Distortion (or warping) is the alteration of the original shape (or other characteristic) of something, such as an object, image, sound or waveform. Distortion is usually unwanted, and so engineers strive to eliminate distortion, or minimize it. In some situations, however, distortion may be desirable. The important signal processing operation of heterodyning is based on nonlinear mixing of signals to cause intermodulation. Distortion is also used as a musical effect, particularly with electric guitars.
The addition of noise or other outside signals (hum, interference) is not deemed distortion, though the effects of quantization distortion are sometimes deemed noise. A quality measure that explicitly reflects both the noise and the distortion is the Signal-to-noise-and-distortion (SINAD) ratio.
the output is undistorted. Distortion occurs when the transfer function F is more complicated than this. If F is a linear function, for instance a filter whose gain and/or delay varies with frequency, the signal suffers linear distortion. Linear distortion does not change the shape of a single sinuosoid, but usually changes the shape of a multi-tone signal.
- The first trace (in black) shows the input. It also shows the output from a non-distorting transfer function (straight line).
- A high-pass filter (green trace) distorts the shape of a square wave by reducing its low frequency components. This is the cause of the "droop" seen on the top of the pulses. This "pulse distortion" can be very significant when a train of pulses must pass through an AC-coupled (high-pass filtered) amplifier. As the sine wave contains only one frequency, its shape is unaltered.
- A low-pass filter (blue trace) rounds the pulses by removing the high frequency components. All systems are low pass to some extent. Note that the phase of the sine wave is different for the lowpass and the highpass cases, due to the phase distortion of the filters.
- A slightly non-linear transfer function (purple), this one gently compresses the peaks of the sine wave, as may be typical of a tube audio amplifier. This generates small amounts of low order harmonics.
- A hard-clipping transfer function (red) generates high order harmonics. Parts of the transfer function are flat, which indicates that all information about the input signal has been lost in this region.
The transfer function of an ideal amplifier, with perfect gain and delay, is only an approximation. The true behavior of the system is usually different. Nonlinearities in the transfer function of an active device (such as vacuum tubes, transistors, and operational amplifiers) are a common source of non-linear distortion; in passive components (such as a coaxial cable or optical fiber), linear distortion can be caused by inhomogeneities, reflections, and so on in the propagation path.
Harmonic distortion adds overtones that are whole number multiples of a sound wave's frequencies. Nonlinearities that give rise to amplitude distortion in audio systems are most often measured in terms of the harmonics (overtones) added to a pure sinewave fed to the system. Harmonic distortion may be expressed in terms of the relative strength of individual components, in decibels, or the Root Mean Square of all harmonic components: Total harmonic distortion (THD), as a percentage. The level at which harmonic distortion becomes audible is not straightforward. Different types of distortion (like crossover distortion) are more audible than others (like soft clipping) even if the THD measurements are identical. Harmonic distortion in RF applications is rarely expressed as THD.
Frequency response distortion
Non-flat frequency response is a form of distortion that occurs when different frequencies are amplified by different amounts, caused by filters. For example, the non-uniform frequency response curve of AC-coupled cascade amplifier is an example of frequency distortion. In the audio case, this is mainly caused by room acoustics, poor loudspeakers and microphones, long loudspeaker cables in combination with frequency dependent loudspeaker impedance, etc.
This form of distortion mostly occurs due to the reactive component, such as capacitive reactance or inductive reactance. Here, all the components of the input signal are not amplified with the same phase shift, hence making some parts of the output signal out of phase with the rest of the output.
Group delay distortion
Can be found only in dispersive media. In a waveguide, propagation velocity[disambiguation needed] varies with frequency. In a filter, group delay tends to peak near the cut-off frequency, resulting in pulse distortion. When analog long distance trunks were commonplace, for example in 12 channel carrier, group delay distortion had to be corrected in repeaters.
Correction of distortion
As the system output is given by y(t) = F(x(t)), then if the inverse function F−1 can be found, and used intentionally to distort either the input or the output of the system, then the distortion is corrected.
An example of such correction is where LP/vinyl recordings or FM audio transmissions are deliberately pre-emphasised by a linear filter, the reproducing system applies an inverse filter to make the overall system undistorted.
Correction is not possible if the inverse does not exist—for instance if the transfer function has flat spots (the inverse would map multiple input points to a single output point). This produces an uncorrectable loss of information. Such a situation can occur when an amplifier is overdriven—causing clipping or slew rate distortion when, for a moment, the amplifier characteristics alone and not the input signal determine the output.
Teletypewriter or modem signaling
In binary signaling such as FSK, distortion is the shifting of the significant instants of the signal pulses from their proper positions relative to the beginning of the start pulse. The magnitude of the distortion is expressed in percent of an ideal unit pulse length. This is sometimes called 'bias' distortion.
Telegraphic distortion is a similar older problem, distorting the ratio between "mark" and "space" intervals. 
An audio example of a short sample followed by different distorted versions of it.
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In this context, distortion refers to any kind of deformation of an output waveform compared to its input, usually clipping, harmonic distortion, or intermodulation distortion (mixing phenomena) caused by non-linear behavior of electronic components and power supply limitations. Terms for specific types of nonlinear audio distortion include: crossover distortion, slew-Induced Distortion (SID) and transient intermodulation (TIM).
Distortion in music is sometimes intentionally used as an effect, see also overdrive and distortion synthesis. Other forms of audio distortion that may be referred to are non-flat frequency response, compression, modulation, aliasing, quantization noise, wow and flutter from analog media such as vinyl records and magnetic tape. The human ear cannot hear phase distortion, except that it may affect the stereo imaging. (See also: Audio system measurements.)
In most fields, distortion is characterized as unwanted change to a signal.
- Amplitude distortion
- Attenuation distortion
- Bias distortion
- Crossover distortion
- Distortion (music)
- Distortion power factor
- Image warping
- Intermodulation distortion
- Lossy compression
- Total harmonic distortion
- Tube sound
- Moscal, Tony (1994). Sound Check: The Basics of Sound and Sound Systems. Hal Leonard. p. 55.
- Audio Electronics by John Linsley Hood; page 162