Reliable Frequency Reference From GPS

GPS technology is a marvel of the modern world. Not only can we reliably locate positions on the planet with remarkable accuracy and relatively inexpensive hardware, but plenty of non-location-based features of the technology are available for other uses as well. GPS can be used for things like time servers, since the satellites require precise timing in order to triangulate a position, and as a result they can also be used for things like this incredibly accurate frequency reference.

This project is what’s known as a GPSDO, or GPS-disciplined oscillator. Typically they use a normal oscillator, like a crystal, and improve its accuracy by pairing it with the timing signal from a GPS satellite. This one is a standalone model built by [Szabolcs Szigeti] who based the build around an STM32 board. The goal of the project was purely educational, as GPSDOs of various types are widely available, but [Szabolcs] was able to build exactly what he wanted into this one including a custom power supply, simple standalone UI, and no distribution amplifier.

The build goes into a good bit of detail on the design and operation of the device, and all of the PCB schematics and source code are available on the projects GitHub page if you want to build your own. There are plenty of other projects out there that make use of GPS-based time for its high accuracy, too, like this one which ties a GPS time standard directly to a Raspberry Pi.

Inside An Oscillator With [Ken Shirriff]

We are always glad to see [Ken Shirriff] tear into something new and this month he’s looking inside a quartz oscillator module. Offhand, you’d think there’s not much to these. A slab of quartz and some sort of inverter, right? But as [Ken] mentions, “There’s more happening in the module than I expected…”

If you’ve ever wanted to decap devices, big hybrid modules like these are a good way to get started since you don’t need exotic chemicals to get at the insides. [Ken] managed to break the fragile crystal wafer on the way in. Inside was also a small CMOS IC die. Time to get out the microscope.

If you follow [Ken’s] blog, you know he’s no stranger to analyzing IC dice. The oscillator IC is a pretty standard Colpitts oscillator but it also provides a programmable divider and output drive.

The circuit uses some unusually configured capacitors. [Ken] takes the time to point out CMOS logic structures throughout. If you haven’t seen one of [Ken’s] deep dives before, before, it’s a great introduction.

You can learn more about crystal oscillator theory. We used some test equipment to characterize a crystal a few years ago.

Tuning Fork Keeps This Throwback Digital Clock Ticking

Whatever kind of clock you’re interested in building, you’re going to need to build an oscillator of some sort. Whether it be a pendulum, a balance wheel, or the atomic transitions of cesium or rubidium, something needs to go back and forth in a predictable way to form the timebase of the clock. And while it might not make the best timepiece in the world, a tuning fork certainly fits the bill and makes for a pretty interesting clock build.

One of the nice things about this build is that [Kris Slyka] got their inspiration from a tuning fork clock that we covered a while back — we love it when someone takes a cool concept and makes it their own. While both clocks use a 440 Hz tuning fork — that’s an A above middle C for the musically inclined — [Kris] changed up the excitation method for their build. She used a pair of off-the-shelf inductors, placed near the ends of each arm and bridged by a strong neodymium magnet to both sense the 440-Hz vibrations and to provide the kick needed to keep the fork vibrating.

As for the aesthetic of the build, we think [Kris] really nailed it. Using through-hole components, old-school seven-segment displays, and a home-etched PCB, she was able to capture a retro look that really works. The RS-232 port and the bell jar enclosure complete the feel, although we’re not sure about the custom character set [Kris] designed — it’s cool and all, but makes it hard for anyone else to read without a little practice. Regardless, this is a fun build, and we’d imagine the continuous tone coming from the clock is pretty pleasing.

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The Theremin Is 100 Years Old; Celebrating The Spookiest Of Instruments

It wouldn’t be October without Halloween, and it wouldn’t be Halloween without some spooky music. There’s no instrument spookier than a Theremin, which also happens to be one of the world’s first electronic instruments.

Leon Theremin plays his namesake instrument. Image via Linda Hall Library

You’ve no doubt heard the eerie, otherworldly tones of the Theremin in various 1950s sci-fi films, or heard the instrument’s one-of-a-kind cousin, the Electro-Theremin in “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. The Theremin turns 100 years old this month, so we thought we’d take a look at this strange instrument.

One hundred years ago, a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Leon Theremin, was trying to invent a device to measure the density of various gases. In addition to the standard analog needle readout, he wanted another way to indicate the density, so he devised an oscillator whistle that would change pitch based on the density.

He discovered by accident that having his hand in the field of the antenna changed the pitch of the whistle, too. Then he did what any of us would do — played around until he made a melody, then called everyone else in the lab over to check it out.

Theremin soon showed his device to Lenin, who loved it so much that he sent Lev on a world tour to show it off. While in New York, he played it for Rachmaninoff and Toscanini. In fact you can see a video recording of Leon playing the instrument, a performance that’s more hauntingly beautiful than spooky. In 1928, he patented the Theremin in the United States and worked with RCA to produce them.

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A Transistor-less Sound Synthesizer

A synthesizer without transistors could almost be the basis of a trick question, surely without transistors it must be using a vacuum tube or similar. Not [Dr. Cockroach]’s synth though, instead of transistors it uses coupled pairs of LEDs and light-dependent resistors as its active components. Its oscillator circuit comes courtesy of [Patrick Flett], and uses a pair of LED/LDR combinations to alternately charge and discharge a capacitor. This feeds another LDR/LED pair that appears to act as a buffer to drive a bridge rectifier, with a final amplifier following it.

The result oscillates, though at frequencies in the low audio range with a cluster of harmonics thrown in. Its sound is best described as something akin to a small single-cylinder motorcycle engine at the lower frequencies, and is something we see could have all sorts of interesting possibilities.

This approach of using LDR-based active devices may be something of a dead end that could have had its day back in the 1930s, but it’s nevertheless an entertaining field to explore. It’s not the first time we’ve followed [Dr. Cockroach] at it, in the past we’ve seen the same technique applied to logic gates.

Have a listen to the synth in the video below the break. Continue reading “A Transistor-less Sound Synthesizer”

Breadboard Breaks The Speed Barrier

It is common wisdom that solderless breadboards are only good for low frequencies. But how fast can they really go? There’s been a contest going on to see who can make the fastest breadboard-mounted oscillator and [Joe Smith] has been trying to keep his leading position. He’s already managed 6 GHz and now he’s shooting for 20 GHz, as you can see in the video below.

One of the biggest challenges at these frequencies is just measuring your output. You may have a scope, but how does it do at 20 GHz? So half of the story is how [Joe] managed to monitor his output.

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Eico Signal Generator Gets A Repair

The Eico model 377 was a pretty common audio signal generator. [The Radio Mechanic] picked one up from 1956 that was in reasonably good shape, and shares a teardown and repair of the unit that you can see in the video below. The device could produce sine and square waves using a few tubes.

The unit was a bit different inside than expected because there were several versions made that shared the same model number. The bottom of the case had some goo in it, which is never a good sign. Unsurprisingly, the culprit was an old capacitor.

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