Listen To The RF Around You

These days, we are spoiled for choice with regard to SDRs for RF analysis, but sometimes we’re more interested in the source of RF than the contents of the transmission. For this role, [Maker_Wolf] created the RFListener, a wideband directional RF receiver that converts electromagnetic signal to audio.

The RF Listener is built around a AD8318 demodulator breakout board, which receives signals using a directional broadband (900 Mhz – 12 Ghz) PCB antenna, and outputs an analog signal. This signal is fed through a series of amplifiers and filters to create audio that can be fed to the onboard speaker. Everything is housed in a vaguely handgun shaped enclosure, with some switches on the back and a LED amplitude indicator. [Maker_Wolf] demonstrates the RFListener around his house, pointing it at various devices like his router, baby monitor and microwave. In some cases, like with a toy drone, the modulation is too high frequency to generate audio, so the RF listener can also be switched to “tone mode”, which outputs audio tone proportional to the signal amplitude.

The circuit is completely analog, and the design was first done in Falstad Circuit Simulator, followed by some breadboard prototyping, and a custom PCB for the final version. As is, it’s already an interesting exploration device, but it would be even more so if it was possible to adjust the receiver bandwidth and frequency to turn it into a wideband foxhunting tool.

Circuit VR: Arduino Virtually Meets Analog

There was a time when building electronics and building software were two distinct activities. These days, almost any significant electronic project will use a CPU somewhere, or — at least — could. Using a circuit simulator can get you part of the way and software simulators abound. But cosimulation — simulating both analog circuits and a running processor — is often only found in high-end simulation products. But I noticed the other day the feature quietly snuck into our favorite Web-based simulator, Falstad.

The classic simulator is on the left and the virtual Arduino is on the right.

Back in March, the main project added work from [Mark McGarry] to support AVR8js written by [Uri Shaked]. The end result is you can have the circuit simulator on the left of the screen and a Web-based Arduino IDE on the right side. But how does it work beyond the simple demo? We wanted to find out.

The screen looks promising. The familiar simulator is to the left and the Arduino IDE — sort of — is to the right. There’s serial output under the source code, but it doesn’t scroll very well, so if you output a lot of serial data, it is hard to read.

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Circuit VR: Some Op Amps

Circuit simulations are great because you can experiment with circuits and make changes with almost no effort. In Circuit VR, we look at circuits using a simulator to do experiments without having to heat up a soldering iron or turn on a bench supply. This time, we are going to take a bite of a big topic: op amps.

The op amp — short for operational amplifier — is a packaged differential amplifier. The ideal op amp — which we can’t get — has infinite gain and infinite input impedance. While we can’t get that in real life, modern devices are good enough that we can pretend like it is true most of the time.

Op-amp schematic symbol
a very simple op amp circuit with some detail omitted

If you open this circuit in the Falstad simulator, you’ll see two sliders to the right where you can tweak the input voltage. If you make the voltages the same, the output will be zero volts. You might think that a difference amplifier would take inputs of 1.6V and 2.4V and either produce 0.8V or -0.8V, but that’s not true. Try it. Depending on which input you set to 2.4V, you’ll get either 15V or -15V on the output. That’s the infinite gain. Any positive or negative output voltage will quickly “hit the rail” or the supply voltage which, in this case, is +/-15V.

Practical Concerns

The biggest omitted detail in the schematic symbol above is that there’s no power supply here, but you can guess that it is +/- 15V. Op amps usually have two supplies, a positive and a negative and while they don’t have to be the same magnitude, they often are. Some op amps are specifically made to work with a single-ended supply so their negative supply can connect to ground. Of course, that presupposes that you don’t need a negative voltage output.

The amount of time it takes the output to switch is the slew rate and you’ll usually find this number on the device datasheet. Obviously, for high-speed applications, a fast slew rate is important, particularly if you want to use the circuit as a comparator as we are here.

Other practical problems arise because the op amp isn’t really perfect. A real op amp would not hit the 15V rail exactly. It will get close depending on how much current you draw from the output. The higher the current, the further away from the rails you get. Op amps will also have some offset that will prevent it from hitting zero when the inputs are equal, although on modern devices that can be very low. Some older devices or those used in high-precision designs will have a terminal to allow you to trim the zero point exactly using an external resistor.

Op Amps Can Provide Steady Voltage Under Variable Load

Rather than dig through a lot of math, you can deal with nearly all op amp circuits if you remember two simple rules:

  1. The inputs of the op amp don’t connect to anything internally.
  2. The output mysteriously will do what it can to make the inputs equal, as far as it is physically possible.
Op amp with inverting input connected to output
1x amplifier

That second rule will make more sense in a minute, but we already see it in action. Set the simulator so the – input (the inverting input) is at 0V and the noninverting input (+) is at 4V. The output should be 15V. The output is trying to make the inverting input match the noninverting one, but it can’t because there is no connection. The output would like to provide an infinite amount of voltage, but it can only go up to the rail which is 15V.

We can exploit this to make a pretty good x1 amplifier by simply shorting the output to the – terminal. Remember, our rules say the input terminals appear to not connect to anything, so it can’t hurt. Now the amplifier will output whatever voltage we put into it:

You might wonder why this would be interesting. Well, we will learn how to increase the gain, but you actually see this circuit often enough because the input impedance is very high (infinite in theory, but not practice). And the output impedance is very low which means you can draw more current without disturbing the output voltage much.

Voltage divider with and without 1x amplifier
Comparing voltage divider performance with and without a 1x amplifier

This circuit demonstrates the power of a 1x amplifier. Both voltage dividers produce 2.5V with no load. However, with a 100 ohm load at the output, the voltage divider can only provide around 400mV. You’d have to account for the loading in the voltage divider design and if the load was variable, it wouldn’t be possible to pick a single resistor that worked in all cases. However, the top divider feeds the high impedance input of the op amp which then provides a “stiff” 2.5V to whatever load you provide. As an example, try changing the load resistors from 100 ohms to different values. The bottom load voltage will swing wildly, but the top one will stay at 2.5V.

Don’t forget there are practical limits that won’t hold up in real life. For example, you could set the load resistance to 0.1 ohms. The simulator will dutifully show the op amp sourcing 25A of current through the load. Your garden-variety op amp won’t be able to do that, nor are you likely to have the power supply to support it if it did.

What’s Being Amplified?

This is an amplifier even though the voltage stayed the same. You are amplifying current and, thus, power. Disconnect the bottom voltage divider (just delete the long wire) and you’ll see that the 5V supply is providing 12.5 mW of power. The output power is 62.5 mW and, of course, varies with the load resistor.

Notice how this circuit fits the second rule, though. When the input changes, the op amp makes its output equal because that’s what makes the + and – terminals stay at the same voltage.

Of course, we usually want a higher voltage when we amplify. We can do that by building a voltage divider in the feedback loop. If we put a 1:2 voltage divider in the loop, the output will have to double to match the input and, as long as that’s physically possible, that’s what it will do. Obviously, if you put in 12V it won’t be able to produce 24V on a 15V supply, so be reasonable.

Non-inverting opamp circuit
Non-inverting amplifier example

This type of configuration is called a non-inverting amplifier because, unlike an inverting amplifier, an increase in the input voltage causes an increase in the output voltage and a decrease in input causes the output to follow.

Note that the feedback voltage divider isn’t drawn like a divider, but that’s just moving symbols on paper. It is still a voltage divider just like in the earlier example. Can you figure the voltage gain of the stage? The voltage divider ratio is 1:3 and, sure enough, a 5V peak on input turns into a 15V peak on the output, so the gain is 3. Try changing the divider to different ratios.

What’s Next?

While it isn’t mathematically rigorous, thinking of the op amp as a machine that makes its inputs equal is surprisingly effective. It certainly made the analysis of these simple circuits, the comparator, the buffer amplifier, and a general non-inverting amplifier simple.

There are, of course, many other types of amplifiers, as well as other reasons to use op amps such as oscillators, filters, and other even more exotic circuits. We’ll talk about some of them next time and the idea of a virtual ground, which is another helpful analysis rule of thumb.

Circuit VR: Squaring With Schmitt Triggers

In the fantasy world of schematic diagrams, wires have no resistance and square waves have infinitely sharp rise times. The real world, of course, is much crueler. There are many things you can use to help tame the wild analog world into the digital realm. Switches need debouncing, signals need limiting, and you might even need a filter. One of the basic elements you might use is a Schmitt trigger. In

In this installment of Circuit VR, I’m looking inside practical circuits by building Schmitt triggers in the Falstad circuit simulator. You can click the links and get to a live simulation of the circuit so you can do your own experiments and virtual measurements.

Why Schmitt Triggers?

You usually use a Schmitt trigger to convert a noisy signal into a clean square digital logic level. Any sort of logic gate has a threshold. For a 5V part, the threshold might be that anything under 2.5V is a zero and at 2.5V or above, the signal counts as a one. Some logic families define other thresholds and may have areas where the signal is undefined, possibly causing unpredictable outputs.

There are myriad problems with the threshold, of course. Two parts might not have exactly the same threshold. The threshold might vary a bit for temperature or other factors. For parts with no forbidden zone, what happens if the voltage is right at the edge of the threshold?

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Circuit VR: Advanced Falstad Logic With Geniac

I find that if I’m trying to make a point with a student or a colleague about a circuit, sometimes the Falstad online simulator is worth a few thousand words. You can draw the circuit, play with the values, and even see the current flow in an intuitive way as well as make traditional measurements. The simulator not only handles analog but also digital circuits. At first glance, though, the digital functions appear limited, but if you dig deeper, there is a custom logic block that can really help. I dug into this — and into how switches work in the simulator — the other day in response to a Hackaday post. If you use Falstad, read on!

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Simulating A Speaker

Speakers are one of those components that are simple to use, but difficult to simulate. Most of us have used a simple resistor to do the job. But a speaker’s response is much more complex, and while that might be enough for a simple simulation the fidelity is nowhere near close. [Sourav Gupta] recently shared his technique for modeling speakers and it looks as though it does a credible job.

[Sourav] shows how a simple resistor and an inductor can do the job, but for better fidelity you need more components to model some mechanical effects. The final model has six components which keeps it easy enough to construct but the problem lies in finding the values of those six components. [Sourav] shows how to use the Thiele-Small parameters to solve that problem. Speaker makers provide these as a guide to low frequency performance, and they capture things such as Q, mass, displacement, and other factors that affect the model.

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About Schmitt (Triggers)

There is an old saying: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” We spend our time drawing on paper or a computer screen, perfect wires, ideal resistors, and flawless waveforms. Alas, the real world is not so kind. Components have all kinds of nasty parasitic effects and no signal looks like it does in the pages of a text book.

Consider the following problem. You have a sine wave input coming in that varies between 0 V and 5 V. You want to convert it to a square wave that is high when the sine wave is over 2.5 V. Simple, right? You could use a CMOS logic gate or a comparator. In theory…

The problem is, the sine wave isn’t perfect. And the other components will have little issues. If you’ve ever tried this in real life, you’ll find that when the sine wave is right at the 2.5 V mark the output will probably swing back and forth before it settles down. This is exacerbated by any noise or stretching in the sine wave. You will wind up with something like this:

scope1

Notice how the edges of the square wave are a bit fat? That’s the output switching rapidly back and forth right at the comparator’s threshold.

Hysteresis

The answer is to not set the threshold at 2.5 V, or any other single value. Instead, impose a range outside of which it will switch, switching low when it leaves the low end of the range, and high when it exceeds the high end.  That is, you want to introduce hysteresis. For example, if the 0 to 1 shift occurs at, say, 1.9 V and the 1 to 0 switch is at 0.5 V, you’ll get a clean signal because once a 0 to 1 transition happens at 1.9 V, it’ll take a lot of noise to flip it all the way back below 0.5 V.

You see the same effect in temperature controllers, for example. If you have a heater and a thermal probe, you can’t easily set a 100 degree set point by turning the heater off right away when you reach 100 and then back on again at 99.9999. You will usually use hysteresis in this case, too (if not something more sophisticated like a PID). You might turn the heater off at 99 degrees and back on again at 95 degrees, for example. Indeed, your thermostat at home is a prime example of a system with hysteresis — it has a dead-band of a few degrees so that it’s not constantly turning itself on and off.

Schmitt Triggers and How to Get One

A Schmitt Trigger is basically a comparator with hysteresis. Instead of comparing the incoming voltage with VCC / 2, as a simple comparator would, it incorporates a dead band to ensure that logic-level transitions occur only once even in the presence of a noisy input signal.

Schmitt Trigger Symbol by Selket CC-BY 2.5

Assuming you want a Schmitt trigger in a circuit, you have plenty of options. There are ICs like the 74HC14 that include six (inverting) Schmitt triggers. On a schematic, each gate is represented by one of the symbols to the right; the little mark in the box is the hysteresis curve, and the little bubble on the output indicates logical negation when it’s an inverter.

You can also make them yourself out of transistors or even a 555 chip. But the easiest way by far is to introduce some feedback into a plain op amp comparator circuit.

Below are two op amps, one with some positive feedback to make it act like a Schmitt trigger. The other is just a plain comparator. You can simulate the design online.

 

schem21-wide

If you haven’t analyzed many op amp circuits, this is a good one to try. First, imagine an op amp has the following characteristics:

  • The inputs are totally open.
  • The output will do whatever it takes to make the inputs voltages the same, up to the power supply rails.

Neither of these are totally true (theory vs. practice, again), but they are close enough.

The comparator on the right doesn’t load the inputs at all, because the input pins are open circuit, and the output swings to either 0 V or 5 V to try, unsuccessfully, to make the inputs match. It can’t change the inputs because there is no feedback, but it does make a fine comparator. The voltage divider on the + pin provides a reference voltage. Anything under that voltage will swing the output one way. Over the voltage will swing it the other way. If the voltages are exactly the same? That’s one reason you need hysteresis.

The comparator’s voltage divider sets the + pin to 1/2 the supply voltage (2.5 V). Look at the Schmitt trigger (on top). If the output goes between 0 V and 5 V, then the voltage divider winds up with either the top or bottom resistor in parallel with the 10K feedback resistor. That is, the feedback resistor will either be connected to 5 V or ground.

Of course, two 10K resistors in parallel will effectively be 5K. So the voltage divider will be either 5000/15000 (1/3) or 10000/15000 (2/3) depending on the state of the output. Given the 5 V input to the divider, the threshold will be 5/3 V (1.67 V) or 10/3 V (3.33 V). You can, of course, alter the thresholds by changing the resistor values appropriately.

Practical Applications

Schmitt triggers are used in many applications where a noisy signal requires squaring up. Noisy sensors, like an IR sensor for example, can benefit from a Schmitt trigger. In addition, the defined output for all voltage ranges makes it handy when you are trying to “read” a capacitor being charged and discharged. You can use that principle to make a Schmitt trigger into an oscillator or use it to debounce switches.

If you want to see a practical project that uses a 555-based Schmitt, check out this light sensor. The Schmitt trigger is just one tool used to fight the imprecision of the real world and real components. Indeed, they’re nearly essential any time you want to directly convert an analog signal into a one-bit, on-off digital representation.