Generation of sophisticated signals is becoming a requirement as electronics continue to grow in complexity. Contemporary waveform generators are quite powerful; however, they can be difficult for some users because of their complexity, and many people fail to take advantage of all the useful features available to them.

Choosing the appropriate waveform generator can be overwhelming when one is comparing the specifications of different models including digital-to-analog converter resolution, memory depth, sequencing, sweeping, triggering, synchronization, and clock rates and topology. Let’s take a look at some common features of waveform generators.

Waveform generators simplify generation of test signals as well as generate standard functions, arbitrary waveforms, and waveform sequences. Some common waveform generator features include triggering, sweeping, binary modulation, simultaneous load and play, and synchronization outputs.

One can synchronize one or more outputs to an external event with triggering or burst operating mode. The waveform generator generates a certain number of waveform cycles at a trigger event in burst operating mode, and the number of cycles generated is usually programmable. One cycle is a single period of the waveform for standard functions and arbitrary waveforms and, for arbitrary sequences, a cycle consists of a complete progression through all waveforms in a sequence.

Sweep operating mode generates a swept-frequency signal. The shape of the waveform remains constant in digital-to-analog converter memory in sweep mode. The start and stop frequencies are often programmable as well as the sweep’s duration. One may also select up, down, or up and down sweep directions on certain waveform generators.

In binary modulation mode an internal or external modulation source is used to switch between two waveforms and this enables amplitude, frequency, and phase shift keying as well as toggling between two arbitrary waveforms or gated signal generation. The modulation source is generally selected between the internal and external sources.

The simultaneous load and play feature enables one to switch between output waveforms seamlessly and provides upload access to the next waveform while the waveform generator is creating its current output waveform.

A number of waveform generators feature synchronization pulses, which can be routed to either the front panel or backplane outputs and are especially useful for creating time marker or trigger output pulses with precise relative position with regard to the output analog waveform or waveforms.


George Leger has a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, worked in private industry pioneering surface-mount technology and in government research labs for twenty years, published several papers on surface-mount technology, co-authored papers published in national symposiums on accelerator technology, was past president of SMTA and an adjunct professor at the community college level, holds a patent, and is a certified microchip design partner, serving as a consultant to many companies developing electronic circuits.

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