Different Types of Signal Generators and Their Applications

August 9, 2023
By Mark Elo

Signal Fidelity - Choose the correct sample rate vs waveform characteristics

A signal generator is one of the most essential pieces of technology in electronics and communication. It is used to produce different types of signals and frequencies for a variety of purposes such as testing, troubleshooting, and designing. While a standard signal generator is one that produces signals of varying amplitude, frequency, and form, there are several different types available in the market today. Depending upon the type, the functions, operation, and applications will vary. Such signal generators have very specific uses such as modulating voice or creating electronic dance music (EDM).

Although the basic signal generator is still widely used in the field of electronics, it has evolved tremendously over the past century. Here’s a look at some of the most common types of signal generators and their applications. This article will also glance through one of the leading manufacturers.

Standard Signal Generators

This is the most common class of signal generators that produce both repeating and non-repeating waveforms across amplitudes and shapes. These are widely available around the world and are also used for educational purposes (in universities to teach electronics as a subject).

Arbitrary Waveform Generator

This is similar to a standard function generator with the exceptions of different types of shapes (sawtooth, step, pulse, and triangular waves), low bandwidth levels, and limited frequency range. Since they allow a variety of shapes, they are used in designing applications. In comparison, a function generator only produces sine waves.

Radio Frequency (RF) Signal Generator

20210120135329.812Another common type of signal generator, this one is used to produce signals in a specific range of bandwidth. The range of a typical RF signal generator is from 10 kHz to 6 GHz, and have similar applications as the above two. However, variation in size and utility allows them to be used in a variety of applications such as GPS, broadcasting, radar, satellites, etc. They typically produce two types of signals: analog and digital. The digital signal generators (also known as vector generators) are relatively new and offer many more functions to operators.

20210120135314.069Some specially made RF signal generators can even go beyond the standard limit of 6 GHz. For example, Tabor’s Lucid Series is a range of different modules that are capable of generating analog signals of up to 12 GHz. They are known for their great switching speeds, compatibility with modern programming languages such as Python and MATLAB, and machine-friendly interfaces. Tabor also produces such signal generators in portable, benchtop, and rack mount forms.

An RF signal generator is different from a microwave generator only in terms of the frequency range. A microwave signal generator can produce signals of up to 20 GHz.

RF Signal Generators -The Lucid Series
Solving applications demanding outstanding dynamic range and fast switching speed
The new Proteus AWT series
Transmit, receive and perform digital signal processing all in a single instrument
Lucid Benchtop RF Signal Generator
Up to 4 phase coherent channels in a 2U 19” benchtop box. With a 5” touch display and front panel.

Function Generator

A function generator is the most common type of signal generator. It generates simple repetitive waveforms of varying magnitudes and frequencies. It uses a signal generator circuit and an electronic oscillator to generate signals, which act as stimuli for testing and designing purposes. A good example of its application is troubleshooting a PCB.

In some signal generators, there is a function for modulation which enables users to change the magnitude and form. Others have digital signal processors, synthesizers, and digital to analog converters (DAC) for improved ability.

Special Purpose Signal Generators

These types have very specific, limited applications. Unlike the general-purpose signal generators listed above, these mostly carry out a single function with a lot of support for variation in frequency, amplitude, delays, and shapes.

Pulse Generators

Also known as logic pulse generators, they produce pulses of varying frequencies and amplitudes. They are majorly used for testing and troubleshooting purposes where they act as stimuli for circuits and other electronic appliances. Pulse generators are rare because most other generators today are capable of producing pulses. Buying a sole pulse generator is not economical.

Video Signal Generators

Similar to an audio generator, a video signal generator produces videographic waveforms. It is used primarily for testing purposes and is employed in the testing of televisions, video games, and video-based products (films).

Both composite and monochrome signals can be generated, which again classifies them into two types. In some video signal generators, there is an additional capacity to generate audio signals.

Digital Pattern Generators

Tailored for use to test digital circuits, they produce ‘digital electronics stimuli’ which is an electrical waveform similar to a sine wave. The similarity is associated with its ability to create two states i.e., high state and low state. It replicates the function of a voltage signal (with the highs and lows) and acts as a stimulus for testing and troubleshooting.

Digital pattern generators are capable of producing voltage levels that are compatible with a variety of digital I/O systems such as TTL, LVDS, and LVCMOS.

They are often confused with pulse generators. In reality, their difference is in their features and abilities. Digital pattern generators are available as both standalone and add-on units and are widely used in DAC stimulation, embedded system debugging, and DPS hardware stimulation.

Signal Generator Software

All the types described above are hardware-based. Yet there are software applications that are used to produce arbitrary waveforms via output devices. For example, audio applications are used (downloaded and installed on a computer) in the audio industry to create stimuli and transfer them via a sound card. This card is then connected to a desired testing or input device.

Such computer-based signal generator software is sold by manufacturers globally but they are part of a niche.

A signal generator and oscilloscope are integral parts of any electronics testing and designing unit. Without them, it would be difficult to test and troubleshoot other electronic devices and create new technology. Signal generators are highly efficient and require low maintenance, which automatically makes them a dear piece of equipment in the electronics world. It is also for this reason that engineers prefer to buy them from known manufacturers such as Tabor that produces advanced desktop modules and portable signal generation systems. Its Lucid Series is an industry-best and has an exceptional array of features.

While the above nine types are the most common signal generators, there are many more variations available in the market. Users are required to explore manufacturer websites and inventories if they have specific uses.


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