In signal processing, a signal is a function that conveys information about a phenomenon. In electronics and telecommunications, it refers to any time varying voltage, current or electromagnetic wave that carries information. A signal may also be defined as an observable change in a quality such as quantity.
Any quality, such as physical quantity that exhibits variation in space or time can be used as a signal to share messages between observers. According to the IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing, a signal can be audio, video, speech, image, sonar and radar-related and so on. In another effort to define signal, anything that is only a function of space, such as an image, is excluded from the category of signals. Also, it is stated that a signal may or may not contain any information.
In nature, signals can be actions done by an organism to alert other organisms, ranging from the release of plant chemicals to warn nearby plants of a predator, to sounds or motions made by animals to alert other animals of food. Signalling occurs in all organisms even at cellular levels, with cell signaling. Signaling theory, in evolutionary biology, proposes that a substantial driver for evolution is the ability for animals to communicate with each other by developing ways of signaling. In human engineering, signals are typically provided by a sensor, and often the original form of a signal is converted to another form of energy using a transducer. For example, a microphone converts an acoustic signal to a voltage waveform, and a speaker does the reverse.
Information theory serves as the formal study of signals and their content, and the information of a signal is often accompanied by noise. The term "noise" refers to unwanted signal modifications, but is often extended to include unwanted signals conflicting with desired signals. The reduction of noise is covered in part under the heading of signal integrity. The separation of desired signals from background noise is the field of signal recovery, one branch of which is estimation theory, a probabilistic approach to suppressing random disturbances.
Engineering disciplines such as electrical engineering have led the way in the design, study, and implementation of systems involving transmission, storage, and manipulation of information. In the latter half of the 20th century, electrical engineering itself separated into several disciplines, specialising in the design and analysis of systems that manipulate physical signals; electronic engineering and computer engineering as examples; while design engineering developed to deal with functional design of user–machine interfaces.
Definitions specific to sub-fields are common. For example, in information theory, a signal is a codified message, that is, the sequence of states in a communication channel that encodes a message. In the context of signal processing, signals are analog and digital representations of analog physical quantities.
In terms of their spatial distributions, signals may be categorized as point source signals and distributed source signals.
In a communication system, a transmitter encodes a message to create a signal, which is carried to a receiver by the communications channel. For example, the words "Mary had a little lamb" might be the message spoken into a telephone. The telephone transmitter converts the sounds into an electrical signal. The signal is transmitted to the receiving telephone by wires; at the receiver it is reconverted into sounds.
In telephone networks, signaling, for example common-channel signaling, refers to phone number and other digital control information rather than the actual voice signal.
Signals can be categorized in various ways. The most common distinction is between discrete and continuous spaces that the functions are defined over, for example discrete and continuous time domains. Discrete-time signals are often referred to as time series in other fields. Continuous-time signals are often referred to as continuous signals.
A second important distinction is between discrete-valued and continuous-valued. Particularly in digital signal processing, a digital signal may be defined as a sequence of discrete values, typically associated with an underlying continuous-valued physical process. In digital electronics, digital signals are the continuous-time waveform signals in a digital system, representing a bit-stream.
Another important property of a signal is its entropy or information content.
In Signals and Systems, signals can be classified according to many criteria, mainly: according to the different feature of values, classified into analog signals and digital signals; according to the determinacy of signals, classified into deterministic signals and random signals; according to the strength of signals, classified into energy signals and power signals.
Two main types of signals encountered in practice are analog and digital. The figure shows a digital signal that results from approximating an analog signal by its values at particular time instants. Digital signals are quantized, while analog signals are continuous.