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Find Your Modulation Sweet spot

by Mark Persons
Radio World Article
October 9, 2019

Give your AM listeners a pleasant experience with natural-sounding audio.

First Iíll tell what you already know. Back in the day, AM broadcasting was king and FM was commercial-free. Things changed in the 1970s as FM grew in popularity. Here we are 40+ years later with many AMs struggling. Some have gone away because they were no longer financially viable. To make matters worse, AM directional stations are more time-intensive and costly to maintain, especially when compared to FM stations.

On the positive side, I know a number of smaller AM/FM combination and standalone AM stations in Minnesota that are doing well. One town has a 1 kW AM with a 100 kW FM. The AM brings in 40% of the sales revenue because it has always been locally programmed with live announcers until 1 p.m., then is live again during afternoon drive.

AM radio isnít supposed to sound bad. It can be a clean and pleasurable listening experience, even when there is only 3 kHz of audio bandwidth. On the other hand, AM can be ugly to the ear when there are maladjustments.

Modulation is the process of adding audio to a transmitted signal. Amplitude modulation is aptly named. A stationís carrier (transmitter power) is varied by the stationís audio. Carrier power is depressed to zero watts to achieve 100% negative modulation. It increases to 1.5 times carrier power when 100% positive modulation is reached. That is why a thermocouple antenna ammeter reading rises with modulation. You read it during a programming pause to get an accurate measurement.

AM modulation monitors have Ė100% and +125% lights indicating overmodulation. You really donít want those lights to come on. More is not better.  First, be sure to set the monitorís RF carrier level control so the carrier meter needle is in the right spot, as per manufacturerís instructions. A carrier meter misadjustment will result in inaccurate modulation monitor readings. 

Fig. 1 shows an AM modulation monitor. The Ė100% and +125% lights are on and yet the analog modulation meter reads only 94%. It is normal for an analog meter to read lower than actual modulation. In fact, 85 to 90% is a more realistic meter display, because it cannot track peaks as lights do.

Fig. 1: AM modulation monitor showing overmodulation.

A monitorís audio output will sound excessively bright or harsh if a de-emphasis audio circuit is not included. Monitors traditionally do not have this, but often a simple capacitor and resistor modification will do the trick. The idea is to undo the high-frequency boost that is a part of the audio processing, per the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC) standard. As you probably know, the transmitted audio has increased high-frequency response to overcome high-frequency rolloff in most receivers. The goal is to restore flat frequency response to the listener. Some audio processor manufacturers are using non-standard pre-emphasis curves to suit their taste. That complicates getting a realistic feel for frequency response. At least they are trying to make the best of receiver frequency response roll-off.

An article I wrote regarding the operation of oscilloscopes, ďYour Scope Is a Tool for all Seasons,Ē appeared in the Jan. 13, 2013, edition of Radio World.  To refresh your memory, a scope has a display where a dot that travels from left to right is deflected up and down with voltage. In this case, we will look at a transmitterís RF output.

Fig. 2: An AM RF carrier wave on an oscilloscope.
Iíll begin with Fig. 2. It shows an oscilloscope with a view of the transmitterís carrier with the scope sweeping at high speed (0.2 microsends per horizontal screen division) to see the actual carrier wave of an AM radio station. By carrier, I mean the transmitterís power output. What you see is an almost perfect sine wave at the stationís operating frequency.
Fig. 3: A carrier with no modulation.
Letís zoom in to the scopeís screen. Fig. 3 shows the carrier when the oscilloscope is slowed down to view audio (0.2 milliseconds per division). No modulation was present at that instant. Fig. 4 shows a 1 kHz sine wave modulating the carrier 100% positive and negative. The positive parts are the top and bottom peaks. They are mirror images of each other. The negative modulation part is where the carrier is just pinched-off at zero power in the center of the screen. This sine wave is relatively clean/undistorted, with less than 0.5% audio harmonic distortion.
Fig. 4: A carrier modulated 100% with a 1 kHz sine wave.
Many receivers do not reproduce it that way. The last 5 or 10% of negative modulation, between 90 and 100%, is where receiver detectors have trouble faithfully reproducing what the transmitter is sending. The result is audio distortion. We all know that unwanted audio artifacts are a listener turnoff.
Fig. 5: 100% modulation with receiver detector output.
In Fig. 5, Iíve switched the oscilloscope to dual trace mode. It shows the transmitter at 100% modulation on the top trace. The bottom trace was sampled at the receiverís detector. I made the measurement there so it rules out additional audio harmonic distortion, which might be added in the output stage. By definition, harmonic distortion is where this 1 kHz audio tone will have unwanted audio products at 2 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz etc. because of non-linear system performance. In this case, distortion from transmitter through the receiver detector measured 5.1%. It was only 3.1% at 90% modulation.
Fig. 6: 125% positive modulation, 100% negative modulation with receiver detector.

Fig. 6: Traditional analog audio processing used diodes to clip the negative side of audio before it went to the transmitter so it would not attempt to overmodulate the negative modulation while allowing positive modulation to go to 125%. The downside is that it added as much as 6.5% harmonic distortion in the process. Add the receiverís problems to the mix and you have a whopping 10.2% distortion. Ouch! Youíd never allow that on FM.

Newer digital processors reduce but may not eliminate the problem. Yes, the station can be a bit (about 0.9 dB) louder on the dial, but it is irritating to many listeners. They donít know how to describe it, but oops, there goes another tune-out! Again, some people hear it and some donít. Best not to penalize the station with high modulation.

Fig. 7: The transmitter is being badly over-driven at 100% negative modulation.

Fig. 7 shows the transmitter being modulated at over 100% negative modulation. Iíve moved the scopeís trace up a bit so you can see detail. Negative peaks go flat to the center, which is no carrier at that instant. Modulation like this will not pass the required NRSC occupied bandwidth nor will it pass my ear test for listenability. It is tiring to hear.

Fig. 8 is where you want to be. No more than 95% negative modulation, the sweet spot between loudness and listenability.

Fig. 8: 95% program modulation of the carrier.

It is a shame to lose listeners for that last 5% (about 0.5 dB) of modulation. Few if any will hear the loudness difference. Likely most will hear grit in the audio of transmitters modulated to the max. You can make up much of the modulation percentage difference with careful adjustments of the audio processing, before it goes to the transmitter. Software-defined receivers eventually will solve much of this problem, but we need to deal with todayís radios.

When I was installing AM stereo years ago, negative modulation was usually set at 95% and positive modulation at 95% for stations to sound clean. It was positive +125% if the client preferred it. That extra positive modulation comes as ďforced asymmetryĒ where the negative audio peaks are soft clipped so the positive peaks can go higher. Ouch!

Surprisingly, bad-sounding audio with less than 100% modulation will usually fit into the NRSC occupied bandwidth mask, in the FCC required annual measurement. That is because of the required 9.5 kHz low-pass filter in audio processing.

AM stations competed in loudness wars to beat the other guy years ago. Now it is time to give listeners a pleasant experience with natural-sounding audio. Donít drive them away.

I grew up in a broadcasting family that owned two AM stations and no FM. Success was dependent on keeping listeners. Loudness was not the answer.

Mark Persons, ham W0MH, is an SBE Certified Professional Broadcast Engineer and SBE Engineer of the Year in 2018. He is now retired after more than 40 years in business. His website is
Email December 4, 2019:  I found Mr. Persons' article very informative and helpful.   Distortion is a turn-off.... and I had never considered the distortion inherent in the garden-variety AM envelope detector in the home receiver.... shame on me.   Hopefully, this will lead to better sounding AM.  One nit to pick: The peak power for a 100% modulated AM signal is four times carrier power, not 1.5 times as stated in the article.  James Thoruson, Central Coast Electronics.    Answer: Average power is what I was thinking of when writing the article.  Mr. Thoruson is correct in saying that peak power is four times unmodulated power.  Mark Persons

Email December 4, 2019:  Mark: Thanks for pointing out that modulation percentages above 95% are recovered with higher distortion in AM receivers and add little to the coveted, by most engineers, loudness.  I always operated the AM stations that I was associated with at no more than 95% negative modulation.  Glynn Walden

Email:  November 6, 2019: Hi Mark, I enjoyed your modulation article in Radio World.  It should be required reading for a lot of the "Wanna be" radio station engineers today.  Bill Riches, dB Electronics, Cape May, NJ.

Email October 27, 2019:  Great article in the October 9 Radio World, "Finding Your Modulation Sweet Spot."  As a former engineer, now a radio station owner, (I liked engineering better),  AM or FM, I donít care as long as I have a great sales staff and fantastic local programming.  I recently purchased an AM in Orlando on 660 and we started a fun, new local talk station that is really starting to take off.   Thanks for the great insight and very useful information on your website.  John Caracciolo, President and CEO of JVC Broadcasting.

This is a reprint of the article which appeared in the online version of Radio World at:

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