VFO - 2011

VFO Web Page 2011

Building VFOs in 2011 might seem an irrelevant exercise given the move to and evolution of digital signal generators laden with bells and whistles like memories and audio or video frequency displays.

A successful L-C VFO requires skill, patience and some good parts to pull off — else, a "drift monster" may result. Despite their limitations, it's possible to build L-C VFOs with low frequency drift, distortion and phase noise; our typical VFO performance markers. L-C VFOs don't require programming skills or equipment to encode a microprocessor — making them a good choice for people who don't build or can't afford kit oscillators. Most of all, they kindle creativity, problem solving and pride when your oscillator actually works as planned. Junk box radio; my passion.

This material reflects lots of empiricism; not pure science. It's really your VFO design odyssey; a chance to think creatively and critically to sort out what works and what's folly.
Countless web pages discuss VFO design and I encourage you to search for and read them. Wes' EMRFD oscillator and temperature compensation notes = essential reading. Only your first 25 VFOs will prove difficult — it gets easier after that.

VFO 2011 Topics:

1.  Frequency Stability Notes
2.  Vackar VFO Experiments
3.  HF Signal Generator
4.  Miscellaneous Bits

1. Frequency Stability Notes

Building an oscillator that stays on frequency purports our greatest challenge and goal in L-C VFO design. Since drifting VFOs pose a source of frustration, I cover some topics that may help your VFO stay on frequency — do they help?

What is good drift parameter?

I'm uncertain, for after warm-up, I've measured kits that drifted 50-150 Hertz per hour, built L-C VFOs that drifted under 20 Hz per hour and every once and a while, build a drift monster VFO that sweeps upward at 2 - 8 hertz per minute! Likely under 20 Hertz per hour after warm up = a gold standard to compare against. You should be able to listen to a 10-20 minute QSO with no re-tuning, however, this assumes the transmitting stations are locked on frequency.

1. Unloaded Q and Frequency Stability

The number 1 reason to employ high resonator Q in oscillators is to obtain low phase noise. Secondly, the very steep phase slope through high Q resonance minimizes the effect of amplifier phase shifts caused by temperature changes and this in turn, minimizes any amplifier-induced frequency instability.

Long term frequency stability is chiefly dependent on the temperature, environmental and age stability of the resonator components regardless of Q.

I often see designs featuring high Q inductors wound on powdered iron toroids complimented with trashy, low Q variable and/or fixed capacitors, If you design for a high Q tank to minimize phase noise, consider using a high Q coil plus appropriately temperature stable, high Q capacitors.

2. Temperature Stable Inductors

Knowing that I'm venturing into a topic of great debate and lore, the inductor is 1/2 of the VFO resonator and thus a major source of temperature drift in L-C VFOs. Since MF and some HF VFO designs may preclude using the inherently more temperature stable air wound inductor, powdered iron toroids dominate our evermore compact designs. Many builders choose #6 material, although the lower temperature coefficient of #7 material theoretically should be better — however, my experiments have failed to measure a significant difference between these 2.

Some builders prefer size 68 inductors, for the bigger core is less affected by heating than smaller size toroids. My experience suggests that providing the VFO amplifier current is kept low, both size 50 and 68 are both suitable and the inductance needed should inform the core size.

I used to think that heavier gauge wire created greater frequency stability than smaller gauge wire until Wes, W7ZOI, woke me up. As it turns out, smaller gauge wire is often better for thermal stability because smaller gauge wire lies closer against the toroid core. Winding stiffer, heavier gauge wire creates more air gaps than smaller gauge wire and air gaps expand and contract during temperature changes. Smaller gauge wire will have a reduced Q, but it won't be as significantly lower as you might guess. As possible, I prefer tightly wound number 28 wire. 26 gauge wire tends to be my maximum size wire for VFO coils, however I suggest you make your own conclusions.

Wash your hands before winding and use both hands to actively move both the toroid and wire for tight turns. Take your time, ensure steady wire pressure and avoid kinking your wire. Taps increase the likelihood for air gaps — mitigate this by stripping the 2 tap forming wires as close to the toroid as possible and twist them into 1 wire right down tightly to the toroid edge to reduce any air gap.

The thermal stability characteristics of wire can be mitigated somewhat by annealing the wire with temperature cycling or by dunking it in boiling water. Roy, W7EL first reported annealing coils in 1980 and this has been confirmed during experiments by builders using temperature controlled ovens. I don't boil my coils any more.

3.  Double Stacked Toroids

I noticed a new trend in VFO design is to stack 2 powdered iron toroid inductors. This allows the builder to double the inductance per number of windings over a single toroidal inductor. In an L-C VFO, the goal of these builders possibly is to reduce heating effects, increase unloaded Q, or perhaps to reduce core magnet flux density. For me the goal is far simpler, I just want to make compact, large L value inductors for 3 MHz and less.

Above — A T68-6 hamburger. The two T68-6 cores were epoxy glued together and compressed lightly in a vice for several hours. One of the initial tests I performed was to see if boiling the stacked coil affected the epoxy glue. The glue was not effected by annealing wire on a stacked coil with 5 or even 10 minutes of boiling in water. As mentioned, I stopped boiling my VFO inductors as tightly winding them with 26 gauge wire seems to work well.

I hold concern that stacked toroids may create more wire-air gaps when compared to a single toroid and stay with 1 toroid as possible. In compact antenna tuners and other non VFO projects, this isn't an issue.

4. VFO Tank Capacitors

We choose VFO tank capacitors to avoid temperature change caused frequency drift, or to counter drift during our temperature compensation process.

Many authors have published guidelines for long term temperature stability. It's important to consider these guidelines, but also try whatever works. I believe the following arguments are accurate based upon my experiments:

  1. 1. Multiple NP0 or C0G (0 temperature-compensation) tank caps: Most builders minimally use 4 or more C0G or NPO capacitors to reduce heating effects and to average out temperature coefficient variations.

  2. 2. No VFO tank capacitors from online surplus parts stores; buy new stock from known and reputable manufacturers. Grab bags and musty, old, surplus parts can obviate good design.

  3. 3. Trimmer and tuning caps need to be temperature stable. Air variable capacitors = my favorite, as possible.

  4. 4. Varactor, or diode tuning generally = more drift and a greater need for temperature compensation.

  5. 5. Employ short, stiff capacitor leads. I use 100 volt or higher voltage C0G tank caps as they tend to have thicker leads that stay put — perfect for Ugly, Manhattan, or Chuck Adam's MUPPET construction.

5. Temperature Compensation

The goal of temperature compensation is to cancel the tendency of the VFO to drift in 1 direction — easier said than done + very time consuming. A web search for VFO temperature compensation will yield many good write-ups. I feel it's partly art, partly luck and partly science. Your net VFO temperature coefficient can be affected by so many variables, so no 1 recipe will ensure a low drift VFO. Experiment, allow a lot of time to assess your changes and be patient — you'll figure it out.

The simplest way to test for drift involves watching a frequency counter, but if you don't have one, you might use a commercial, frequency stable (synthesized) receiver set in the SSB/CW mode. I use both. Experienced builders often employ an oven to test their temperature compensation at different, controlled temperatures. Wes, W7ZOI employs a styrofoam cooler housing a light bulb heat source controlled by a Variac. See EMRFD for more details and a photograph.

In 2011, I decided to build up a supply of temperature compensation capacitors and keep them in their own parts bin.

Above — "Tempco caps". A parts drawer containing polystyrene capacitors from 10 to 270 pF plus some 56 pF ceramic N750 capacitors for negative temperature compensation. I purchased these capacitors on eBay.

For capacitors other than NP0 (which use 0 instead of a ppm value), the temperature coefficient = P for positive and N for negative, followed by a 3-digit value specifying ppm/C. For example, N220 is - 200 ppm/C. and P100 is +100 ppm/C.

I use NP0 and C0G ceramic capacitors interchangeably for both tuning and RF bypassing the VFO tank resonator. For C0G/NP0 temperature compensation bypass, I normally apply 0.01 or 0.001 μF caps, however, the more expensive 0.1 μF COG ceramic capacitors are still sold if you need C0G/NP0 bypass <= 7 MHz.

If your VFO is drifting upward you might insert 1 or more positive coefficient capacitor(s). If your VFO drifts downward, then try using negative coefficient value(s). Sometimes just 1 capacitor will do the job.

Since I don't stock any positive coefficient capacitors for positive coefficient compensation, I might try a adding a silver mica capacitor. *Caution* silver mica capacitors are extremely non-predictable and can't be universally recommended in temperature compensation schemes. You might also try swapping out 1 or more of your main tank NP0 or C0G capacitors in case they are bad; sometimes it gets frustrating. I provide some temperature compensation examples on the QRP Modules 2011 web page in the 7 MHz VCO section.

Above — 56 pF N750 ceramic capacitors rated at 1KV

6. Mechanical Rigidity

Movement of your VFO tank parts may lead to frequency instability. For example,

  1. 1. Well secure your single-sided only copper board. I use at least 4 number 8 bolts — 4-40 hardware is too light. Boards can warp over time if not lashed down properly. Aggressively bolt down any variable capacitors. No tank parts should move.

  2. 2. Anchor your inductor so it cannot budge: nylon bolts, zap-straps, glue - whatever.

  3. 3. Consider placing the VFO in a strong chassis with rubber feet.

  4. 4. Buss wires should be made from thicker gauge, well anchored wire.

7. Miscellaneous Points

  1. 1. Regulate the VFO amplifier DC voltage and wideband filter it. Voltage regulators require RF and often AF bypass to attenuate any noise or ripple riding on the DC.

    A decoupling resistor with a bypass cap on either side will widen your DC supply filtering bandwidth and deserves strong consideration. A poorly filtered DC supply can easily transmit the VFO tank energy to other stages along your DC lines and also may allow noise on the DC supply to modulate your VFO and increase phase noise.

  2. 2. You should have the buffer + a load resistor connected to your VFO when testing. Do your temperature stability work after the buffer is built and the VFO is in its case.

  3. 3.Stick your VFOs in an air tight, RF tight case to minimize air temperature changes and RF leakage respectively. Sometimes a VFO will drift once in a case because any radiated buffer amplifier heat will warm up the inside of the chassis. This usually levels off after warm up.

  4. 4. Modern voltage regulators may significantly reduce noise compared to a zener diode regulator. Specific low noise and low temperature coefficient voltage regulators are available, but maybe overkill for you. Whatever you use — filter it well —
    The Micrel MIC5209-5.0BS in SOT223 sits in a couple of my reference oscillators.

  5. 5. JFET Gate clamping diodes may increase phase noise, but not prohibitively so in most popcorn designs.

  6. 6. When winding toroid inductors, wind 2 extra turns. When finished, unwind the first 2 turns since they are usually loosely wound and prime culprits for air gaps.

  7. 7. Since magnet wire comes off small spools, wire has a natural curve or radius — ensure you wind your coils according to the natural curve of the wire.

  8. 8. The need to secure powdered iron windings with dope, wax, goop, etc. is over-emphasized and usually unnecessary.

2. Vackar VFO Experiments

Some builders proclaim the Vackar as the "King of VFOs". I built a couple and became impressed by the low distortion and less than 5 Hertz per hour long-term drift achieved in my 2 designs. Inspired by work from Iulian, YO3DAC entitled Very Low Phase Noise Vackar VFO for HF Transceivers (link and reference used by permission of Iulian), I crafted my version from his notes and schematic.

Above — Schematic of the Vackar VFO employing a BD139 — a large area transistor, to reduce 1/f noise. Iulian shared many design pearls in his paper and I won't repeat them. I ran Q1 with 0.4 mA emitter current to reduce heating and flicker noise. It's difficult to measure flicker noise, so no objective comments can be made.

I limited the tuning range to 34 KHz since the tuning capacitor lacked reduction gear and I was born with fumble fingers. As a CW operator - you'll find me down at the bottom of the band away from the RRTY anyhow. Increasing the 5 pF cap coupling the tuning capacitor to the tank increases the tuning range as expected.

Temperature compensating my VFO with the 5 pF silver mica capacitor proved a gamble since SM caps are unpredictable and often best avoided. In my VFO, it worked perfectly, however. This circuit is difficult to replicate and not recommended for new builders. Temperature compensation provided the sublime frequency stability.

Above — The final amp and measured output data. Measuring the 2nd harmonic 36 dB down without any tuned circuit or low-pass filter rocked. I ran nearly 22 mA of emitter current to bump up the return loss and spectral purity. A 2N5109 or 2N3866 would likely do a better job with less current. Total current = the entire VFO current. I glued a drilled copper penny on the 2N2222 to dissipate heat.

A photo of my version of a Vackar VFO. My design goals included low phase noise, low distortion, a return loss over 20 dB, good reverse isolation and ~7 dBm output power. I believe all VFOs are experimental; you build to suit whatever tuning capacitor or varactors you have, plus design around constraints such as total current, tuning range and other personal criteria.

Unlike harmonic distortion, oscillator phase noise, being close to the oscillation frequency, cannot be removed by filtering nor limiting — you must design for low phase noise. Modern digital VFOs are well harmonically filtered, and any phase noise depends on the DDS clock employed, so check the DDS specifications carefully if you go the DDS VFO route.

I'll be the first to state I'm no expert with VFOs, however, likely the only way to become expert is to build many and learn from your mistakes.

Above — A 7 MHz Vackar VFO with the lid off

Sound Test?

Although this technique raises the ire of some builders, I test my VFOs in a nearby receiver. The VFO output was terminated with a 51 ohm resistor that was also attached to my frequency counter via alligator clips and wire. I tuned a nearby CW superheterodyne receiver to 7.00 MHz with the audio beat note centered in its 600 hertz wide I.F. filter and watched the counter plus listened to the receiver.

Click for a 1 minute 32 second audio file of the result (it stayed perfectly on frequency for ~5 hours of testing before I got a bad headache from listening to it and shut it off). You can initially hear a station in the back ground despite only having a 45 cm piece of wire as the receiver antenna. The VFO slowly drifts down to 6999996 Hz and then slowly back up to 7000000 Hz. You can hear the signal amplitude decrease as the VFO drifts down. So it doesn't stay perfectly on frequency, but slowly cycles up and down a few hertz. This VFO is my lab temperature stability benchmark for an L-C VFO.

A badly drifting VFO will move out of the test receiver I.F. pass band and sound like a Theremin as it does. Testing in a receiver; places the VFO in the exact circumstance it will be used — beating RF to mix to another frequency; in this case, base band audio.

The temperature stability and compensation of any VFO schematic are rarely reproducible since there are just too many variables. Try your best to get the drift out of your VFO using low temperature coefficient capacitors (NP0/C0G) and then after that, temperature compensate. Even today, I occasionally build a drift monster VFO and become frustrated. VFO design is not for the faint of heart and it's no wonder that many builders make a VXO, or cave in and build or buy a DDS signal generator.

3. HF Signal Generator

Above — I built a general purpose ~2.8 to 10.8 MHz signal generator (SG) for my lab in 2011. The first VFO topology tested was the Vackar. In my version, while employing a 100K ohm resistor as the buffer, the VFO only tuned from about 4 to 8 MHz and suffered from extreme amplitude variation as I changed the frequency across its range. For sweeping filters or measuring Q, a signal leveling circuit would be needed as normally we like our SG output to be flat across its frequency range. I later changed to a Hartley VFO because of its flatter output and the wider available frequency range with any given resonator.

This initial Vackar VFO experiment wasn't a total waste as I learned a way to accurately sweep a Device Under Test with an unlevel amplitude SG. Measure the peak-peak voltages of the DUT with a signal generator and an oscilloscope in the same manner we measure insertion loss or gain in a 50 ohm system: Measure the peak-to-peak voltage with the DUT in line; disconnect the DUT, insert a barrel connector and then re-measure.

The dBm difference between the 2 becomes the dB value to plot for that frequency. To a sweep a filter, say for example, a band-pass filter, find the center frequency and then sweep below and above that CF while plotting the dB versus frequency.
This "in and thorough" measurement described takes time, but resolves any frequency versus amplitude issues and can be used to test signal generators. We tend to ignore things like cable loss versus frequency and scope or spectrum analyzer ripple.

Still, it will be easier to just use a Hartley VFO where our sweeps are assumed to be level due to the flatness of the amplitude versus frequency for small excursions such as 3 dB band-pass filter sweeps. Do not expect amplitude flatness over wide excursions however — this requires additional circuitry.

To reduce noise and boost fidelity, this SG runs modest current and was not designed for battery use.

Above — My Hartley VFO is morphed into a double-gate MOSFET VFO; this was a mistake and I make lots of them.

When venturing out, it's often best to confirm a proven design is working before morphing it to something untried. Shown above left is the Hartley oscillator from EMRFD Chapter 7 sans buffer. Fixed "tuning" capacitors; either 20 pF (not shown) or 370 pF (150 pF + 220 pF) represent the intended high and low frequency swing of my air variable tuning capacitors.

I wanted a variable amplitude VFO and thus replaced the JFET with a double-gate MOSFET using a simple variable voltage divider to control gate 2. I showed this to Wes, W7ZOI and he informed me that the flicker noise of MOSFETs precludes their use in oscillators. I have always wondered why I've never seen MOSFET VFOs in any radio literature.

Above — My project chassis fitted with hardware. I employed 2 air variable tuning capacitors — the fine tuning capacitor ranges 13.6 to 27.5 pF, features built in 6:1 reduction gear and was purchased from Doug DeMaw many years ago. I secured the main copper board with 6 number 8 bolts. Rubber feet provide a stable, shock resistant base for the sheet metal box.

Final Build

Above — Oscillator + buffer schematics of the latest version of my signal generator. I spent 1 evening playing with VFO designs and settled on the simple Hartley from EMRFD, Figure 7 .27. The 3 turn link provided lower distortion than coupling the oscillator to its buffer by the JFET source or gate.

Regulated 12.2 VDC powers the oscillator; avoiding the typical 5-9 VDC voltage regulator we normally use. A 22 to 470 μF cap should be employed to filter any voltage regulator noise from our DC supply. Mine has a 470 μF capacitor.

1 hour drift lies under 40 Hertz when averaged from 15 different frequency points between minimum and maximum. The Q2/Q3, Q4 and Q5 transformer inductances were optimized to allow good signal and/or matching performance in the ~ 2.5 to 10.8 MHz frequency range.

A hybrid cascode (hycas) buffer with variable base bias on Q2 forms the amplitude control for both the high impedance and low impedance outputs. The 510 ohm gate resistance on Q4 terminates the hycas amplifier and sets up a known output impedance to drive the 50 ohm feedback amp. I measured a greater than 22 dB return loss on the output of the 19:6 turn transformer from 4 to 14 MHz — indicating it drives the feedback amp reasonably well.

Above — The 50 ohm impedance feedback amp. Running 25.1 mA current allowed a clean sine wave output up to 2.12 volts-peak to peak into a 50 Ω terminated oscilloscope, plus an output return loss of over 30 dB across the SG tuning range.  3 tabled output return loss measurements are shown; including an out-of-range 14 MHz measurement.

Two series resistors made up the 37 ohm "resistor" depicted in the 6 dB pad, although a 39 Ω resistor would work fine.

At low output amplitudes, I typically stick an external 6, 10 or 20 dB attenuator on the output since the hycas amp can distort the signal a little when the gain control is set to a really low bias voltage on Q2. Then I fine tune the output power with the gain control.

Above — A "lid off" front panel photograph. Click or click for other photos. I'm now using miniature pots with a shaft diameter of 3.18mm. The potentiometer shaft lacks a knob and I'll purchase some on my next parts order.

Above — The completed signal generator.

Above — Signal generator output at 3.5 MHz.

I appreciate that the VFO tank would be difficult to replicate since the 2 air variable capacitors are unique, however this is true of most VFOs. Wes wrote some great notes in EMRFD Chapter 7 regarding copying signal generators and the versatility of the Hartley VFO. I hope this project furnishes some ideas that spawn you to build something better than I did. (I've received over 350 related emails since posting this page in 2011 and many readers have built really great VFOs — Way To Go !)

QRP — PosData for December 17, 2013

I slightly boosted the tuning range from 2.8 to 10.8 MHz by dropping the 5 pF resonator capacitor to 3.3 pF in October 2013. The schematics now reflect this changes plus clarify 1-2 stumbling blocks readers had. For example: my use of a 100K gain pot plus a 150K maximum voltage limiting for the Q2 bias. My build still has these, however, I altered the schematic to show a common 10K gain pot, plus a fixed 10 to 15K resistor used to limit the Q2 bias to between 5 and 6 VDC maximum.

In reality, any reasonable pot and resistor will do since they function as simple voltage dividers. With a 12 volt supply, we don't want to drive the Q2 bias with more than ~ 5 to 6 VDC since this will just distort the AC signal as the hycas stage saturates. Measuring with a voltmeter, solder either a 10K, 12K, or 15K resistor to limit the maximum Q2 bias with the 10K potentiometer turned fully clockwise.

Above — Alternate way to couple the Hartley oscillator to the hycas buffer. Ground the JFET gate with a shunt resistor and lightly AC couple the JFET gate to the Hartley secondary coil with a series capacitor. You choose the capacitor value to limit the signal amplitude as needed. Our main goals are to lightly couple the Hartley tank to its buffer and avoid overdriving the hycas stage. Numerous examples of this "Alternate Take" circuit may be found on the QRP / SWL HomeBuilder web site.

4.  Miscellaneous Bits

Above — Scope traces of an unbuffered Hartley oscillator with a X10 scope probe across a 51 ohm resistor across the 3 turn link. The unbuffered Hartley sine wave isn't harmonic free, but cleans up when properly buffered with a higher impedance amplifier. Figure A = the lowest frequency (2.7 MHz) — the distortion increased with frequency (Figure B was measured at 10.5 MHz). Figure C illustrates how slightly stronger output coupling with a 6 turn link trashes the output waveform — the strategy of using 2-3 links over the center of the main inductor works well.

Figure D is the 6 link coupled Figure C oscillator with the gate clamping diode removed; yikes! I spent 4 hours studying what different current, voltages, coupling and so forth do to the Harley oscillator. I recommend the Hartley topology because it's simple, always starts and versatile.

Above — In my various signal generator experiments, I zap strapped the toroid to a small piece of thick copper board that was later soldered to the main board. The L seems robustly secured.

Above — A stacked toroid from the deleted VFO-2008 web page. I incorporated some of the information from the VFO-2008 page into this web page

Above — In order of preference, 3 ways to couple a Hartley oscillator to its buffer. From now on, I'll couple with a 1-3 turn link since it gave a lower distortion signal than with source or gate coupling. This figure omits the gate clamping diode seen earlier— tapping the inductor as shown keepings the FET gate AC voltage at a reasonable level when not using a gate clamping diode. Some builders leave off the gate clamp diode that clips positive signal peaks for lower phase noise. The diode acts as an AGC and offers benefit. Reverse biasing this diode was suggested by Dr. Ulrich Rohde: see — Key Components of Modern Receiver Design - Part 2:  Dr. Ulrich Rohde, KA2WEU , QST for June 1994.

A formula to use for the inductor taps: Divide the total turns by 1.45 to get the first tap and by 7.25 to get the second tap (near ground link).

Enjoy your VFO experiments.