The Three Dollar Frequency Standard

[Paulie] over on the EEVBlog forums picked up an inexpensive frequency counter on eBay and realized it was just a little bit off. As a result, he decided to build a frequency standard. His build wound up costing him about $3 and he shared the design and the software for it.

The hardware design is very simple: a TCXO (also from eBay), an ATMega8, a pushbutton, and a AA battery with DC to DC converter to power the whole thing. The software does all the work, providing frequencies from 10MHz down to a few hundred hertz (including some common audio test frequencies).

If you haven’t worked with a TCXO before, it is a crystal oscillator that includes a temperature compensation circuit to pull the crystal frequency up or down depending on temperature. Although crystal oscillators are pretty accurate already, adding this temperature compensation improves accuracy over the design temperature dramatically (typically, 10 to 40 times better than a naked crystal oscillator). If you want to learn more about TCXOs, here’s a good write-up.
A TCXO isn’t as good as an OCXO (where the first O stands for Oven). However, OCXOs cost more, are larger, and drain batteries (after all, it is running an oven). You can even hack your own OCXO, but it is going to cost more than $3.

If you want to see the real guts of one TCXO, check out the video.

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Measuring The Accuracy Of A Rubidium Standard

A rubidium standard, or rubidium atomic clock, is a high accuracy frequency and time standard, usually accurate to within a few parts in 1011. This is still several orders of magnitude less than some of the more accurate standards – for example the NIST-F1 has an uncertainty of 5×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 100 million years) and the more recent NIST-F2 has an uncertainty of 1×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 300 million years). But the Rb standard is comparatively inexpensive, compact, and widely used in TV stations, Mobile phone base stations and GPS systems and is considered as a secondary standard.

[Max Carter] recently came into possession of just such a unit – a Lucent RFG-M-RB that was earlier in use at a mobile phone base station for many years. Obviously, he was interested in finding out if it was really as accurate as it was supposed to be, and built a broadcast-frequency based precision frequency comparator which used a stepper motor to characterise drift.

Compare with WWVB Broadcast

WWVB Receiver
WWVB Receiver

The obvious way of checking would be to use another source with a higher accuracy, such as a caesium clock and do a phase comparison. Since that was not possible, he decided to use NIST’s time/frequency service, broadcasting on 60 kHz – WWVB. He did this because almost 30 years ago, he had built a receiver for WWVB which had since been running continuously in a corner of his shop, with only a minor adjustment since it was built.

Comparator Circuit Installed in a Case

His idea was to count and accumulate the phase ‘slips’ generated by comparing the output of the WWVB receiver with the output of the Rb standard using a digital phase comparator. The accuracy of the standard would be calculated as the derivative of N (number of slips) over time. The circuit is a quadrature mixer: it subtracts the frequency of one input from the other and outputs the difference frequency. The phase information is conveyed in the duty cycle of the pulses coming from the two phase comparators. The pulses are integrated and converted to digital logic level by low-pass filter/Schmitt trigger circuits. The quadrature-phased outputs are connected to the stepper motor driver which converts logic level inputs to bi-directional currents in the motor windings. The logic circuit is bread-boarded and along with the motor driver, housed in a computer hard drive enclosure which already had the power supply available.

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A Simple Programmable 555

“Instead of an Arduino, he could have done that with a 555 timer.” “Instead of a 555 he could have done that with two transistors.” “Instead of a few transistors, he could have done that with butterflies.” These are quotes from various Hackaday comment threads throughout the years. It seems simplicity is the name of the game here, and if you need a timer chip, how about an 8-pin DIP? This, of course, means an I2C programmable oscillator in the form of an LPC810.

[kodera2t] built this circuit after reaching for a 555 timer a few too many times. It’s a one-chip solution with an ARM core that’s able to generate square waves with 1Hz resolution up to 65536Hz.

The source for this chip is a lot of C, but once it’s in the Flash of the LPC810, this chip becomes a programmable oscillator with an I2C interface. Yes, it’s a one-component solution, no, it’s not a twenty cent chip, but try programming a 555 over I2C.

The videos below show [kodera] playing around with this I2C oscillator, sweeping the frequency from zero to inaudible teenage angst.

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Logic Noise: The Switching Sequencer Has the Beat

Logic Noise is all about using logic circuits to make sounds. Preferably sound that will be enjoyable to hear and useful for making music. This week, we’ll be scratching the surface of one of my favorite chips to use and abuse for, well, nearly anything: the 4051 8-way analog switch. As the name suggests, you can hook up eight inputs and select one from among them to be connected up to the output. (Alternatively, you can send a single input to one of eight destinations, but we won’t be doing that here.)

Why is this cool? Well, imagine that you wanted to make our oscillator play eight notes. If you worked through our first installment, you built an abrasive-sounding but versatile oscillator. I had you tapping manually on eight different resistors or turning a potentiometer to eight different positions. This week, we’ll be letting the 4051 take over some of the controls, leaving us to do the more advanced knob twiddling.

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Logic Noise: Sweet, Sweet Oscillator Sounds

Welcome to part one of a series taking you down the rabbit hole of DIY electronic synthesizers based on (largely) CMOS logic chips. Instead of synths being commodity gear made by large corporate enterprises, we’ll be building with the cheapest available parts, using and misusing digital logic. In short, don’t expect pre-packaged smooth tones, because we’ll be making creative noise machines.

If you’re the chiptunes type, you’ll probably find something you like here. If you’re the circuit bender or electro-noise-punk type, this is gonna be right up your alley. If you just like to see CMOS chips wriggle and squirm in unintended ways, feel free to look over my shoulder. If you’re the type who insists that a screwdriver can’t be used to pry open a paint can, then maybe you’d better move along. There’s a thin line between the glitch as bug and the glitch as interesting discovery, and we’ll be dancing all over it.

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Illumination Captured in a Vacuum Jar

Experimentation with the unusual nature of things in the world is awesome… especially when the result is smokey glowing plasma. For this relatively simple project, [Peter Zotov] uses the purchase of his new vacuum pump as an excuse to build a mini vacuum chamber and demonstrate the effect his mosfet-based Gouriet-Clapp capacitive three-point oscillator has on it.

In this case, the illumination is caused due to the high-frequency electromagnetic field produced by the Gouriet-Clapp oscillator. [Peter] outlines a build for one of these, consisting of two different wound coils made from coated wire, some capacitors, a mosfet, potentiometer, and heat sink. When the oscillator is placed next to a gas discharge tube, it causes the space to emit light proportionate to the pressure conditions inside.


For his air tight and nearly air free enclosure, [Peter] uses a small glass jar with a latex glove as the fitting between it and a custom cut acrylic flange. With everything sandwiched snugly together, the vacuum hose inserted through the center of the flange should do its job in removing the air to less than 100 Pa. At this point, when the jar is placed next to the oscillator, it will work its physical magic…

[Peter] has his list of materials and schematics used for this project on his blog if you’re interested in taking a look at them yourself. Admittedly, it’d be helpful to hear a physicist chime in to explain with a bit more clarity how this trick is taking place and whether or not there are any risks involved. In any case, it’s quite the interesting experiment.

Repairing Dead USB Flash Drives

Over the last few years, [Tobias] has repaired a number of USB Flash drives. This strikes us as a little odd, given small capacity Flash drives are effectively free in the form of conference handouts and swag, but we’re guessing [Tobias] has had a few too many friends lose their thesis to a broken Flash drive.

In all his repairs, [Tobias] found one thing in common The crystal responsible for communicating with the USB controller is always broken. In a way, this makes a lot of sense; everything else on a Flash drive is silicon encased in an epoxy package, where the crystal is a somewhat fragile piece of quartz. Breaking even a small part of this crystal will drastically change the frequency it resonates at making the USB controller throw a fit.

[Tobias]’ solution for all his Flash drive repairs is to desolder and change out the crystal, bringing the drive back to life. Some of the USB Flash drives even have multiple pads for different crystal packages, making it easy to kludge together a solution should you need to repair a Flash drive five minutes ago.