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Sample (signal)

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Sample (signal)

In signal processing, sampling is the reduction of a continuous signal to a discrete signal. A common example is the conversion of a sound wave (a continuous signal) to a sequence of samples (a discrete-time signal).

A sample refers to a value or set of values at a point in time and/or space.

A sampler is a subsystem or operation that extracts samples from a continuous signal.

A theoretical ideal sampler produces samples equivalent to the instantaneous value of the continuous signal at the desired points.


See also: Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem

Sampling can be done for functions varying in space, time, or any other dimension, and similar results are obtained in two or more dimensions.

For functions that vary with time, let s(t) be a continuous function (or "signal") to be sampled, and let sampling be performed by measuring the value of the continuous function every T seconds, which is called the sampling interval. Thus, the sampled function is given by the sequence:

s(nT),   for integer values of n.

The sampling frequency or sampling rate fs is defined as the number of samples obtained in one second (samples per second), thus fs = 1/T.

Reconstructing a continuous function from samples is done by interpolation algorithms. The Whittaker–Shannon interpolation formula is mathematically equivalent to an ideal lowpass filter whose input is a sequence of Dirac delta functions that are modulated (multiplied) by the sample values. When the time interval between adjacent samples is a constant (T), the sequence of delta functions is called a Dirac comb. Mathematically, the modulated Dirac comb is equivalent to the product of the comb function with s(t). That purely mathematical function is often loosely referred to as the sampled signal.

Most sampled signals are not simply stored and reconstructed. But the fidelity of a theoretical reconstruction is a customary measure of the effectiveness of sampling. That fidelity is reduced when s(t) contains frequency components higher than fs/2 Hz, which is known as the Nyquist frequency of the sampler. Therefore s(t) is usually the output of a lowpass filter, functionally known as an "anti-aliasing" filter. Without an anti-aliasing filter, frequencies higher than the Nyquist frequency will influence the samples in a way that is misinterpreted by the interpolation process. For details, see Aliasing.

Practical implications

In practice, the continuous signal is sampled using an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), a device with various physical limitations. This results in deviations from the theoretically perfect reconstruction, collectively referred to as distortion.

Various types of distortion can occur, including:

  • Aliasing. A precondition of the sampling theorem is that the signal be bandlimited. However, in practice, no time-limited signal can be bandlimited. Since signals of interest are almost always time-limited (e.g., at most spanning the lifetime of the sampling device in question), it follows that they are not bandlimited. However, by designing a sampler with an appropriate guard band, it is possible to obtain output that is as accurate as necessary.
  • Aperture error results from the fact that the sample is obtained as a time average within a sampling region, rather than just being equal to the signal value at the sampling instant. In a capacitor-based sample and hold circuit,aperture error is introduced because the capacitor cannot instantly change voltage thus requiring the sample to have non-zero width.
  • Jitter or deviation from the precise sample timing intervals.
  • Noise, including thermal sensor noise, analog circuit noise, etc.
  • Slew rate limit error, caused by the inability of the ADC input value to change sufficiently rapidly.
  • Quantization as a consequence of the finite precision of words that represent the converted values.
  • Error due to other non-linear effects of the mapping of input voltage to converted output value (in addition to the effects of quantization).

Although the use of oversampling can completely eliminate aperture error and aliasing by shifting them out of the pass band, this technique cannot be practically used above a few GHz, and maybe prohibitively expensive at much lower frequencies. Furthermore, while oversampling can reduce quantization error and non-linearity, it cannot eliminate these entirely. Consequently, practical ADCs at audio frequencies typically do not exhibit aliasing, aperture error, and are not limited by quantization error. Instead, analog noise dominates. At RF and microwave frequencies where oversampling is impractical and filters are expensive, aperture error, quantization error and aliasing can be significant limitations.

Jitter, noise, and quantization are often analyzed by modeling them as random errors added to the sample values. Integration and zero-order hold effects can be analyzed as a form of low-pass filtering. The non-linearities of either ADC or DAC are analyzed by replacing the ideal linear function mapping with a proposed nonlinear function.


Audio sampling

Digital audio uses pulse-code modulation and digital signals for sound reproduction. This includes analog-to-digital conversion (ADC), digital-to-analog conversion (DAC), storage, and transmission. In effect, the system commonly referred to as digital is in fact a discrete-time, discrete-level analog of a previous electrical analog. While modern systems can be quite subtle in their methods, the primary usefulness of a digital system is the ability to store, retrieve and transmit signals without any loss of quality.

Sampling rate

When it is necessary to capture audio covering the entire 20–20,000 Hz range of human hearing, such as when recording music or many types of acoustic events, audio waveforms are typically sampled at 44.1 kHz (CD), 48 kHz (professional audio), or 96 kHz. The approximately double-rate requirement is a consequence of the Nyquist theorem.

There has been an industry trend towards sampling rates well beyond the basic requirements; 96 kHz and even 192 kHz are available.[1] This is in contrast with laboratory experiments, which have failed to show that ultrasonic frequencies are audible to human observers; however in some cases ultrasonic sounds do interact with and modulate the audible part of the frequency spectrum (intermodulation distortion). It is noteworthy that intermodulation distortion is not present in the live audio and so it represents an artificial coloration to the live sound.[2]

One advantage of higher sampling rates is that they can relax the low-pass filter design requirements for ADCs and DACs, but with modern oversampling sigma-delta converters this advantage is less important.

Bit depth (quantization)

Audio is typically recorded at 8-, 16-, and 20-bit depth, which yield a theoretical maximum Signal-to-quantization-noise ratio (SQNR) for a pure sine wave of, approximately, 49.93 dB, 98.09 dB and 122.17 dB.[3] CD quality audio is recorded at 16-bit. Thermal noise limits the true number of bits that can be used in quantization. Few analog systems have signal to noise ratios (SNR) exceeding 120 dB. However, digital signal processing operations can have very high dynamic range, consequently it is common to perform mixing and mastering operations at 32-bit precision and then convert to 16 or 24 bit for distribution.

Speech sampling

Speech signals, i.e., signals intended to carry only human speech, can usually be sampled at a much lower rate. For most phonemes, almost all of the energy is contained in the 5Hz-4 kHz range, allowing a sampling rate of 8 kHz. This is the sampling rate used by nearly all telephony systems, which use the G.711 sampling and quantization specifications.

Video sampling

Standard-definition television (SDTV) uses either 720 by 480 pixels (US NTSC 525-line) or 704 by 576 pixels (UK PAL 625-line) for the visible picture area.

High-definition television (HDTV) is currently moving towards three standards referred to as 720p (progressive), 1080i (interlaced) and 1080p (progressive, also known as Full-HD) which all 'HD-Ready' sets will be able to display.


Main article: Undersampling

When a bandpass signal is sampled slower than its Nyquist rate, the samples are indistinguishable from samples of a low-frequency alias of the high-frequency signal. That is often done purposefully in such a way that the lowest-frequency alias satisfies the Nyquist criterion, because the bandpass signal is still uniquely represented and recoverable. Such undersampling is also known as bandpass sampling, harmonic sampling, IF sampling, and direct IF to digital conversion.[4]


Main article: Oversampling

Oversampling is used in most modern analog-to-digital converters to reduce the distortion introduced by practical digital-to-analog converters, such as a zero-order hold instead of idealizations like the Whittaker–Shannon interpolation formula.

Complex sampling

Complex sampling refers to the simultaneous sampling of two different, but related, waveforms, resulting in pairs of samples that are subsequently treated as complex numbers. Usually one waveform, \hat s(t),  is the Hilbert transform of the other waveform, s(t),\,  and the complex-valued function,  s_a(t)\ \stackrel{\text{def}}{=}\ s(t) + j\cdot \hat s(t),  is called an analytic signal,  whose Fourier transform is zero for all negative values of frequency. In that case, the Nyquist rate for a waveform with no frequencies ≥ B can be reduced to just B (complex samples/sec), instead of 2B (real samples/sec).[note 1] More apparently, the equivalent baseband waveform,  s_a(t)\cdot e^{-j 2\pi \frac{B}{2} t},  also has a Nyquist rate of B, because all of its non-zero frequency content is shifted into the interval [-B/2, B/2).

Although complex-valued samples can be obtained as described above, they are much more commonly created by manipulating samples of a real-valued waveform. For instance, the equivalent baseband waveform can be created without explicitly computing \hat s(t),  by processing the product sequence, \left [s(nT)\cdot e^{-j 2 \pi \frac{B}{2}Tn}\right ],[note 2]  through a digital lowpass filter whose cutoff frequency is B/2.[note 3] Computing only every other sample of the output sequence reduces the sample-rate commensurate with the reduced Nyquist rate. The result is half as many complex-valued samples as the original number of real samples. No information is lost, and the original s(t) waveform can be recovered, if necessary.


See also


  • Matt Pharr and Greg Humphreys, Physically Based Rendering: From Theory to Implementation, Morgan Kaufmann, July 2004. available online) is nicely written with diagrams, core theory and code sample.
  • Shannon, Claude E., Communications in the presence of noise, Proc. IRE, vol. 37, pp. 10–21, Jan. 1949.

External links

  • Nyquist sampling in digital microscopy
  • Journal devoted to Sampling Theory
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