sampling interval, and .

The filter recurrence relation provides a way to determine the output samples in terms of the input samples and the preceding output. The following pseudocode algorithm simulates the effect of a low-pass filter on a series of digital samples:

// Return RC low-pass filter output samples, given input samples, // time interval dt, and time constant RCfunction lowpass(real[0..n] x, real dt, real RC)     varreal[0..n] y     varreal α := dt / (RC + dt)     y[0] := α * x[0]     for i from 1 to n         y[i] := α * x[i] + (1-α) * y[i-1]     return y

The loop that calculates each of the n outputs can be refactored into the equivalent:

for i from 1 to n         y[i] := y[i-1] + α * (x[i] - y[i-1])

That is, the change from one filter output to the next is proportional to the difference between the previous output and the next input. This exponential smoothing property matches the exponential decay seen in the continuous-time system. As expected, as the time constant RC increases, the discrete-time smoothing parameter decreases, and the output samples respond more slowly to a change in the input samples ; the system has more inertia . This filter is an infinite-impulse-response (IIR) single-pole low-pass filter.

Finite impulse response

Finite-impulse-response filters can be built that approximate to the sinc function time-domain response of an ideal sharp-cutoff low-pass filter. For minimum distortion the finite impulse response filter has an unbounded number of coefficients operating on an unbounded signal. In practice, the time-domain response must be time truncated and is often of a simplified shape; in the simplest case, a running average can be used, giving a square time response. [9]

Fourier transform

For non-realtime filtering, to achieve a low pass filter, the entire signal is usually taken as a looped signal, the Fourier transform is taken, filtered in the frequency domain, followed by an inverse Fourier transform. Only O(n log(n)) operations are required compared to O(n2) for the time domain filtering algorithm.

This can also sometimes be done in real-time, where the signal is delayed long enough to perform the Fourier transformation on shorter, overlapping blocks.

Continuous-time realization

Plot of the gain of Butterworth low-pass filters of orders 1 through 5, with cutoff frequency
{\displaystyle \omega _{0}=1}
. Note that the slope is 20n dB/decade where n is the filter order. Butterworth Filter Orders.svg
Plot of the gain of Butterworth low-pass filters of orders 1 through 5, with cutoff frequency . Note that the slope is 20n dB/decade where n is the filter order.

There are many different types of filter circuits, with different responses to changing frequency. The frequency response of a filter is generally represented using a Bode plot, and the filter is characterized by its cutoff frequency and rate of frequency rolloff. In all cases, at the cutoff frequency, the filter attenuates the input power by half or 3 dB. So the order of the filter determines the amount of additional attenuation for frequencies higher than the cutoff frequency.

(i.e., 20n dB per decade).

On any Butterworth filter, if one extends the horizontal line to the right and the diagonal line to the upper-left (the asymptotes of the function), they intersect at exactly the cutoff frequency. The frequency response at the cutoff frequency in a first-order filter is 3 dB below the horizontal line. The various types of filters (Butterworth filter, Chebyshev filter, Bessel filter, etc.) all have different-looking knee curves. Many second-order filters have "peaking" or resonance that puts their frequency response at the cutoff frequency above the horizontal line. Furthermore, the actual frequency where this peaking occurs can be predicted without calculus, as shown by Cartwright [10] et al. For third-order filters, the peaking and its frequency of occurrence can also be predicted without calculus as shown by Cartwright [11] et al. See electronic filter for other types.

The meanings of 'low' and 'high'—that is, the cutoff frequency—depend on the characteristics of the filter. The term "low-pass filter" merely refers to the shape of the filter's response; a high-pass filter could be built that cuts off at a lower frequency than any low-pass filter—it is their responses that set them apart. Electronic circuits can be devised for any desired frequency range, right up through microwave frequencies (above 1 GHz) and higher.

Laplace notation

Continuous-time filters can also be described in terms of the Laplace transform of their impulse response, in a way that lets all characteristics of the filter be easily analyzed by considering the pattern of poles and zeros of the Laplace transform in the complex plane. (In discrete time, one can similarly consider the Z-transform of the impulse response.)

For example, a first-order low-pass filter can be described in Laplace notation as:

where s is the Laplace transform variable, τ is the filter time constant, and K is the gain of the filter in the passband.

Electronic low-pass filters

First order

RC filter

Passive, first order low-pass RC filter RC Divider.svg
Passive, first order low-pass RC filter

One simple low-pass filter circuit consists of a resistor in series with a load, and a capacitor in parallel with the load. The capacitor exhibits reactance, and blocks low-frequency signals, forcing them through the load instead. At higher frequencies the reactance drops, and the capacitor effectively functions as a short circuit. The combination of resistance and capacitance gives the time constant of the filter (represented by the Greek letter tau). The break frequency, also called the turnover frequency, corner frequency, or cutoff frequency (in hertz), is determined by the time constant:

or equivalently (in radians per second):

This circuit may be understood by considering the time the capacitor needs to charge or discharge through the resistor:

  • At low frequencies, there is plenty of time for the capacitor to charge up to practically the same voltage as the input voltage.
  • At high frequencies, the capacitor only has time to charge up a small amount before the input switches direction. The output goes up and down only a small fraction of the amount the input goes up and down. At double the frequency, there's only time for it to charge up half the amount.

Another way to understand this circuit is through the concept of reactance at a particular frequency:

  • Since direct current (DC) cannot flow through the capacitor, DC input must flow out the path marked (analogous to removing the capacitor).
  • Since alternating current (AC) flows very well through the capacitor, almost as well as it flows through solid wire, AC input flows out through the capacitor, effectively short circuiting to ground (analogous to replacing the capacitor with just a wire).

The capacitor is not an "on/off" object (like the block or pass fluidic explanation above). The capacitor variably acts between these two extremes. It is the Bode plot and frequency response that show this variability.

RL filter

A resistor–inductor circuit or RL filter is an electric circuit composed of resistors and inductors driven by a voltage or current source. A first order RL circuit is composed of one resistor and one inductor and is the simplest type of RL circuit.

A first order RL circuit is one of the simplest analogue infinite impulse response electronic filters. It consists of a resistor and an inductor, either in series driven by a voltage source or in parallel driven by a current source.

Second order

RLC filter

RLC circuit as a low-pass filter RLC low-pass.svg
RLC circuit as a low-pass filter

An RLC circuit (the letters R, L and C can be in a different sequence) is an electrical circuit consisting of a resistor, an inductor, and a capacitor, connected in series or in parallel. The RLC part of the name is due to those letters being the usual electrical symbols for resistance, inductance and capacitance respectively. The circuit forms a harmonic oscillator for current and will resonate in a similar way as an LC circuit will. The main difference that the presence of the resistor makes is that any oscillation induced in the circuit will die away over time if it is not kept going by a source. This effect of the resistor is called damping. The presence of the resistance also reduces the peak resonant frequency somewhat. Some resistance is unavoidable in real circuits, even if a resistor is not specifically included as a component. An ideal, pure LC circuit is an abstraction for the purpose of theory.

There are many applications for this circuit. They are used in many different types of oscillator circuits. Another important application is for tuning, such as in radio receivers or television sets, where they are used to select a narrow range of frequencies from the ambient radio waves. In this role the circuit is often referred to as a tuned circuit. An RLC circuit can be used as a band-pass filter, band-stop filter, low-pass filter or high-pass filter. The RLC filter is described as a second-order circuit, meaning that any voltage or current in the circuit can be described by a second-order differential equation in circuit analysis.

Higher order passive filters

Higher order passive filters can also be constructed (see diagram for a third order example).

A third-order low-pass filter (Cauer topology). The filter becomes a Butterworth filter with cutoff frequency oc=1 when (for example) C2=4/3 farad, R4=1 ohm, L1=3/2 henry and L3=1/2 henry. LowPass3poleICauer.svg
A third-order low-pass filter (Cauer topology). The filter becomes a Butterworth filter with cutoff frequency ωc=1 when (for example) C2=4/3 farad, R4=1 ohm, L1=3/2 henry and L3=1/2 henry.

Active electronic realization

An active low-pass filter Active Lowpass Filter RC.svg
An active low-pass filter

Another type of electrical circuit is an active low-pass filter.

In the operational amplifier circuit shown in the figure, the cutoff frequency (in hertz) is defined as:

or equivalently (in radians per second):

The gain in the passband is −R2/R1, and the stopband drops off at −6 dB per octave (that is −20 dB per decade) as it is a first-order filter.

See also

Related Research Articles

Linear filters process time-varying input signals to produce output signals, subject to the constraint of linearity. In most cases these linear filters are also time invariant in which case they can be analyzed exactly using LTI system theory revealing their transfer functions in the frequency domain and their impulse responses in the time domain. Real-time implementations of such linear signal processing filters in the time domain are inevitably causal, an additional constraint on their transfer functions. An analog electronic circuit consisting only of linear components will necessarily fall in this category, as will comparable mechanical systems or digital signal processing systems containing only linear elements. Since linear time-invariant filters can be completely characterized by their response to sinusoids of different frequencies, they are sometimes known as frequency filters.

Phase-locked loop

A phase-locked loop or phase lock loop (PLL) is a control system that generates an output signal whose phase is related to the phase of an input signal. There are several different types; the simplest is an electronic circuit consisting of a variable frequency oscillator and a phase detector in a feedback loop. The oscillator generates a periodic signal, and the phase detector compares the phase of that signal with the phase of the input periodic signal, adjusting the oscillator to keep the phases matched.

High-pass filter Filter that passes signals with a frequency higher than a certain cutoff frequency, and attenuates signals with lower frequencies

A high-pass filter (HPF) is an electronic filter that passes signals with a frequency higher than a certain cutoff frequency and attenuates signals with frequencies lower than the cutoff frequency. The amount of attenuation for each frequency depends on the filter design. A high-pass filter is usually modeled as a linear time-invariant system. It is sometimes called a low-cut filter or bass-cut filter in the context of audio engineering. High-pass filters have many uses, such as blocking DC from circuitry sensitive to non-zero average voltages or radio frequency devices. They can also be used in conjunction with a low-pass filter to produce a bandpass filter.

<i>Q</i> factor Parameter describing the longevity of energy in a resonator relative to its resonant frequency

In physics and engineering, the quality factor or Q factor is a dimensionless parameter that describes how underdamped an oscillator or resonator is. It is approximately defined as the ratio of the initial energy stored in the resonator to the energy lost in one radian of the cycle of oscillation. Q factor is alternatively defined as the ratio of a resonator's centre frequency to its bandwidth when subject to an oscillating driving force. These two definitions give numerically similar, but not identical, results. Higher Q indicates a lower rate of energy loss and the oscillations die out more slowly. A pendulum suspended from a high-quality bearing, oscillating in air, has a high Q, while a pendulum immersed in oil has a low one. Resonators with high quality factors have low damping, so that they ring or vibrate longer.

A resistor–capacitor circuit, or RC filter or RC network, is an electric circuit composed of resistors and capacitors. It may be driven by a voltage or current source and these will produce different responses. A first order RC circuit is composed of one resistor and one capacitor and is the simplest type of RC circuit.

Envelope detector Electronic circuit that takes a high-frequency amplitude modulated signal as input and provides an output which is the envelope of the original signal

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 demodulated envelope of the original signal.

Voltage divider

In electronics, a voltage divider is a passive linear circuit that produces an output voltage (Vout) that is a fraction of its input voltage (Vin). Voltage division is the result of distributing the input voltage among the components of the divider. A simple example of a voltage divider is two resistors connected in series, with the input voltage applied across the resistor pair and the output voltage emerging from the connection between them.

Gyrator Two-port electrical network element

A gyrator is a passive, linear, lossless, two-port electrical network element proposed in 1948 by Bernard D. H. Tellegen as a hypothetical fifth linear element after the resistor, capacitor, inductor and ideal transformer. Unlike the four conventional elements, the gyrator is non-reciprocal. Gyrators permit network realizations of two-(or-more)-port devices which cannot be realized with just the conventional four elements. In particular, gyrators make possible network realizations of isolators and circulators. Gyrators do not however change the range of one-port devices that can be realized. Although the gyrator was conceived as a fifth linear element, its adoption makes both the ideal transformer and either the capacitor or inductor redundant. Thus the number of necessary linear elements is in fact reduced to three. Circuits that function as gyrators can be built with transistors and op-amps using feedback.

RC time constant Time constant of an RC circuit

The RC time constant, also called tau, the time constant of an RC circuit, is equal to the product of the circuit resistance and the circuit capacitance, i.e.

Butterworth filter Type of signal processing filter

The Butterworth filter is a type of signal processing filter designed to have a frequency response as flat as possible in the passband. It is also referred to as a maximally flat magnitude filter. It was first described in 1930 by the British engineer and physicist Stephen Butterworth in his paper entitled "On the Theory of Filter Amplifiers".

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.

A resistor–inductor circuit, or RL filter or RL network, is an electric circuit composed of resistors and inductors driven by a voltage or current source. A first-order RL circuit is composed of one resistor and one inductor and is the simplest type of RL circuit.

Electronic filter

Electronic filters are a type of signal processing filter in the form of electrical circuits. This article covers those filters consisting of lumped electronic components, as opposed to distributed-element filters. That is, using components and interconnections that, in analysis, can be considered to exist at a single point. These components can be in discrete packages or part of an integrated circuit.

Ripple in electronics is the residual periodic variation of the DC voltage within a power supply which has been derived from an alternating current (AC) source. This ripple is due to incomplete suppression of the alternating waveform after rectification. Ripple voltage originates as the output of a rectifier or from generation and commutation of DC power.

An all-pass filter is a signal processing filter that passes all frequencies equally in gain, but changes the phase relationship among various frequencies. Most types of filter reduce the amplitude of the signal applied to it for some values of frequency, whereas the all-pass filter allows all frequencies through without changes in level.

In electronics, a differentiator is a circuit that is designed such that the output of the circuit is approximately directly proportional to the rate of change of the input. A true differentiator cannot be physically realized, because it has infinite gain at infinite frequency. A similar effect can be achieved, however, by limiting the gain above some frequency. The differentiator circuit is essentially a high-pass filter.
An active differentiator includes some form of amplifier, while a passive differentiator is made only of resistors, capacitors and inductors.

Zobel network

Zobel networks are a type of filter section based on the image-impedance design principle. They are named after Otto Zobel of Bell Labs, who published a much-referenced paper on image filters in 1923. The distinguishing feature of Zobel networks is that the input impedance is fixed in the design independently of the transfer function. This characteristic is achieved at the expense of a much higher component count compared to other types of filter sections. The impedance would normally be specified to be constant and purely resistive. For this reason, Zobel networks are also known as constant resistance networks. However, any impedance achievable with discrete components is possible.

RLC circuit Resistor Inductor Capacitor Circuit

An RLC circuit is an electrical circuit consisting of a resistor (R), an inductor (L), and a capacitor (C), connected in series or in parallel. The name of the circuit is derived from the letters that are used to denote the constituent components of this circuit, where the sequence of the components may vary from RLC.

Transimpedance amplifier Amplifier that converts current to voltage

In electronics, a transimpedance amplifier (TIA) is a current to voltage converter, almost exclusively implemented with one or more operational amplifiers. The TIA can be used to amplify the current output of Geiger–Müller tubes, photo multiplier tubes, accelerometers, photo detectors and other types of sensors to a usable voltage. Current to voltage converters are used with sensors that have a current response that is more linear than the voltage response. This is the case with photodiodes where it is not uncommon for the current response to have better than 1% nonlinearity over a wide range of light input. The transimpedance amplifier presents a low impedance to the photodiode and isolates it from the output voltage of the operational amplifier. In its simplest form a transimpedance amplifier has just a large valued feedback resistor, Rf. The gain of the amplifer is set by this resistor and because the amplifier is in an inverting configuration, has a value of -Rf. There are several different configurations of transimpedance amplifiers, each suited to a particular application. The one factor they all have in common is the requirement to convert the low-level current of a sensor to a voltage. The gain, bandwidth, as well as current and voltage offsets change with different types of sensors, requiring different configurations of transimpedance amplifiers.

The operational amplifier integrator is an electronic integration circuit. Based on the operational amplifier (op-amp), it performs the mathematical operation of integration with respect to time; that is, its output voltage is proportional to the input voltage integrated over time.


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