Amplitude modulation (AM) is a modulation technique used in electronic communication, most commonly for transmitting information via a radio carrier wave. In amplitude modulation, the amplitude (signal strength) of the carrier wave is varied in proportion to that of the message signal being transmitted. The message signal is, for example, a function of the sound to be reproduced by a loudspeaker, or the light intensity of pixels of a television screen. This technique contrasts with frequency modulation, in which the frequency of the carrier signal is varied, and phase modulation, in which its phase is varied.
AM was the earliest modulation method used to transmit voice by radio. It was developed during the first quarter of the 20th century beginning with Landell de Moura and Reginald Fessenden's radiotelephone experiments in 1900. It remains in use today in many forms of communication; for example it is used in portable two-way radios, VHF aircraft radio, citizens band radio, and in computer modems in the form of QAM. AM is often used to refer to mediumwave AM radio broadcasting.
In electronics and telecommunications, modulation means varying some aspect of a continuous wave carrier signal with an information-bearing modulation waveform, such as an audio signal which represents sound, or a video signal which represents images. In this sense, the carrier wave, which has a much higher frequency than the message signal, carries the information. At the receiving station, the message signal is extracted from the modulated carrier by demodulation.
In amplitude modulation, the amplitude or strength of the carrier oscillations is varied. For example, in AM radio communication, a continuous wave radio-frequency signal (a sinusoidal carrier wave) has its amplitude modulated by an audio waveform before transmission. The audio waveform modifies the amplitude of the carrier wave and determines the envelope of the waveform. In the frequency domain, amplitude modulation produces a signal with power concentrated at the carrier frequency and two adjacent sidebands. Each sideband is equal in bandwidth to that of the modulating signal, and is a mirror image of the other. Standard AM is thus sometimes called "double-sideband amplitude modulation" (DSB-AM) to distinguish it from more sophisticated modulation methods also based on AM.
One disadvantage of all amplitude modulation techniques (not only standard AM) is that the receiver amplifies and detects noise and electromagnetic interference in equal proportion to the signal. Increasing the received signal-to-noise ratio, say, by a factor of 10 (a 10 decibel improvement), thus would require increasing the transmitter power by a factor of 10. This is in contrast to frequency modulation (FM) and digital radio where the effect of such noise following demodulation is strongly reduced so long as the received signal is well above the threshold for reception. For this reason AM broadcast is not favored for music and high fidelity broadcasting, but rather for voice communications and broadcasts (sports, news, talk radio etc.).
Another disadvantage of AM is that it is inefficient in power usage; at least two-thirds of the power is concentrated in the carrier signal. The carrier signal contains none of the original information being transmitted (voice, video, data, etc.). However its presence provides a simple means of demodulation using envelope detection, providing a frequency and phase reference to extract the modulation from the sidebands. In some modulation systems based on AM, a lower transmitter power is required through partial or total elimination of the carrier component, however receivers for these signals are more complex and costly. The receiver may regenerate a copy of the carrier frequency (usually as shifted to the intermediate frequency) from a greatly reduced "pilot" carrier (in reduced-carrier transmission or DSB-RC) to use in the demodulation process. Even with the carrier totally eliminated in double-sideband suppressed-carrier transmission, carrier regeneration is possible using a Costas phase-locked loop. This doesn't work however for single-sideband suppressed-carrier transmission (SSB-SC), leading to the characteristic "Donald Duck" sound from such receivers when slightly detuned. Single sideband is nevertheless used widely in amateur radio and other voice communications both due to its power efficiency and bandwidth efficiency (cutting the RF bandwidth in half compared to standard AM). On the other hand, in medium wave and short wave broadcasting, standard AM with the full carrier allows for reception using inexpensive receivers. The broadcaster absorbs the extra power cost to greatly increase potential audience.
An additional function provided by the carrier in standard AM, but which is lost in either single or double-sideband suppressed-carrier transmission, is that it provides an amplitude reference. In the receiver, the automatic gain control (AGC) responds to the carrier so that the reproduced audio level stays in a fixed proportion to the original modulation. On the other hand, with suppressed-carrier transmissions there is no transmitted power during pauses in the modulation, so the AGC must respond to peaks of the transmitted power during peaks in the modulation. This typically involves a so-called fast attack, slow decay circuit which holds the AGC level for a second or more following such peaks, in between syllables or short pauses in the program. This is very acceptable for communications radios, where compression of the audio aids intelligibility. However it is absolutely undesired for music or normal broadcast programming, where a faithful reproduction of the original program, including its varying modulation levels, is expected.
A trivial form of AM which can be used for transmitting binary data is on-off keying, the simplest form of amplitude-shift keying, in which ones and zeros are represented by the presence or absence of a carrier. On-off keying is likewise used by radio amateurs to transmit Morse code where it is known as continuous wave (CW) operation, even though the transmission is not strictly "continuous." A more complex form of AM, quadrature amplitude modulation is now more commonly used with digital data, while making more efficient use of the available bandwidth.