Gas station without pumps

2016 April 28

Revised microphone pre-amp lab too long

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:47
Tags: , , ,

How many of my posts have the theme “lab too long”? (answer: too many)

I spent 10 hours in the instructional lab on Tuesday and 11 hours today (Thursday) helping students do the microphone pre-amp lab, and my group tutor is going to have to open the lab on Sunday for several students to finish soldering and testing their boards.

This means that the lab is between 1.5–2× longer than it should be.  You’d think that I would be able to predict the length of a lab better by my fourth year of teaching this course!

What went wrong, and how can I fix it for next year?

  • The design is somewhat harder for the first op-amp lab than in previous years, because I made a decision to do all the op-amp labs this year with a single power supply, not dual supplies.  That makes for a slightly more difficult start, but students don’t have to make the transition from dual supplies (which are getting quite rare these days) to single supplies. The transition is a surprisingly hard one for students to make, as the simplification that they learned for the case when the reference voltage is zero no longer apply, and they have to learn everything over again.  Learning the more general form first will, I believe, result in less confusion in the long run, but it does make for a slightly more complex first project.
  • This year I’m having students solder their pre-amp boards, so that they can re-use them as part of their class-D power amplifier in three weeks.  This was a deliberate choice, to reduce the amount of effort in the class-D lab, which was running too long in previous years, but it roughly doubled the time it took students to finish the lab.
  • Because students had larger ceramic capacitors this year, and I had them set the high-pass cutoff frequency near their speaker resonances, some students opted to use very large capacitors and small resistors for their high-pass filters. This made a very small impedance in the passband, and attenuated the signal from the microphone and its large-impedance biasing resistor.
    I’ll have to put a warning in the book about the high-pass filter needing to have a larger impedance than the bias resistor, to avoid changing the current-to-voltage conversion.
  • Some students had the opposite problem, putting a small capacitor with a very large resistor, so that there was a very high impedance signal driving the input to the amplifier. Since we are using op amps with tiny bias currents, this is not a problem for the circuit’s functioning, but it made looking at the signals with the oscilloscope difficult—increasing the difficulty of debugging.
  • Many students were surprised to see that the output voltage was not centered at their Vref voltage.  This provided a teaching moment for looking at the MCP6004 data sheet and explaining the notion of the input offset voltage. Because they were using gains of 100×–300×, the ±4.5mV offset became an output offset of ±0.45V–1.35V, sometimes resulting in serious clipping.  I need to warn students about that imperfection of op amps before they do the design.  A better design would use a multi-stage amplifier, with high-pass filters between stages to get rid of accumulated DC offset.
  • I suggested to several students that they look at Vout vs. Vin, by recording a slow sine wave (say 300Hz) at 5kHz sampling with PteroDAQ.  This turned out to have some interesting effects when students used 32× averaging, because the time delay between the two channels was enough to get the signals far enough out of phase to open up the plot into an ellipse. Again, I’ll need to talk about that in class tomorrow.
  • Lots of students made the mistake of incorrectly applying Ohm’s Law and getting too large a bias resistor, so that their microphones were not in saturation at the power-supply voltage of 3.3V.  Luckily, increasing the voltage to 5V (as we will do in the power-amp lab) will rescue their designs.
  • Lots of students made the standard mistakes of skipping a wire or two, or putting a wire in the wrong hole while soldering, but a surprisingly large number connected both nodes for a resistor to the same end of a resistor, leaving the other end unconnected.  I’ve not seen that mistake before, so I don’t know what triggered it.
  • The lead-free solder we have to work with this year (99.3% Sn, 0.7% Cu) is a pain to work with—it doesn’t tin the soldering irons well, and it is difficult to remove from the boards in the event of a mistake.

I think that the soldering lab should not be the first op-amp lab, but I still like the idea of the students having to solder up their microphone preamps. So I’ll have to do a major reorganization of the book this summer, to move a different lab into the first position.

Currently, I’m thinking that the transimpedance amplifier and pulse monitor lab would be a good choice as the first op-amp lab.  It would be a bit unusual to start with a transimpedance amplifier rather than a standard voltage amplifier, but the transimpedance amplifier is actually conceptually simpler.  Unfortunately, the pulse monitor using a transimpedance amplifier really needs to be 2 stages, with a transimpedance amplifier to bias the phototransistor, a high-pass filter, and an AC gain stage.  (Yes, I know I’ve posted about pulse monitors without amplifiers, but a major point of the lab is to teach about transimpedance amplifiers.)

The corner frequencies for the pulse monitor are really low, requiring big resistors even with their biggest capacitors, so the “too small a resistor” problem goes away, though not the “too big a resistor” problem.

By making the microphone preamp the second, or even third, op amp lab, students will spend less time on getting a breadboarded design working, and more time on learning to lay out and solder their circuits. They’ll also be much more amenable to a 2-stage design, to reduce the output offset voltage.  I think that rearranging the labs may be worth the effort it will take to rewrite the corresponding chapters of the book, but undoubtedly something else will go wrong next year, and I’ll have to do yet another major revision.

Ah well, at least I’ve gotten the demo for tomorrow’s class (blood and breath pressure) working tonight, and I’ll be able to get to bed before midnight.


  1. I’ve seen that error (connecting two wires to the same end of a resistor) before, more than once, but I also don’t have a clue why they do it. It is worst if the resistors are in a box where they can see the connectors but not the resistors (even when they see the resistor symbol between the connectors), but also happens with loose resistors. Now my students have the excuse that we start doing those labs before we get to DC circuits in lecture, so I assume it means they have no idea that current flows through things and that switches break a circuit, but I have no idea why they get to college without any experience related to the basic concept of electric current. Maybe whatever misconceptions they have about current are stubborn enough to survive a semester of physics.

    As for why you got many instances of that error, I’d suspect “authoritative ignorance” syndrome. Others were following someone who talks a good game but doesn’t know the play. Can happen just by one person looking at what another is doing, without any actual bad mentoring taking place.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2016 April 29 @ 07:13 | Reply

    • I’m glad to hear that the problem is not unique to my students.

      My conjecture is that students aren’t using a misconception of current—they aren’t thinking about the function of the resistor at all. They just have the idea “connect up the resistor to A and B”. Having a wire between point A and the resistor and between point B and the resistor satisfies that objective, even though it doesn’t mean anything if the resistor is not between A and B.

      I was hoping that insisting on color coding the nodes of the circuit, so that having two different colors connected together was a sign that something was miswired, would help the students figure out bugs like this more easily. It doesn’t seem to have helped much (in part because some students who made the mistake also didn’t color-code their wiring consistently, despite repeated instructions).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 April 29 @ 08:41 | Reply

      • That is certainly plausible and consistent with what I see. The task is to connect things, and (hopefully) have numbers show up on a meter. Success! A job awaits! But it doesn’t help that schematic diagrams are also mysterious and new.

        Perhaps I will work on introducing the concept that labs like most of our circuit labs are about discovering the function of everything we use (meters as well, because they are part of the circuit, and even the wires themselves), and discourage the use of words like “to” instead of “through”. After all, the two wires in your example actually do carry current “to” and “from” the resistor! I know one university lab where they start with batteries, wires, and light bulbs and just ask the students to get a bulb to light. Lets just say that many of their students, allegedly much “smarter” than mine, find this challenging. Maybe I should try that in the opening lab session next semester. Maybe you should! The ultimate opening design challenge: make a flashlight.

        I just thought of an amusing in-lab question to ask in such a situation: Ask them why there are always at least two separate prongs on any plug, and even show them there are two separate connection points on their phone charger if their answer offers that as a counterexample.

        I see a teachable moment in your last observation: Ask them if consistent color coding would have avoided their error. I’ve used that to some effect when they ignore “minor” details like using red and black cables consistently.

        Comment by CCPhysicist — 2016 April 29 @ 13:16 | Reply

  2. […] yesterday’s post, Revised microphone pre-amp lab too long, I wrote about problems in this week’s lab, and one of the items seems to have resonated with […]

    Pingback by Miswiring errors | Gas station without pumps — 2016 April 29 @ 15:25 | Reply

  3. […] Revised microphone pre-amp lab too long I […]

    Pingback by Don’t put pulse monitor first | Gas station without pumps — 2016 May 11 @ 21:25 | Reply

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