Russian Decapping Madness

It all started off innocently enough. [mretro] was curious about what was inside a sealed metal box, took a hacksaw to it and posted photographs up on the Interwebs. Over one hundred forum pages and several years later, the thread called (at least in Google Translate) “dissecting room” continues to amaze.

h_1466184174_4168461_2f4afb42b7If you like die shots, decaps, or teardowns of oddball Russian parts, this is like drinking from a firehose. You can of course translate the website, but it’s more fun to open it up in Russian and have a guess at what everything is before peeking. (Hint: don’t look at the part numbers. NE555 is apparently “NE555” in Russian.)

From a brief survey, a lot of these seem to be radio parts, and a lot of it is retro or obsolete. Forum user [lalka] seems to have opened up one of every possible Russian oscillator circuit. The website loads unfortunately slowly, at least where we are, but bear in mind that it’s got a lot of images. And if your fingers tire of clicking, note that the URL ends with the forum page number. It’d be a snap to web-scrape the whole darn thing overnight.

We love teardowns and chip shots, of old gear and of new. So when you think you’ve got a fake part, or if you need to gain access to stuff under that epoxy blob for whatever reason, no matter how embarrassing, bring along a camera and let us know!

Thanks [cfavreau] for the great tip!

Atmel Removes Full-Swing Crystal Oscillator

It is one of our favorite chips, and the brains behind the Arduino UNO and its clones, and it’s getting a tweak (PDF). The ATmega328 and other megaX8-series chips have undergone a subtle design change that probably won’t affect you, but will cause hours of debugging headaches if it does. So here’s your heads-up. The full-swing oscillator driver circuitry is being removed. As always, there’s good news and bad news.

The older ATmega chips had two different crystal drivers, a low-power one that worked for lower speeds, and higher-current version that would make even recalcitrant crystals with fat loading capacitors sing. This “full-swing” crystal driver was good for 16 MHz and up.

The good news about the change is that the low-power crystal driver has been improved to the point that it’ll drive 16 MHz crystals, so you probably don’t need the full-swing driver anymore unless you’re running the chip at 20 MHz (or higher, you naughty little overclocker).

This is tremendously important for Arduinos, for instance, which run a 16 MHz crystal. Can you imagine the public-relations disaster if future Arduinos just stopped working randomly? Unclear is if this is going to ruin building up a perfboard Arduino as shown in the banner image. The full-swing oscillator was so robust that people were getting away with a lot of hacky designs and sub-optimal loading capacitor choices. Will those continue to work? Time will tell.

The bad news is that if you were using the full-swing oscillator to overcome electrical noise in your environment, you’re going to need to resort to an external oscillator instead of a simple crystal. This will increase parts cost, but might be the right thing to do anyway.

Whenever anyone changes your favorite chip, there’s a predictable kerfuffle on the forums. An Atmel representative said they can get you chips with the full-swing driver with a special order code. We’re thinking that they’re not going to let us special order ten chips, though, so we’re going to have to learn to live with the change.

The ATmega328 has already gotten a makeover, and the new version has improved peripheral devices which are certainly welcome. They don’t have the full-swing oscillator onboard, so you can pick some up now and verify if this change is going to be a problem for you or not. We don’t have any of the new chips to test out just yet.

Thanks to [Ido Gendel] for tipping us off to the change in our comment section! If you have any first-hand experience with the new chips, let us know in the comments and send in a tip anytime you trip over something awesome during your Internet travels.

Improving the RTL-SDR

The RTL-SDR dongle is a real workhorse for radio hacking. However, the 28.8 MHz oscillator onboard isn’t as stable as you might wish. It is fine for a lot of applications and, considering the price, you shouldn’t complain. However, there are some cases where you need a more stable reference frequency.

[Craig] wanted a stable solution and immediately thought of a TCXO (Temperature Compensated “Xtal” Oscillator). The problem is, finding these at 28.8 MHz is difficult and, if you can find them, they are relatively expensive. He decided to make an alternate oscillator using an easier-to-find 19.2 MHz crystal.

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Unlock the Phase Locked Loop

If you want a stable oscillator, you usually think of using a crystal. The piezoelectric qualities of quartz means that it can be cut in a particular way that it will oscillate at a very precise frequency. If you present a constant load and keep the temperature stable, a crystal oscillator will maintain its frequency better than most other options.

There are downsides to crystals, though. As you might expect, because crystals are so stable it’s hard to change the frequency much when you want a different one. You can use a trimming capacitor to pull the frequency a little, but to really change frequency, you have to change crystals.

There are other kinds of oscillators that are more frequency agile. However, they aren’t usually as stable. To combine flexibility with crystal-like stability, you can use a Phase Locked Loop (PLL). Many modern systems use direct digital synthesis, but the PLL is a venerable and time-tested technique.

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Oscillator Design by Simulation

[Craig] wanted to build a 19.2 MHz crystal oscillator. He knew he wanted a Pierce oscillator, but he also knew that getting a good design is often a matter of trial and error. He used a 30-day trial of a professional simulation package, Genesys from Keysight, to look at the oscillator’s performance without having to build anything. He not only did a nice write up about his experience, but he also did a great video walkthrough (see below).

The tool generates a sample schematic, although [Craig] deleted it and put his own design into the simulator. By running simulations, he was able to look at the oscillator’s performance. His first cut showed that the circuit didn’t meet the Barkhausen criteria and shouldn’t oscillate. Unfortunately, his prototype did, in fact, oscillate.

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Finally, a Modern Theremin

Ever wanted to own your own Theremin but couldn’t justify dropping hundreds of dollars on one? Now you can build your own, or buy it for a quintuplet of Hamiltons. The Open.Theremin.UNO project has built up antenna-based oscillator control around the ubiquitous Arduino Uno board.

So what’s the Arduino in there for? This is a digital Theremin, but check out the video below and you’ll agree that it sounds amazing and has excellent response. The aluminum antennas used for volume and pitch are attached to the top portion of the shield but it sounds like they’re not included in the kit. Don’t fret, you can use a variety of materials for this purpose. On the bottom you need to connect a speaker cable, and also a ground wire if that cable’s not grounded.

As the name implies, this is Open Hardware and we’re quite happy with the documentation on their site and the BOM (found on the GitHub repo). This design was shown off back in 2013 hiding in a pack of cigarettes. If you don’t want to build your own they’re selling kits on their site for 48 Euro delivered, or on Tindie for $55.

Okay, we’ve screwed this up so many times that we’re going to try to get it right here: the Theremin was not heard in the opening of Star Trek the original series, or in the opening of Doctor Who. It wasn’t featured in “Good Vibrations” either. As far as we can tell, it’s not used for anything in pop culture at all… but recognizing the sound and knowing what one is remains core geek knowledge.

If you want a Theremin to play using your entire body you need the Theremin Terpsitone.

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Retrotechtacular: The Theremin Terpsitone

Léon Theremin built his eponymous instrument in 1920 under Soviet sponsorship to study proximity sensors. He later applied the idea of generating sounds using the human body’s capacitance to other physical forms like the theremin cello and the theremin keyboard. One of these was the terpsitone, which is kind of like a full-body theremin. It was built about twelve years after the theremin and named after Terpsichore, one of the nine muses of dance and chorus from Greek mythology.

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