Demystifying the A/D and D/A Converters

Analog and Digital Signals

Analog signals represent a physical parameter in the form of a continuous signal. In contrast, digital signals are discrete time signals formed by digital modulation. Most natural signals, like human voice and other sounds are analog in nature. Traditionally, communication systems were based on analog systems.

As demand for systems capable of carrying more information over longer distances kept soaring, the drawbacks of analog communication systems became increasingly evident. Efforts to improve the performance and throughput of systems saw the evolution of digital systems, which far surpasses the performance of analog systems, and offer features that were considered impossible earlier. Some major advantages of digital systems over analog are:

• Optical fibers can transmit digital signals and have virtually infinite information bearing capacity
• Combining multiple input signals over same channel is possible by multiplexing
• Digital signals can be encrypted and hence are more secure
• Better noise immunity leads to superior performance due to regeneration
• Much higher flexibility and ease of configuration

On the other hand, disadvantages include:

• Higher bandwidth required to transmit the same information
• Accurate synchronization required between transmitter and receiver for error free communication

Primary signals like human voice, natural sounds and pictures, etc., are all inherently analog. However, most signal processing and transmission systems are progressively becoming digital. Therefore, there is an obvious need for conversion of analog signals to digital. This facilitates processing and transmission, and reverse transition from digital to analog, since the digital signals will not be intelligible to human receivers or gadgets like a pen recorder. This need led to the evolution of Analog to Digital (A/D) Converters for encoding at the transmitting end and Digital to Analog (D/A) Converters at the receiving end for decoding.

Principle of Working of A/D and D/A Converters

An A/D converter senses the analog input signal at regular intervals and generates a corresponding binary bit stream as a combination of 0’s and 1’s. This data stream is then processed by the digital system until it is ready to be regenerated at the receiver’s location. The sampling rate has to be at least twice the highest frequency of the input signal so that the received signal is a near perfect replica of the input.

In contrast, a D/A Converter receives the bit stream and regenerates the signal by plotting the sampled values to obtain the input signal at the receiving end. The simplest way to achieve this is by using a variable resistor network, which converts each digital level into an equivalent binary weighted voltage (or current). However, if the recipient is a computer or other device capable of handling a digital signal directly, processing by D/A Converters is not necessary.

Two of the most important parameters of A/D and D/A Converters are Accuracy and Resolution. Accuracy reflects how closely the actual output signal resembles the theoretical output voltage. Resolution is the smallest increment in the input signal the system can sense and respond to. Higher resolution requires more bits and is more complicated and expensive, apart from being slower.