Inside Electronic Gain Control

Normally, if you want to control the gain of an amplifier, you’ll use a variable resistor. You know, like a volume control. But what if you want to control the amplifier’s gain with a voltage? [Engineering Prof] explains a circuit that can do this using a pair of op amps and a pair of matched JFETs.

The analysis is simple because you assume the op amps are not in saturation, so you can assume that the op amp will do what it needs to do to make the input terminals equal. The left-hand op amp has one input grounded, so the output will drive the first FET  to ensure the negative terminal is also 0V. It is easy to see that the current through R1 must then be the current through the FET, which is going to be the control voltage (which is negative) divided by R1.

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JFET Stands In For Triode In This Infinite Impedance Detector

An “Infinite Impedance Detector” might sound a little like something that [Zaphod Beeblebrox] would use to zip around the galaxy. It’s not, of course, but it is an interesting and useful demodulator for AM radio signals, as [Sebastian Westerhold] over at Baltic Labs explains in the brief but well-done video below.

If you’ve ever browsed through schematics of old vacuum tube radios, [Sebastian]’s JFET-based detector circuit might look strangely familiar. That’s because this demodulator is about as close to a direct translation between a vacuum tube circuit and a silicon circuit as possible. In fact, [Sebastian] even used literature from the triode version of this detector to figure out the values for some of the components. The only active component is a BF256B JFET; the rest are a small handful of resistors and caps. Construction is in the ever-popular ugly style.

The test setup is simple — a function generator set to 455 kHz and modulated with a 1,000 Hz sine wave. The detector demodulates the audio signal very cleanly, judging by the oscilloscope traces. Just for fun, [Sebastian] also tried a 10.7 MHz carrier with a 1,500 Hz audio modulation, and that worked fine too. He also tried a variation on the circuit with an IF transformer on the input. That circuit works just about the same as the transformerless version, although it does provide a little gain.

Earth-shattering stuff? Probably not. But it does show the fun you can have with a scrap of PCB and a few components, and seems like it could easily be the kind of project that would take you down the RF rabbit hole. Thanks to [Sebastian] for sharing this one with us.

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Practical Transistors: JFETs

Transistors come in different flavors. Tubes used an electric field to regulate current flow, and researchers wanted to find something that worked the same way without the drawbacks like vacuum and filament voltages. However, what they first found — the bipolar transistor — doesn’t work the same way. It uses a small current to modulate a larger current, acting as a switch. What they were looking for was actually the FET — the field effect transistor. These come in two flavors. One uses a gate separated from the channel by a thin layer of oxide (MOSFETs), and the other — a junction or JFET — uses the property of semiconductors to deplete or enhance carriers in the channel. [JohnAudioTech] takes a decidedly practical approach to JFETs in a recent video that you can watch below.

The idea for the FET is rather old, with patents appearing in 1925 and 1934, but there were no practical devices at either time. William Shockley tried and failed to make a working FET in 1947, the same year the first point-contact transistor appeared, which was invented while trying to create practical FETs. In 1948, the bipolar junction transistor hit the scene and changed everything. While there were a couple of working FETs created between 1945 and 1950, the first practical devices didn’t appear until 1953. They had problems, so interest waned in the technology while the industry focused on bipolar transistors. However, FETs eventually got better, boasting both very high input impedance and simplified biasing compared to bipolar technology.

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TL084 die blocks

Ken Shirriff Found Butterflies In His Op-Amp

In 1976, Texas Instruments came out with the TL084, a four JFET op-amp IC each with similar circuitry to Fairchild’s very popular single op-amp 741. But even though the 741 has been covered in detailed, when [Ken Shirriff] focused his microscope on a TL084, he found some very interesting things.

JFETs on the TL084 op-amp

To avoid using acid to get at the die, he instead found a ceramic packaged TL084 and pried off the cover. The first things he saw were four stabilizing capacitors, by far the largest structures on the die and visible to the naked eye.

When he peered into his microscope he next saw butterfly shapes which turned out to be pairs of input JFETs. The wide strips are the gates and the narrower strip surrounded by each gate is the source. The drain is the narrow strip surrounding each gate. Why arrange four JFETs like this? It’s possible to have temperature gradients in the IC, one side being hotter than the other. These gradients can affect the JFET’s characteristics, unbalancing the inputs. Look closely at the way the JFETs are connected and you’ll see that the top-left one is connected to the bottom-right one, and similarly for the other two. This diagonal cross-connecting cancels out any negative effects.

[Ken’s] analysis in his article doesn’t stop there though. Not only does he talk more about these JFETs but he goes over the rest of the die too. It’s well worth the read, as is his write-up about the 741 which we’ve also covered.

Theremin In Detail

[Keystone Science] recently posted a video about building a theremin — you know, the instrument that makes those strange whistles when you move your hands around it. The circuit is pretty simple (and borrowed) but we liked the way the video explains the theory and even dives into some of the math behind resonant frequencies.

The circuit uses two FETs for the oscillators. An LM386 amplifier (a Hackaday favorite) drives a speaker so you can use the instrument without external equipment. The initial build is on a breadboard, but the final build is on a PCB and has a case.

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CMOS opened the door for many if not most of the properties needed for today’s highly integrated circuits and low power portable and mobile devices. This really couldn’t happen until the speeds and current drive capabilities of CMOS caught up to the other technologies, but catch up they did.

Nowadays CMOS Small Scale Integration (SSI) logic families, I.E. the gates used in external logic, offer very fast speeds and high current drive capability as well as supporting the low voltages found in modern designs. Likewise the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) designs, or Very Very Large Scale if you like counting the letter V when talking, are possible due to low power dissipation as well as other factors.

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Getting Great Bootlegs With The BootlegMIC

Go to any concert, show, or basement band practice, and you’ll find someone recording a bootleg. While these live recordings are sometimes fairly high quality, bootlegs recorded with a cell phone usually sound terrible. The guys over at Open Music Labs have a great solution to these poor quality recordings that only needs a few dollars worth of parts.

The project is called bootlegMIC. It’s a simple modification of an electret microphone – the same type of mic found in cellphones and bluetooth headsets – that allows for some very high quality recording in very noisy environments. According to the open music labs wiki, the modification is as simple as cutting a few traces on the PCB in an electret mic and soldering on a cap and a few resistors.

An electret mic contains a small JFET to amplify the signal coming from the microphone diaphragm; the specific JFET is selected by the manufacturer to ensure the microphone has the right gain and response. Usually these JFETs are chosen with the expectation of a relatively quiet environment, and trying to record a concert only results in a ton of distortion. By putting a resistor between the source of the JFET and ground of the microphone, it’s possible to reduce this distortion.

The circuit is easy enough to solder deadbug style, and should work with most cellphones. The guys at Open Music Lab were able to get their mic working with an iPhone, but they’re still working on figuring out the Android mic input. There’s a great demo video showing the improvement in audio quality; you can check that out after the break.

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