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A Basic Digital Counter

One common requirement in digital circuits is counting, both forward and backward. Digital clocks and watches are everywhere, timers are found in a range of appliances from microwave ovens to VCRs, and counters for other reasons are found in everything from automobiles to test equipment.

Although we will see many variations on the basic counter, they are all fundamentally very similar. The demonstration below shows the most basic kind of binary counting circuit.


In the 4-bit counter to the right, we are using edge-triggered master-slave flip-flops similar to those in the Sequential portion of these pages. The output of each flip-flop changes state on the falling edge (1-to-0 transistion) of the T input.

The count held by this counter is read in the reverse order from the order in which the flip-flops are triggered. Thus, output D is the high order of the count, while output A is the low order. The binary count held by the counter is then DCBA, and runs from 0000 (decimal 0) to 1111 (decimal 15). The next clock pulse will cause the counter to try to increment to 10000 (decimal 16). However, that 1 bit is not held by any flip-flop and is therefore lost. As a result, the counter actually reverts to 0000, and the count begins again.




4-bit binary ripple counter.





4-bit binary ripple counter.

In future pages on counters, we will use a different input scheme, as shown to the left. Instead of changing the state of the input clock with each click, you will send one complete clock pulse to the counter when you click the input button. The button image will reflect the state of the clock pulse, and the counter image will be updated at the end of the pulse. For a clear view without taking excessive time, each clock pulse has a duration or pulse width of 300 ms (0.3 second). The demonstration system will ignore any clicks that occur within the duration of the pulse.



A major problem with the counters shown on this page is that the individual flip-flops do not all change state at the same time. Rather, each flip-flop is used to trigger the next one in the series. Thus, in switching from all 1s (count = 15) to all 0s (count wraps back to 0), we don't see a smooth transistion. Instead, output A falls first, changing the apparent count to 14. This triggers output B to fall, changing the apparent count to 12. This in turn triggers output C, which leaves a count of 8 while triggering output D to fall. This last action finally leaves us with the correct output count of zero. We say that the change of state "ripples" through the counter from one flip-flop to the next. Therefore, this circuit is known as a "ripple counter."

This causes no problem if the output is only to be read by human eyes; the ripple effect is too fast for us to see it. However, if the count is to be used as a selector by other digital circuits (such as a multiplexer or demultiplexer), the ripple effect can easily allow signals to get mixed together in an undesirable fashion. To prevent this, we need to devise a method of causing all of the flip-flops to change state at the same moment. That would be known as a "synchronous counter" because the flip-flops would be synchronized to operate in unison. That is the subject of the next page in this series.


Prev: Alternate Flip-Flop Circuits Next: Synchronous Binary Counter

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