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In electronics, a local oscillator (LO) is an electronic oscillator used with a mixer to change the frequency of a signal. This frequency conversion process, also called heterodyning, produces the sum and difference frequencies from the frequency of the local oscillator and frequency of the input signal. Processing a signal at a fixed frequency gives a radio receiver improved performance.
Local oscillators are used in the superheterodyne receiver, the most common type of radio receiver circuit. They are also used in many other communications circuits such as modems, cable television set top boxes, frequency division multiplexing systems used in telephone trunklines, microwave relay systems, telemetry systems, atomic clocks, radio telescopes, and military electronic countermeasure (antijamming) systems.
The performance of a signal processing system depends on the characteristics of the local oscillator. The local oscillator must produce a stable frequency with low harmonics.  Stability must take into account temperature, voltage, and mechanical drift as factors. The oscillator must produce enough output power to effectively drive subsequent stages of circuitry, such as mixers or frequency multipliers. It must have low phase noise where the timing of the signal is critical. In a channelized receiver system, the precision of tuning of the frequency synthesizer must be compatible with the channel spacing of the desired signals.
A crystal oscillator is one common type of local oscillator that provides good stability and performance at relatively low cost, but its frequency is fixed, so changing frequencies requires changing the crystal. Tuning to different frequencies requires a variable-frequency oscillator which leads to a compromise between stability and tunability. With the advent of high-speed digital microelectronics, modern systems can use frequency synthesizers to obtain a stable tunable local oscillator, but care must still be taken to maintain adequate noise characteristics in the result.
In many receivers, the function of local oscillator and mixer is combined in one stage called a "converter" - this reduces the space, cost, and power consumption by combining both functions into one active device.
In satellite television reception, the microwave frequencies used from the satellite down to the receiving antenna are converted to lower frequencies by a local oscillator and mixer mounted at the antenna. This allows the received signals to be sent over a length of cable that would otherwise have unacceptable signal loss at the original reception frequency. In this application, the local oscillator is of a fixed frequency and the down-converted signal frequency is variable.
Application of local oscillators in a receiver design requires care to ensure no spurious signals are radiated. Such signals can cause interference in the operation of other receivers. Detection of local oscillator radiation may disclose the presence of the receiver, such as in detection of automotive radar detectors, or detection of unlicensed television broadcast receivers in some countries.
- L. D. Wolfgang, C.L. Hutchinson, The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs Sixty-Eighth Edition, ARRL1990 ISBN 978-0-87259-168-4, page 12-10
- Peter Fortescue, Graham Swinerd, John Stark (ed.): "Spacecraft Systems Engineering", Wiley 2011 ISBN 111997836X, sections 12.3.5 and 12.3.6.
- Bowick, Christopher; Blyler, John; Ajluni, Cheryl: RF Circuit Design (2nd Edition). Elsevier 2008 ISBN 978-0-7506-8518-4 pp. 190–191.