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What is a DSP?

The DSP is at the very heart of the majority of today’s audio equipment. And not just audio equipment. It turns up in some of the most surprising places. But, it isn’t a new thing; it has been around for quite a few years.

But what is a DSP? And does DSP change audio for the better? Let’s take a look…

What Is a Digital Signal Processor?

Digital Signal Processor

DSP stands for Digital Signal Processor. It is a specially designed integrated microprocessor chip that can handle the specific requirements for digital signal processing. It is optimized to measure, filter, and/or compress analog signals.

As a piece of technology, it is found in a range of places. You will find it in smartphones and headphones, in smart speakers, and also in recording studio equipment. It is key to guitar effects pedals and is even found in car sound systems. But, that is just a shortlist of devices that use DSP. There are plenty more, but you get the point. DSP is everywhere!

A Dedicated Processor

You may well have heard the term CPU. The processor driving your laptop or computer, designed to be multifunctional and multipurpose. 

Conversely, the DSP is purely a dedicated high-speed number-cruncher. It will undertake mathematical functions and perform them with low energy consumption and at high speed. As a result, one of the big plus points of DSPs is that they speed up the processing and execution of algorithms for audio-related equipment.

A Variety of Sizes

So, we have an answer to “What is a DSP?”, but what does a DSP do? They can be found in a variety of sizes to handle different applications. From the tiny chips required for voice recognition in smart speakers to the big stuff in recording studios.

Specific Jobs

To give some examples, in your smartphone, the DSP decodes MP3 files. It runs the computations for noise cancellation and boosts the bass and lower frequencies. Furthermore, it is the integral part that recognizes your voice for voice activation processes.

DSPs take the data streams and decode them for your home cinema and turn them into Surround Sound. Additionally, they are in your headphones managing Bluetooth data. If your device is processing audio, it is almost certain to have a DSP built-in.

Changing How You Listen To Your Music

They are here, and we hardly recognize their presence. In many ways, we just accept them as part of the modern audio experience. They are now an essential part of today’s audio equipment.

A decent quality DSP will provide the processing power for some quality effects. Voice recognition, Surround Sound, and noise cancellation are just some of them. In certain situations, they also provide sound editing facilities like an EQ.

And as I have already mentioned, they don’t require much power to work. Therefore, it will help to prolong battery life on your devices and not be a drain. But, there are other ways a DSP improves sound quality.

Performance Correction

Performance Correction

The DSP in the Apple AirPods Max – Silver constantly adjusts the sound of the headset to achieve optimum sound quality. As does the Sony SRS-RA3000 360 Reality Audio Wi-Fi / Bluetooth Wireless Speaker. The DSP has taken much of the guesswork out of getting a great sound. It does it for you.

Digital Sound Effects

The DSP is found in many of the sound effects that musicians use. It takes an analog signal, either from a guitar or a microphone and converts it into a digital format. 

It changes the sound and applies the effect to the level you want using mathematical equations. When it converts back into a real-life analog signal, the sound has had the effects applied to it.

Is It Efficient?

We have already made mention of this, but it is useful if you understand why. All processors are built with what they call architecture and are designed to follow a few basic principles. All computers have a design architecture that is handled by their processors.

This will include code conversions for operations by decoders, the execution of mathematical formulae, memory storage, data operations, and manipulation, etc. It is important to understand that not all computers are the same. 

The Basic Functions

They can be created to do certain jobs, but not all of them. It wouldn’t be very practical to have every computer designed to do everything. Rather a waste in every way. The processors in the CPU of a standard computer are set up to perform basic functions. 

These will include adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, etc. They can handle complex functions, of course. But what they won’t do is handle more complex operations at speed.

The DSP Difference

The DSP is built to optimize those tasks most common in the workload of digital signal processing. Those tasks include a wide range of complex operations, and the DSP is created to handle several at the same time.

These tasks are run in parallel and are known as Superscalar architecture. The processing speeds are much faster and more efficient than a standard CPU processor.

Essential Operation

Essential Operation

Audio signals are not like most other signals. They are time-dependent. Therefore, the architecture of the digital signal processor is designed to accommodate that necessity. Data is fed into and out using a first-in-first-out buffer.

The architecture of the DSP is set up to handle this very ordered system. The CPU in your computer does not work in this way. Where there are multiple data streams, they are not necessarily handled in the order they come through the system. 

Of course, that is not good for audio requirements, which need a very ordered stream. In other words, the DSP operates like a pipeline with data running through it and out again in the order it arrives.

DMA Reliance

Because of how the data is processed and its throughput, the DSP will rely on direct memory access (DMA). It is much more efficient to move the data in and out of the buffers without using processing time. You can say that the architecture of the DSP is optimized in two vital areas:

  • Accelerate mathematical operations in hardware.
  • Optimized memory for real-time data streams.

Put these together, and you have faster and more efficient audio and other systems data processing, such as this Dayton Audio DSP-408 4×8 DSP Digital Signal Processor for Home and Car Audio, this Nakamichi Shockwave Elite 7.2.4 Channel 800W Dolby Atmos Soundbar, and this DOSS SoundBox XL 32W Bluetooth Home Speaker

DSP, in all its glory, in each one.

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What is a DSP – Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that the DSP and its impact are going to grow significantly. While it may take some time, over the next few years, there are going to be major improvements.

As more efficient and practical uses are developed, the DSP will change how we listen to music forever. Likewise, it will be interesting to see exactly where personal audio might end up.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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