Leading Simulators for Analog/RF Circuits

Recently I have the opportunity to touch some RF design. WoW, some simple metal lines need a fancy tool to get them modeled! WoW, both Windows and Unix tools are involved to simulate the EVM!

It seems that Cadence Spectre just can’t do it on its own any more. Really? I start to ask myself which simulator or which way of simulation is more efficient for my design. Then I found this paper published in 2014, titled “Overview of Commercially-Available Analog/RF Simulation Engines and Design Environment”. Yep, it’s helpful (at least to a RF newbie). It reviews four main analog/RF simulators on the market:

  • Cadence Spectre
  • Agilent ADS (now Keysight, which was spun off from Agilent in 2014)
  • Agilent GoldenGate (again now Keysight)
  • Mentor Graphics AFS

Cadence Spectre, an evolved engine from SPICE, is good at transient analysis. However, the transient analysis may become expensive when it deals with RF signals, the signals normally containing a periodic high-frequency carrier and a low-frequency modulation signal. The carrier forces a small time step while the signal forces a long simulation interval. To speed up the RF simulation, harmonic balance (HB) comes in, which works on frequency domain. Though ADS provides a best-in-class HB simulator for RF design, its layout suite is inferior to Cadence Virtuoso environment. Hence the Spectre simulator  is still widely used as the standard sign-off simulator. Recently, to leverage ADS for RF simulation and Cadence for schematic capture and layout, GoldenGate is highly integrated into the Cadence design flow as an efficient hybrid method.

It is obvious that which simulator to choose depends pretty much on the signal nature. In general, for circuits with a few frequency components, like LNA and mixer, the frequency-domain technique is more efficient, while time-domain technique is more efficient for circuits with abrupt edges, like ADC/DAC or control logics. Many interesting details are described in the paper. Fig.1 provides a short summary.


Fig.1 A short performance summary [1]

Note that MTS is the acronym of multi-technology simulations. We typically design circuits within a single design kit. However, for some RF products, they may be composed of different modules from different processes. According to the paper, Cadence’s ADE GXL can do MTS simulations.


[1] B. Wan and X. Wang, “Overview of commercially-available analog/RF simulation engines and design environment,” 12th IEEE International Conference on Solid-State and Integrated Circuit Technology (ICSICT), 2014.

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