I got a little less than half my grading done this weekend (all the lab reports for the final lab, but not the redone reports from earlier labs, and not the 2–3 senior theses that had to be redone from last quarter) before I burned out. I decided to do a little playing with my Bitscope USB oscilloscope, as a break from grading, and that sucked me in—I still haven’t gotten back to the grading.
Here is the problem I was addressing: In my book draft and in my blog post Third power-amp lecture and first half of lab, I presented a view of the Miller plateaus of an nFET, obtained by slowing down the transitions with series resistors and added gate-source capacitance, recording the result with my Bitscope USB oscilloscope, and averaging many traces together.
I was rather unsatisfied with this approach, as I really want to show the full-speed transitions. In Power amps working, I showed some Tektronix plots, but their little screen images are terrible (as bad as the Bitscope screen images), and I can’t use them in the book.
What is the fascination that scope designers have with black backgrounds? I know that the traditional cathode-ray-tube scopes gave no other choice, but for digital scopes black backgrounds are just evil —they don’t project well in lectures and they don’t print well on paper. It would be possible for me to use the data recording features of the Tektronix scopes, and plot the data using gnuplot, but I’d rather use the Bitscope at home if I can (much less hassle than transporting everything up the hill to the lab every time I need some more data).
The Bitscope B10 is capable of 20Msamples/s, which should give me decent time resolution, but the discretization noise is pretty large, so I want to average multiple traces to reduce the noise. When using the “DDR” (DSO Data Recorder) option of the BitScope, it becomes very clear that they do not have any software engineers working for them (or didn’t at the time they defined the format for the recorder files).
The files are comma-separated values files, with no documentation (that I could find) of their content except the first line:
Each row of the file after that seems to have one trigger event, serially numbered in the first field, with a low-resolution time-stamp in the second field (hh:mm:ss, but no date and no finer time divisions). The channel is 0 or 1, the index increments serially separately in each channel, the type is always 0, the delay is when the trace starts relative to the trigger (in seconds), the factor is always 1, the rate is the sampling rate (in Hz), the count is the number of data points, and the data is not a single field but “count” more fields. There is no other meta-data about the settings of the scope!
The data, unfortunately, is not the voltage measured by the scope, which is what one would naively expect. Instead, you have to divide by the volts_per_division and add the offset voltage—neither of which are recorded anywhere in the data file! (You probably have to adjust for the probe as well, but I was using a 1X probe, so I can’t tell from this data.)
It is clear that the “engineers” who designed this format never heard of metadata—maybe they were used to just scrawling things on the backs of envelopes rather than keeping data around. Yes, Bitscope designers, I am publicly shaming you—I like the Bitscope hardware well enough, but you are clearly clueless about data files! A correct format for the data would have had a block at the beginning of the file recording every setting of the scope and the full date and time, so that the precise conditions under which the data were recorded could be determined and used. (For example, was the RF filter on or off? what were the trigger conditions?)
I was able to read the DDR csv file and extract the data, but I found a number of other apparently undocumented properties of the B10. If I switched away from post-trigger recording to having the trigger 25% or 50% of the way through the recording, the maximum sampling rate drops by a factor of 3 to 6.7MHz, so I need to use POST triggering, in which the recording starts about 1.25µs after the trigger. I can delay the part of the data I look at (only the part on the screen is saved), but if I delay too much, the sampling rate drops back down again.
One big problem is that the jitter on the Bitscope trigger is enormous—up to 150ns, which is 3 samples at the highest sampling rate. The image bounces around on the screen, and the data recorded in the files is similarly poorly aligned.
If I average a bunch of traces together, everything smooths out. Not just the noise, but the signal as well! It is like passing the signal through a low-pass filter, which rather defeats the purpose of having a high sampling rate and averaging traces.
So today I wrote a program to do my own software triggering in a repetitive waveform. I recorded a bunch of traces that had the waveform I was interested in—making sure that the RF filter was off and the waveform was being sampled at the highest sampling rate. The program that read the csv file then looked in each trace for a new trigger event, interpolating between samples to get the trigger to much higher than single-sample resolution (by triggering on a fast rise, I can get about 0.1 sample resolution). I then resampled the recorded data (with 5-fold oversampling) with the resampling synchronized to the new trigger. The resampled traces were then averaged.
Here is an example of the Vgs voltage of an nFET transistor being driven by an S9013 NPN transistor and a 270Ω pullup (the NPN base was driven by the square wave from my Elenco FG500 function generator, through a 2kΩ resistor). The drain of the nFET had an 8Ω loudspeaker to a 5V USB power line.
The averaged plot is probably usable in the textbook. I also tried averaging the same traces triggering on the falling edge, to see if that got any more clarity for the ringing when the nFET is turned off, but it ended up looking essentially the same. On my Kikusui 60MHz analog scope, I see the little ripples after the downward transition (a 10MHz damped ripple), but I don’t see the hump in base line visible in the Bitscope trace. I think that hump may be an artifact of taking too much power from the 5V USB line powering the Bitscope (or of coupling back of the inductive spike).
I tried putting in an LC filter on the 5V power line from the Bitscope (a 470µF capacitor to ground, a 200mH inductor, and another 470µF capacitor to ground). This seems to have cleaned up the problem (this was hours later, and the frequency of the generator was almost certainly different, as I’d played with the tuning potentiometer several times):
One problem with this retriggering approach is that it doesn’t really work with two channels—the Bitscope traces for the two channels are separate events, and the only synchronization information is the hardware trigger. I could get a clean Vgs signal and a clean Vds signal, but aligning them is not going to be any better than the jitter of the hardware trigger. I’ll have to think about averaging (or taking the median) of the trigger times relative to the hardware trigger, and using that to align the two traces.
Still, I wonder why the Bitscope designers have not taken advantage of the trigger jitter to do averages of repetitive traces—it allows one to reconstruct signals in software that are much higher bandwidth than the sampling rate of the scope. These sorts of super-resolution techniques are pretty common, and it only requires better software, not new hardware.
I’ve been thinking that I might even try writing some software that talks directly to the Bitscope hardware (they have published their communication protocol), so that I can do things like capturing the data with full metadata and looking at it with decent plotting software (Matplotlib or gnuplot). I’m not into doing GUI programming (an infinite time sink), so I’d probably write a Python library providing a application program interface to the Bitscope and a number of simple single-use programs (like capturing and averaging waveforms) with a configuration file or command-line arguments to set the parameters. Yet another thing to add to my to-do list (but near the end—there are many more important things to work on).