Fail of the Week: How Not to Design an RF Signal Generator

We usually reserve the honor of Fail of the Week for one of us – someone laboring at the bench who just couldn’t get it together, or perhaps someone who came perilously close to winning a Darwin Award. We generally don’t highlight commercial products in FotW, but in the case of this substandard RF signal generator, we’ll make an exception.

We suppose the fail-badge could be pinned on [electronupdate] for this one in a way; after all, he did shell out $200 for the RF Explorer signal generator, which touts coverage from 24 MHz to 6 GHz. But in true lemons-to-lemonade fashion, the video below he provides us with a thorough analysis of the unit’s performance and a teardown of the unit.

The first step is a look at the signal with a spectrum analyzer, which was not encouraging. Were the unit generating a pure sine wave as it should, we wouldn’t see the forest of spikes indicating harmonics across the band. The oscilloscope isn’t much better; the waveform is closer to a square wave than a sine. Under the hood, he found a PIC microcontroller and a MAX2870 frequency synthesizer, but a conspicuous absence of any RF filtering components, which explains how the output got so crusty. Granted, $200 is not a lot to spend compared to what a lab-grade signal generator with such a wide frequency range would cost. And sure, external filters could help. But for $200, it seems reasonable to expect at least some filtering.

We applaud [electronupdate] for taking one for the team here and providing some valuable tips on RF design dos and don’ts. We’re used to seeing him do teardowns of components, like this peek inside surface-mount inductors, but we like thoughtful reviews like this too.

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An Especially Tiny And Perfectly Formed FM Bug

It used to be something of an electronic rite of passage, the construction of an FM bug. Many of us will have taken a single RF transistor and a tiny coil of stiff wire, and with the help of a few passive components made an oscillator somewhere in the FM broadcast band. Connect up a microphone and you were a broadcaster, a prankster, and probably set upon a course towards a life in electronics. Back in the day such a bug might have been made from components robbed from a piece of scrap consumer gear such as a TV or VCR, and perhaps constructed spider-web style on a bit of tinplate. It wouldn’t have been stable and it certainly wouldn’t have been legal in many countries but the sense of achievement was huge.

As you might expect with a few decades of technological advancement, the science of FM bugs has moved with the times. Though you can still buy the single transistor bugs as kits there is a whole range of fancy chips designed for MP3 players that provide stable miniature transmitters with useful features such as stereo encoders. That’s not to say there isn’t scope for an updated simple bug too though, and here [James] delivers the goods with his tiny FM transmitter.

Gone is the transistor, and in its place is a MAX2606 voltage-controlled oscillator. The on-chip varicap and buffer provided by this device alleviate some of the stability issues suffered by the transistor circuits, and to improve performance further he’s added an AP2210 low-dropout regulator to catch any power-related drift. If it were ours we’d put in some kind of output network to use both sides of the differential output, but his single-ended solution at least offers simplicity. The whole is put on a board so tiny as to be dwarfed by a CR2032 cell, and we can see that a bug that size could provide hours of fun.

This may be a small and simple project, but it has found its way here for being an extremely well-executed one. It’s by no means the first FM bug we’ve shown you here, just a few are this one using scavenged SMD cellphone parts, or this more traditional circuit built on a piece of stripboard.

3D Printing A Synthesizer

Before there were samplers, romplers, Skrillex, FM synths, and all the other sounds that don’t fit into the trailer for the new Blade Runner movie, electronic music was simple. Voltage controlled oscillators, voltage controlled filters, and CV keyboards ruled the roost. We’ve gone over a lot of voltage controlled synths, but [Tommy] took it to the next level. He designed a small, minimum viable synth based around the VCO in an old 4046 PLL chip

For anyone who remembers [Elliot]’s Logic Noise series here on Hackaday, this type of circuit should be very familiar. The only thing in this synth is a few buttons, a variable resistor for each button, and the very popular VCO for an analog square wave synth.

The circuit for this synth is built in two halves. The biggest, and what probably took the most time designing, is the key bed. This is a one-octave keyboard that’s completely 3D printed. We’ve seen something like this before in one of the projects from the SupplyFrame Design Lab residents, though while that keyboard worked it was necessary for [Tim], the creator of that project, to find a company that could make custom key beds for him.

The rest of the circuit is just a piece of perf board and the 4046. This project is all wrapped up in a beautiful all-wood enclosure with 3D printed hinges, knobs, and a speaker grille. The sound is phenomenal, and exactly what you want from a tiny monophonic square wave synth. You can check out a video of that below.

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It’s a Synthesizer. It’s a Violin. It’s a Modulin

It sounds a little like a Theremin and looks a lot like the contents of your scrap bin. But it’s a unique musical instrument called a modulin, and after a few teasers we finally have some details on how it was built.

Making music with marbles is how we first heard of [Martin] of the Swedish music group Wintergatan. He seems as passionate about making his own instruments as he is about the music itself, and we like that. The last time we saw one of his builds was this concert-ready music box, which he accompanied with an instrument he called a modulin. That video gave only a tantalizing look at this hacked together instrument, but the video below details it.

“Modulin” comes from the modular synthesizer units that create the waveforms and pressure-sensitive ribbon controller on the violin-like neck. The instrument has 10 Doepfer synthesizer modules mounted to a hacked-together frame of wood and connected by a forest of patch cables. [Martin]’s tour of the instrument is a good primer on how synthesizers synthesize – VCOs, VCAs, envelope generators, filters – it’s all there. We’re treated to a sample of the sounds a synthesizer can make, plus majestic and appropriately sci-fi sounding versions of Also sprach Zarathustra and the theme from Jurassic Park. And be sure to check out the other video for another possibly familiar tune.

This might be old hat to musicians, but for those of us to whom music is a mystery, such builds hold extra sway. Not only is [Martin] making music, he’s making the means to make music. We’re looking forward to hearing what’s next.

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Unlock the Phase Locked Loop

If you want a stable oscillator, you usually think of using a crystal. The piezoelectric qualities of quartz means that it can be cut in a particular way that it will oscillate at a very precise frequency. If you present a constant load and keep the temperature stable, a crystal oscillator will maintain its frequency better than most other options.

There are downsides to crystals, though. As you might expect, because crystals are so stable it’s hard to change the frequency much when you want a different one. You can use a trimming capacitor to pull the frequency a little, but to really change frequency, you have to change crystals.

There are other kinds of oscillators that are more frequency agile. However, they aren’t usually as stable. To combine flexibility with crystal-like stability, you can use a Phase Locked Loop (PLL). Many modern systems use direct digital synthesis, but the PLL is a venerable and time-tested technique.

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FM 101 and Transmitter Build with Afroman

One of our favorite purveyors of electronics knowledge is at it again. This time, [Afroman] explains how frequency modulation works while building up a short-range FM transmitter on a board he has available at OSH Park.

The design is based on a MAX2606 voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) chip that can do 70-150MHz. [Afroman] sets it up to oscillate at about 100MHz using a 390nH inductor. He also put a potentiometer voltage divider on the 2606’s tuning pin. Voltage changes issued through the pot alter the transmitting frequency in small increments, making it easy to dial in a suitable channel for your broadcast. Add an electret mic and about a meter’s worth of solid-core wire and you have yourself an FM transmitter that is good for around 20 meters.

There are plenty of ways to build a small FM transmitter that allow for some experimentation and don’t involve placing SMD components. We covered a build last summer that uses a couple of 3904s and rides a 9V connector salvaged from a dead battery. The downside is that transistor-based transmitters tend to be less frequency-stable than a VCO chip.

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Logic Noise: Playing in Tune with an Exponential VCO

Last session, we use the cheap and cheerful 4046 Phase-locked Loop chip as a simple voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO). It was dead simple, in fact, because the chip has a VCO already built in. There’s one big drawback of the 4046’s VCO; the pitch changes linearly with the control voltage. Ideally, as we’ll discuss in the next sections, we’d like the frequency to be an exponential function of the control voltage (CV), and that’s going to mean a little bit of analog circuitry.

René Schmitz has a fantastic exponential VCO design that’s almost a perfect fit for the Logic Noise series — it’s built with a minimum of parts, it’s a little bit rough around the edges, and at its core is a 4000-series CMOS chip that’s normally used for digital logic applications. The only drawback, from our perspective, is that it uses a dual (positive and negative) power supply. We’ll hack our way around that, and ignore some of René’s otherwise worthwhile refinements in the name of doing something truly quick and dirty. We’ll get 95% of the results with 70% of the work, although it’s easy enough to add on the rest if it strikes your fancy.

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