[Alan Wolke]’s How To Use An Oscilloscope

If you were to create a Venn diagram of Hackaday readers and oscilloscope owners the chances are the there would be a very significant intersection of the two sets. Whether the instrument in question is a decades-old CRT workhorse or a shiny modern digital ‘scope, it’s probably something you’ll use pretty often and you’ll be very familiar with its operation.

An oscilloscope is a very complex instrument containing a huge number of features. Modern ‘scopes in particular bring capabilities through software unimaginable only a few years ago. So when you look at your ‘scope, do you really know how to use its every feature? Are you getting the best from it, or are you only scratching the surface of what it can do?

[Alan Wolke, W2AEW] is an application engineer at Tektronix, so as you might expect when it comes to oscilloscopes he knows a thing or two about them. He’s spoken on the subject in the past with his “Scopes for Dopes” lecture, and his latest video is a presentation to the NJ Antique Radio Club which is a very thorough exploration of using an oscilloscope. The video is below the break and at an hour and twenty minutes it’s a long one. We make no apologies for that, for it should be fascinating in its entirety for any oscilloscope owner. Even if you find yourself nodding along to most of what he’s saying there are sure to be pearls of ‘scope wisdom in there you weren’t aware of.

We’ve featured [Alan]’s work quite a few times in the past here at Hackaday. Sticking particularly in the mind are his video on time domain reflectometers, and his showing us how to tune an HF antenna array with nothing more than a signal generator and as you might have guessed, an oscilloscope.

13 thoughts on “[Alan Wolke]’s How To Use An Oscilloscope

  1. I’ll admit it, even though I dabble a little bit in electronics, and even though I used an Oscilloscope once or twice in a college electronics class, and even after watching AVE on youtube pull out the ole osmelloscope to check something. . .I am totally clueless about what it’s good for, I will save that video for later review when I have 40 minutes to watch it (youtube double speed, best thing I’ve discovered for learning things quick, it’s in the setting menu, the gear button, but you probably knew that)
    PS. I mostly play with LEDs and switches, but plan to get into arduino automation, specifically, I plan on automating my indoor tropical garden watering, lights, humidity, and feeding the goldfishes
    PPS. Huh, this might be my first time posting, I know how uptight some of y’all are about grammar, so I request you forgive my bohemian prose rather than attempt to vanquish it.

    1. >I am totally clueless about what it’s good for

      Honestly, if you’re one of those who doesn’t know what to do with it, you don’t need one. Being able to inspect an actual signal on a real circuit is an invaluable boon to pretty much every aspect of electronic design. Yes, plenty of basic circuits do not warrant the use of an oscilloscope, as there isn’t that much that can go wrong and the operating parameters are pretty loose. I’ll admit, a lot of my work thus far has been mostly digital work, which, due to its “all or nothing” tendencies in operation, doesn’t often call for the use of a scope.

      But if you need to do something along the lines of checking how clean the output of a power supply is, look for noise on a communications line that doesn’t seem to be working right for no apparent reason, or even just being a little lazy and trying to fudge a part value through trial and error, there’s no other tool for the job.

      1. Thank you for the enlightening comment, it clears up in my mind why I’ve never felt a need for an oscilloscope,
        I have yet to run into a problem that cannot be solved with a multimeter. basically my realm of experience is shorts, opens, and the ever present is it plugged in? haha.
        However, I look forward to the day when I do need a scope, and have the knowledge to know why I need it and what I’m checking.

        1. Eh, but if you don’t know what a tool does, or how to use it, then it doesn’t enter your thoughts while diagnosing or making something. If you don’t know how to use a welder, then everything gets bolted together. If you don’t know how to use taps, then everything gets welded. If you don’t know how to use a scope, you won’t be thinking of the new things you can use that knowledge for. So, nothing wrong with learning how to use a scope, even if you don’t plan on using one. Knowing how it works gives you clues into how other electronics work.

      2. At some level, all signals are analog. All of them, every one of them, including the digital ones.

        While you, and most of the digital circuit engineers take for granted that digital signals are “all or nothing”, the other engineer who designed the board you are developing probably used an oscilloscope during the design phase of that board. From a digital perspective, they are super useful to look at the rising and falling edges of your signal, looking at the phasing of signals relative to one another (even digital ones), signal quality and so on. With a larger timebase, you may find it useful for some of the projects you listed with the tropical garden.

    1. I’m a self-confessed, anti-video, elitist snob who likes to whine when videos are posted without transcripts, as I don’t usually have time to watch a dang video (or I’m unwilling to allocate time to such pursuits, depending on the week). Truly, there are few things that annoy me more.

      That said, I do make an exception for this video. Even if youtube videos linked in articles usually make you want to claw out your eyes and use a hot pokey metal rod to then stab your eyeballs and lob them at unsuspecting kittens in the distance (or some similarly disturbing urge), this video is the exception. There’s a good chance that [Alan]’s other videos are also exceptions, but start here anyway. Seriously. It’s that good/useful/important.

  2. For basic measurements, yes, a multimeter is essential. For logic design and hardware build, I used to cope with a logic probe and a frequency meter. That’s a particularly powerful combination, even when pulling together real hardware. However there is nothing like a scope to see what is actually going on with an interface – especially where there are some more obscure faults like a tri-state buffer still being on when you thought it should be hi-z. I *love* my old HP scope; I bought it as dead from a certain auction site, and got it back to life, and since then it is my go-to instrument.

    Imagine saying to a medical consultant that they can’t use a CT or an MRI, but they can still prod a patient from the outside and take their temperature. They might be able to diagnose an illness and recommend a course of treatment, but being able to “see” a representation of what is going on inside saves an awful lot of time.

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