Noise: It Turns Out You Need It

We don’t know whether quantum physics proves the universe is truly a strange place or that we are living in a virtual reality simulation, but we know it turns a lot of common sense into garbage. Take noise, for example. Noise — as in random electrical noise — is bad, right? We spend a lot of time designing to minimize noise. Researchers in Austria, Germany, and Australia recently published a paper that shows that noise can actually improve the flow of energy. While the paper is behind a paywall, the Focus article is available and, of course, you can probably find a copy of the paper if you want to read the entire thing.

The paper, titled “Environment-Assisted Quantum Transport in a 10-qubit Network” uses trapped calcium atoms to study an effect suspected of being a key factor in high-efficiency energy transfer such as the transfer observed in optical fibers and photosynthesis.

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OptoGlitch Is An Optocoupler Built For Distortion

When we are concerned with the accurate reproduction of a signal, distortion and noise are the enemy that engineers spend a great deal of time eliminating wherever possible. However, humans being the imperfect creatures that we are, we sometimes desire a little waviness and grain in our media – typically of the analog variety, as the step changes of digital distortion can be quite painful. Tired of Instagram filters and wanting to take a different approach, [Patrick Pedersen] built the OptoGlitch – a hardware solution for analog distortion.

Changing the number of samples per pixel varies the accuracy of reproduction of the original image, left.

The concept of operation is simple – pixel values of a digital image are sent out by varying the intensity of an LED, and are then picked up by a photoresistor and redigitized. The redigitized image then bears a variety of distortion and noise effects due to the imperfect transmission process.

In the OptoGlitch hardware, the LED and photoresistor are intentionally left open to ambient light to further allow noise and distortion to happen during the transmission process. A variety of calibration methods are used to avoid the results being completely unrecognizable, and there are various timing and sampling parameters that can be used to alter the strength of the final effect.

It’s possible to introduce distortion more intentionally, too – such as this project that hides metadata in malformed glyphs.

Cut Through The Noise, See Tiny Signals

An oscilloscope is a handy tool for measuring signals of all kinds, but it’s especially useful if you want to measure something with a periodic component. Modern oscilloscopes have all kinds of features built-in that allow you sample a wide range of signals in the hundreds of megahertz, and make finding and measuring your signal pretty easy, provided you know which buttons to push. There are some advanced oscilloscope methods that go beyond the built-in features of even the best oscilloscopes, and [AM] has a tutorial on one of them.

The method used here is called phase-senstitive detection, and allows tiny signals to be found within noise, even if the magnitude of the noise is hundreds of times greater than the signal itself. Normally this wouldn’t be possible, but by shifting the signal out of the DC range and giving it some frequency content, and then using a second channel on the oscilloscope to measure the frequency content of the source and triggering the oscilloscope on the second channel, the phase of the measured signal can be sifted out of the noise and shown clearly on the screen.

In [AM]’s example, he is measuring the intensity of a laser using a photodiode with a crude amplifier, but even with the amplifier it’s hard to see the signal in the noise. By adding a PWM-like signal to the power source of the laser and then syncing it up with the incoming signal from the photodiode, he can tease out the information he needs. It’s eally a fascinating concept, and if you fancy yourself a whiz with an oscilloscope this is really a tool you should have in your back pocket.  If you’re new to this equipment, we do have a primer on some oscilloscope basics, too.

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You Can’t Build A Roland TR-808 Because You Don’t Have Faulty Transistors

That headline sounds suspect, but it is the most succinct way to explain why the Roland TR-808 drum machine has a very distinct, and difficult to replicate noise circuit. The drum machine was borne of a hack. As the Secret Life of Synthesizers explains, it was a rejected part picked up and characterized by Roland which delivers this unique auditory thumbprint.

Pictured above is the 2SC828-R, and you can still get this part. But it won’t function the same as the parts found in the original 808. The little dab of paint on the top of the transistor indicates that it was a very special subset of those rejected parts (the 2SC828-RNZ). A big batch of rejects were sold to Roland back in the 1970’s — which they then thinned out in a mysterious testing process. What was left went into the noise circuit that gave the 808 its magical sizzle. When the parts ran out, production ended as newer processes didn’t produce the same superbly flawed parts.

This is an incredible story that was highlighted in 808, a documentary premiered at SXSW back in 2015. The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (and to rent everywhere else) and is certainly worth your time just to grasp how seminal this drum machine has been in hip hop and several other music genres.

For modern product developers, betting your production on a batch of reject parts is just batty. But it was a very different time with a lot fewer components on the market. What worked, worked. You do have to wonder how you stumble upon the correct trait in an obscure batch of reject parts? Looks like we’ll be adding Ikutar Kakehashi’s book I Believe in Music: Life Experiences and Thoughts on the Future of Electronic Music by the Founder of the Roland Corporation to our reading list.

[via EMSL]

Finding Noise with an Antenna

[K5ACL], aka [SignalSearch], recently brought his active receive loop antenna in off the roof to give it a checkup and perform any necessary maintenance. While it was in the shack, he took the opportunity to discuss how well it would perform indoors. The verdict? Not ideal. He’d mount it 50 feet away from the house if the HOA would let him.

Houses, and subsequently most ham shacks, are filled with noise sources that interfere badly with HF. So after spending a minute or so listening on an SDR, [K5ACL] demonstrates another use for this type of tightly-tuned antenna—as a noise detector.

The main culprit in [K5ACL]’s house is the ceiling light that’s right there in the shack. You can see the noise striping the waterfall as he turns it on and off. But the noise from the light is small potatoes compared to some other common household items, like those power line adapters that turn house wiring into networking cable. Those produce so much noise that even an active loop is really no match. Stay tuned after the break to watch [K5ACL] work the bands through the noise.

Loop antennas are great if you’re stuck in an apartment building or a congested city. They’re easy enough to make, whether you want a portable loop or a permanent installation.

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Generate Random Numbers The Hard Way

Your job is to create a random number generator.

Your device starts with a speaker and a membrane. On this membrane will sit a handful of small, marble-size copper balls. An audio source feeds the speaker and causes the balls to bounce to and fro. If a ball bounces high enough, it will gain the opportunity to travel down one of seven copper tubes. Optical sensors in each of the tubes detect the ball and feed data to an Ardunio Mega. When the ball reaches the end of the tube, a robotic hand will take the ball and put it back on the speaker membrane. The magic happens when we write an algorithm such that the audio output for the speaker is a function of how many balls fall down the pipes.

The above is a rough description of [::vtol::]’s art piece: kinetic random number generator. We’re pretty sure that there are easier ways to get some non-determinstic bits, but there may be none more fun to watch.

[::vtol::] is a frequent flyer here on Hackaday Airlines. Where else would you showcase your 8-bit Game Boy Photo Gun or your brainwave-activated ferrofluid monster bath? Would it shock you to find out that we’ve even covered another kinetic random number generator of his?  Fun stuff!

When is a 10-bit A/D an 8-bit A/D?

Marketing guys love bigger numbers. Bigger is better, right? After all, Subway called it a “footlong” not an 11-incher. So when it comes to analog to digital (A/D) conversion, more bits are better, right? Well, that depends. It is easy to understand that an A/D will have a low and high measurement and the low will be zero counts and the high will result in the maximum count for the number of bits. That is, an 8-bit device will top out at 255, a 10-bit at 1023, and so on.

The question is: are those bits meaningful? The answer depends on a few factors. Like most components we deal with, our ideal model isn’t reality, but maybe it is close enough.

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