Pump it Up
In the last section, we saw that an amplifier's job is to take a weak audio signal and boost it to generate a signal that is powerful enough to drive a speaker. This is an accurate description when you consider the amplifier as a whole, but the process inside the amplifier is a little more complex.
In actuality, the amplifier generates a completely new output signal based on the input signal. You can understand these signals as two separate circuits. The output circuit is generated by the amplifier's power supply, which draws energy from a battery or power outlet. If the amplifier is powered by household alternating current, where the flow of charge changes directions, the power supply will convert it into direct current, where the charge always flows in the same direction. The power supply also smoothes out the current to generate an absolutely even, uninterrupted signal. The output circuit's load (the work it does) is moving the speaker cone.
The input circuit is the electrical audio signal recorded on tape or running in from a microphone. Its load is modifying the output circuit. It applies a varying resistance to the output circuit to re-create the voltage fluctuations of the original audio signal.
In most amplifiers, this load is too much work for the original audio signal. For this reason, the signal is first boosted by a pre-amplifier, which sends a stronger output signal to the power amplifier. The pre-amplifier works the same basic way as the amplifier: The input circuit applies varying resistance to an output circuit generated by the power supply. Some amplifier systems use several pre-amplifiers to gradually build up to a high-voltage output signal.
So how does the amplifier do this? If you look inside an amplifier for an answer, you'll only find a complex mass of wires and circuitry components. The amplifier needs this elaborate setup to make sure each part of the audio signal is represented correctly and accurately. Hi-fidelity output requires very precise control.
All of the pieces in an amplifier are important, but you certainly don't need to examine each one to understand how an amplifier works. There are only a few elements that are crucial to the amplifier's functioning. In the next section, we'll see how these elements come together in a very basic amplifier design.