Dealing with Complex Numbers

A complex number with its I and Q components

Although complex notation is not complex to understand (see Chapter 8 in Understanding Digital Signal Processing by Richard Lyons for an excellent tutorial), one of the themes of this text is to avoid complex notation altogether.

A complex number is defined as an ordered pair of real numbers in (x,y)-plane. In that respect, complex numbers can be considered as vectors with initial point on the origin (0,0). Addition of complex numbers is then similar to the addition of vectors in (x,y)-plane from this perspective.

However, multiplication is well defined for complex numbers while it is not defined for vectors — the dot product of two vectors is a scalar, not a vector, while the cross product of two vectors in a plane is a vector that is outside of that plane. The product of complex numbers, on the other hand, is a complex number — an extremely useful property.

For our purpose, using the complex numbers but still staying clear of the complex notation means that we focus on a 2-dimensional plane with x or real-axis named as I (which stands for inphase) and y or imaginary-axis named as Q (which stands for quadrature), as shown in this Figure. In the post about frequency, we will learn why the x and y components are called inphase and quadrature, respectively.

From a signal processing perspective, I and Q are just two real signals that appear on two separate wires which can be manipulated according to the underlying algorithms. Through this approach, we can deal with complex numbers as a pair of real numbers only.

Magnitude and Phase

In polar representation of complex numbers, the magnitude of V in an IQ-plane is defined as

    \begin{equation*}         |V| = \sqrt{V_I^2 + V_Q^2}         \end{equation*}

Defining the phase \measuredangle V is a little trickier. It is tempting to define it as \tan^{-1} V_Q/V_I. However, a problem with this is that

    \begin{align*}             \tan^{-1} \frac{+V_Q}{+V_I} ~&=~ \tan^{-1} \frac{-V_Q}{-V_I} \quad \rightarrow \quad \text{in}~ [0,+\pi/2],~ \text{quadrant I} \\             \tan^{-1} \frac{-V_Q}{+V_I} ~&=~ \tan^{-1} \frac{+V_Q}{-V_I} \quad \rightarrow \quad \text{in}~ [0,-\pi/2],~ \text{quadrant IV}         \end{align*}

There is no way to differentiate whether V lies in quadrant I or III. The same holds for V lying in quadrant II or IV. On the other hand, the above Figure tells us that V can lie in any quadrant and its phase should be in the range [-\pi,\pi) because

  • Quadrant I: \measuredangle V should be in [0,\pi/2]
  • Quadrant II: \measuredangle V should be in [\pi/2,\pi]
  • Quadrant III: \measuredangle V should be in [-\pi/2,-\pi]
  • Quadrant IV: \measuredangle V should be in [0,-\pi/2]

Similarly, from Figure below,

3 cases where inverse tan fails

  • Case 1: When V_I<0 and V_Q=0, the phase of V should be \pi, not 0
  • Case 2: When V_I=0 and V_Q>0, the phase of V should be +\pi/2
  • Case 3: When V_I=0 and V_Q<0, the phase of V should be -\pi/2

Taking into account all four quadrants, \measuredangle V is defined in terms of \tan^{-1} (V_Q/V_I) as

    \begin{equation*}         \measuredangle V =             \begin{cases}             \tan^{-1} \frac{V_Q}{V_I} &  V_I > 0 \\             \tan^{-1} \frac{V_Q}{V_I} + \pi &  V_I < 0  \mbox{ and } V_Q \ge 0\\             \tan^{-1} \frac{V_Q}{V_I} - \pi &  V_I < 0 \mbox{ and } V_Q < 0\\             +\pi/2 &  V_I = 0 \mbox{ and } V_Q > 0\\             -\pi/2 &  V_I = 0 \mbox{ and } V_Q < 0             %\mbox{indeterminate } &  V_I = 0 \mbox{ and } V_Q = 0.             \end{cases}     \end{equation*}

From here onwards, we will call this adjustment as four-quadrant inverse tangent.

Addition and Multiplication Operations

The addition and multiplication rules for complex numbers are explained below.

Operations in IQ-plane

Following rules apply to two complex numbers U and V in an IQ-plane, which is basically a simpler way to write complex additions and multiplications.

W = U + V implies

    \begin{align*}             W_I\: &= U_I + V_I \\             W_Q &= U_Q + V_Q           \end{align*}

Note that one complex addition results in two real additions, one each for I and Q, as shown in Figure below.

W = UV implies

(1)   \begin{equation*}           \begin{aligned}             |W| &= |U|.|V| \\             \measuredangle W &= \measuredangle U +\measuredangle V           \end{aligned}         \end{equation*}

which in IQ form results in

(2)   \begin{equation*}           \begin{aligned}             W_I\: &= U_I  V_I - U_Q V_Q \\             W_Q &= U_Q  V_I + U_I V_Q           \end{aligned}                   \end{equation*}

We will call the above equation the multiplication rule. Note that one complex multiplication results in 4 real multiplications and 2 real additions. This is illustrated in Figure below.

Complex addition and multiplication shown as actual real addition and multiplication respectively

Addition rule above makes perfect sense: both I components are added together as well as both Q components. The multiplication rule seems a little strange though: I is a difference between products of two aligned-axes terms (i.e., I\cdot IQ\cdot Q), while Q is a sum of products of two cross-axes terms (i.e., Q\cdot I + I\cdot Q).

To see why multiplication of two complex numbers is perfectly logical, consider that U_I = |U| \cos \measuredangle U and U_Q = |U| \sin \measuredangle U, while V_I = |V| \cos \measuredangle V and V_Q = |V| \sin \measuredangle V. Plugging in these values in Eq (2),

    \begin{align*}             W_I\: &= |U| \cos \measuredangle U \cdot |V| \cos \measuredangle V - |U| \sin \measuredangle U \cdot |V| \sin \measuredangle V \\             W_Q &= |U| \sin \measuredangle U \cdot |V| \cos \measuredangle V + |U| \cos \measuredangle U \cdot |V| \sin \measuredangle V           \end{align*}

which leads to

    \begin{align*}             W_I\: &= |U| |V| \left(\cos \measuredangle U \cdot \cos \measuredangle V - \sin \measuredangle U \cdot \sin \measuredangle V \right) \\             W_Q &= |U| |V| \left( \sin \measuredangle U \cdot \cos \measuredangle V + \cos \measuredangle U \cdot \sin \measuredangle V \right)          \end{align*}

Using the identities \cos A \cos B - \sin A \sin B = \cos (A+B) and \sin A \cos B + \cos A \sin B = \sin (A+B),

    \begin{align*}             W_I\: &= |U| |V| \cos \left(\measuredangle U + \measuredangle V \right)  \\             W_Q &= |U| |V|  \sin \left( \measuredangle U + \measuredangle V \right)           \end{align*}

which is equivalent to Eq (1). Hence, multiplication of two complex numbers is about multiplying their magnitudes and adding their phases.

Phase Rotation

Rotating a complex number in IQ-plane by a phase \theta seems very simple in complex notation but a bit complicated in IQ terms. Rotation implies keeping the magnitude constant and adding \theta to the angle of that complex number, as shown in Figure below.

Rotation of a complex number

To start, let us multiply a complex number V by a complex number U with magnitude 1 and angle \theta. Using |U| = 1 and \measuredangle U = \theta,

    \begin{equation*}         U_I = \cos \theta \quad \textmd{and} \quad  U_Q = \sin \theta     \end{equation*}

Plugging in Eq (2),

(3)   \begin{flalign*}           \begin{gathered}             I \quad \rightarrow \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V} \\             Q \quad \uparrow~~ \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V}           \end{gathered}           &&           \begin{aligned}             W_I\: &= V_I \cdot \cos \theta - V_Q \cdot \sin \theta \\             W_Q &= V_Q \cdot \cos \theta + V_I \cdot \sin \theta           \end{aligned}           &&         \end{flalign*}

Using V_I = |V| \cos \measuredangle V and V_Q = |V| \sin \measuredangle V,

    \begin{flalign*}           \begin{gathered}             I \quad \rightarrow \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V} \\             Q \quad \uparrow~~ \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V}           \end{gathered}           &&           \begin{aligned}             W_I\: &= |V| \left(\cos \measuredangle V \cdot \cos \theta - \sin \measuredangle V \cdot \sin \theta \right) \\             W_Q &= |V| \left( \sin \measuredangle V \cdot \cos \theta + \cos \measuredangle V \cdot \sin \theta \right)           \end{aligned}           &&         \end{flalign*}

Again using the identities \cos A \cos B - \sin A \sin B = \cos (A+B) and \sin A \cos B + \cos A \sin B = \sin (A+B),

(4)   \begin{flalign*}           \begin{gathered}             I \quad \rightarrow \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V + \theta} \\             Q \quad \uparrow~~ \vphantom{|V| \cos \measuredangle V + \theta}           \end{gathered}           &&           \begin{aligned}             W_I\: &= |V| \cos \left(\measuredangle V + \theta \right) \\             W_Q &= |V|   \sin \left(\measuredangle V + \theta \right)           \end{aligned}           &&         \end{flalign*}

which keeps the magnitude unchanged and adds the angle \theta to the existing angle.

From Eq (3) and Eq (4), a fast rule for phase rotation can be devised as follows. For a complex number V and an angle +\theta (i.e., counterclockwise rotation), the phase rotation rule states that

Phase rule for counterclockwise rotation

Similarly, for a complex number V and an angle -\theta (i.e., clockwise rotation)

Phase rule for clockwise rotation

The phase rotation rule above is important because we are not using complex notation in this text. That implies having on our disposal a quick way to recognize an equation if it rotates a complex number by an angle. The above two equations help fulfill that purpose.


The conjugate V^* of a complex number V is defined as

    \begin{align*}             \{V ^*\}_I\: &= V_I \\             \{V ^*\}_Q &= -V_Q           \end{align*}

Since magnitude is the sum of squares of I and Q components, it remains unchanged. On the other hand, phase is Q divided by I which leads to the following definition of the conjugate of a complex number.

(5)   \begin{equation*}             \begin{aligned}                 |V^*| &= |V| \\                 \measuredangle V^* &= - \measuredangle V             \end{aligned}         \end{equation*}

A significance of conjugate of a complex number arises from the fact that a complex number multiplied by its complex conjugate cancels the phase and produces its magnitude squared. Using the above relations in multiplication rule of Eq (2),

    \begin{equation*}      \begin{aligned}             \{V\cdot V^*\}_I\: &= V_I\cdot V_I - V_Q \cdot \left(-V_Q\right) \\             \{V\cdot V^*\}_Q &= V_Q\cdot V_I + V_I\cdot \left(-V_Q\right)           \end{aligned}     \end{equation*}

which generates the following result.

    \begin{equation*}           \begin{aligned}             \{V\cdot V^*\}_I\: &= V_I^2 + V_Q^2 \\             \{V\cdot V^*\}_Q &= 0           \end{aligned}     \end{equation*}

Utilizing the definitions of magnitude and phase of complex numbers,

(6)   \begin{equation*}             \begin{aligned}                 |V\cdot V^*| &= |V|^2 \\                 \measuredangle \left(V\cdot V^*\right) &= 0             \end{aligned}         \end{equation*}

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