What is a Frequency Counter?
Frequency counters are test instruments used to provide very accurate measurements of the frequency of a signal.
Frequency counters are test instruments used in many applications associated with radio frequency engineering to measure the frequency of signals very accurately.
These frequency counters and counter timers are widely used within a variety of areas of electronics test to measure the frequency of repetitive signals, and also for measuring the time between edges on digital signals.
Whilst the actual requirements and applications for RF frequency counters and timers are different, they use the same basic circuitry, with some simple internal reconfiguration and as a result sometimes RF frequency counters are also able to act as timers. Typically the very high RF frequency counters will not incorporate the timer capability.
These test instruments are widely available, and can often be bought for very competitive prices. However, remember that cost is not everything, and a low cost item of test equipment may give poor performance.
Introduction of the digital frequency couner
Prior to the introduction of the digital frequency counter, the measurement of frequencies was significantly more involved, and must less accurate. The RF test equipment used was far more rudimentary.
A number of approaches were used. The most simple was called an absorption wavemeter. This piece of test equipment was just a tuned circuit onto which was connected a diode rectifier and a meter. Essentially this detected the high power transmissions and gave a broad indication of their frequency as the meter deflected.
If more accurate frequency measurements were required, a unit called a heterodyne frequency meter or wavemeter was used.
This is a form is test equipment that uses a crystal oscillator to provide a calibration signal - typically with 1 MHz and 100 kHz crystals that enable the internal oscillator to be calibrated every 100 kHz.
The wave meter can be used to create a signal that can check the frequency of a receiver. Alternatively when used with a transmitter, the transmitted signal will be picked up by the wave meter and heard as a heterodyne within the wavemeter headphones. Again the accurate oscillator used in the wavemeter ensures the frequency of the signal is accurately known.
The first frequency counters introduced used nixie tubes as indicators, but were able to provide a very much faster means of frequency measurement than was previously possible with the heterodyne frequency meters.
Digital frequency counters quickly developed as technology improved increasing the maximum frequency of operation, improving he triggering, and providing more easily visible forms of display.
What is an RF frequency counter: basics
In essence a frequency counter is an electronics test instrument that operates by counting the number of times a signal passes a give voltage point - trigger point - in a given time.
Some frequency counters will have trigger points that can be set, but most automatically set the trigger - often around the zero crossing point.
To illustrate the operation, if the time for which the frequency counter is set to count is a second, i.e. a gate time of a second, and the waveform crosses the trigger point a hundred times, there will be a hundred repetitions of the waveform in a second, i.e. its frequency is 100 Hertz.
If the same waveform was used, but the gate time is reduced to a tenth of a second, then only ten repetitions would be seen. The circuitry can easily accommodate this and the circuit can deduce that in a tenth of a second ten repetitions are seen, then the waveform has a frequency of 100 Hz.
There is a balance between getting an accurate count and the length of time of the gate. With a tenth of a second gate time and a 100Hz signal, only ten crossings will be counted, whereas with a gate time of a second 100 crossings will be counted. Dependent upon where the gate time falls with respect to the incoming signal, it can be seen that the longer gate time will be more accurate.
The issue with the longer gate time is that the update rate is not as fast, but in many situations this may not be an issue.
The length of the gate time is critical. Normally the signal for the gate is taken from a crystal controlled oscillator of some form to ensure an accurate time. Often TCXOs (temperature controlled crystal oscillators), or OCXOs (oven controlled crystal oscillators) are used to ensure the best accuracy.
Another issue with these frequency counters can be that noise on the signal will cause false counts to be registered. Often careful design of the input circuitry can help ensure that these false counts only rarely occur.
RF frequency counter applications
RF frequency counters are used in very many applications where the frequencies of radio frequency or even audio frequency signals are to be measured. Some applications may include:
Measuring the frequency of a transmitter carrier.
Measuring the frequency of an oscillator in a circuit.
Measure the frequency of a signal on a line
Any application where the frequency of a steady repetitive signal needs to be measured.
To be able to measure the frequency of an RF signal using a frequency counter there are a few prerequisites.
Frequency must be steady, i.e. not varying.
The signal should not have modulation applied as this will prevent proper counting.
Signal must have sufficient amplitude – typically signals over about half a volt are suitable.
Signals should not be so large that they overload the input - check the manufacturer’s specification if in doubt.
Whatever the actual format of the PXI frequency counter, the same basic techniques are used, and the frequency counter timer will operate in basically the same way.
RF frequency counters are a widely used piece of electronics test instrumentation. They are used for many RF measurements. Although Spectrum analyzers are also able to make frequency measurements, and todays analyzers can take very accurate readings, RF frequency counters are relatively cheap and provide measurements that are equally accurate or more accurate. They are widely used as bench test equipment.
Counter timers are also widely used test instruments, used for measuring intervals, and they can be used for very accurate measurements.