Dr. Ahmed G. Abo-Khalil

Electrical Engineering Department

Audio effects &

PWM is sometimes used in sound (music) synthesis, in particular subtractive synthesis, as it gives a sound effect similar to chorus or slightly detuned oscillators played together. (In fact, PWM is equivalent to the difference of two sawtooth waves. [1]) The ratio between the high and low level is typically modulated with a low frequency oscillator, or LFO. In addition, varying the duty cycle of a pulse waveform in a subtractive-synthesis instrument creates useful timbral variations. Some synthesizers have a duty-cycle trimmer for their square-wave outputs, and that trimmer can be set by ear; the 50% point (true square wave) was distinctive, because even-numbered harmonics essentially disappear at 50%. Pulse waves, usually 50%, 25%, and 12.5%, make up the soundtracks of classic video games.

A new class of audio amplifiers based on the PWM principle is becoming popular. Called "Class-D amplifiers", these amplifiers produce a PWM equivalent of the analog input signal which is fed to the loudspeaker via a suitable filter network to block the carrier and recover the original audio. These amplifiers are characterized by very good efficiency figures (≥ 90%) and compact size/light weight for large power outputs. For a few decades, industrial and military PWM amplifiers have been in common use, often for driving servo motors. They offer very good efficiency, commonly well above 90%. Field-gradient coils in MRI machines are driven by relatively-high-power PWM amplifiers.

Historically, a crude form of PWM has been used to play back PCM digital sound on the PC speaker, which is driven by only two voltage levels, typically 0 V and 5 V. By carefully timing the duration of the pulses, and by relying on the speaker's physical filtering properties (limited frequency response, self-inductance, etc.) it was possible to obtain an approximate playback of mono PCM samples, although at a very low quality, and with greatly varying results between implementations.

In more recent times, the Direct Stream Digital sound encoding method was introduced, which uses a generalized form of pulse-width modulation called pulse density modulation, at a high enough sampling rate (typically in the order of MHz) to cover the whole acoustic frequencies range with sufficient fidelity. This method is used in the SACD format, and reproduction of the encoded audio signal is essentially similar to the method used in class-D amplifiers.

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