Digital signal processing
Introduction to Digital Signals
Continuous vs Discrete
In order to understand the benefits and limitations of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) it is important to understand the distinction between Continuous and Discrete signal representations. In the Synth DIY world, much use is made of the terms Analog and Digital without any clear explanation of the very different assumptions that underpin those terms.
A signal can be defined as any function that conveys information about the state of a physical system. This is usually represented as a variation of values over time or space. Signals are represented mathematically as functions of one or more independent variables.
Continuous-time signals are defined across a continuum of time and reflect a continuously variable value. So, for example
- f(t) = sin(2wt)
is continuously defined for any and all values of t.
Discrete-time signals are only defined at specific times and the independent variables can therefore only take on discrete values. Discrete-time signals are represented by a sequence of discrete values. In the context of Synth applications, the specific times at which the signals are defined are regular and evenly spaced.
In real world applications, the values a signal takes on as it varies usually represents an amplitude. The signal amplitude can also be either continuous or discrete.
When we talk about an analog signal, we are usually referring to a signal that is both a continuous-time and continuous-amplitude signal. A digital signal is both a discrete-time and discrete-amplitude signal, which translates into the reality that it is both sampled (discrete-time) and quantised (discrete-amplitude).
This all sounds very academic, of course, but is important to understand the fundamental differences between the two domains when making design decisions around sample rates, bit resolution and cost when selecting components for implementing DSP hardware.