Theremin Part 1: Block Diagram

Presenting the block diagram of the Theremin we are going to build in this series.

theremin_block_diagram

The Theremin is one of those devices that was created by chance, while looking for something completely different.

Leon Theremin, which was studying the design of the early proximity detectors for the Russian government, discovered that his invention could be adapted and used for a totally different scope. The Etherphone was born.

Later on, once the instrument became well known and was produced under several different names by RCA first and other brand names later, it became commonly known under the name of its inventor, Theremin himself.

The concept of the Theremin is today easily understood as a device that uses the beat between two very close high frequencies to produce an audible frequency.

There are several ways to implement the device, although they are all variations of the same base design used by Leon. Since I wanted to create my own version of it, and since I wanted it to be a real musical instrument, I did some research and came up with my own version of the Theremin schematics. In doing so, I put together an instrument with the same features as the original Etherphone, along with enhancements that can be found in today’s commercial versions.

I present today the block diagram of my version of the Theremin. In future articles I will dive into the details of each of the blocks and how they can be practically built, also with the aid of videos that I will publish on my YouTube channel.

Starting at the center left, there is a reference oscillator for the pitch. The frequency is adjustable in a narrow range to allow the tuning of the instrument, which is heavily dependent on the physical features of the person that plays it (more on that, later).

On the top left, you can see a second oscillator. The frequency of it can be modified by the distance of the player’s hand from the pitch antenna. The player’s hand and the antenna are capacitively coupled. Changing the distance of the hand from the antenna, changes the capacity, thus changing the oscillation frequency. Since the capacity is affected also by the size of the hand, the humidity of the air, the distance of the antenna from the body of the musician, and several other factors, the reference oscillator frequency needs to be adjusted before being able to play the instrument, to make sure that the range of notes generated by the Theremin is within the optimal range for the music that will be played.

The output of the pitch reference oscillator and the variable oscillator are mixed together in the box labeled “mixer”.  In there, the two frequencies beat and produce two more frequencies, one being the sum of the two, and the other one being the difference. The mixer output these signals after passing them through a low-pass filter, which eliminates the higher frequency, leaving only  the lower one, which is the difference of the frequencies of the two oscillators. When the signals from the two oscillators have a close frequency, the produced difference beat becomes an audible frequency, the music generated by the Theremin.

The output of the mixer is split and given as input to two more blocks. Let’s examine first the one labeled VCA. This is, in fact, a voltage controlled amplifier, which is capable of changing the volume of the signal coming from the mixer. The voltage used to control it, comes from another high frequency circuitry, the “volume variable oscillator” and the “volume resonant circuit”.

The volume oscillator is another oscillator which frequency is controlled by another antenna. The output of this oscillator is entered in the volume resonant circuit. Like with the pitch reference oscillator, also the volume variable oscillator can be tuned to the physical features of the musician playing the instrument.

The volume resonant circuit is a device that receives in input a signal at a high frequency and outputs a DC voltage which amplitude depends on how far the input frequency is from the resonance value of the resonator inside this block. So, changing the distance of the hand from the volume antenna changes the frequency of the volume oscillator, which in turn, changes the DC output of the volume resonant circuit. The output of this circuit is used to control the amplification level of the VCA, allowing for the VCA to block completely the signal from the mixer (mute) to letting it pass completely (max volume).

The output of the VCA is then passed to an audio pre-amp, which can adjust the volume and the brightness of the sound. Then the signal goes to a power amplifier that pilots the speaker embedded in the Theremin. The pre-amp output could also be sent to an external power amplifier. I will also provide this capability to my Theremin.

Given the difficulty to emit the correct pitch while playing the Theremin, I provided the instrument with a preview output, that can be used to pilot an ear-piece. The player will be able to hear the note about to be emitted, even if the VCA is muting the Theremin. This is the reason for the last couple of blocks in the diagram.

The signal from the mixer, besides going to the VCA, is also sent to another pre-amp, which will allow to adjust the preview volume.

Then, from the pre-amp, the signal goes to a second amplifier that pilots the ear-piece. Since the path to the ear-piece is not affected by the VCA, the player can always hear the note about to be played, regardless of the volume to which the VCA is currently set. This becomes very useful when the Theremin music needs to come along with other instruments that are already playing. The musician playing the Theremin, can prepare the first note that will be played by the Theremin, adjusting it to the one of the other instruments being played.

Well, that’s it for now. But don’t you worry: it is much more complicated to explain how the Theremin works than actually building one. In the next blogs of this series we will go inside the blocks one by one, we will build them, and we will put the whole Theremin together before you even realize it. It will be a lot of fun.

‘Till the next time…

(See also the YouTube video that complements the explanation of the block diagram provided here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moT9iAaZU-I)

Looking At The Future

An overview of the next subjects I will explore in my blog and my YouTube channel.

spatiul-cosmic

No, not the future of the human race! Not even the future of the space exploration!

I’m just talking about my plans for future posts on this blog and on my YouTube channel.

I observed that people tend to look mostly at short videos and, when they are too long, watchers soon give up. I attribute this to the fact that people watches YouTube videos in a different way than TV shows and, while TV shows may be long, that is not true for the majority of videos on YouTube. The expectations are just different.

So, rather than proposing long videos that exhaust a subject in all its details, and just gliding over it, it is probably better to have short videos that concentrate on a single detail of the subject. Then I could have several episodes on the same subject, each concentrating on a different detail and made in such a way that someone could watch a specific episode without the need to watch all the previous ones..

Looking back at the resistors video, it could have probably worked better if I had split the video in several pieces, one with the general information, one just for resistors in series, one for resistors in parallel, and so forth.

I could basically have several episodes on different aspects of the same subject!

Based on this assumption, I will publish in the next few weeks several episodes centered on two primary subjects: the capacitor and the inductor, to complete the overview of all the passive components used in electronics. And, maybe, in a later future, I could also provide a number of videos where I show how these components can be used together, and what kind of circuits can be created.

Please let me know what you think of this new setup of my channel by writing a comment. Should I just keep going the way I started? Or should I move on with shorter videos, centered on specific details of a subject? Would this help those people that are only interested in specific details and don’t want to listen to the whole spiel?

Before I go, I would like to finish by introducing a new subject that is very dear to me: I plan to build a functioning Theremin for myself (I play musical instruments as a hobby). It is going to be a complex project, so it wll take some time, but I plan to upload several videos on the progresses I make, until the project is completed. I will also publish the whole design of the instrument, so brave followers can try to build one for themselves too. And, maybe, I could also upload my own performance with the instrument, once completed, playing just some simple tune. Anyone interested?

theremin_in_concert

‘Till the next time…

(Watch also the video on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXCCT2xIWcA&feature=share)

How Resistors Work

resistors_series

What is a resistor? Why would I want to use it? Where can I find it?

I’m sure you have asked these questions and many others to yourself several times. Here, I hope to give you at least some of the answers. But keep in mind that there is much more behind this and I could keep writing pages and pages on the subject barely scratching the surface of it.

So, why am I doing this? Because, for the most part, the information I will provide here are enough for day to day use of the resistors in simple electronic circuits used to for learning and for early experimentation. If you need to know more, then you are already on the road for becoming a true electric or electronic engineer.

A resistor is an electric device which only reason to exist is to reduce the flow of the current in a circuit. It obtains this effect by dissipating the extra energy of the current into heat. Yes, heat! There was never in the engineering history a device that wasted more energy than a resistor (percent wise). But then you’d ask: why in the world we want to use it? Because, used in the appropriate way, it allows us to do a lot of things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Just think at this: there is no electronic circuit in the world that does not use resistors.

Here is how resistors look like:

resistors

Back in 1827, a German physicist and mathematician named Georg Ohm, published a paper containing what it was later called Ohm’s law. It was basically a formula that correlated the current that flows in a wire with the voltage applied at its extremities. He found that increasing the voltage, the current also increased of a proportional amount, and he called the proportional constant “resistance”. The formula of the resistance was born (although he did not write it exactly this way):

V = I x R

A resistor, therefore, is fundamentally a piece of conductor that presents a certain resistance to the flow of the current. When we apply a voltage V at the ends of the conductor, an electric current I will flow, proportional to the amount of voltage by the constant R, the resistance of the conductor. In the SI system, the resistance is measured in Ohms, to honor the discoverer of the law, while the voltage is measured in Volts and the current in Amperes.

Today, resistors are made of different materials. These materials are substantially a mix of a good conductor and an insulator (a material that blocks the flow of current). Adjusting the mix of the two substances, it is possible to create resistors having a wide range of possible resistances, from tens to millions of an ohm.

There are two symbols that are normally used in schematics to represent a resistor. The most common in USA is the one with a zig-zag shape; the other is the one specified by the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission):

resistor_notation

Let’s now talk about how resistors can be connected to each other to accomplish some simple tasks.

The first way to connect together two or more resistors is to put them in series. Two or more resistors are said to be connected in series if the same current I flows through all of them:

resistors_series

The voltage E applied to the whole circuit is split among all the resistors and the sum of all the resistor voltages equals the voltage E:

E = V1 + V2 + V3

while the total current in the circuit is:

I = V1/R1 = V2/R2 = V3/R3 = E/Req

Req is the equivalent resistance of the series:

Req = R1 + R2 + R3

resistor_equivalent

A series of resistors is normally used as a voltage divider like, for example, those that are used to polarize transistors, or other electronic components. Another usage example is to reduce the input voltage coming into a device, to bring it to a value more consistent to what the device needs. An example of that is the input of an amplifier that accepts a voltage no greater than 1V as its input. If the source of the signal that goes into the amplifier has a greater voltage, a couple of resistors in series can do the trick of lowering the voltage to a more adequate value.

Another way to connect resistors is to put them in parallel. Two or more resistors are said to be connected in parallel if the same voltage E is applied to all of them:

resistors_parallel.png

The current I that flows from the generator is split among the different resistors and the sum of all the resistor currents equal the current from the generator:

I = I1 + I2 + I3

The voltage in the circuit can be expressed by the following equation:

E = R1 * I1 = R2 * I2 = R3 * I3 = Req * I

Req is the equivalent resistance of the parallel:

1/Req = 1/R1 + 1/R2 + 1/R3

resistir_parall_equiv

Resistors in parallel have several uses, but the first two that come to my mind as the most usual are:

  1. You need a resistor of a particular value that is not available in the market. To solve the problem, you build the resistor with the value you need by putting in parallel two or more resistors of higher value, such that the Req equals the value of resistance that you need.
  2. You can view at all the devises and lamp that you plug in your house receptacles as resistors. All of them are connected in parallel, so each one of them can receive the same voltage regardless of how much current they need.

And, since we were talking about lamps, let’s also talk about power. We have said that the main function of a resistor is to restrict the flow of current by converting the excess power into heat. However, while we do so, we also need to avoid that a resistor becomes too hot, thus damaging its surroundings on the circuit board and maybe even catching on fire.

For this reason, each resistor has a power rating. The power rating the is the max amount of power that the resistor can dissipate without becoming hot enough to cause damage to itself or its surroundings. Normal ratings for resistors that are used in electronic circuit are 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1 W

W is the symbol used in electrical engineering to identify the unit to measure the power, which is called Watt. And yes, that is the same power unit used for mechanics and for thermodynamics, if you were wondering.

The power dissipated by a resistor depends on the voltage applied to the resistor and the current that goes through it:

P = V * I = R * I2= V2 / R

When designing a circuit, you always have to make sure that you determine the max power that each resistor will dissipate, so you can specify the power rating of the resistors along with their value in Ohms.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is that resistors have also a voltage rating. However, even resistors with very low power rating, like 1/8W, have voltage ratings of at least 200V. Will you ever build an electronic circuit that is powered with such amounts of voltage? Probably not, that’s why you don’t usually have to worry about that. And, in fact, how many times have you heard somebody talking about voltage rating of resistors? Maybe never?

One last thing I would like to talk about is how to identify the value of a resistor. Resistors normally  used in electronic circuits are of two kinds:

  • through hole resistors
  • SMT resistors (Surface Mount Technology)

The value of the SMT resistors is always written in clear, with numbers and letters, for example 1k2, which means 1.2 kΩ (that is kilo Ohms).

The value of the “through hole” resistors is instead normally identified by a number of color bands painted on the resistor itself. Each color represents a digit in the value of the resistor, or a multiplier, depending on the position. The last colored band represents the tolerance, which tells you how precise is the value of the resistor itself.

Here is a table that shows you the color codes and the meaning of each color in relation with the position on the body of the resistor.

resistors_color_code

‘Till the next time…

(Watch also the video on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jV5nacrzsBw)

Experimentation Boards

How to experiment with electronic components to try new things and test your designs

It comes the time where you want to do some experiments to learn how a specific circuit works or to test a new circuit that you are designing.

Fundamentally, there are two options for you:

  1. Use a perforated board where you can solder the components to build the circuit you want to test.
  2. Use a solder-less breadboard, which allows you to build the circuit you need and, later, dismantle it without any damage to the components you used.

There is actually a third possibility, which is to use a PCB, or Printed Circuit Board. However, I will not consider that right now. PCB are normally used in later stage of development, when you are ready to put your design in a more definitive form. Using a PCB board at the early stages of design is not convenient, due to the cost and time needed just to produce the board itself over and over again, until you are satisfied with your design.

Personally, when I am in the first stages of a new design, and I need to try  a new piece of electronic circuit, I prefer to use a solder-less breadboard, which allows me to modify the circuit at will while I test different versions of it.

02_DSC00020

Once I am satisfied with the design and I need to build my first real prototype, I then use a perforated board. In this case I lay down all the components on one side of it, normally the one with no metallic pads, and then I solder the components on the other side, where the metallic pads are located. At the same time I start running the cables from the lead of one component to another, to make all the electric connections between components.

02_DSC00027

If what I need is just one circuit for personal purposes, then I might as well end it right there, leaving the circuit on the perforated board. But if I needed to build several of those circuits, then I start thinking of manufacturing a PCB. But this is a subject for another time.

Since I work a lot with Arduino and Raspberry Pi boards, I have also created my own version of experimentation board, which is basically a piece of cardboard that I covered with blue tape, with  a bunch of stuff glued to it: a couple of breadboards, an Arduino Uno, a Raspberry Pi, and a small LCD display. I also added a few little trays to temporarily place some components needed to build the circuit, or to hold bigger components that are part of the project and cannot fit on the breadboards.

02_DSC00023

This configuration allows me to build my experimentation circuits in a neat way, without having too many things lying around on the workbench. It is very easy to move around the built circuit when it is done on such a custom board.

(Watch the video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wv7kVVZvULA&t=13s)