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SineStick

What is the opposite of an RTL-SDR?
This.

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Cheap, USB connected radio receivers are ubiquitous (RTL-SDR et al), but they can't transmit.

Generally speaking, there is a fairly sizable gap in cost between the RTL-SDR and something that can transmit. One (only?) of the exceptions is the Osmo-fl2k project wherein the DACs in a USB to VGA adapter are (ab)used to transmit RF.

Obviously a repurposed VGA adapter isn't an ideal radio transmitter. Wouldn't it be awesome to have a cheap, highly configurable, USB-based signal generator that is a filter and an amp away from being a useful transmitter?

This is that project. Sort of.


As mentioned above, the SineStick is intended to be the complementary opposite of the RTL-SDR; half of a full radio.

Sort of. A true opposite of the ADC in an SDR would be a DAC - a digital analog converter.

Instead this device utilizes a programmable oscillator and attaches it to a computer via USB. This significantly reduces what kind of protocols can be sent with the advantages of simplicity (both in circuit and software), and low processing overhead.

The heart of SineStick is the SiLabs SI569 - a VCXO (voltage controlled oscillator) with an I2C interface. This device can be programmed to output any frequency between 0.2 and 3000 MHz.

As always, there are caveats - with large freq changes the output take times to stabilize, and the I2C bus isn't known for it's blazing update rate. If somebody manages to set up a GSM network with this, I will be very impressed.

On the flip side, this part also has a voltage input that allows output frequency control up to +/- 190 ppm. That works out to a controllable variation of about +/- 174 kHz when at 915 MHz center. Perfectly fine for some simple FSK.

Of course, this oscillator is useless if we can't control it. I initially considered a microcontroller - I was attracted to the idea of users being able to develop their own baseband software - but after some thought I realized this was antithetical to the idea of the RTL-SDR and repurposed VGA adapter. These units just deal in raw data, they aren't radios unto themselves.

I also realized that having to flash firmware onto every device (and then test them) would cost a significant amount of time and money if I ever ended up producing these units. I just needed a bridge chip - something I could drop in to connect I2C to USB.

Eventually I settled on the SiLabs CP2112 USB-to-I2C bridge chip. It won out as it has the very interesting feature of simply enumerating (on Linux at least) as an I2C bus. That's right - load up i2c-detect from lm-sensors and the CP2112 shows up as an SMBus adapter.

I had all my major parts - now to stick them together.

Further design decision comments and a blow-by-blow development blog continue down below.

Be sure to check out the gallery for the schematics and photos, and the OSHPark link on the left to order your own boards.

I'm excited to see what people can do with this!

  • 1 × SILabs Si569 Voltage controlled oscillator (VCXO), with I2C control.
  • 1 × SILabs CP2112 USB-to-I2C bridge chip

  • It works! And new board revision.

    Carbon7 days ago 0 comments

    I was using the end off an Amazon USB cable and it looks like the internal wire colors were swapped. Out of ideas last week, I swapped the data lines and the chip enumerated successfully!

    Now that I knew that it worked, I figured it was a good time to do a board revision:

    You might notice that the Rev B board is shorter than the Rev A board. I moved the TVS diode array to the opposite side - the wiring between it and the CP2112 was a tad frustrating and taking up a bunch of space. The XO footprint is the smaller 3.2 mm by 5 mm variant which should match the parts I have.

    I also added a footprint for a PCB mount USB-A male connector. It's what I originally intended to do, and it's a lot cleaner than having the board at the end of a cable.

    The only major circuit difference is that the SATA port pins have changed - check out the schematic in the gallery for details.

    Boards have been ordered from OSH Park. I took down the link to the Rev A boards because they were obsolete - I wish there was a way to set up the sharing so it wouldn't expose the the raw Gerber files for download.

  • Problems and - well, just problems actually

    Carbon08/15/2019 at 03:15 0 comments

    So, those oscillator parts? Over fifty bucks each. Not exactly pocket change. Unfortunately that invalidates the idea of this being the literal opposite of an RTL-SDR - I was aiming for in-the-cart cost no higher than $20.

    This week I got some time on the microscope to assembled one of the boards. (Partially complete pictured below.)


    Notice the XO and the HUEG footprint I placed. I thought I purchased the large variant of the XO part, but I guess not.

    I think I can dead bug the XO, but held off at this point because I was pressed for time.

    Sadly, the CP2112 chip doesn't enumerate when the board is plugged in. I've verified the USB cable wiring, removed the TVS diode, used the hot air station to reflow the solder/part, and verified that the system is seeing something - just can't get the chip to enumerate.
    I'll start by pulling off everything non-critical until it works - or doesn't. I don't have an IR oven so there is a chance I toasted the chip when installing it.

    Little less than a month left - onwards!

  • "Where's the SMA connector?"

    Carbon07/20/2019 at 16:14 0 comments

    Good question.

    Here is the problem: the Si569 only offers output up to 3 GHz when using a differential signal output (specifically LVPECL, LVDS, CML).

    The majority of projects I've seen that us SiLabs oscillators use the CMOS output variants which supports single ended operation, but can only output a signal up to a few hundred MHz. (For this particular chip, only up to 250 MHz.)

    (By the way, if you're interested in what all those output modes are, I highly recommend "Application Report SLLA120 - Interfacing Between LVPECL, VML, CML, and LVDS Levels" by Nick Holland at Texas Instruments.)

    Here is the other problem: I'm not an actual RF engineer, I just play one on the Internet. I really don't know how to convert a high frequency differential signal into a single ended signal - or if I even should in this case.

    I briefly looked into LVDS converter chips but couldn't find any that were obviously fast enough. At this point I think I'm supposed to use a balun or signal transformer of some sort but this is outside my experience right now.

    So, what to do?

    Make it somebody elses problem! :D

    Okay, seriously though, I'm hoping I can provide the base unit and somebody with more experience than I can take this thing a step further and make a circuit that an antenna will attach to. To do that, though, I have to export the signal from the board. The the idea that the average hobbyist would be using these units, I needed something that easy to use, durable, inexpensive, widely available, and with the ability to support high speed differential signals.

    I assume the majority of you are familiar with the famous Andrew "bunnie" Huang - I was reminded of his Novena oscilloscope project where he faced a similar problem. His solution was using common SATA cables - these hit all of the above requirements, so I stuck a SATA connector on the end of the SineStick.

    I used B channel for the differential output of the Si569. I wanted to push I2C through channel A but there was no way to also push power as well (not enough pins). I decided having power at the other end the connector was more important than I2C control, so the A- channel is attached to the (fused) USB 5V rail. The otherwise unused A+ channel is broken out to a test point so end users can make use of it.

    The only downside is nobody seems to make board mount SATA plugs - the cable ends. There are very short SATA cables available, however, so it's not a huge issue.

    If this device catches on I hope to see an ecosystem of filters, amps, and antenna connector boards.

  • July 19, 2019 - Boards arrive tomorrow

    Carbon07/20/2019 at 03:09 0 comments

    Last week I oOrdered a set of boards from OSHPark, and a set of stencils from OSHstencils.

    The boards should be here tomorrow but the stencils haven't arrived yet - which is odd. Usually they get here first.

    After a quick visual inspection of the boards, I'll order the parts. Earliest they'll get here is Tuesday morning.

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