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While studying about various communication systems (Superheterodyne receivers and Television receivers, to name a few) I often come across blocks that convert RF signals to Intermediate Frequency (IF) signals. What is the need for this conversion? Can't the RF signals be processed directly without converting them to IF signals?

I referred this question, but its answer didn't explain about the need for IF conversion.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It isn't an answer, but do note that some receivers use multiple IF stages at different frequencies. \$\endgroup\$ – a CVn Aug 23 '13 at 23:48
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This answer is focussing on radio receivers such as AM and FM.

If you are only interested in receiving a signal from one station you may not need to have or use an intermediate frequency. You can build your receiver to tune in to just that frequency - the tuning needs to be sharp - you need to reject all possible other sources that may pollute the signal you want.

This is done by a bunch of band pass filters that together, have a passband that is wide enough to cope with the signal you wish to receive but not so wide that it lets others in.

Now say you wanted to tune in to 2 stations - you'd have to re-align all this filtering to coincide with a new station. Historically radios were simple and moving a bunch of tuned band pass filters to a new centre frequency would be hard.

It was a lot easier to have a bunch of fixed band-pass filters that did the majority of all the unwanted channel rection rather than trying to align them as you tuned the dial.

Thus super-heterodyne receivers were conceived. The incoming broad range of many radio stations were "mixed" with an oscillator that can be simply tuned with a dial - this produced sum and difference frequencies and usually the difference frequency became the new "wanted" frequency. So for FM (88MHz to 108MHz), the I.F. frequency became 10.7MHz and the oscillator would be (typically) at 98.7MHz for tuning 88MHz signals and at 118.7MHz for tuning 108MHz signals.

Don't hang me on this - it could equally be at 77.3MHz rising to 97.3MHz to produce the same set of difference frequencies. Maybe someone can modify my answer or advise me on this.

It's a small matter though because the point is that once you were able to manipulate the incoming signal's carrier frequency you can feed the result through a tightly tuned fixed set of band-pass filters before you demodulate.

A bit more info about the VHF FM band

It goes from 88MHz to 108MHz and has an IF that is just slightly bigger (10.7MHz) than half the frequency range it covers. There is a sensible reason - if the oscillator were exactly tuned to pick up 88MHz (i.e. osc = 98.7MHz) the difference frequency it would produce from the top of the band at 108MHz would be 9.3MHz and this would be just out of band of the tuning centred at 10.7 MHz and therefore "rejected".

Of course if someone started transmitting just outside the FM band you may pick this up but I believe that legislation prevents this.


Following recent activity in this question I remembered that there is another valid reason for using an intermediate frequency. Consider that the signal from an antenna might be in the order of 1 uV RMS and then consider that you'll probably want the radio circuit to amplify this to something like 1V RMS (forgive the hand waving) at the demodulator. Well, that's a gain of 1 million or 120 dB and, no matter how hard you might try, having a circuit board with a gain of 120 dB is a recipe for feedback disaster i.e. it will oscillate and turn into a "theramin".

What an IF gets you is a break in the signal chain which prevents oscillation. So, you might have 60 dB of RF gain then convert to your IF and have 60 dB of IF gain - the signal at the end of the chain is no longer frequency compatible with what happens at the antenna and therefore, there is no theramin effect!

Some radios might have two intermediate frequencies - for just this reason alone you can reduce the RF gain to 40 dB and each IF stage can have a gain of 40 dB and NO theramin.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The IF is slightly bigger than half the frequency range it covers, and this is to avoid generating images inside the band. The name of the musical instrument you refer to is 'theremin'. \$\endgroup\$ – user207421 Nov 18 '15 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EJP thank you and yes, the IF has to be bigger than half the range - silly me! \$\endgroup\$ – Andy aka Nov 18 '15 at 21:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've seen a transistor-radio designs that use a couple transistors to amplify the RF, filter out audio, demodulate it, inject that signal back to the input, and use the same transistors to amplify it again as audio; I wonder if a superheterodyne receiver could use the same amplification stage three times? \$\endgroup\$ – supercat Nov 14 '16 at 16:35
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IF makes the receiver both more economical and higher quality. RF parts are trickier to make and use, and the circuitry more beset with problems of stray capacitance, inductance, noise, ground loops and interference. More so the higher the frequency. But we must have an RF front end because the signal at the antenna connection is just too weak to do anything with but amplify it. Necessary but expensive, designers want to minimize the amount of RF circuitry.

OTOH, we want good selectivity. Transmissions are allotted bandwidth, and multiple transmitters are under pressure to be squeezed together next to one another in frequency. We want a flat passband for the desired frequency, and complete blockage of frequencies outside that. Perfection is impossible but tradeoffs can be made for a "good enough" filter. This takes advanced filter design, not just a plain LC tuned circuit. While this could be done in RF, in theory, in practice it'll be tricky and expensive, and hard to make stable against temperature changes and aging.

We can make better filters meeting complex response requirements at lower frequencies, e.g. tens of MHZ, or sub-MHz. The lower the frequency, the easier it is to design a decent approximation to a rectangle response function filter. Turns out that making the down-converter - the local oscillator and mixer - is relatively easy and economical. Overall the system is most economical with minimal RF front end amplifiers, a down converter, and a beefy well-designed IF section doing all the fancy filtering.

The main lesson points are: * The higher the frequency, the more expensive and troublesome it is. * Elaborate filter requirements (anything beyond an elementary tuned circuit) is best done at lower frequencies

I find it interesting that this design strategy has held up over decades for many different systems utilizing wildly different technologies. Old vacuum tube radios looking like wooden furniture in the 1930s-1940s, transistor radios in the 1960s, tiny cell phones and bluetooth devices today, giant radio astronomy telescopes, spacecraft telemetry, and more.

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Basically it's to allow the demodulation circuit to be made very sensitive with a narrow bandwidth.

If the demodulation circuit had to be wideband (say, able to work for any frequency from 88-108 MHz for FM), keeping a flat response across the entire frequency range would be difficult. Instead, the tuner is wideband and then beat (heterodyned) to a single intermediate frequency and sent to a very optimized demodulation circuit.

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Early radios used Tune RF stages to amplify weak radio signals to the point an AM "detector" could convert them back to audio. These TRF radios would have anywhere from one stage to as many as 12 stages. The more stages, the better the reception for weak signals and the better the image rejection (rejection of nearby frequencies). This worked well when there were only a few radio stations but did not work well when more stations started crowding the airwaves.

A TRF radio uses a tuned circuit whose Q for each stage is set to allow all of the frequencies for the audio bandwidth being used to pass through and a little amplification to boost the signal to usable levels. This had a few drawbacks as others have pointed out and a few they missed. If the stages were too high in gain they might start oscillating and the radio stops working. Even with ganged variable capacitors, getting all the stages to stay on frequency was hard so provisions were made at some stages or all stages for "trimming" the signal. This is why pictures you see of early radio sets had so many knobs. Quite a few were for the "trimmer" variable capacitors and others were tube bias adjustments to set the gain to prevent feedback. This, as you can imagine, would make tuning in a radio station quite a production and when the "old man of the house" was going to listen to the radio it was a big event.

It was known before the turn of the 19th century that if two oscillators were near each other that they would "beat" against each other and produce a new signal as in the case of two flutes tuned to the same pitch. This was exploited in several interesting ways at the beginning of the 20th century. The first use was in a baseband CW detector that converted a radio signal to audible sound much more cleanly than the barrater and other convoluted detector devices. The Theremin uses heterodyning of two oscillators where one has it's tuning capacitance supplied by a small plate or wire and the users hand.

Major Armstrong in the US and a few others in Europe realized during WWI that this could be exploited to make a receiver that had only a few very high gain stages and much simpler tuning filters. The mixer stage would take the incoming RF, heterodyne it against the local oscillator and due to the nonlinear behavior of the mixer stage produce both a sum and a difference frequency. Usually it was the difference frequency that was lower than the RF or oscillator that was used. At 1MHz, the LO is set for 1.455MHz and a signal at 455KHz (the difference) and at 1.91MHz (the sum) are produced.

Instead of many tuned stages whose gain was tailored to prevent oscillation as their input and output frequencies was all the same, one or two higher gain stages for the RF could be followed by one or more carefully designed stages all operating at a different fixed frequency that did not need to be adjusted.

From a many sectioned tuning capacitor that were very expensive and difficult to produce you need only two or three sections that become a much smaller expense. This was also easier to tune as the selectivity of having the IF at 455KHz meant no radio stations at that frequency would exist since the broadcast band is 540KHz to 1650KHz.

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