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Test Equipment Upcycling – Variable Attenuator Module

A while back I found myself in the need of an adjustable RF attenuator capable of high-GHz operation. As luck would have it I had an old Spectrum analyser on the shelf at work, which we had retired quite some time ago.

Spectrum analysers being quite capable test instruments, I knew that the input attenuation would be done with a standalone module that we could recover for reuse without too much trouble.

The attenuator module

Here’s the module itself, with the factory drive PCB removed from the bottom, showing the solenoids that operate the RF switches. There are test wires attached to them here to work out which solenoid switches which attenuation stage. In the case of this module, there are switches for the following:

  • Input select switch
  • AC/DC coupling
  • -5dB
  • -10dB
  • -20dB
  • -40dB

For me this means I have up to -75dB attenuation in 5dB steps, with optional switchable A-B input & either AC or DC coupling.

Drive is easy, requiring a pulse on the solenoid coil to switch over, the polarity depending on which way the switch is going.

Building a Control Board

Now I’ve identified that the module was reusable, it was time to spin up a board to integrate all the features we needed:

  • Onboard battery power
  • Pushbutton operation
  • Indication of current attenuation level

The partially populated board is shown at right, with an Arduino microcontroller for main control, 18650 battery socket on the right, and control buttons in the centre. The OLED display module for showing the current attenuation level & battery voltage level is missing at the moment, but it’s clear where this goes.

As there weren’t enough GPIO pins for everything on the Arduino, a Microchip MC23017 16-Bit I/O expander, which is controlled via an I²C bus. This is convenient since I’m already using I²C for the onboard display.

Driving the Solenoids

A closer view of the board shows the trip of dual H-Bridge drivers on the board, which will soon be hidden underneath the attenuator block. These are LB1836M parts from ON Semiconductor. Each chip drives a pair of solenoids.

Power Supplies

The bottom of the board has all the power control circuitry, which are modularised for ease of production. There’s a Lithium charge & protection module for the 18650 onboard cell, along with a boost converter to give the ~9v rail required to operate the attenuator solenoids. While they would switch at 5v, the results were not reliable.

Finishing off

A bit more time later, some suitable firmware has been written for the Arduino, and the attenuator block is fitted onto the PCB. The onboard OLED nicely shows the current attenuation level, battery level & which input is selected.

HP 8753C Display LCD Replacement

Completed Install

Completed Install

Since I inherited an old HP 8753C Network Analyser from work, I figured updating a few things to relatively modern standards would be good. The factory CRT, being 28 years old, is definitely getting a little tired, not to mention being slow to warm up. I read over on the EEVBlog forums about a DIY modification to integrate an LCD display into place instead. There was also the option of a ready-made kit for these instruments which would integrate an LCD, but the cost at over £300 was very prohibitive!

CRT Pinout

CRT Pinout

The CRT display unit is a self-contained Sony unit, taking RGBHV signalling from the graphics control card of the analyser. Power is 65v DC which will definitely come in handy for powering the new LCD & control gear, after some conversion.

Test Wiring

Test Wiring

Doing a quick test with some wiring stuck into the video connector from the graphics controller, proved that I could get a decent video signal out of the unit! The only signals used here are RGB, along with the vertical & horizontal sync.

GBS-8200 Converter Board

GBS-8200 Converter Board

The video is converted to VGA by way of a GBS-8200 arcade machine video conversion board, which will take many different video formats & spit out standard VGA signalling. The power supply to the left is a standard 100-240v to 12v PSU, which is happy to run at 6t5v DC input voltage, albeit with a ~5 second delay on output startup when power is applied. This is due to the massive 6.6MΩ resistance of the startup resistor chain, which I did reduce by 50% to 3.3MΩ with no effect. Since it does start OK even with the delay, I think I’ll not tinker with it any further. I doubt I could pull the full rated power from it with such a low input voltage, but all included, this mod draws less than 600mA at 12v.
A custom 20-pin IDC cable was made up to connect to the analyser’s graphics board, and this was then broken out into the required RGB & sync signals. Quite a few of the grounds are unused, I’ve not yet noticed any issues with EMC or instability.

Sync Combiner

Sync Combiner

There is a quad-XOR gate deadbugged to the PCB, which is taking the separate sync signals & combining them into a composite sync. The conversion board does have separate sync inputs, but for some reason doesn’t sync when they’re applied separately. This gate IC is powered from the 3.3v rail of the converter board, with the power lines tacked across one of the decoupling caps for the DRAM IC.

LCD Control PCBs

LCD Control PCBs

The donor 8.4″ LCD came from eBay in the form of a POS auxiliary display. I pulled the panel from the plastic casing, along with the control boards, and attached them all to the back. This LCD also had a sheet of toughened glass attached to the front, no doubt to protect against the Great Unwashed while in use! This was also removed.

Control Boards Mounted

Control Boards Mounted

A cut piece of plexiglas allows the boards to be mounted in the cavernous space the CRT once occupied, with some brass standoffs. 12v power & VGA are routed down to the LCD on the front of the analyser.

LCD Wiring

LCD Wiring

The LCD itself is tacked in place with cyanoacrylate glue to the securing clips for the glass front panel, which is more than enough to hold things in place. The input board which just has the VGA connector & power connector is glued edge-on to the metal back panel of the LCD, and is under little strain so this joint should survive OK.

Sony HVF-2000P Viewfinder Teardown & Composite Video Hack

Rating Plate

Rating Plate

Well, it’s time for another viewfinder hack! I’ve been after one of these for a while, this is from an early 1980’s era Sony Trinicon camera, and instead of the tiny ½” round CRT display, these have a 1.5″ square CRT – a Matsushita 40CB4. Luckily I managed to score a pair of these from eBay for very little money. Update: The second camera’s viewfinder module turned out to have a dead flyback transformer, but at least I have a good spare CRT & the rest of the support components. More to come later on the teardown of the camera itself.

Mirror & Eyecup Assembly

Mirror & Eyecup Assembly

The eyecup assembly with the magnifying lens & turning mirror is easy to remove, with clips & a single screw holding it onto the CRT holder sticking out of the side of the main casing.

Top Cover Removed

Top Cover Removed

Removing some screws around the case allows the top cover to be removed, revealing the electronics. There’s certainly more in here than the later camera viewfinders, in this unit there are two boards slotted together with a board-to-board interconnect at the bottom. The CRT is at the top of the photo, hiding inside the plastic housing & deflection yoke assembly.

Bare PCBs & CRT

Bare PCBs & CRT

Here’s the CRT & one of the control boards removed from the case, having been stripped of the heatshrink tube that held the final anode lead in place. Just like on larger CRTs, this viewfinder has the final anode on a cavity connector fused into the bell, instead of being led out to a pin on the base. This is probably due to the much higher anode voltage of 5kV, a big jump from the 2kV on the ½” round tubes.

40CB4 CRT Label

40CB4 CRT Label

Yup, it’s definitely the elusive 40CB4. Apparently these CRTs are still manufactured to this day for professional camera viewfinders, as the resolution of this small vacuum tube is still better than similarly sized modern tech such as LCDs or OLEDs. The phosphor used is type P4 – ZnS:Ag+(Zn,Cd)S:Ag, with an aluminized overcoat.

Bare 40CB4 CRT

Bare 40CB4 CRT

After the base connector & deflection yoke are removed from the tube, the very long neck can be seen, this long glass neck apparently giving better focus & resolution than the stubbier tubes.

Electron Gun

Electron Gun

The electron gun is the usual single unit as usually found in monochrome tubes.

Deflection Board

Deflection Board

The bottom board in the assembly has all the control circuitry for the CRT, including the HA11244 deflection IC, composite sync separator & vertical deflection drive circuit. There are also circuits here to display a video waveform on the CRT, along with iris & white balance markers.

Horizontal Board

Horizontal Board

The other board has the horizontal drive circuitry, along with the video input amplifier. Despite the attempt to miniaturize the entire assembly, these are still well packed boards. Some of the resistors & diodes are bussed together in custom SIL hybrid modules to save PCB space. Like all the other CRT viewfinders, these units are meant for viewing via a mirror – the horizontal deflection coil connections need to be reversed to show a correct image without the mirror. The Red & Blue wires to the yoke need to be swapped here.

Flyback Transformer

Flyback Transformer

The horizontal board on this unit also supports the flyback transformer, which is massive compared to the other viewfinder circuits. Biasing, focus & filament supplies for the CRT are also derived from this transformer, via auxiliary windings.

Boards Connected

Boards Connected

The boards slot together in the centre to form the fully operational circuit.

Video Input

Video Input

Out of the 3 plugs emerging from the cable feeding the viiewfinder, only this one is important, on the horizontal drive board. Black is ground, Brown +8.5v & red is composite video input. There’s also a resistor tied into the positive rail to the video input pin, which pulls it high to 8.5v – this is R1 right next to this connector. Desolder this 22K resistor to help protect anything feeding a signal into the unit, like a RPi, it’s not needed for normal operation.

Fallout!

Fallout!

As usual for a CRT post, the Fallout loading screen on the display. The picture quality isn’t as good as it should be, probably due to the noisy buck-converter I have rigged up for testing. If it doesn’t get better with a linear regulator, I’ll start replacing the 39 year old electrolytic capacitors. Current draw is 130mA at 7.5v. Schematics for this unit & the CRT datasheet are available below: