Arbitrary Waveform Generator, AWG

- overview or tutorial about the Arbitrary Waveform Generator or AWG including Direct Digital Synthesis, DDS and Variable Clock Arbitrary Waveform Generators..

Arbitrary waveforms generators are a form of function or signal generator that is able to produce an arbitrary waveform defined by a set of values, i.e. "waypoints" entered to set the value of the waveform at different times.

As a result an arbitrary waveform generator is a form of test equipment that is able to produce virtually any waveshape that is required. An arbitrary waveform generator may also run in either a repetitive or a single shot mode.

Arbitrary waveform generators are very similar to function generators, but offer much greater levels of flexibility in terms of waveform generation and they are generally more sophisticated and hence costly.

TTi TGA 1244 Arbitrary Waveform Generator

Arbitrary Waveform Generator techniques

There are a number of ways of designing arbitrary waveform generators. They are based around digital techniques, and their design falls into one of two main categories:

  • Direct Digital Synthesis, DDS:   This type of arbitrary waveform generator is based around the DDS types of frequency synthesizer, and sometimes it may be referred to as an Arbitrary Function Generator, AFG. Read more about the arbitrary function generator
  • Variable-clock arbitrary waveform generator   The variable clock arbitrary function generator is the more flexible form of arbitrary waveform generator. These arbitrary waveform generators are generally more flexible, although they do have some limitations not possessed by the DDS versions. Sometimes these generators are referred to as just arbitrary waveform generators, AWGs rather than arbitrary function generators. Read more about the variable clock arbitrary waveform generator
  • Combined arbitrary waveform generator   This format of AWG combines both of the other forms including the DDS and variable clock techniques. In this way the advantages of both systems can be realised within a single item of test equipment.

Arbitrary waveform generator resolution and speed

Two of the main specifications for an arbitrary waveform generator are their resolution and also the speed. These two parameters determine the precision with which the waveform can be reproduced. They are governed by different elements within the arbitrary waveform generator circuit.

The amplitude resolution is governed by the resolution of the digital to analogue converter (D/A or D2A). This is described in terms of the number of bits. A 12 bit resolution provides 4096 amplitude steps.

The speed of the arbitrary waveform generator is also very important. The maximum repetition rate for the waveform is governed by two factors: the length of the waveform in terms of the number of samples required to simulate the waveform and the maximum clock frequency. For example if the arbitrary waveform generator had a maximum clock frequency of 25 MHz and the waveform had 1000 points, then the maximum repetition rate would be 25 kHz. If a higher repetition rate was required, then it would be necessary to decrease the number of samples as it would not be possible to increase the clock frequency in the arbitrary waveform generator!

Waveform capture

Before an arbitrary waveform generator can produce a signal it is necessary to enter the points for the required output. There are a number of ways in which the waveform for an arbitrary waveform generator can be captured or generated:

  • Capture a real waveform. This can be done using either a digitiser of a digital oscilloscope.
  • Use in-built waveform editing on the arbitrary waveform generator. Many AWGs have some degree of waveform generation and editing capability built on board, although this may not be as flexible as a full PC based editing solution.
  • Another way is to generate the waveform using software running on a PC. Very sophisticated digital editing software is available for this and allows for many variations to be incorporated.

Either of these methods can be used and then the digital information can be downloaded onto the arbitrary waveform generator to enable it to provide the required output.

The arbitrary waveform generator is a piece of test equipment that can prove to be immensely useful in many applications. While an arbitrary waveform generator is a very specialised piece of test equipment and as a result it can be expensive, it is nevertheless almost essential in any applications where a specific waveform needs to be generated.

By Ian Poole

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Gladys West - Pioneer of GPS
GPS and GNSS positioning technology is such an integral part of our lives today that we rarely stop to think about where it all came from. When we do, we usually picture men in white shirts and dark glasses hunched over calculators and slide rules. In fact, one of the early pioneers behind GPS and GNSS technology was Gladys West - a black woman. is operated and owned by Adrio Communications Ltd and edited by Ian Poole. All information is © Adrio Communications Ltd and may not be copied except for individual personal use. This includes copying material in whatever form into website pages. While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information on, no liability is accepted for any consequences of using it. This site uses cookies. By using this site, these terms including the use of cookies are accepted. More explanation can be found in our Privacy Policy