Matching Transistors for Log/Exp Converters

Slightly off-topic again.

I’ve been looking at analog log/exp converters, primarily with music synth applications in mind. Here’s a typical Voltage Controlled Oscillator circuit, which uses a pair of transistors as part of the exponential conversion sub-circuit.  But there may well be potential for using an analog log converter to effectively improve the resolution of the ADC part of a seismic data acquisition system. Note that earthquake magnitude measurements are usually expressed as log values – e.g. in the Richter Scale, a magnitude 5 event has an amplitude 10x that of a magnitude 4 event.

There’s a useful selection of general-purpose log & exp converters in TI Application Note AN-30. When building such circuits from op amps + transistors, there are two factors that can significantly affect accuracy. The first is the effect of temperature on transistor characteristics. This is usually offset by using a temperature-sensitive (‘tempco‘) resistor. I don’t currently have any of these… The second issue is that the circuits generally involve a pair of transistors in a balanced configuration. Here it’s useful to select transistor with closely matched characteristics.

Screenshot from 2018-08-14 19-01-37

The classic circuit for testing for matching was given by none other than Dr. Robert Moog:

Screenshot from 2018-08-14 19-02-59

More sophisticated variations are described at Music from Outer Space. I’ve got a bag of 100 2N3904 transistors (about €2 from China), so I decided to have a go at finding some matched pairs.

My circuit began with a silly mistake. I’d misread Moog’s circuit, thinking that both test points were floating, not noticing that one was ground. I only realised once I’d got the thing breadboarded. No big deal, and buffering both lines did offer a bit more scope for experimentation. This is what I ended up with:

Screenshot from 2018-08-14 17-56-28

I used KiCAD for the diagram, files are on github.

The left-hand side is the same as Moog’s, just with a better op amp and 1% resistors. The right-hand side is a basic instrumentation amplifier consisting of a couple of unity-gain buffers feeding a differential amplifier with gain of 10. I initially tried a gain of 100 (using 220k rather than 22k around U1C), with a bias voltage (from a pot) on pin 5 of U1B, but this turned out to be over-sensitive, it was too easy to flip the output to one rail of the other.

I didn’t see much point in accurate reference voltages as in the MFOS designs, my 12v is regulated and after I’d left everything connected for a little while, there was too much variation in individual measurements.

To do mass comparisons while avoiding touching the transistors (and warming them up), I stuck 40 of them into a breadboard:


Moog refers to Vbe values of around 0.6V, and a target of matching within 2mV. I got similar values, 0.573 +/- 0.001V with only a couple of exceptions (even then less than 3mV difference). This seemed a little too good to be true, so I played around with things like changing the bias voltage, but still the values did seem surprising closely matched. Then a simple sanity check occurred to me. Putting a BC109 under test, this gave a value of 0.553V. Not matched to the 2N3904s.

So it looks like I got lucky 🙂




Arduino White Noise Generator

Aiming towards 16 bit.

I’ve done a video to demonstrate.

I’m still learning about what can be done with Arduinos, the main target being data acquisition for the ELFQuake project (the material in this post is all about getting stuff out). But as it involves breadboarding, I’ve got another fun target in mind – a hybrid music synth.

I’ve been reading around what other people have done with the things. For analog output, especially when considering music synthesis, there’s a problem that needs solving.

(Note I’ve been playing with an Arduino Uno – some of the other models have improved features).

The Quality Issue

Unless you’re after bitcrushed, lo-fi, glitch sounds, you need a decent sample rate and resolution. For ballpark, CD audio has a 44.1kHz sample rate, offering something under 22kHz bandwidth, see Nyquist frequency. It’s 16-bit, which means in its basic form, it has a Signal/Noise Ratio of about 96dB – though there are tricks to improve this.

A typical digital synth would use a high sample rate through a dedicated Digital-to-Analog (DAC) chip, with associated circuitry to get things into the analog domain. But as they stand though, Arduinos are very much 8 bit-based. You can get 8 bit analog signals out of a digital output pin using Pulse Wave Modulation (PWM), followed by a very simple analog filter. The easiest way is analogWrite(pin, value). But then you pretty much immediately run into the sample rate problem – I can’t remember offhand, but it’s slow. But the Arduino has 3 built-in PWM timers which can be used to get a much better rate (into the 10s of kHz, so tolerable quality should be possible).

When using the interrupts, the code starts getting obfuscated, but the principle is the same as analogWrite().
(TCCRxx refers to control registers, OC1A (Arduino pin 9) and OC1B (Arduino pin 10). For more info check the ATmega328 Datasheet.)

For the resolution, it’s possible to combine the analog from more than one PWM output. There’s some excellent material on the Open Music Labs site about this, but the basic idea is to scale the (analog) values from the PWM outputs, so eg. one is 256x the other, corresponding to the low and high 8 bits of a 16 bit signal. My basic circuit looks like this:

D9 ---- 1k --------------|

D10 --- 200k --- 56k ----|---> OUT
                    10n ===

However, it can pretty much be guaranteed it won’t be 16 bits coming out of here.

The Mozzi synth project uses the same kind of configuration, but they, more realistically, only aim for max 14 bits (and kinda amusingly, their example of a 14 bit output actually only receives 8 bit values, left-shifted 6 bits, and their circuit uses a 499k/3.9k ratio, specified at 0.5% tolerance…). More generally, I doubt very much if the actual output using the kind of circuit above will get anywhere close to 14 bits.

However (2), my gut feeling is that by paying a little more attention to the analog side, it will be possible to get something like 14+ bits. I plan to experiment on this, using a few little tricks:

  • send the digital outputs through voltage-referenced comparators, so they are as close to each other in ‘raw’ state as possible
  • buffer the voltage division
  • use considerably more sophisticated integration/filtering of the PWM (perhaps independently for each output)

Noise Generation

I must admit to have been gobsmacked to have seen some folks using wavetables to generate noise. The shift register-based generators only need a handful of very low-level processor operations, they should compile down to very fast machine code. Depending where the table is stored, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the computation is faster than the lookup. On a memory-limited device like the Arduino, I’d say it’s worth the trade-off whatever.

To be continued…

Here’s the code (I’ve left in lines that refer to the ADC, might want to use a pot to control freq or level):



oops – I forgot about all the << and >> in there, so rather than figuring out the markup escaping here, I’ve popped it on github.

Emitter-Coupled LC Oscillator

tl;dr : the circuit seems good for high frequencies (low inductance) but for low frequencies is very dependent on the emitter current. Probably suitable for use in an inductance/capacitance meter for radio work (when coupled with a freq counter).

I did a little video.

Here’s the version I breadboarded :


Here’s some analysis.

For the resonant tank I tried both the primary of a little audio transformer + 10nF and a hand-wound coil + 1nF.


For the transformer + 10n, the frequency was around 850Hz, but varied a lot dependent on the current to the emitters. With about 0.7v from the pot, 30uA at the emitters, it produced a reasonable-looking sine wave (if you ignore the noise, that’s presumably just from my test setup):

Screenshot from 2018-07-27 11-39-35

Upping the voltage, and hence emitter current, distortion of the shape soon became evident (along with a significant increase in amplitude and change in pitch), until at around 3v  – er, and a lot more current, I forgot to write it down, the wave looked like this, more like wonky relaxation behaviour:

Screenshot from 2018-07-27 11-44-55

For the coil + 1n, around 0.7V at the pot, 30uA at the emitters, it produced what looks like a pretty good sine wave  at around 110kHz :

Screenshot from 2018-07-27 11-49-01

Upping the voltage again, there was still a big difference in the amplitude, but nowhere near as much in frequency. Also there looks to be considerably less distortion:

Screenshot from 2018-07-27 11-47-24

Now by my reckoning, given that the resonant frequency is 1/2*pi*sqrt(LC), this should make the inductor 2mH. In theory it should be possible to estimate the the inductance by the coil’s physical characteristics:

turns : 45 (or thereabouts)
wire diameter : 0.4mm (ditto)
coil diameter : 20cm (ditto)

But when I tried the formula here (estimating the coil length as 1.8cm), I got 55mH. Not even ballpark. I’ve tried a few online calculators but alas they seem about as reliable as my arithmetic, getting values that differ by orders of magnitude.

So I double-checked my algebra, rearranging the formula step by step, producing :

L = 1/C*(2*pi*f)^2

This again gave me a result of 2mH.

Googling a bit more, I found this page with some practical examples, including :

  L uH  Litz Size Turns Coil Width  Q-1.6MHz  Outside Wire Holes
  238    165/46    47    1-7/16       770     15/16 inch from each end

The inductance formulae on Wikipedia suggest that the induction is proportional to the square of the diameter of the coil. Which (flipping the above into cm and squaring) gives a ratio of 13:400. Leading to an inductance of 238*400/13 = 7323uH = 7mH. That’s getting more ballpark.

But it gets better – the inductance calculator linked from the page with that formula uses a completely different formula, with factors more like those I’m looking at:


Screenshot from 2018-07-27 13-34-58

Yay! Near as damnit 2mH!

PS. Hmm, one thing I’d forgotten with the above calculations is the self-capacitance of the coil. Turns out that without any parallel capacitor the circuit oscillates at around 190kHz.

Frequency is proportional to the square root of the capacitance, so doubling the frequency is like quartering the capacitance…so if my head isn’t overly scrambled by now, that would give give a self-capacitance very roughly in the region of 250pF.  That feels about right, picturing the total area of those 365pF variable caps.

I’m tempted to try out a better-known LC oscillator like the Colpitts, and draw some graphs of results, buy some precision capacitors and inductors, design an Arduino-based LC meter… But this has already taken loads of time and is veering well away from what I should be doing (ELFQuake proper, something towards work-work, or even tidying the kitchen).

Fun though.











Morse Code Practice Key

Recently I’ve been trying to fill in some of the massive holes in my knowledge about radio. For this reason I’d quite like to have a go at the radio amateur license exams. No idea how to go about it though, the geographic complications. I suppose I might stand a chance with the Italian version, as long as I could take a dictionary with me. Anyone know anything about this?

Anyhow, even though it’s rather anachronistic (and no longer a requirement for the exams), the radio amateur sites all have some mention of Morse Code. I’ve always wanted to learn it, I guess from watching too many spy films. There are loads of things I should be doing, but yesterday’s procrastination was making this gadget. Good fun.