RF Radio Frequency Signal Generator

- essentials or basics of RF signal generators or microwave signal generators, their facilities, capabilities and how they work.

Radio frequency signal generators (RF signal generators) are a particularly useful item of test equipment widely used in RF microwave design and test applications.

These microwave and RF signal generators come in a variety of forms and with a host of facilities and capabilities.

In order to gain the most from any RF signal generator or microwave signal generator, it is necessary to have an understanding of its operation and the capabilities it possesses.

Signal Generator Aeroflex SGD

Types of RF signal generator

It is possible to design radio frequency signal generators in a variety of ways. Also with developments that have been made in electronics circuitry over the years, different techniques have evolved. It can be said that there are two forms of signal generator that can be used:

  • Free running RF signal generators:   These signal generators are rarely used these days as their frequency tends to drift. However they do have the advantage that the signal produced is very clean and does not have the level of noise (phase noise) either side of the main signal that is present on some other radio frequency signal generators.

    Some signal generators used a form of frequency locked loop to provide a means of adding some frequency stability while still retaining the very low levels of phase noise. Again, these are not common these days because the performance of RF signal generators using frequency synthesizer technology has considerably improved.
  • Synthesized radio frequency signal generators:   Virtually all radio frequency signal generators used today employ frequency synthesizers. Using this technique enables frequencies to be entered directly from a keypad, or via remote control and it also enables the output signal to be determined very accurately. The accuracy being dependent upon either an internal reference oscillator that can have a very high degree of accuracy, or the signal can be locked to an external frequency reference which can be exceedingly accurate.

    There are two main techniques that are used within synthesized RF signal generators:

    • Phase locked loop synthesizer:   Phase locked loop synthesizers are used within most RF signal generators as they enable signals to be generated over a wide range of frequencies with a relatively low level of spurious signals. Phase locked loop synthesizer technology is well developed and enables high performance RF signal generators to be produced using them.
    • Direct Digital Synthesizer, DDS:   Direct digital synthesis techniques may be used in RF signal generators. They enable very fine frequency increments to be achieved relatively easily. However the maximum limit of a DDS is normally much lower than the top frequencies required for the signal generator, so they are used in conjunction with phase locked loops to give the required frequency range.

RF signal generator operation

In order to understand the operation of a generic microwave or RF signal generator it is useful to understand what is included in terms of a basic block diagram.

RF signal generator block diagram
Block diagram for a generic RF signal generator

The diagram shows a very simplified block diagram for an RF / Microwave signal generator.

From this, it can be seen that the generator has a few major blocks within it:

  • Oscillator:   The most important block within the RF signal generator is the oscillator itself. This can be any form of oscillator, but today it would almost certainly be formed from a frequency synthesizer. This oscillator would take commands from the controller and be set to the required frequency.
  • Amplifier:   The output from the oscillator will need amplifying. This will be achieved using a special amplifier module. This will amplify the signal, typically to a fixed level. It would have a loop around it to maintain the output level accurately at all frequencies and temperatures.
  • Attenuator:   An attenuator is placed on the output of the signal generator. This serves to ensure an accurate source impedance is maintained as well as allowing the generator level to be adjusted very accurately. In particular the relative power levels, i.e. when changing from one level to another are very accurate and represent the accuracy of the attenuator. It is worth noting that the output impedance is less accurately defined for the highest signal levels where the attenuation is less.
  • Control:   Advanced processors are used to ensure that the RF and microwave signal generator is easy to control and is also able to take remote control commands. The processor will control all aspects of the operation of the test equipment.

RF signal generator functions

Microwave and RF signal generators are able to offer a large variety of functions and facilities these days. These include some that are detailed below:

  • Frequency range:   Naturally the frequency range of the RF signal generator is of paramount importance. It must be able to cover all the frequencies that are likely to need to be generated. For example when testing a receiver in an item of equipment, be it a mobile phone or any other radio receiver, it is necessary to be able to check not only the operating frequency, but other frequencies where the issues such as image rejection, etc.
  • Output level:   The output range for an RF and microwave signal generator is normally controlled to a relatively high degree of accuracy. The output within the generator itself is maintained at a constant level and then passed through a high grade variable attenuator. These are normally switch to give the highest degree of accuracy. The range is normally limited at the top end by the final amplifier in the RF signal generator.
  • Modulation:   Some RF or microwave signal generators have inbuilt oscillators that can apply modulation to the output signal. Others also have the ability to apply modulation from an external source. With modulation formats for applications such as mobile communications becoming more complicated, so the capabilities of RF signal generators have had to become more flexible, some allowing complex modulation formats such as QPSK, QAM and the like. Signal generators that support complex modulation are often referred to as vector signal generators.
  • Sweep:   On some RF signal generators it is necessary to sweep the signal over a range. Some generators offer this capability.
  • Control:   There are many options for controlling RF and microwave signal generators these days. While they tend to have traditional front panel controls, there are also many options for remote control. Most items of laboratory bench test equipment come with GPIB fitted as standard, but options such as RS-232, and Ethernet / LXI. Rack technologies where instrument cards are slotted into a rack with other items of test equipment are also popular. The first of these was VXI, but cheaper options such as PXI and PXI express are more widely used.

Radio frequency signal generators are a form of electronic test equipment found in virtually every radio frequency design or test laboratory. These signal generators are used wherever an RF signal needs to be supplied to a circuit or unit that is being developed or tested. As such RF signal generators are essential items for RF development and testing.

By Ian Poole

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