Little Hex Tricks Make Little Displays A Little Easier

Depending on the device in hand and one’s temperament, bringing up a new part can be a frolic through the verdant fields of discovery or an endless slog through the grey marshes of defeat. One of the reasons we find ourselves sticking with tried and true parts we know well is that interminable process of configuration. Once a new display controller is mostly working, writing convenience functions to make it easier to use can be very satisfying, but the very first thing is figuring out how to make it do anything at all. Friend of Hackaday [Dan Hienzsch] put together a post describing how to use a particular LED controller which serves as a nice walkthrough of figuring out the right bitmath to make things work, and includes a neat trick or two.

The bulk of the post is dedicated to describing the way [Dan] went about putting together his libraries for a 7-segment display demo board he makes. At its heart the board uses the IS31FL3728 matrix driver from ISSI. We love these ISSI LED controllers because they give you many channels of control for relatively low cost, but even with their relative simplicity you still need to do some bit twiddling to light the diodes you need. [Dan]’s post talks about some strategies for making this easier like preconfigured lookup tables with convenient offsets and masking bits to control RGB LEDs.

There’s one more trick which we think is the hidden star of the show; a spreadsheet which calculates register values based on “GUI” input! Computing the bit math required to control a display can be an exercise in frustration, especially if the logical display doesn’t fit conveniently in the physical register map of the controller. A spreadsheet like this may not be particularly sexy but it gets the job done; exactly the kind of hack we’re huge fans of here. We’ve mirrored the spreadsheet┬áso you can peek at the formulas inside, and the original Excel document is available on his blog.

DSP Spreadsheet: Talking To Yourself Using IQ

We’ve done quite a bit with Google Sheets and signal processing: we’ve generated signals, created filters, and computed quadrature signals. We can pull all that together into an educational model for two SDRs talking to each other, but it’s going to require two parts: modulation and demodulation. Guess what? We can do that with a spreadsheet.

The first step is to generate a reference clock for the carrier. You’ll need a cosine wave (I) and sine wave (Q). Of course, you also need the time base. That’s columns A-C in the spreadsheet and works like other signal generation we’ve seen.

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DSP Spreadsheet: IQ Diagrams

In previous installments of DSP Spreadsheet, we’ve looked at generating signals, mixing them, and filtering them. If you start trying to work with DSP, though, you’ll find a topic that always rears its head: IQ signals. It turns out, these aren’t as hard as they appear at first and, as usual, we’ll tackle them in a spreadsheet.

What does IQ stand for? The I stands for “in phase” and the Q stands for quadrature. By convention, the I signal is a cosine wave and the Q signal is a sine wave. Another way to say that is that the I and Q signals are 90 degrees out of phase. By manipulating the amplitude of I and Q, you can create complex modulation or, conversely, demodulate signals. We’ll see a spreadsheet that shows that completely next time.

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DSP Spreadsheet: Frequency Mixing

Circuit simulation and software workbooks like Matlab and Jupyter are great for being able to build things without a lot of overhead. But these all have some learning curve and often use clever tricks, abstractions, or library calls to obscure what’s really happening. Sometimes it is clearer to build math models in a spreadsheet.

You might think that spreadsheets aren’t built for doing frequency calculation and visualization but you’re wrong. That’s exactly what they’re made for — performing simple but repetative math and helping make sense of the results.

In this installment of the DSP Spreadsheet series, I’m going to talk about two simple yet fundamental things you’ll need to create mathematical models of signals: generating signals and mixing them. Since it is ubiquitous, I’ll use Google Sheets. Most of these examples will work on any spreadsheet, but at least everyone can share a Google Sheets document. Along the way, we’ll see a neat spreadsheet trick I should probably use more often.

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DSP Spreadsheet: FIR Filtering

There’s an old saying: Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn. I’m guilty of this in a big way — I was never much on classroom learning. But if I build something or write some code, I’m more likely to understand how it works and why.

Circuit simulation and software workbooks like Matlab and Jupyter are great for being able to build things without a lot of overhead. But these all have some learning curve and often use clever tricks, abstractions, or library calls to obscure what’s really happening. Sometimes it is easier to build something in a spreadsheet. In fact, I often do little circuit design spreadsheets or even digital design because it forces me to create a mathematical model which, in turn, helps me understand what’s really going on.

In this article I’m going to use Google Sheets — although you could do the same tricks in just about any spreadsheet — to generate some data and apply a finite impulse response (FIR) filter to it. Of course, if you had a spreadsheet of data from an instrument, this same technique would work, too.

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Never Mind The Sheet Music, Here’s Spreadsheet Music

Nothing says Rockstar Musician Lifestyle like spreadsheet software. Okay, we might have mixed up the word order a bit in that sentence, but there’s always Python to add some truth to it. After all, if we look at the basic concept of MIDI sequencers, we essentially have a row of time-interval steps, and depending on the user interface, either virtual or actual columns of pitches or individual instruments. From a purely technical point of view, spreadsheets and the like would do just fine here.

Amused by that idea, [Maxime] wrote a Python sequencer that processes CSV files that works with both hardware and software MIDI synthesizers. Being Python, most of the details are implemented in external modules, which makes the code rather compact and easy to follow, considering it supports both drums and melody tracks in the most common scales. If you want to give it a try, all you need is the python-rtmidi and mido module, and you should be good to go.

However, if spreadsheets aren’t your thing, [Maxime] has also a browser-based sequencer project with integrated synthesizer ongoing, with a previous version of it also available on GitHub. And in case software simply doesn’t work out for you here, and you prefer a more hands-on experience, don’t worry, MIDI sequencers seem like an unfailing resource for inspiration — whether they’re built into an ancient cash register, are made entirely out of wood, or are built from just everything.

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Optimizing The Spread: More Spreadsheet Circuit Design Tricks

Last time I showed you how to set up a reasonably complex design in a spreadsheet: a common emitter bipolar transistor amplifier. Having the design in a spreadsheet makes it easy to do “what if” scenarios and see the effects on the design almost immediately.

Another advantage that spreadsheets offer is a way to “solve” or optimize equations. That can be very useful once you have your model. For Excel, you need to install the Solver add-in (go to the Excel Options dialog, select Manage Add-Ins, and select the Solver Add-In). You might also enjoy OpenSolver. You can even get that for Google Sheets (although it currently lacks a non-linear solver which makes it less useful for what we need).

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