Test Gear Triumph! (Arduino to the Rescue)

Tidying up my desk a bit yesterday, I found a circuit on a breadboard I’d left hanging. Months ago I was looking into notch filters for removing mains hum, to clean up a ELF/VLF signal a wee bit. I’d put together a bootstrapped twin-T notch filter, but had got rather frustrated when testing it. I wanted to get a general idea of its response and (assuming it looked ok) tune it to 50Hz.

But I’ve only got a USB port Bitscope oscilloscope (the BS10 mixed-signal model) which does do basic frequency analysis and even has a signal generator built in. Unfortunately there’s no sweep for the sig gen, and the UI is so clunky I wound up making a little generator with an easily-twiddled knob. That still didn’t really give me what I was after in being able to clearly see what was going on.

Anyhow, today I thought I’d take another look. Got everything set up, did some manual sweeping which showed that the component values I’d used were quite a way out (more like 70Hz). But still no clear visualisation of the overall response.

Staring at the desk, pondering what to do next…there’s an Arduino Uno right in front of me. I’ve spent a fair while getting to know the things over the past few weeks. I’d noticed in passing that it had a tone() method, but hadn’t actually played with it. Ok, about 15 minutes later I had this loaded:

void setup (){

void loop() {
  int i;

  for (i = 35; i <= 100; i++) {
    tone(11, i);

A sweep generator!

Ok,  its frequency range is limited and it gives a square wave out. So I took the output from pin 11 and fed that to a simple RC filter (15k, 220nF) which took the buzziness down a bit. Stray harmonics aren’t that much of an issue for the current problem, and 35-100 Hz cover the range I’m looking at.

One thing the Bitscope’s waveform generator allows is the fairly accurate setting of frequency. So I set that at 50Hz and put it in one scope input, the output of my notch filter into the other. After a bit of fiddling to get levels reasonably stable, I got this:


The yellow is my 50Hz reference, green the notch filter response. The harmonics on the ref are pretty dire – dunno, I guess it must be clipping. But look at that lovely notch in the green! Around 70 or so Hz, as measured before.

So this setup can help me quickly tune the notch down to where it’s needed. But that isn’t the real triumph here. What I wasn’t sure about is the rest of the response of the active notch. Where the passive notch goes from flat into a 6dB (I think) / octave drop into the notch, this version has noticeable mounds either side. Those are potentially very undesirable. If you look at the 50Hz marker here, my filter as it stands would boost that frequency. While I’m sure I can get the notch in a much better position than this, any drift (maybe due to environmental factors) could be very bad. So at the cost of less sharp notch, I reckon on balance the passive version is probably the one to go for.


A few hours on, and a bit more progress. I pulled out the active notch circuit, did calculations again and plugged in a passive one. Well, I say passive, am using a TL074 to buffer the signal.

The basic filter circuit is this:


Fc = 1/(2 pi R C)

Using C = 100nF (2C just two of them in parallel) and 33k for each of the two Rs on top, a single 15k for the R/2 I got something looking like a cleanish notch, centred on 47.8Hz. It took a little trial & error. The capacitors are just off-the shelf, ceramic I think, probably 10% tolerance but came from the same batch so should be reasonable well matched. 1% resistors, again off-the shelf, same batch.

I forgot to take a screenshot…

But as I measured previously, the ambient mains hum here also contains a significant amount of 3rd harmonic, ie. 150Hz. So I did the sums again for this.

Ran into a slight snag with my setup though – when sweeping up through a reasonable range for it to go over the 150Hz target, the spectrogram display was all over the place.

But, as an alternative to sweep, you can also test freq response with white noise (or an impulse, but that’s another story). Coincidentally I was playing with a pseudorandom number generator just yesterday (for DOG-1), so knew what to look for. I found one, to which I’ve made minor tweaks –

#define speakerPin 11

unsigned long lastClick;

void setup() {
  // put your setup code here, to run once:
   lastClick = micros();   

/* initialize with any 32 bit non-zero  unsigned long value. */
#define LFSR_INIT  0xfeedfaceUL
/* Choose bits 32, 30, 26, 24 from  http://arduino.stackexchange.com/a/6725/6628
 *  or 32, 22, 2, 1 from 
 *  http://www.xilinx.com/support/documentation/application_notes/xapp052.pdf
 *  or bits 32, 16, 3,2  or 0x80010006UL per http://users.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/lfsr/index.html 
 *  and http://users.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/lfsr/32.dat.gz
#define LFSR_MASK  ((unsigned long)( 1UL<<31 | 1UL <<15 | 1UL <<2 | 1UL <<1  )) unsigned int generateNoise(){    // See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_feedback_shift_register#Galois_LFSRs    static unsigned long int lfsr = LFSR_INIT;  /* 32 bit init, nonzero */    /* If the output bit is 1, apply toggle mask.                                     * The value has 1 at bits corresponding                                     * to taps, 0 elsewhere. */    if(lfsr & 1) { lfsr =  (lfsr >>1) ^ LFSR_MASK ; return(1);}
   else         { lfsr >>= 1;                      return(0);}

void loop() {
      /* ... */
      if ((micros() - lastClick) > 500 ) { // Changing this value changes the frequency.
        lastClick = micros();
        digitalWrite (speakerPin, generateNoise());


One tweak to use pin 11 as I’d already got that wired up. The other is rather sweet. The original code had a loop delay of 50 micros, related to the bandwidth. But that again wasn’t very clear on the spectrogram. Was nice white noise, but I’m only interested in the low end here. Making the micros 500, and letting the display accumulate for a minute, produced this:


There’s a nice notch pretty close to 50Hz, plus my new one, near enough at 150Hz (measured at 145Hz). The peak on the left is probably just an artifact of the setup – FFT does that sort of thing. Also the relative shallowness of the second notch I reckon is at least in part to the fact that it uses a linear scale on the spectrogram.

The values I used here were C = 47n, R = 22k, pleasingly standard values (the resistors gived those capacitors calculated at 22.57k, which was handy).

I’ve just got this set up on the breadboard around a TL074 quad op amp, using 3 op amps for unity gain buffers (each with a 1M to ground). Those things have input resistance of 10^12 ohms. So I’m now thinking I might just use one of them as the input stage for an ELV/VLF receiver. The 2N3819 input stage of the BBB-4 receiver I was going to try has a 10M resistor to ground, seems like plenty of leeway for that here. Input buffer, maybe give it variable gain of something like 1-100, to these filters (perhaps adding a little more gain along the way), then use the spare op amp to drive a couple of transistors for a small speaker/headphone level output.

Just trying it with a longish wire at the input, computer speakers at out, still way too much mains-derived noise to hear any natural signals, but the difference between the different stages of the circuit is really noticeable. I’ll have to get it soldered up, battery power, take it up the fields.

And try it when there’s a thunderstorm around 🙂



Electronics World and Wireless World Articles

Last night I was looking at some possible analog circuitry again, on the Natural Radio side, specifically filters to track Schumann Resonances. The frequencies involved are around 7-30Hz. To check the response of these and other filters, I could do with a good sweep generator and a true RMS voltmeter. After sleeping on it I remembered that I worked on exactly these (and various other) mostly audio-oriented circuits in articles I wrote for this magazine, way back in 1993. Unlike digital circuits, for the everyday hacker the analog circuit state of the art hasn’t really changed from then.

These were my first published works, helped to pay for my first IBM compatible PC. I was so chuffed that I got the cover feature with The Twisted World of Non-Linear Electronics (PDF). And what a cover!

Circuits in there include exp/log converters, an RMS converter, an (audio) dynamic range processor (compressor/expander) and a couple of chaotic circuits – that make a horrible noise!

The other article I have a scan of is The Versatile World of OTAs (PDF) – I think I wrote others, but don’t appear to have scanned copies. That’s operational transconductance amplifiers.  They are closely related to regular op amps, but instead of producing an output voltage, they produce an output current. What makes them really useful is that they usually feature an additional input that controls the level of the output current. These things are found pretty much everywhere you might want something voltage-controlled, such as voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs) etc. in analog music synthesizers.

Circuits in there include a tunable active loudspeaker crossover, a couple of voltage controlled filters and a VCO. And…a bat detector. That worked a treat – made one, I with an LM380 or similar amplifier, out on a summer night, chirp, chirp!

A Quick and Dirty Audio Signal Generator

It was pretty clear that my ELFQuake setup would need fairly major mains hum filtering, especially since this location is very close to overhead power lines. This was emphasized the other day when I tried a little AM radio, all but two stations on MW were totally drowned out by hum.

When I was last experimenting with the filter circuitry I found the limited equipment I have rather frustrating. When it came to a signal generator, I didn’t have much joy using either a tablet app or the BitScope waveform generator. What I really wanted was a knob to twiddle for easy tweaking of the frequency. So a couple of days ago I spent a few hours knocking together a simple analog circuit. My requirements were essentially the twiddly knob and something approximating a sine wave. The constraints were the components I had at hand, and no desire to spend too much time over it.

What I came up with is as follows. The circuit starts with a simple triangle/square wave generator using standard analog computational elements based around op amps:


I’m using a TL084 quad op amp with a +/- 12v supply.

When the output of the left-hand op amp is negative, that will ramp up the integrator on the right until it flips the switch on the left (note positive feedback on that op amp). Then the integrator will ramp down until it flips the switch the other way. The frequency is simply determined by the resistors in the middle and capacitor C, as f = 1/2piRC. In practice I’ve got 6 values of C between 4u7 and 1n, producing a frequency range (measured) from about 5Hz to 200kHz. In the middle, with 100n, varying the pot in the middle gave a range from about 275Hz to 11kHz with what looked on the scope like a clean triangle wave. Switching to the top range gave a significant warping of the triangle, but I thought it might still be useful.

Next is a more interesting circuit, which modifies the triangle wave into something approximating a sine:


The transistors are just a couple of regular BC109s I happened to have a lot of. The transistors act as differential voltage to current converters with a nonlinear transfer function, with the op amp converting the currents back to voltages.

Here’s the cunning bit – the transfer function of the transistors is theoretically proportional to tanh, which looks like this:


Given the right scaling (and bias) this will have the effect of rounding over the upper and lower corners of the triangle waveform. This isn’t an entirely arbitrary choice of function. The first few terms of the Taylor Series for tanh are roughly the same as those for sine.

The actual component values were chosen pretty much by trial and error, adjusting values until the harmonic components appeared to be at a minimum on a frequency response display. Ideally the transistors should have been a matched pair in thermal contact and maybe some tweaking of the levels/balance/bias of this block might have made for a purer sine wave, but I was only after quick & dirty…

This is what the waveforms/freq plots look like (measured on a BitScope), first the square & sine from the first circuit block:



Here’s the shaped output:


Though the 2nd harmonic is still about at the same level as the triangle, but the higher harmonics do seem significantly attenuated.

According to Wikipedia, the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) of a square wave is around 48.3% – the high harmonic levels are clear on the trace above. For a triangle wave the value is around 12.1%. I’ve not done the sums to figure out the theoretical best achievable using the tanh shaping (homework anyone?), but there is a visible improvement in the displays above. I don’t know, maybe something around 5%..?

(Incidentally, the triangle wave generator can be easily modified to generate a ramp by slipping a diode in the feedback loop).

You may have noticed I’m using a quad op amp, but only 3 of them are in use. I contemplated using the 4th as a buffer or even as the heart of a switched filter. But more useful for me I reckon, and definitely more fun, was to deploy this in a white noise generator:


The noise source is the reverse-biased emitter-base junction of another BC109 transistor. This is simply followed by a DC-blocking capacitor and the op amp set up to give a gain of 100. I think the capacitor I used is a 100n. There was a little bleeding through of the oscillator’s signal visible, but not enough to be troublesome. The output did look remarkably wideband, only really starting to drop off gradually around 50kHz.


I then transferred everything to a piece of stripboard, and in true quick & dirty style mounted it on a scrap of wood:


(Sorry about the blur). Incredibly, even though I put it onto the stripboard without any real planning, I only made one wiring mistake which took about 2 minutes to discover. But I was bitten by hubris when I wired up the capacitor switch – it’s a 2-pole, 6-way, and it took me ages to get the wiring right.

When I tested the sine wave output again there was a visible asymmetry – pointier on top, more rounded on the bottom. I think most likely I got the transistors the other way around. Rather than desolder/resolder them I tweaked the value of the shaper’s input resistor, adding a 1k in series with the 18k in the schematic above, which restored the balance.

So now I have another little addition to my little electronics workbench (big coffee table)…