An abiding memory for a teen fascinated by electronics and radio in the 1970s and 1980s is the proliferation of propaganda stations that covered the shortwave spectrum. Some of them were slightly surreal such as Albania’s Radio Tirana which would proudly inform 1980s Western Europe that every village in the country now possessed a telephone, but most stations were the more mainstream ideological gladiating of Voice of America and Radio Moscow.
It’s a long-gone era as the Cold War is a distant memory and citizens East and West get their info from the Internet, but perhaps there’s an echo of those times following the invasion of the Ukraine. With most external news agencies thrown out of Russia and their websites blocked, international broadcasters are launching new shortwave services to get the news through. Owning a shortwave radio in Russia may once again be a subversive activity. Let’s build one!
Modern radio receivers have a distinct advantage over the common early designs which I covered in my previous article. Most of the receivers you will have worked with over the past couple decades are designs by Edwin Armstrong; regenerative, superregenerative, or most commonly superheterodyne. These are distinguished by a few fascinating key traits that bring both benefits and drawbacks.
Today let’s dive into Mr. Armstrong’s receivers. I’ll also talk about DC receivers which, despite the name, are not made to listen to batteries. These are receivers you are much more likely to encounter in modern equipment.
Regenerative and Superregenerative
The regenerative receiver is all about doing more with less. You still see some of these in simple applications like RF remote controls. The idea derives from how an oscillator works. In a simple way of thinking, an oscillator is an amplifier with enough positive feedback that any tiny signal at the right frequency will amplify and then, through feedback, continue to output over and over. If everything were perfect, then, an oscillator would have infinite gain at a given frequency.
When we build an electronic project in 2016, the chances are that the active components will be integrated circuits containing an extremely large amount of functionality in a small space. Where once we might have used an op-amp or two, a 555 timer, or a logic gate, it’s ever more common to use a microcontroller or even an IC that though it presents an analog face to the world does all its internal work in the digital domain.
There was a time when active components such as tubes or transistors were likely to be significantly expensive, and integrated circuits, if they even existed, were out of the reach of most constructors. In those days people still used electronics to do a lot of the same jobs we do today, but they relied on extremely clever circuitry rather than the brute force of a do-anything super-component. It was not uncommon to see circuits with only a few transistors or tubes that exploited all the capabilities of the devices to deliver something well beyond that which you might expect.
One of the first electronic projects I worked on was just such a circuit. It came courtesy of a children’s book, one of the Ladybird series that will be familiar to British people of a Certain Age: [George Dobbs, G3RJV]’s Making A Transistor Radio. This book built the reader up through a series of steps to a fully-functional 3-transistor Medium Wave (AM) radio with a small loudspeaker.
Two of the transistors formed the project’s audio amplifier, leaving the radio part to just one device. How on earth could a single transistor form the heart of a radio receiver with enough sensitivity and selectivity to be useful, you ask? The answer lies in an extremely clever circuit: the regenerative detector. A small amount of positive feedback is applied to an amplifier that has a tuned circuit in its path, and the effect is to both increase its gain and narrow its bandwidth. It’s still not the highest performance receiver in the world, but it’s astoundingly simple and in the early years of the 20th century it offered a huge improvement over the much simpler tuned radio frequency (TRF) receivers that were the order of the day.