Primer on Servos Hits All the Basics

Servos are pretty basic fare for the seasoned hacker. But everyone has to start somewhere, and there’s sure to be someone who’ll benefit from this primer on servo internals. Who knows – maybe even the old hands will pick up something from a fresh perspective.

[GreatScott!] has been building a comprehensive library of basic electronics videos over the last few years that covers everything from using a multimeter to programming an Arduino. The last two installments delve into the electromechanical realm with a treatment of stepper motors along with the servo video below. He covers the essentials of the modern RC-type servo in a clear and engaging style that makes it easy for the newbie to understand how a PWM signal can translate into positional changes over a 180° sweep. He shows how to control a servo directly with an Arduino, with bonus points for including a simple 555-based controller circuit too. A quick look at the mods needed to convert any servo to continuous rotation wraps up the video.

If [GreatScott!]’s video whets your appetite for more, be sure to check out [Richard Baguley]’s deeper dive into servos. And when you’re ready to put your new-found knowledge into practice, maybe a nice project would be to convert a hobby servo into a linear actuator.

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Spectrum Analyzer With 555 Fits In A Tin

[VK2ZAY] has a thing for 555 chips. Before the ready availability of microcontrollers, the 555 was the hardware hacker’s swiss army knife. After all, even though the chip is supposed to be a timer, it is really a bunch of simple pieces you can use to make a timer: a pair of comparators, a few transistors, and a flip-flop. You can use those parts in many different ways, and a timer is just one of them.

[VK2ZAY] used one as a key component in a simple spectrum analyzer. The 555 generates a ramp voltage which alters the frequency of an oscillator. The oscillator mixes with the input signal and a fixed-frequency superregenerative detector creates an output voltage proportional to the input signal strength. You can see a video of the whole setup, below.

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Very Clever 555 Bassline Synth/Sequencer

If we had a dime for every 555-based noisemaker circuit we see… But this one’s got a twist.

[Tristan] does two things that elevate his sawtooth-wave noisemaker above the norm. First, he gets a clean sawtooth wave out of it so that it sounds about right. Then he manages to make it more or less playable. It’s a refined version of a classic hack.

555sawtoothosc2

The first trick is a matter of putting a constant current supply upstream of the timing capacitor. The usual 555-timer circuit just charges the capacitor up from the power rails through a resistor. This is fine if all you care about is timing. But because the current is proportional to the constantly dropping voltage difference, the voltage on the capacitor is an exponential function over time.

A simple transistor current source linearizes the waveform in no time. Raw sawtooth waves are “rich in harmonics” which is synth-geek code for “a bit grating”, but it will surely do well with a little filtering. The Javascript suggests that he’s already thinking in that direction, but we’re going to need video proof!

The second cool trick up [Tristan]’s sleeve is the light-dependent resistor (LDR) that determines the pitch. Yeah, we’ve all made those before — the light-dependent “Theremin”. But [Tristan] took the extra step and wrote up a Javascript application that makes his monitor brighter and darker, enabling him to get musical pitches out of the gizmo.

We’ve always wanted to implement LED-to-LDR control while writing the Logic Noise series, but never found a reliable way to make it work. It’s cool to see [Tristan]’s efforts. Maybe we’ll pull a 555 out of the junk box in his honor.

Evaluating the Unusual and Innovative Perf+ Protoboard

Back in 2015 [Ben Wang] attempted to re-invent the protoboard with the Perf+. Not long afterward, some improvements (more convenient hole size and better solder mask among others) yielded an updated version which I purchased. It’s an interesting concept and after making my first board with it here are my thoughts on what it does well, what it’s like to use, and what place it might have in a workshop.

Perf+ Overview

One side of a Perf+ 2 board. Each hole can selectively connect to bus next to it with a solder bridge. The bus strips are horizontal on the back side.
One side of a Perf+ board. Each hole can selectively connect to the bus next to it with a solder bridge. These bus strips are vertical. The ones on the back are horizontal.

The Perf+ is two-sided perfboard with a twist. In the image to the left, each column of individual holes has a bus running alongside. Each hole can selectively connect to its adjacent bus via a solder bridge. These bus traces are independent of each other and run vertically on the side shown, and horizontally on the back.

Each individual hole is therefore isolated by default but can be connected to one, both, or neither of the bus traces on either side of the board. Since these traces run vertically on one side and horizontally on the other, any hole on the board can be connected to any other hole on the board with as few as two solder bridges and without a single jumper wire.

It’s an innovative idea, but is it a reasonable replacement for perfboard or busboard? I found out by using it to assemble a simple prototype.

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The Minimin Aims To Be The Simplest Theremin

Hackaday.io user [eagleisinsight] is a high-school hacker whose dreams of becoming a Theremin virtuoso were thwarted by the high cost of a commercial instrument. His response is the Minimin, an affordable Theremin design using a 555 and an ATMega328.

The 555 is configured as an astable oscillator running at about 5MHz and with a loop antenna attached to its timing capacitor. The parasitic capacitance of the musician’s hand against the antenna varies the frequency of the oscillation, as you would expect. In a classic Theremin the signal from the 555 would be mixed with the output from a fixed 5MHz oscillator and the sound would be generated from the difference between the two oscillators, but in [eagleisinsight]’s design the 555 clocks the ATMega328’s timer. The processor can thus read the oscillator frequency and use that value to control a waveform generator.

There is something missing from this Theremin: a second antenna for volume. For now a potentiometer does that job, but [eagleisinsight] is working on a MkII device to correct this omission, along with plans to replace the ATMega with an XMega processor whose DAC can produce a sine wave output and whose USB port can be used to enable the Minimin as a MIDI controller.

As you might expect, we’ve covered numerous Theremins over the years here on Hackaday. You can browse them all, but we’d like to draw your attention to a typical breadboard instrument using a soda can antenna, people using Theremins as Guitar Hero controllers, and Léon Theremin’s terpistone, a full-body instrument.

Rotating Plasma Vortex Speaker

[Anthony Garofalo] has made a fancier plasma speaker. Not content with a simple spark, he uses a plasma vortex. To make the vortex, the spark gap is swapped out for an electrode placed in the centre of a ring magnet. The Lorentz force experienced by the arc causes it to rotate rapidly enough round the arc of the magnet’s centre to appear as a continuous sheet of plasma.

The speaker gets its power from an inverter using a flyback transformer driven through a MOSFET by a 555-based pulse width modulator. You can see the result in the video below the break, it’s very impressive to look at but probably not quite ready to sit in your hi-fi stack. The resulting sound isn’t quite as good as that from a stationary arc, but it looks a lot cooler.

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555 Plasma Speaker

The 555 can do anything. OK, that’s become a bit of a trope in our community, but there is quite a lot of truth behind it: this little timer chip is an astonishingly versatile component.

[Alexander Lang] has added another achievement to the 555’s repertoire, he’s used one in the creation of a plasma speaker. Working at Hackspace Manchester, he’s used the 555 as a pulse-width modulator that drives a flyback transformer through a MOSFET, which feeds a spark gap mounted in a lasercut enclosure. The results maybe aren’t yet hi-fi, but it works, and is very audible.

We’ve been following this project for a while, as he’s updated his progress through several iterations. From initial design idea through PCB and enclosure design, to a first working prototype and some audio refinements, and finally this latest post with the spark gap in its enclosure. He is still refining his speaker, so there is more to come

In the video below the break he demonstrates his pulse width modulator, and tests the device using a keyboard as an input.

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