RC Waveforms

In the previous RC Charging and RC Discharging tutorials, we saw how a capacitor, C has the ability to both charge itself and also discharges itself through a series connected resistor, R at an amount of time equal to 5 time constants or 5T when a constant DC voltage is either applied or removed.

But what would happen if we changed this constant DC supply to a pulsed or square-wave waveform that constantly changes from a maximum value to a minimum value at a rate determined by its time period or frequency. How would this affect our RC time constant value and the output RC waveform?.

We saw previously that the capacitor charges up to 5T when a voltage is applied and discharges down to 5T when it is removed. In RC charging and discharging circuits this 5T time constant value always remains true as it is fixed by the resistor-capacitor (RC) combination. Then the actual time required to fully charge or discharge the capacitor can only be changed by changing the value of either the capacitor itself or the resistor in the circuit and this is shown below.

Typical RC Waveform

rc waveform


Square Wave Signal

Useful wave shapes can be obtained by using RC circuits with the required time constant. If we apply a continuous square wave voltage waveform to the RC circuit whose frequency matches that exactly of the 5RC time constant ( 5T ) of the circuit, then the voltage waveform across the capacitor would look something like this:

A 5RC Input Waveform

square wave rc waveform


The voltage drop across the capacitor alternates between charging up to Vc and discharging down to zero according to the input voltage. Here in this example, the frequency (and therefore the resulting time period, ƒ = 1/T) of the input square wave voltage waveform exactly matches that of the 5RC time constant, as ƒ = 1/5RC, allowing the capacitor to fully charge and fully discharge on every cycle resulting in a perfectly matched RC waveform.

If the time period of the input waveform is made longer (lower frequency, ƒ < 1/RC) for example a time period equivalent to say “8RC”, the capacitor would then stay fully charged longer and also stay fully discharged longer producing an RC waveform as shown.

A Longer 8RC Input Waveform

longer rc time period


If however we reduced the time period of the input waveform (higher frequency, ƒ > 1/5RC), to “4RC” the capacitor would not have sufficient time to either fully charge or discharge with the resultant voltage drop across the capacitor, Vc being less than its maximum input voltage would produce an RC waveform as shown below.

A Shorter 4RC Input Waveform

short rc time period


Frequency Response

The RC Integrator

The Integrator is a type of Low Pass Filter circuit that converts a square wave input signal into a triangular waveform output. As seen above, if the 5RC time constant is long compared to the time period of the input RC waveform the resultant output will be triangular in shape and the higher the input frequency the lower will be the output amplitude compared to that of the input.

rc integrator circuit


From which we derive an ideal voltage output for the integrator as:

rc integrator equation


The RC Differentiator

The Differentiator is a High Pass Filter type circuit that converts a square wave input signal into high frequency spikes at its output. If the 5RC time constant is short compared to the time period of the input waveform the capacitor will become fully charged quickly before the next change in the cycle.

When the capacitor is fully charged the output voltage across the resistor is zero. The arrival of the falling edge of the input waveform causes the capacitor to reverse charge giving a negative output spike, then as the square wave input changes during each cycle the output spike changes from a positive value to a negative value.

rc differentiator circuit


from which we have an ideal voltage output for the Differentiator as:

differentiator equation

Alternating Sine Wave Input Signal

If we now change the input RC waveform of these RC circuits to that of a sinusoidal Sine Wave voltage signal the resultant output RC waveform will remain unchanged and only its amplitude will be affected. By changing the positions of the Resistor, R or the Capacitor, C a simple first order Low Pass or a High Pass filters can be made with the frequency response of these two circuits dependant upon the input frequency value.

Low-frequency signals are passed from the input to the output with little or no attenuation, while high-frequency signals are attenuated significantly to almost zero. The opposite is also true for a High Pass filter circuit. Normally, the point at which the response has fallen 3dB (cut-off frequency, ƒc) is used to define the filters bandwidth and a loss of 3dB corresponds to a reduction in output voltage to 70.7 percent of the original value.

RC Filter Cut-off Frequency

rc filter cut-off frequency

where RC is the time constant of the circuit previously defined and can be replaced by tau, T. This is another example of how the Time Domain and the Frequency Domain concepts are related.


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3 Responses to “RC Waveforms”

  1. avatar


    I used a function generator to input Square wave voltage into a series RC circuit. The function generator was at 40 Hz and the trace on the oscilloscope looked like the typical RC wave form. At first I thought it that the differentiator explained what I saw on my oscilloscope but I didn’t see multiple peaks, I only saw one. Can you explain why the output didn’t look like the output for the 5RC input waveform in the article?


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