Vacuum Tube Logic Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 9th at noon Pacific for the Vacuum Tube Logic Hack Chat with David Lovett!

For most of us, circuits based on vacuum tubes are remnants of a technological history that is rapidly fading from our collective memory. To be sure, there are still applications for thermionic emission, especially in power electronics and specialized switching applications. But by and large, progress has left vacuum tubes in a cloud of silicon dust, leaving mainly audiophiles and antique radio enthusiasts to figure out the hows and whys of plates and grids and filaments.

But vacuum tubes aren’t just for the analog world. Some folks like making tubes do tricks they haven’t had to do in a long, long time, at least since the birth of the computer age. Vacuum tube digital electronics seems like a contradiction in terms, but David Lovett, aka Usagi Electric on YouTube, has fallen for it in a big way. His channel is dedicated to working through the analog building blocks of digital logic circuits using tubes almost exclusively. He has come up with unique circuits that don’t require the high bias voltages typically needed, making the circuits easy to work with using equipment likely to be found in any solid-state experimenter’s lab.

David will drop by the Hack Chat to share his enthusiasm for vacuum tube logic and his tips for exploring the sometimes strange world of flying electrons. Join us as we discuss how to set up your own vacuum tube experiments, learn what thermionic emission can teach us about solid-state electronics, and maybe even get a glimpse of what lies ahead in his lab.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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That Elusive Valve Amp Sound, For Not A Lot! (There Has To Be A Catch)

It was with considerable interest last month that I set out to track down where in the world there are still factories making tubes. My research found them in Slovakia, Russia, and China, and it’s fairly certain I didn’t find all the manufacturers by any means. There appeared to be a whole class of mundane tubes still in production that weren’t to be found on their glossy websites. A glance at any outlet through which Chinese modules can be bought will find this type of tube in small audio amplifier projects, and some of them can be astoundingly cheap. When faced with cheap electronics of course I’m tempted to buy some, so I parted with about £10 ($12.50) and bought myself a kit for a two-tube device described as a stereo preamplifier and headphone amplifier.

An Unusual Tube Choice For Audio

What I received for my tenner was a press-seal bag with a PCB and a pile of components, and not much else. No instructions, which would have been worrisome were the board not clearly marked with the value of each component. The circuit was on the vendor’s website and is so commonly used for these sort of kits that it can be found all over the web — a very conventional twin common-cathode amplifier using a pair of 6J1 miniature pentodes, and powered through a +25 V and -25 V supply derived from a 12 VAC input via a voltage multiplier and regulator circuit. It has a volume potentiometer, two sets of phono sockets for input and output, and the slightly naff addition of a blue LED beneath each tube socket to impart a blue glow. I think I’ll pass on that component.

The 6J1 seems to be ubiquitous throughout the Chinese kits, which is surprising when you understand that it’s not an audio tube at all. Instead it’s a small-signal VHF amplifier, a rough equivalent of the European EF95, and would be much more at home in an FM radio receiver or turret TV tuner from the 1950s. I can only assume that somewhere in China there’s a tube factory tooled up for radio tube production that is targeting this market, because another tube you will see in audio power amplifier kits is the FU32 or QQV03-20 in European parlance, a large power beam tetrode that might have been found in a 1950s military radio transmitter. Still just as if you were to use an RF transistor in an audio circuit it would give good account of itself, so it is with an RF tube. There is no reason a 6J1 won’t do an acceptable job in a circuit such as this one.

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Live Map Of London Tube Created In PCB And Lights

If you’re a frequent traveler on a public transit system, it can be helpful to know when the trains or buses are arriving and if there are any delays. We might reach for a tablet to mount on the wall, but that relies on keeping the OS, the software, and its library dependancies up to date. For true reliability you’ll need to build directly in hardware, which is exactly what this map of the London tube system uses.

The base map is printed directly on PCB, with LEDs along each of the major routes to indicate the current location of the trains. A few small chips handle the WiFi connection — it appears to our eye to be an ESP8266 — and pulling the information about the trains from the London Underground API (it would be virtually impossible to build everything for this project in hardware). The hardware can be easily reprogrammed, and with the PCB layout this could be adapted for other public transit fairly easily.

Even apart from the philosophical differences on design between hardware and software approaches, we still appreciate the aesthetic of LEDs on PCB. In fact, we’ve seen a whole host of artwork on PCBs ever since the price came down dramatically in the past two decades.

Thanks to [Al] for the tip!

Decapsulating A Dual Triode

We see quite a bit of work where people decapsulate ICs or other solid state devices to expose their inner workings. But how about hollow state? [Tomtektest] had a dual triode that has lost its vacuum integrity — gone to air, as he calls it — and decided to open it up to better expose its inner workings. (Video, embedded below.)

Of course, you can always see the innards through the glass, but it is interesting to have the envelope out of the way. Apparently, how you remove the glass is a bit tricky if you don’t want to damage the working bits as you remove it.

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Chasing A Long-Obsolete Tube

Regular readers will know that here at Hackaday we have a penchant for poking fun at the more silly end of the audiophile world, with its dubious accessories and purple prose. It’s worth remembering though that this is not representative of the whole discipline of audio design, indeed the quest for perfect audio reproduction contains plenty of complex engineering problems.

We’re indebted to [macsimski] then for sending us a link to a page from Phaedrus Audio from a year or two ago, in which they discuss the history of an unusual pentode tube used as an impedance converter in a series of legendary post-war microphones. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a Neumann U47 or U48 broadcast microphone on your bench, but even so the story behind their design is one that should fascinate anyone.

It takes us back to the period immediately following the Second World War, when German electricity supplies were varied and unreliable, and radio receivers designed for them required new tubes from the manufacturers. Among these was the VF14, with an unusual high-voltage heater designed such that two of them could be connected in series across the supply. This and its compact shape prompted its selection for the professional microphones, even though its performance was so poor that only  a third of the production passed the performance test.

Since it passed out of production in the early 1950s the remaining components are extremely rare, and the majority of those surviving do not meet the performance characteristics of the microphone. The Phaedrus write-up goes into significant technical detail which should be of note to anyone with an interest in tubes, and ends up with their reason for it all, a plug-in hardware simulation of the original tube’s properties. Vintage capacitor microphones may be out of the ordinary for Hackaday, but it’s still a good read.

For a bit more on capacitor microphones it’s worth a look at our dive into electrets.

Header image: JacoTen / CC BY-SA 3.0

Tubes Have Character With A Tek 570

When tubes were king, you could go to a drugstore with a box full of them from your TV. There would be a tester that would tell you what tubes were bad and, of course, you could buy the replacements for them. That kind of tube tester was pretty simple. If you wanted to really know how to design with a tube or test its parameters, you were much better off with a curve tracer like the Tektronix 570 that [tomtektest] shows off in two recent videos that you can see below.

That piece of kit fell into [Tom’s] lap thanks to an observant delivery driver. The 1955 instrument is very similar to a semiconductor curve tracer but, of course, has the ability to provide much higher voltage for the tubes. The basic idea is that the X axis sweeps from a few volts up to 100s of volts. The vertical scale will show the plate, screen, or grid current. From those curves you can learn a lot about the characteristics of the tube.

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A 3.3 V Tube Preamp Without An Inverter

If you’ve ever worked with vacuum tubes, you’ll probably have a healthy appreciation for high voltage power supplies. These components require higher potentials to get those electrons moving, or so we’re told. It’s not the whole truth though, as [Albert van Dalen] demonstrates with his tube preamplifier running from only 3.3 V. If your first thought is that he must have made a flyback converter to step that voltage up to something more useful then you’re in for a surprise, because the single 6J6 pentode really does run from just 3.3 volts. Even its heater, normally supplied with 6.3 V, takes the lower voltage.

The circuit appears at first sight to be a conventional single-ended design, but closer examination reveals a grid bias circuit more reminiscent of a bipolar transistor. This results in a positive grid voltage rather than the more usual negative, and an unusually high 0.3 mA grid current. The cathode current is only  0.15 mA, but the preamplifier delivers a 3.5x gain. There is more detail on his website.

It would be interesting to subject this circuit to a full audio analysis and comparison with a more conventional design. As with so much in the world of audio there’s some smoke and mirrors around what constitutes the so-called “valve sound”, and it’s a question whether the satisfaction comes through the sound itself or the bragging rights of having a unit with a vacuum tube on show.  Still, this is a simple enough design which takes few resources to build, so we look forward to seeing further experimentation. Careful though – down the vacuum audio route can lie folly.