Amplitude Modulation, AM

- a tutorial, information, or overview about what is amplitude modulation or AM, the advantages of amplitude modulation and the disadvantages of amplitude modulation as well as its use in broadcasting and two way radio communication.

Modulation Tutorial Includes:

Amplitude modulation (AM)     Frequency modulation (FM)     Single sideband (SSB)    

Amplitude modulation or AM as it is often called, is a form of modulation used for radio transmissions for broadcasting and two way radio communication applications. Although one of the earliest used forms of modulation it is still in widespread use today.

The first amplitude modulated signal was transmitted in 1901 by a Canadian engineer named Reginald Fessenden. He took a continuous spark transmission and placed a carbon microphone in the antenna lead. The sound waves impacting on the microphone varied its resistance and in turn this varied the intensity of the transmission. Although very crude, signals were audible over a distance of a few hundred metres, although there was a rasping sound caused by the spark.

With the introduction of continuous sine wave signals, transmissions improved significantly, and AM soon became the standard for voice transmissions. Nowadays, amplitude modulation, AM is used for audio broadcasting on the long medium and short wave bands, and for two way radio communication at VHF for aircraft. However as there now are more efficient and convenient methods of modulating a signal, its use is declining, although it will still be very many years before it is no longer used.

What is amplitude modulation?

In order that a radio signal can carry audio or other information for broadcasting or for two way radio communication, it must be modulated or changed in some way. Although there are a number of ways in which a radio signal may be modulated, one of the easiest, and one of the first methods to be used was to change its amplitude in line with variations of the sound.

The basic concept surrounding what is amplitude modulation, AM, is quite straightforward. The amplitude of the signal is changed in line with the instantaneous intensity of the sound. In this way the radio frequency signal has a representation of the sound wave superimposed in it. In view of the way the basic signal "carries" the sound or modulation, the radio frequency signal is often termed the "carrier".

What is amplitude modulation, AM

Amplitude Modulation, AM


When a carrier is modulated in any way, further signals are created that carry the actual modulation information. It is found that when a carrier is amplitude modulated, further signals are generated above and below the main carrier. To see how this happens, take the example of a carrier on a frequency of 1 MHz which is modulated by a steady tone of 1 kHz.

The process of modulating a carrier is exactly the same as mixing two signals together, and as a result both sum and difference frequencies are produced. Therefore when a tone of 1 kHz is mixed with a carrier of 1 MHz, a "sum" frequency is produced at 1 MHz + 1 kHz, and a difference frequency is produced at 1 MHz - 1 kHz, i.e. 1 kHz above and below the carrier.

If the steady state tones are replaced with audio like that encountered with speech of music, these comprise many different frequencies and an audio spectrum with frequencies over a band of frequencies is seen. When modulated onto the carrier, these spectra are seen above and below the carrier.

It can be seen that if the top frequency that is modulated onto the carrier is 6 kHz, then the top spectra will extend to 6 kHz above and below the signal. In other words the bandwidth occupied by the AM signal is twice the maximum frequency of the signal that is used to modulated the carrier, i.e. it is twice the bandwidth of the audio signal to be carried.

Amplitude demodulation

Amplitude modulation, AM, is one of the most straightforward ways of modulating a radio signal or carrier. The process of demodulation, where the audio signal is removed from the radio carrier in the receiver is also quite simple as well. The easiest method of achieving amplitude demodulation is to use a simple diode detector. This consists of just a handful of components:- a diode, resistor and a capacitor.


AM diode detector

AM Diode Detector


In this circuit, the diode rectifies the signal, allowing only half of the alternating waveform through. The capacitor is used to store the charge and provide a smoothed output from the detector, and also to remove any unwanted radio frequency components. The resistor is used to enable the capacitor to discharge. If it were not there and no other load was present, then the charge on the capacitor would not leak away, and the circuit would reach a peak and remain there.

Advantages of Amplitude Modulation, AM

There are several advantages of amplitude modulation, and some of these reasons have meant that it is still in widespread use today:

  • It is simple to implement
  • it can be demodulated using a circuit consisting of very few components
  • AM receivers are very cheap as no specialised components are needed.

Disadvantages of amplitude modulation

Amplitude modulation is a very basic form of modulation, and although its simplicity is one of its major advantages, other more sophisticated systems provide a number of advantages. Accordingly it is worth looking at some of the disadvantages of amplitude modulation.

  • It is not efficient in terms of its power usage
  • It is not efficient in terms of its use of bandwidth, requiring a bandwidth equal to twice that of the highest audio frequency
  • It is prone to high levels of noise because most noise is amplitude based and obviously AM detectors are sensitive to it.


AM has advantages of simplicity, but it is not the most efficient mode to use, both in terms of the amount of space or spectrum it takes up, and the way in which it uses the power that is transmitted. This is the reason why it is not widely used these days both for broadcasting and for two way radio communication. Even the long, medium and short wave broadcasts will ultimately change because of the fact that amplitude modulation, AM, is subject to much higher levels of noise than are other modes. For the moment, its simplicity, and its wide usage, mean that it will be difficult to change quickly, and it will be in use for many years to come.

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