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Valve Curve
When I first started getting into electronics, one
of the first really useful things I designed and built for
myself was a curve tracer. A curve tracer is like the ultimate valve tester, displaying the
anode characteristic curves in real time on an oscilloscope with X/Y capability (most twochannel scopes have this).
My first design was understandably naive in its implementation and would only test small
triodes, but it worked OK (and still does). All the curves in my book were done using it.
Since then, more and more DIY curve tracers have begun to appear on the internet. These
have tended to increase in complexity, often interfacing with a PC. A particularly fine
example is the u-Tracer. I decided it was about time I built a new tracer that would test
small pentodes as well as triodes, but instead of increasing the complexity, I chose to go in
the opposite direction: What is the simplest curve tracer I could come up with? The result is
a minimalist design which actually uses fewer parts than my very first beginner efforts!
The circuit can be broken into four functional blocks:
Anode supply
Control-grid (bias) supply
Screen-grid supply
Heater supply.

Anode Supply:
The anode voltage needs to sweep from zero up to a high value. A classsic way to do this
is simply to rectify the AC voltage from a transformer and apply it directly to the valve, as
shown in the firgure. To trace a curve we need to measure the anode current and anode (to
cathode) voltage, and plot them using the X/Y oscilloscope function.
The current is measured by adding a 'current sampling resistor' in series with the valve, and
measuring the voltage across it. Ohm's law tells us the current: I = V/R.
The anode voltage is scaled down with a potential divider rather than expose the voltmeter
(oscilloscope) to the full high-voltage pulses. I used several resistors in series so they share
the high-voltage stress, so 1/4W resistors can be used throughout the design, except
where noted.
This divider is partially bypassed by capacitor C1. This compensates for cable capacitance
which otherwise leads to looping/double traces. You may need to adjust the value of C1 to
suit your cables (my cables are rather long which is why I needed a rather large 100pF of
Notice that the negative voltmeter probes are both connected to the same point (the
anode). This is an awkward necessity, because most oscilloscopes share the same 'ground'
connection between both channels. Therefore, during use, the anode is safe to touch while
the grid and cathode are at high (negative) voltages- the oppsite of what we are used to!
I used back-to-back 15V transformers to generate the required voltages. Not only is this a
cheap solution, it also minimises the leakage currents between the mains and high-voltage
supply which otherwise flow to earth via the oscilloscope, also causing some 'looping' or
double traces.
I also added a resistor to limit the peak current (power) that can flow in the valve. This is
useful when setting up, in case the valve has been configured wrong. It is also useful for

looking at the curves of triode-connected pentodes when the anode is not used, i.e. when
the screen grid is used as a low-power anode.
Control-Grid Supply:
The control grid supply is the bias supply, and is usually the trickiest part of a curve tracer
to do well, especially if you're aiming for simplicity. To trace each grid curve the circuit must
step the grid-cathode voltage from 0V down to negative voltages in a staircase fashion.
Ideally it should jump from one value to the next when the anode voltage is at its highest or
lowest peak, otherwise you see the transitions on the screen as fine 'hairs' or interference.
To test various different valves, we need the size of the bias voltage steps to be variable or
switchable between say, 0.5V steps, 1V steps, or 2V steps.
In my design the staircase waveform is generated using a 4040 binary counter IC. The
binary output from this chip is fed into an R2R-ladder. This is a standard way of converting
a binary number into an analog voltage, and is really a type of digital-to-analog- converter!
This circuit uses only three bits of the counter, which means there are 2^3 = 8 bias steps.
Each step happens one every mains cycle (1/50Hz), and I found that eight steps produces
a reasonably steady display on screen. Using more steps (i.e. tracing more grid curves)
leads to a flickering display because it takes too long to go through the complete bias cycle.
To synchronise the bias steps with the anode voltage pulese, the pulses themselves are fed
to the clock input of the counter (via a high resistance to protect the chip!). Some tweaking
was required to get the counter to transistion when the anode voltage drops close to zero.
It's still not absolutely perfect -you can see some retraces on pentode curves- but for a
simple circuit it's good enough.
You may be used to thinking of logic chips running off positive supply voltages, where a
binary count of 000 would correspond to zero vots while a count of 111 would result in the
maximum positive voltage. Be we need negative voltages here, so in this case the chip
operates from a negative supply. A binary count of 000 now corresponds to the maximum
negative voltage, while a count of 111 result in the maximum voltage, which is zero (relative
to cathode).

Changing the size of the voltage steps is easy: just change the supply voltage to the
counter IC. This is done with a 337 negative voltage regulator and a three-way switch
(actually a double-throw centre-off switch). This means the circuit requires no calibration
since the accuracy of the negative supply voltage is determined quite satisfactorily by the
accuracy of the regulator and resistors (use 1% devices). The awkward-value resistors
shown in the schematic are in practice made up from the following standard values:
640 = 620 + 20 ohms
1280 = 1.1k + 180 ohms
440 = 220 + 220 ohms
Diode D1 between grid and cathode protects the bias supply from a direct short between
anode and
grid (if this
happens the
HT fuse with

Screen-Grid Supply:
To test pentodes the screen voltage must be held constant relative to the cathode. This
sometimes requires a completely separate power supply just for the screen, which I wanted
to avoid. Therefore, in my design the screen-grid supply comes from the main anode
supply. Since the main anode supply is already full-wave rectified, all that is needed is a
reservoir capacitor to get smooth(ish) high-voltage DC. An extra diode is needed to block
this DC voltage from 'getting back' onto the anode supply, though.
The charging pulses into the first 47u capacitor lead to ringing in the power transformer
(aka diode switching noise). This leads to a small but noticeable 'bump' in the grid curves.
This is cured by using UF4007 fast rectifiers, and by adding an RC snubbing network
across the transformer. The value of the resistor should be tweaked to suit your
transformers (i.e. use a trimpot at first, then replace it with a fixed resistor). I found 10k to
work best for me.
The raw DC is regulated by an LR8 high-voltage adjustable regulator IC. This is the only
part that might be hard to find, especially outside America (I got mine on eBay).
Nevertheless, I decided it was worth using because it results in an extremely simple circuit
and, more importantly, has built-in protection against thermal and current overloads. Screen
grids tend to be fragile, and I like the fact that the LR8 won't deliver more than about 20mA
and will shut down if it overheats. OK, this also limits the testing only to small pentodes that
don't need lots of screen current, not big bottles (except at very low screen voltages), but I
would rather have a bullet-proof circuit that is immune to user error. The diode in series with
the scren grid protects the regulator (and potentiometer) from reverse bias such as would

occur with an anode-screen short circuit. This makes the circuit practically indestructible.
The screen voltage can be varied up to about 218V, and I added a 10k resistor in series
with the incoming DC to share some of the dissipation, so the regulator does not start
shutting down so soon when the screen voltage is set to typical values. A cheap movingcoil analog meter indicates the
screen voltage (not shown on the
Heater Supply:
The first power transformer
provides 15Vac which is rectified
to produce about 20Vdc for the
heater and grid supplies. In my old
curve tracer I used an LM317 to
make a variable heater supply.
This of course wastes rather a lot
of power, and since I used a fairly
small power tranformer, it could
only manage about 500mA for
short periods. In this new design I
used a switching regulator. This
makes far more efficient use of the
available power, so I can supply at
least 1A heaters without trouble,
from the 15VA transformer (note
that the switching regulator must
use a Schottky diode; an ordinary
diode won't work). In my prototype
I actually used a ready-made
regulator PCB which are readily
available from Chinese sellers on
eBay; cheaper than I could build it
from scratch. A cheap digital
voltmeter indicates the heater
voltage (not shown on the
It is important to note that the
heater regulator shares a common connection with the valve cathode, so the heatercathode insulation is never stressed. Remember, in this design the anode is actually
earthed through the opscilloscope, so everything "below" the anode is actually bobbing up
and down below zero volts, including the heater and grid supplies!
External Connections:
I used three valve sockets: 7-pin (B7G), 8-pin (octal), and 9-pin (B9A), but you could add
more. All the pins are connected in parallel, that is, pin-1 to pin-1, pin-2 to pin-2 etc. The
pins are then brought out via nine colour-coded wires (using the standard resistor colour
code). In other words, the brown wire is connected to pin-1 on every socket, the red wire is
connected to pin-2 on every socket, etc. These have banana plugs that can be inserted into
panel-mounted sockets.
I used two banana sockets for the anode connection, with a switch to swap between them.
This way I can quickly flip between two triodes in one envelope (grids and cathodes
connected together).
I further added a switch to connect the screen-grid socket either to the screen-grid supply
for ordinary pentode operation, or to the anode supply through a 100R resistor for triodeconnected operation.
One final socket has no connection and simply provides a place of rest for any unused

Using the Instrument:

The curves will appear in mirror
image to how we normally view
them, but this is easy to put up
with. If your scope has an 'invert'
option on the X-input then you can
use it to reverse the curves back to
normal (my scope doesn't).
I have chosen values so that 1mA
through the valve corresponds to
1V vertical deflection on the scope,
and 25V anode-to-cathode voltage
corresponds to 1V horizontal
deflection. Since most scopes have
ten squares on the graticule, this
means the whole width of the
graticule can correspond to 250V,
which is about as high as the
anode voltage will go in this circuit.

There is no PCB for this project as it was purely experimental. You'll have to lay out your

Below is a picture of DanGu's version of the ValveWizard minimalist tube curve

tracer. He chose to add a rotary switch to select different values of compensation capacitor
C1, to optimise the tracing. He also found it necessary to use a 1nF capacitor (instead of
100pF) connected to the CLK pin of the 4040, to ensure proper triggering on the 2V/grid
curve setting. His curves look even better than mine!

Pagina muy interesante .te vas a calentar el coco!!!!!!