[AMRadio] Physical Reality of Sidebands

Donald Chester k4kyv at hotmail.com
Sun Jan 16 15:25:34 EST 2005

>From the beginnings of radiotelephony there has been a question whether 
sidebands exist as physical reality or only in the mathematics of modulation 
theory.  In the early 20's this was a hotly debated topic, with a noted 
group of British engineers maintaining that sidebands existed only in the 
maths, while an equally well-remembered group of American engineers argued 
that sidebands do, in fact physically exist.

Today, the issue seems settled once and for all.  We can tune our modern-day 
highly selective receivers through double-sideband and single-sideband voice 
signals, and tune in upper or lower sideband, and even adjust the 
selectivity to the point that we can tune in the carrier minus the 
sidebands.  Nearly everyone accepts the notions that sidebands do indeed 
exist physically.  But do they?  Maybe it's a matter of how we observe them, 
and the result is modified by our measuring instruments.  Remember the 
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that you cannot observe 
something without affecting it to some degree, or more precisely, that it is 
impossible to know both the position (physical  location) and velocity 
(speed and direction) of a particle at the same time.

Imagine a cw transmitter equipped with an electronic keyer.  Also imagine 
that there is no shaping circuitry, so that the carrier is instantly 
switched between full output and zero output. Such a signal can be expected 
to generate extremely broad key clicks above and below the fundamental 
frequency because of the sharp corners of the keying waveform.  Set the 
keying speed up to max, and send a series of dits.  If the keyer is adjusted 
properly, the dits and spaces will be of equal length, identical to a full 
carrier AM signal 100 percent modulated by a perfect square wave.

Suppose the keyer is adjusted to send, say, 20 dits per second when the 
"dit" paddle is held down. The result is a 20 hZ square-wave-modulated AM 
signal.  Now turn the speed up. If the keyer has the capability, run it up 
to 100 dits per second.  If you tune in the signal using a receiver with 
very narrow selectivity (100 hZ or less, easily achievable using today's 
technology), you can actually tune in the carrier, and then as you move the 
dial slightly you can tune in sideband components 100, 300, 500 hZ, etc. 
removed from the carrier frequency. A square wave consists of a fundamental 
frequency plus an infinite series of odd harmonics of diminishing amplitude. 
Theoretically you would hear carrier components spaced every 200 Hz 
throughout the spectrum.  In a practical case, due to the finite noise 
floor, the diminishing amplitude of the sideband components and selectivity 
of the tuned circuits in the transmitter tank circuit and antenna itself, 
these sideband components eventually become inaudibly buried in the 
background noise as the receiver is tuned away from the carrier frequency.

Suppose we gradually slow down the keyer.  As we change to lower keying 
speed, it takes more and more selectivity to discriminate between carrier 
and sideband components, as the modulation frequency becomes lower and the 
sideband components become spaced more closely together. Let's observe what 
happens when we slow the dit rate down to 10 dits per second. Now the 
fundamental modulation frequency is 10 Hz, and there are sideband components 
at 30 Hz, 50 Hz, and 70 Hz removed from the carrier and continuing above and 
below the carrier frequency at intervals of 20 Hz until the signals 
disappear into the background noise.  In order to distinguish individual 
sideband components, we need selectivity on the order of 10 Hz, which is 
possible if we use resonant i.f. selectivity filters with extremely high 
"Q".  This can be accomplished using crystal filters, regenerative 
amplifiers or even conventional L-C tuned circuits if we carefully design 
the components to have high enough Q.

As we achieve extreme selectivity with these high Q resonant circuits, we 
observe a sometimes annoying characteristic familiarly known as "ringing." 
This ringing effect is due to the "flywheel effect" of a tuned circuit, the 
same "flywheel effect" that allows a class-C tube type final or class-E 
solid state final to generate a harmonic-free sinewave rf carrier waveform.  
The selective rf tank circuit stores energy which is re-released to fill in 
missing parts of the sinewave, thus filtering out the harmonics inherent to 
operation of these classes of amplifier.  CW operators are very aware of the 
ringing effect of very narrow filters, which can make the dits and dahs of 
high speed CW run together, causing the signal to be just as difficult to 
read with the narrow filter in line, as the same CW signal would be if one 
used a wider filter that admits harmful adjacent channel interference.  Kind 
of a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.

Let's now take our example of code speed and selectivity to a degree of 
absurdity.  We can slow down our keyer to a microscopic fraction of a Hertz, 
to the point where each dit is six months long, and the space between dits 
is also six months long.  In effect, we are transmitting an unmodulated 
carrier for six months, then shutting down the transmitter for six months. 
But still, this is only a matter of a degree of code speed; the signal 
waveform is still identical to the AM transmitter tone modulated with a 
perfect square wave, but whose frequency is one cycle per year, or 3.17 X 
(10 to the -8) Hz.  That means that in theory, the steady uninterrupted 
carrier is still being transmitted, along with a series of sideband 
components spaced every 6.34 X (10 to the -8) Hz.

Now, carriers spaced every 6.34 X (10 to the -8) Hz apart are inarguably 
VERY close together, to the point that building a filter capable of 
separating them would be of complexity on the order of a successful 
expedition to Mars, but it is still theoretically possible. Let us assume we 
are able to build such a filter.  We would undoubtedly have to resort to 
superconductivity in the tuned circuits, requiring components cooled to near 
absolute zero, and thoroughly shield every rf carrying conductor to prevent 
radiation loss, but here we are talking about something hypothetical, 
without the practical restraints of cost, construction time and availability 
of material.  Anyway, let us just assume we were able to successfully build 
the required selectivity filter.

The receiver would indeed be able to discriminate between sidebands and 
carrier of the one cycle/year or 3.17 X (10 to the -8) Hz modulated AM 
signal, identical to a CW transmitter with carrier on for six months and off 
for six months.  So how can we detect a steady carrier while the transmitter 
is shut off for six months?  The answer lies in our receiver.  In order to 
achieve high enough selectivity to separate carrier and sideband components 
at such a low modulating frequency and close spacing, the Q of the tuned 
circuit would have to be so high that the flywheel effect, or ringing of the 
filter, would maintain the missing rf carrier during the six-month key-up 

This takes us back to the longstanding debate over the reality of sidebands. 
  If we use a wideband receiver such as a crystal set with little or no 
front-end selectivity, we can indeed think of the AM signal precisely as a 
steady carrier that varies in amplitude in step with the modulating 
frequency.  This is physically the case if the total bandwidth of the signal 
is negligible compared to the selectivity of the receiver.  Once we achieve 
selectivity of the same order as the bandwidth of the signal, which has been 
the norm for practical receivers dating from as early as the 1920's up to to 
the present, reception of the signal behaves according to the principle of a 
steady carrier with distinctly observable upper and lower sidebands.  The 
"holes" in the carrier at 100% modulation are inaudible due to the flywheel 
effect of the tuned circuits, even though the "holes" may be observable on 
the envelope pattern of the oscilloscope.

An oscilloscope set up for envelope pattern, with the deflection plates 
coupled directly to a sample of the transmitter's output, is a wideband 
device much like a crystal set. It allows us to physically observe the AM 
signal as a carrier of varying amplitude. A spectrum analyser on the other 
hand, is an instrument of high selectivity, namely a selective receiver 
programmed to sweep back and forth across a predetermined band of spectrum 
while visually displaying the amplitude of the signal. It clearly displays 
distinct upper and lower sidebands with a steady carrier in between.

Furthermore, it has often been observed that the envelope pattern of a 
signal as displayed from the i.f. of a receiver can be quite different from 
that of a monitor scope at the transmitter site.  This is yet another 
example of how the pattern is altered (distorted) by the selective 
components of the receiver.

In conclusion, there is no correct yes or no answer to the age-old question 
whether or not sidebands are physical reality, or exist only in the 
mathematics of modulation theory. It all depends on how you physically 
observe the signal.  Sidebands physically exist only if you use an 
instrument selective enough to observe them. Recall the Heisenberg 
uncertainty Principle.

Don k4kyv

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