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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Building Another Curve Tracer


I started this post in December 2017. In January 2021, I blew-up (my own stupid fault) my Curve Tracer (CT) and damaged so many parts that it is difficult to get it back to where it once was. There are a number of reasons why I decided to build a new one. A few others have already build their own versions, so there is interest in this project. I'm also soliciting the help of others to critique and help design the next version. Send me a message below if you want to be on the team. The new version should be more robust, easier to build and be optimized as much as possible for the DSO display medium.

I will be updating this Blog with newer information while working on this project. 

Stay tuned!


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I sold my DIY Tektronix analog mainframe scope, and with it, my DIY 5CT1 Curve Tracer also described in yet another post.

Why I want a Curve Tracer

It's not that I use a Curve Tracer that much, but if you want to categorize or really measure the parameters of a discrete component, there is really no other tool that can do the job well. Of course, there are very simple tools and gadgets available that do a go-no-go test, and even can give you the current amplification factor. I have one of those too, but they are very limited in what they can do.  It's also fun to design something like this, as a mental exercise, which is why I do a lot of these things. I like to design and build Test and Measurement tools.

With that in mind, I started a new project to build my own Curve Tracer, not unlike the one I already had, the 5CT1. Information about the 5CT1 can be found here :

By the way, the 5CT1N (the N stands for no parameter readout, I modified mine to add that, which is why it is probably the only one in the world without the N suffix) is also known as the 7CT1N. That instrument is really a 5CT1N. The only difference is the adapter board that changes the mainframe connector from a 5000 mainframe to a 7000 mainframe.

The Scope of the Project and Why

In the course of looking at more modern designs (the Tek 5/7CT1N was designed in the 1970's) I found about 6 different implementations or architectures. One of the principle architectures uses an Arduino or another micro controller to drive the hardware settings and collect the data. They typically use a PC as the display, or an LCD/OLED type display. I skipped that architecture type because there is too much programming involved, both for the Arduino, and for the PC. There is a shortcut available, using another digital scope, and I'll discuss that later.
The other architectures I found are all variations on the same, traditional theme.

Apart from the Tektronix 5/7CT1N, 576 typesthree really standout.
One is the Heathkit IT3121. A Manual and schematic can be found in this archive :IT3121
Another one I'll call the Changpuak version, and details can be found here:  Changpuak
The last one is the ELV KS7000.  You can see a demonstration of it here : KS7000

The Heathkit and the ELV units were available as DIY kits a long time ago, and both kits are no longer available. The ELV 7000 is more modern and has a few nice features that to me are important. I'll cover that later. The Heathkit IT3121 is almost a copy of the typical (traditional) Tektronix Curve Tracers, which are, in my opinion, the de-facto standard in Curve Tracers, the 576 in particular. I used to know that beast very well. When I was at Tek, I used it a lot while hunting for bad or failed components for a number of years while I was repairing Tek equipment in the 70's. The Changpuak one is also well documented, and the most modern one, but to me, lacks some critical functions.

The Trade-Offs

Let's get down to the principle architecture, because there are some trade-offs to be made.
Let me start with a super simple block diagram: (you can click on any of the pictures to get a better quality version) 

In essence, the DUT, let's use a transistor (BJT) for now, is powered by a collector voltage supply with a triangle waveform, that can be varied in amplitude. The Base is driven by a Step Generator with increasing steps in current for a BJT. 
Traditionally, an analog monitoring device, typically a CRT in a dedicated unit, or the CRT in an analog scope in the X-Y mode, shows the relationship of the Collector current vs the Collector voltage. The Collector current is a function of the amplification of the signal applied to the Base, which is expressed in Beta or hFE. If you're using a scope, one vertical channel is used to capture the collector current (using a shunt) and a second vertical channel monitors the voltage between the collector and the emitter. The voltage is used to display the horizontal axis and the current the vertical axis. Most scopes allow you to use one vertical channel in place of the time-base to get an X-Y display.

Here is a typical result, taken from my DIY 5CT1 in my DIY 5440 mainframe:

The top readout (100uA) is the Collector current (IC) per division, and the lower readout (2uA) is the current per step (IB) fed to the Base.
From these curves and the readouts you can deduct, calculate or measure the Beta or current amplification in the common Emitter Mode (IC is approx. Beta * IB), and look at the linearity, the voltage breakdown and temperature drift among a few others parameters.
Look here for an explanation of Hfe/hfe/Beta here : current-gain-hfe-beta

The Advantage of the Analog Scope/CRT

In the "old" days, the scope was an analog scope with a phosphor tube. The phosphor was relatively "slow", meaning that the trace glowed for a short period. This feature allowed the Curve Trace designers to use the mains frequency of 50 or 60 Hz. As you can imagine, the repetition rate of the X-Y trace is depending on the number of steps coming from the Step Generator. With a typical 7-8 steps, the repetition rate of the sweeping phosphor trace is 50 or 60 Hz, multiplied by 2 because of a diode bridge to get positive or negative excursions, and then divided by the number of steps. The more steps, the more the display starts to "flicker". The so called "re-trace", when the X-Y beam is rapidly moved from one place on the screen to the next, is so fast that the phosphor does not light up, or if, only a little. This feat was thankfully used by the Curve Trace designers, it made for a relatively clean picture.

A downside of this design was that the used half sine wave for the collector supply, as coming from a mains transformer, showed a trace that was "thicker" or with a higher brightness at the top of the sinewave, or at the end of the horizontal axis, when the beam travels slower. The 5/7CT1N uses a triangle waveform, so this effect is absent, as you can see in the picture above.

The Pitfalls of Digital Sampling Oscilloscopes (DSO)

With the advent of digital scopes, the X-Y display feature changed dramatically. Gone are the days that you could deflect a single beam in a CRT to any of the X-Y axis coordinates at will. The readout of the settings in my CT in the picture above is a testament of that feature. 

Digital scopes in the X-Y display mode sample both the horizontal and the vertical channels and store that X-Y coordination point in the acquisition memory. When that is full, it calculates a display of the X-Y coordinates from whatever was captured in the data acquisition memory. It's repetitive thus no longer real-time and it also results in a fairly to very fuzzy display, because the "trace" is really a scattering of data points, not a line anymore. This display method knows nothing about retracing, so it displays everything captured, with the same intensity. There's no hiding anything anymore. What you see is what you got, or in another way, what you got is what you see. Gone are the advantages the "old" Curve Trace designers relied upon.

I recently purchased a Rigol DS2072A, and although I really like the scope in normal operation, the X-Y display in the default mode is disappointing if you're used to a cathode ray tube. It's not full screen, because that would make the scattering even worse, and the refresh rate is depending on the rate of acquisition.

Here is what I mean:
I used the following two CT related signals that are fed into the two scope vertical inputs in the normal time mode.

These two signals show the principle of a Curve Tracer (CT). The triangle waveform is the voltage applied between the Collector and the Emitter of the DUT. The Base (current for a BJT) or Gate (voltage for a FET) is driven with a stepped waveform. The step heights will drive the transistor or FET with increasingly higher currents (BJT) or voltages (FET). In the most common case, there is one half of the triangle waveform for every step.

This would result in the following picture for a 2N3904 transistor as an example as the device under test (DUT). The scope is now in the X-Y display mode. In this mode, it shows the samples of the two signals in an x-y matrix. It cannot "connect the dots" like in the screen shot above. This is normal and also typical for DSO's.



For every step, there is one corresponding half of the triangle slope. The triangle slope travels in the horizontal axes, the steps in the vertical axis. The origin is in the lower left hand corner of the picture (the cross-hairs of channel 1 and channel 2). 

The first step with the first half (positive going) slope of the triangle is the first line in the picture, starting from the origin on the left to the right of the screen. The second step, with an increased step value, will now origin a little higher on the right hand side where the first step ended and travel back to the origin with the down going slope of the triangle. The red arrow shows the jump. The jump is very fast, so on phosphor tubes, this will not show up at all. On DSO's however, the sampling will catch some of this travel as you can faintly see because there are some dots. Remember, a DSO shows the samples while in the X-Y display mode, it cannot "connect the dots". The third step will start in the origin, and travel up to the level of the third step, and then horizontal with the triangle slope. The fourth step will jump up and then travel back to the origin.

The travel from the traces on the left hand side going up are visible on the display, and is caused by the physics of the transistor (the approx. 0.6V junction barrier before the device starts to conduct).

Furthermore, this is a rather fuzzy display due to the scattering display process of all the collected samples in the X-Y mode, and this is under almost ideal conditions. If the signals are smaller, the noise will increase, also a typical pitfall for DSO's, and the traces will be getting even more fuzzy.

Below is a picture of just the triangle and the stepped waveform fed into the scope inputs directly, without a DUT.

Note the much dimmer waveform level between the two screenshots. This picture had the standard settings for my DSO, the one above was "tuned" to improve the visibility. Another pitfall for the DSO.  With my Rigol scope, the "dimness" of the trace can be changed by the WaveIntensity setting, which by default is set at 50%.

On an analog scope using a phosphor CRT, you would not see the vertical lines on the left and right. These are the transitions from one step to the next. They are too fast for the phosphor of a CRT unless you turn-up the brightness setting. The first screen shot in this post shows that results.

Traditional CT's also used a saw tooth, a full triangle waveform per step, or even half a sine wave derived from the mains voltage instead. In those cases, the waveform travels back and forth for every step. In the case of a sine wave, there was even an intensity difference if you consider the different rise times of those wave forms. The most optimum wave form is really the triangle one.

There is however another caveat that is typical for DSO's in the X-Y display mode. The screen is updated with the rate of the acquisition speed to fill the memory and also the calculation portion before the results are shown on the screen. There is a natural flickering of the screen based on this repetition speed.

To get the X-Y display above, I had to tune the repetition rate of the step generator and the triangle waveform generator, to get rid of the most annoying "flickering" of the display, caused by the acquisition repetition rate. This flickering is depending on the acquisition and calculation speed of your DSO, and so will vary between makes and models.

What can be done to improve this

In order to try to overcome the limitations of a DSO as a capture and display medium, we need to take that change in architecture into account in the design for a Curve Tracer. Note that this is true for any sampling method, and that includes AD convertors with a processor like an Arduino, or feeding signals directly to a PC through a Sound Card digitization, etc.

Because of the non-real-time sampling of a DSO, the display no longer "flickers" due to the mains frequency, but this is replaced by the acquisition processing rate. The only cure is to go away from the mains frequency timing relationship so we can increase and tune the frequency to optimize the refresh rate of the used scope. This will require some experimenting because all digital scopes are different in that respect. Factors like sampling speed, memory depth, processing speed etc. all play a role.

When you abandon the mains frequency as the driving factor, you can also change from a half sine wave to a saw-tooth or triangle waveform. I experimented with a couple of different wave-form's, using my Function Generator, and I decided to settle on a triangle waveform. The major reason is that the synchronization of the step generator  with the triangle waveform is easier to realize. This is important because as I alluded to earlier, the digitizing method of a DSO is much less forgiving on timing differences and glitches or aberrations at these change-overs, and will display all that.

Another decision that needs to be made is how the triangle waveform fits into each step of the step generator. You can imagine that you could have one rising edge on step one, followed by a falling edge on step two, followed by another rising step on step 3 and so on. This will insure that there is only one single "trace" per step, because when there is the slightest difference in the slopes or timing, you will increase the fuzziness of the horizontal display "trace". I also experimented with a complete triangle waveform per step, and although it did not seem to add to the fuzziness , I selected the single ramp per step as you can see from the screen shot a little above.

Let me stress again that for a CT with a DSO as the display medium, the precision of the triangle wave form timing and linearity in relation to the stepped waveform and its timing together with clean edges and to top that of, the reduction of signal and acquisition sampling noise is crucial for a clean display.

The Importance of the Step Generator

The take-away from all this is that especially the Step Generator design is much more critical than in the previous (analog) designs before.

Using the ELV design as the Blue Print

The ELV KS7000 comes very close to fulfilling my requirements, unfortunately, that design was made at a time when FET's where not main-stream, and adding that capability to the design seems to have been an afterthought, and in my opinion, rather poorly implemented.

Furthermore, the Achilles-heel of a re-build of this particular design is made difficult because of the special transformer that were custom designed for this instrument. I already went through something like that with my 5CT1 re-build, where I also had to call in help to produce a special transformer. Luckily, the ELV challenge can be solved by using multiple transformers.

The KS-7000 description and schematics are available on-line, unfortunately, it's all in German and you need a German address to satisfy the ELV demands on their website before you can purchase and download the two articles. I managed to purchase and study the documents, but I'm not going to publish or send it to anyone, so don't even ask, please!

Although I based my design for a large portion on the KS-7000, which is no longer available in kit-form, I added enough changes and improvements so I can hopefully show my design here without causing issues.

Simulation and Verification
At this moment I should probably mention that I used LTspice to simulate 5 different designs before I settled on the ELV one. I also build a prototype of  a couple of circuits to learn more about the pitfalls in the real world, and I actually build the complete ELV design as a working prototype.

Here is a picture of the 4 major components:

The box in the upper left corner is a simple adjustable supply I use when I bread-board, and it is used to power the Step Generator with +/- 15V DC. This supply needs to be floating from the rest as you will see later.  Below it is the Step Generator, already with my changes and redesign. Below it is the Triangle Waveform Generator and the simplified Collector supply regulator. The collector supply output voltage can be varied with the potmeter below it.

Upper right is the power supply for the Triangle Waveform Generator (+10V and -5V). I'm using LM317 and LM337 for these supplies to be able to change the voltages in this prototyping phase. The Collector voltage itself was coming from one of my Lab supplies.

Lower right is the circuit for the X and Y amplifiers that interface to the scope X-Y input channels.

When I took this picture, the boards were not inter-connected to each other anymore. When they were, it was quite a display of wires and the whole thing looked like a giant spiderweb.

The Actual Design

I need to stress first of all that I used my schematic capturing program (DipTrace) only to capture my design. I never intended to make a layout. Due to the limitations of the free version of DipTrace I used, I had to use two different instances, so the interconnects and the part numbers are not consistent with each other. I will update the circuit diagrams during the modification process.

Here is the most simplistic block diagram again:


Let me start with the Collector supply. 

We start of with the raw voltages that are required to create the regulated and adjustable triangle waveform Collector Supply.

This section is actually quite simple, and only supplies the unregulated Collector/Drain voltage.

We need a rather high voltage to excite the DUT's with the triangle-based Collector Supply.
In the original design, a single transformer was used that supplied 2 x 40VAC at 1.2A each for the Collector/Drain supply. Using a relays, the transformer winding's were switched in parallel or series, creating 40VAC at 2.4A, or 80VAC at 1.2A. This results in a DC voltage of 60V or 120V, more than enough to supply the maximum triangle output of 100V P-P. Two more winding's (2x15VAC 200mA and 2x12VAC 300mA) on the same transformer were used to supply the step and triangle circuits themselves. I'll cover that next.

In my own design, I will use a transformer that I salvaged from an old printer for the Collector Voltages. The two separate winding's are different and cannot be switched in parallel, but I can create two different voltages that I can switch by using a relays. I seldom if ever need high currents for my DUT's, and if so, I can modify my design by adding another transformer. To create two voltage levels, low for most DUT's and a high voltage for special DUT's, I created a roughly 30V DC (unloaded) supply using one winding, and about 104VDC supply using the other winding. The 104VDC is just above the highest voltage of the capacitors I could purchase, they are 1.000uF/100V, so I used two of them in series. This halves the capacitance to 500uF, but at least I'm safe with the maximum voltage. Hopefully 500uF is enough for 250mA.

My special transformer can be replaced by two 40 or 48 VAC transformers. The lower one can be with a higher VA and the top one with a lower VA. Or, if they are the same, you can also switch them in parallel to increase the current capability.

Because of the constraints the selected enclosure posed, I had to split the Collector supply in two parts. 

Above is the main section, with the 230V AC receptacle, fuse and main switch. From there it goes to the transformer with the two separate winding's. The high voltage section is located on this board, but I only had room for the bridge rectifier for the 30V supply. The output of this board has the common (-CS), the lower 30V and the total voltage of 130V and those connections go to the next section. The R/C snub networks across the transformer winding's are selected with the use of a very nice tool, called the Quasimodo Test Rig.
I build the SMD version of the Quasimodo, details can be found here: Quasimodo-test-jig

The second part of the collector supply is on a separate board. To the left are the outputs from the first board. The 30V supply gets filtered a little better by using a 1,000uF cap, followed by a 0.6 Ohm resistor and than the main filter capacitor of 3,300uF. This setup provides a better filter and reduces the initial current surge.
Note the "bleeding" resistors across both raw supplies. They make sure the rather high voltages are discharging relatively quickly.

The relays in the circuit is used to feed the Triangle Waveform generator with two different voltages and current capabilities. When you select a higher DUT voltage, the switching to the higher voltage and the corresponding current limiting resistor is done automatically, more about that later.

To protect the DUT, we want to have a form of adjustable current limiting. Analog to a bench supply.
Because the two winding's I'm using for the Collector supply have different current ratings, I use a slightly modified circuit from the original ELV design, to create two different Current Limiting ranges, that are also switched automatically with the voltage selection. The Current Limit circuit on the Triangle Waveform board is set by a potmeter that creates a voltage between 0 and 1VDC. I picked that value because I already had shunt resistors that could be used. To create a little headroom, I used 0.9V for my shunt resistor calculations. This allows me to always get the maximum current the transformer is able to supply. 

Diode D8 and the 10nF/250vAC capacitor are going from the negative output to Ground. The capacitor is there to reduce oscillation, and the diode to protect from incorrect voltages or polarity changes. These can occur when you test electrolytes. Note that C6 must be an X2  250VAC version, it gets the full load of the collector supply.

Calculating the current limiter resistors.
I did not have the specifications for the salvaged transformer, so I first measured the unloaded secondary AC voltages and then loaded these two winding's one by one with varying power resistor sizes. I determined the maximum current to be when the AC voltages dropped to about 75%. The maximum current was then calculated by dividing the resulting voltage with the used resistor value. This is obviously not a science, but a practical approximation, which to me,  for this particular application especially, is good enough.

Using the above method, I found that the 30V winding can supply about 750mA, so I selected a current shunt of 1.2 Ohm. That resistor value will create a voltage drop of 0.9V at 750mA. The high voltage winding can only supply about 250mA, so that needs a shunt resistor of 3.6 Ohm to create the same 0.9V drop. I didn't have that value, so I concocted a shunt value of 3.5 Ohm by using two resisters in series. In reality the actual value of these two were a little higher and I ended up pretty close to 3.6 Ohm, which is good enough for me. When the circuit switches from the 0...30V range to the 0...130V high voltage range, these two current shuns are also switched by the same relays. The relays I used is one that came out of my stash. It actuates with a voltage of 12V DC, and can switch loads of 250VAC or 30VDC at 10A. I think that's OK.

To create a more stable Collector supply output and improve regulation, even when there is no DUT connected, a Constant Current Sink circuit is used to load the supply output with about 8mA, regardless of the voltage output level. This is the circuit around the TIP117.


The Triangle Based Collector Supply Regulator

In order to regulate the triangle waveform with voltages up to 100V p-p, a trick is used to drive and regulate that through a series transistor. This is analogue to what the former H-P designers used when they developed bench power supplies with higher voltage outputs. This method (trick) is known as the H-P/Agilent method. I use that same method with my "new" lab power supply described in one of my other posts on this Blog. 

Rather than regulating the positive output in reference to ground, they used a "floating" regulator circuit in the positive output line. To make it even more complicated to understand, they "tied" the positive output to Common Ground and let the negative output regulate "downwards". This is possible, if the output terminals are not connected to Earth Ground. The DUT connected to both output pins does not care. It sees a differential voltage of whatever is presented on the output terminals. This is an important principle to understand.


The Triangle Regulator circuit needs to have its own separate DC supply, and only the ground of both supplies are connected. This trick allows you to use parts for the Triangle Regulator, or in case of a Bench Supply, the Output Voltage Regulator, to have normal parts without having to use parts that need to withstand the full raw supply voltages.

Note: From now on I will call the - Collector Supply -CS.

Switching the raw Collector Supply voltages.

At first I wanted to use a simple switch on the front panel to switch the output from 0..30V and then from 0..100V. While playing with that circuit, I found that this is not very practical. When you're testing a DUT, you really want to have a continuous Collector/Drain voltage that can be set by one potmeter. The original design automatically switched the transformer winding's from parallel to series, and so I copied that part of the circuit and made some adjustments.

Here is that voltage/current switch circuit:

The output of the Triangle Collector/Drain supply (-CS) is fed to a trimmer that can be used to set the switch-over voltage. This triangle waveform is rectified, limited and fed to the input of an Opamp. As soon as the tripping voltage (I use 30Vp-p) has been reached, the Opamp switches state and turns on the warning LED located on the front panel. The same output also goes to a clamping and low-pass filter and a Darlington transistor turns the relays on that switches the output voltage from 0..30V to 0..120V and back. The hysteresis is set by the 1M resistor and that results in about a 3V difference to avoid jitter of the relays while you move around the 30V mark.

The original ELV circuit is a little crude in my opinion, because the designer used a whopping 100uF capacitor (C17) to keep the circuit from oscillating when the Current Limit gets into effect. The result of this large time constant is that it takes a second or so for the relays to activate when you increase the CS supply. So, for a second or so, while you continue to turn the potmeter, the output clips, and then the higher voltage kicks-in. Going from high to low, this is not so much a factor. Unfortunately, at certain voltage settings and current limit values, the circuit still oscillates and switches rapidly between the two winding's. For the moment I left this circuit as is.

Note that although a use a 12V relays, I use the +10V as a supply. The relays I already had in my stash is happy with that and seems to switch fast and solid enough.

The Triangle Waveform Generator and Collector/Drain Supply

Because we cannot use the mains frequency as a basis for the collector voltage and steps, we need an oscillator to generate the triangle waveform.  This circuit will also drive the synchronization with the Step Generator, and in addition will take care of the Collector/Drain supply voltage adjustment and current limiter setting.

Here is that part of the design:

This portion for a large part follows the original design. Let me go through through this circuit a step at a time. The upper left portion comprises the triangle waveform generator. It uses two CMOS gates to precisely control the starting and stopping points so the triangle will be symmetrical. Remember, this is critical for DSO's. The most left trimpot will set the zero Volt level. C9 determines the waveform frequency and also functions as the integrator to go from a square wave to a triangle. This capacitor may have to be adjusted for the particular scope you're using, so I used a socket. There is more about that toward the end of the post. The output of the buffer/amplifier U3.2 feeds the Collector/Drain voltage amplifier and current regulator.

The Step Generator is synchronized by the circuit around the two lower CMOS gates. Each triangle output top or bottom transition triggers a step transition. Again the timing relationship is very critical.

The Collector/Drain voltage regulator is build like a variable bench power supply. If you care to look at my posts on this Blog about my latest Lab Power Supply, you'll see striking similarities.

Instead of basing the output voltage on a stable reference voltage for a DC bench supply, we are now using the triangle waveform to drive the series transistor output. This Darlington transistor is biased with a base current set by R74 and that can be "taken away" by the output of either of the two Opamps. The top one regulates and limits the current set by the Current Limiter (CL) potmeter on the front panel. The tripping point can be set by trimmer R4. The output voltage regulation is set by the lower Opamp. It is fed with the reduced triangle waveform (-CS) and can be adjusted with a potmeter (R4) on the front panel. Trimmer R33 sets the maximum output voltage. 

When either of these two Opamps switch based on their settings, they pull the bias current to common ground through the LED's that also function as a diode to keep the two outputs separated from each other. When the Opamps trip or regulate, the LED will be on. I should note that the Triangle Regulator is always in the voltage mode, such that the voltage LED is always on, and the CL LED is off. When the system goes into CL mode, the reverse it true and the systems is now in the CL mode.

Here is the remainder of the circuit:

Upper right shows the dedicated power supply for the circuit. Did you remember that it is floating? Because I did not have the LM7810 nor the LM7905 regulators, I used the LM317 and the LM337 to create both supplies. They are mounted on heat sinks. A larger heat sink is needed for the series transistor, the TIP150. The raw supply feeding the +10V is tapped and goes to the XY-Amp board, together with the -5V and the CS- supply.

The voltage switch that drives the relays on the Collector Supply board is also located on the Triangle Wave Gen board.

The Step Generator

This is the most critical portion of any Curve Tracer. It is the beating hart of the instrument and to a large extend determines what devices you can measure and with what precision. This portion of the Curve Tracer has the most changes and additions relative to the very basic ELV Step Gen design.

The Step Generator is also completely floating from the rest, and therefore has it's own dedicated power supply. I'll explain why this is required in a minute.

Here is the first portion of that circuit:

Let's go through this circuit a step at a time as well.
In the upper left, there is an optical connection where the trigger pulses come in from the Triangle Waveform generator. This optical separation is important to be able to "tie" this circuit to either the positive side of the Collector/Drain Supply, or at the negative side. This switching sides allows us to handle N- and P-type devices. Obviously, to do that, the whole Step Gen circuit has to be floating from the rest of the curve tracer circuits, which is why a separate winding on a power transformer is used to create the +/- 15V and the trigger pulses are coming through an optical switch.

Initially, I experimented with several ways to create a step generator, and I almost went completely discrete by using the 5CT1 step generator circuit, because of the versatility and precision. After some experimenting and modifying the original ELV design though, I was able to get the same 5CT1 versatility by using a CMOS 4040 counter version together with a CMOS 4028 BCD-Decimal counter and a number of Opamps.

The trigger pulse entering the circuit is going to a 4040 counter chip, that produces divide by 2 counter outputs. We'll use only three of them, to create 8 steps (0..7). The 4040 is supplied by the +15V supply, so the output signal is about 14V. A simple R2R D2A convertor is used to create the individual steps. To create equal step values, the value of the resistors R2R ladder is important. I used two SIP resistor networks because they have the required precision, and are thermally coupled, but you can use discrete resistors as well. It will help if you can match them to the same value or use precision versions. 

Loading the output of the R2R convertor output will change the step levels, so I use a separate buffer to use the low impedance output to use a trimmer that can be used to calibrate the steps precisely. The calibrated steps will be 1V5 per step, or 10V5 peak to peak for all 8 steps. After this adjustment, the signal goes to another Opamp that is used to change the polarity of the steps, needed for N- or P-type devices. This overall polarity switching is a little complex because several things need to change at the same time. I use a relays on this board, and that gets activated by a 3 pole tumbler switch located on the front panel.

I'll cover the number of steps selection circuit around U9, below.

The next portion of the Step Gen Board deals with the amplification and selection of the Volt or Current Amp output.

Voltage/Current Amp
The output of the Step Gen section goes to a Voltage/Current amplifier and attenuation circuit. I spent quite some time to get this right. In most designs, series resistors are used in combination with a rotary switch to create the required current steps for BJT's. In most of those designs, they use another switch to select the voltage steps, needed for FET's. As mentioned earlier, I was used to the 5CT1 design, where a single switch was used to switch from current mode to a voltage mode, and also with the same ratio values. It makes the front panel indication so much easier. What I mean is that one selection could be 10uA in the current mode, and when going to the voltage mode, it would be 10mV (a factor of 1,000 x in Volts, because that is more appropriate for FET's).

The above circuit does that, and with pretty good precision to boot. In the current step mode, a negative feedback loop is used to overcome the output transistor diode drop, and in the voltage mode, another Opamp with just about the right amount of positive feedback is used to overcome the voltage divider ratio shift. So in order to switch from current to voltage, all you need to do is to switch a precision 1K resistor R63) into the output of the circuit to turn the current into a voltage. I did not show a schematic picture of the 12 step rotary switch in the circuit diagram because it would mess-up the visual aspect of the circuit.

I used commonly available resistor values for the selection steps. They can also be obtained by using Parallel or series resistors. Note the rather strange value of R73, the highest current/Voltage selection. This one has to be adjusted by hand for the correct output. The amplifier cannot maintain the feed-back at this highest level.

Number of Steps Selection

Here is another detail that you need to be aware of. As you can see, the highest output Voltage steps are 2V and 5V. Per step that is. This means that the 7th step would be 7 x times that value, or 14V, respectively 35V. This would call for a supply voltage of at least +/-40V for the output amplifier. That is a lot, and probably never required, so I'm not going to do do that. To circumvent this limitation is to reduce the number of steps in these higher Voltage settings.

The reduction of the number of steps is accomplished by a BCD to Decimal counter, a CMOS 4028. The BCD count coming from the 4040 is used to drive the 4028, and its outputs will represent the number of steps. A rotary switch is used to reset the 4040 counter with the selected number of steps. It goes from step 1, the minimum to the 7th step, the maximum, with the zero step at zero current or zero volt.

By limiting the number of steps, you can also keep the dissipation of heat in the DUT to a minimum.

Step Offset

Another refinement I added is the option to add an offset to the steps. This will allow you to precisely adjust a certain step to whatever current or voltage the device is intended for or gets into the circuit it came from, if you're repairing or verifying. The offset range is intended to be +/- 6 steps. However, for voltage steps (for FET's), as an example, the excursion is limited by the maximum output of the output amplifier (+/-15V supply). What this means is that you can adjust a positive step waveform only a Step value or two before the top steps start to clip. A negative offset however will go the whole way, and the reverse is true for the negative offset for a negative step waveform.

Again, the step selection will come to the rescue once more. If you limit the number of steps, the excursion is extended.

For example, if you select positive steps with an amplitude of 100mV/Step, the baseline (step zero) of a two step waveform can be adjusted by about 6 steps (620mV) upwards (aiding) without clipping, but all 7 steps can be adjusted about 6 steps (620mV) downward (opposing).

Initially, I just used a potmeter wired to +15V on one side and -15V on the other. This will work a little weird, because you would have to go back to the mid position before flipping the offset on/off switch, to not upset the DUT when you turn the offset back on.

After some thinking I decided to "borrow" the circuit from the Tek 576 manual, because the offset capability is especially important for FET devices. After all, the 576 can be considered as the industry standard. The switch should be able to select "Aid" or "+" for a positive going offset, "Oppose" or "-" for a negative offset, and "None" which is the mid position.

So together with the step selection, you can finely tune the base current or the gate voltage.  For FET devices you can even set a few steps with a positive voltage while the remaining steps will have a negative voltage, of vice versa.

As mentioned earlier, I use a relays to switch the polarity of the steps and at the same time, connect the whole Step Gen circuit to either the positive Collector supply or the negative Collector supply. The relays I'm using is a 12V version, but the specification allows up to 130% of that. To be safe, I added a diode in series to drop the voltage by about 0.6V to about 14.4V, well within the specs of 12V + 130% = 15.6V. The relays is activated by the triple pole polarity switch on the front panel.

Fixing Polarity Issues

What I also wanted to address is the way the various devices are displayed on the X-Y screen. As an example, the Tektronix 5CT1N shows NPN device curves originating in the lower left corner of the display, and PNP devices in the upper right hand corner. FET's were displayed accordingly. The downside of this approach is that you are probably re-adjusting the calibration of the X and Y axis starting points with every switch. The Tek 576 does it the way I intend to do it as well. All curves originate in the lower left hand corner of the display.

A more Simple DUT Test Adapter

The ELV design uses a pair of 3 binding posts with different connections for NPN and PNP devices. The way the ELV designers implemented the circuit, they need you to swap the collector and emitter connections. That's pretty cumbersome and can be confusing, also for N- and P-channel FET's, and potentially catastrophic for the DUT.

On the left of the diagram below is the original circuit detail for NPN and PNP devices:

The Collector/Drain supply (+UC and -UC) is voltage regulated with the series transistor. It gets fed by a triangle waveform. Because the emitter from the series transistor is connected to the system ground, the -UC supply is negative, relative to ground.

The DUT, an NPN in the top diagram, is connected with the emitter to the -UC, so the collector will be positive from that level. The Base gets fed with a set of positive going steps. The 0V of the floating Step Gen circuit is connected to the -UC supply, so the Base gets positive going steps from the Step Gen. The series resistor in the DUT collector lead is where the collector current (IC) will be measured.

For PNP transistors, the ELV instrument forces you to swap the collector and the emitter of the DUT, as you can see in the lower diagram. To feed the PNP transistor with negative going steps, the polarity of the Step Generator itself is reversed, and because the 0V (the common) of the Step Gen is now connected to the emitter of the PNP transistor, it gets progressively reducing steps on the Base, relative to the emitter.

It works, but it is not very elegant, and can be confusing to boot. I will add the circuit on the right hand side to switch the polarities of the DUT's so you don't need to swap them. This will allow me to use a much more simple test socket and a single set of binding posts lettering.

DUT Test Fixture
I intend to use one set of binding posts for all devices, like I was used to with Tek curve tracers. (C/D, B/G and E/S) There is some more switching of supplies and pins needed to do that, in order to accommodate both BJT's and FET's in N- and P- polarities. I will also use two sets of test sockets/lead clips to allow you to switch from one DUT to the next to see differences between them, and also aid in the selection of pairs. I ordered two sets of TO-220 test sockets, and they can also take TO-92 type devices. Time will tell if they are really usable.

Here is are the search keywords for eBay:
     Transistor Triode Test Socket Ageing Test Socket Ceramics Body TO92 TO220 TO3P

Here is a link, but that may go to bit heaven soon: Socket

And here are two pictures:

The DUT Output Terminals
And now it may get a little confusing and the next may look complicated...
Below is the circuit diagram that ties everything together.

It seems confusing at first sight, but both the transistors in the circuit are really replaced by the test adapters you see on the lower section. I used the transistors to make the wiring more obvious.

To understand this section, it is also very important to keep in mind that the StepGen circuit is fully floating from the rest of the circuits. Look again at the original ELV circuit I showed just above.

The Step Generator output goes to one part of a DPDT switch. That switch (S1a) has three positions, A, 0 and B. The 0 or middle position makes no contacts. So S1a feeds the Step Gen output to either the base/gate of the A or the B DUT.

The other section of that switch (S1b), feeds the collector of the A or B DUT with the collector/drain voltage. The connector/drain voltage is further supplied through switch S100a (a triple DT switch (TPDT?), which connects the collector/drain to either the -UC (for PNP polarities) or through a 1 Ohm IC shunt to GND for NPN polarities. I call this point the DUT Common signal. The IC current shunt is used by the X-Y Vertical amplifier to measure the voltage drop and thus the collector/drain current and is located on that board to be close to the Opamp.

Switch S100b connects the joint DUT emitters to either -CS for NPN or through the IC shunt to GND for PNP polarities. As I explained earlier, this switch eliminates the physical switching of the actual DUT for different polarities.

The third section of that same switch, S100c, activates the polarity relays on the Step Gen board. One section of that relays connects the 0 Volt of the floating StepGen circuit to either the -CS supply for NPN types, or to the DUT Common point through the IC shunt to GND for the PNP polarity types.

So in practical terms, the whole Step Gen circuit "sits on top" of the -CS supply, feeding positive steps the the base of NPN polarity types, or "hangs down from" the DUT Common point (the IC shunt) and then supplies negative going steps to the base of PNP type devices.

I use two DUT test connectors to apply all the signals to various DUT packages, and I settled for the moment for the 5 pins to be connected to the majority of TO220 and TO92 type pin outs.
I also use two sets of 2mm Banana connectors to be able to use flying leads to connect to the DUT's.

X-Y Amplifiers
The X-Y amplifiers supply the Horizontal and Vertical deflections going to the oscilloscope or X-Y display.

The horizontal (X) axis will display the collector voltage (VCE), and that is measured between the -CS connection of the Collector Supply and the DUT Common (IC Shunt) connection, through the polarity switch. At this moment I am following the original design from ELV for these two amplifiers. The selection of my final display tool (DSO) will probably determine if this circuit needs any changes.

The vertical (Y) axis will display the collector/drain current (IC), and that is measured across the IC shunt resistor R7. This 1 Ohm shunt is connected between the Triangle Waveform Generator circuit GND and the collector/drain or emitter/source of the DUT, depending on the selected polarity.

C3 is there to help eliminate oscillations of the Triangle Waveform.

The horizontal collector voltage can be calibrated with a potmeter mounted on the front panel, such that accurate visual Volt/Division measurements can be made. Because a simple 10X factor going to the X input channel of the scope is desirable, the output of the Opamp should be able to supply 12V, to replicate the 120V for the Collector supply. That is why there is a separate 15V voltage regulator on this board.

Note that the Y signal must be inverted by the scope to move the XY origin to the lower left hand corner. There is a 10X multiplication factor of the Y Opamp, so every mV across the shunt will be passed on as 10X that value to the scope.

Building the Curve Tracer

The Enclosure
After some surfing around, I found an enclosure that I'm going to use and ordered.
The enclosure is 200mm wide, 175mm deep and 70mm high and has a handle so it can be tilted as well.

Here's a link on Ebay for it : Enclosure

Below is the back panel with on the left side the connector that will feed-in the two aux. supplies for the Step Gen and the Triangle Waveform Gen. I use one of my general purpose transformers (2 x 15-0-15VAC) in a separate enclosure that I use to power several of my instruments, or use with bread-boarding and prototyping.

In the middle is the high voltage section of the Collector Supply, and to the right the 230V mains receptacle with fuse and switch. The white 4 pole connector on top is where the transformer winding's connect. The blue connector on the right goes to the second part of the Collector supply.

Following is a picture with the transformer mounted in the enclosure. Below it is the second part of the Collector Supply. To the very left is the rotary switch that will be used for the step selection. It cannot be mounted on the front panel, because one of the supports for the long screws that connect the bottom shell to the top shell is in the way. The 6mm extension axle just passes the screw. To the right is the Triangle Waveform Generator and controller for the Collector Supply.

Here is a picture that shows how I will add the board space required for the front panel circuits like the X-Y amplifiers. How I'm going to populate that board depends on the front panel connections.

The Step Gen board will sit on top of everything.

Counterfeit Part
After testing the Collector Voltage supply, I ran into a problem. The Triangle Waveform generator worked, I tested that earlier, but the regulator part didn't work. There was only a small distorted waveform at the output, and regulating caused the voltage to jump to the full scale. I did not yet use the transformer at this time, I just used one of my Lab supplies set at 20VDC. Obviously, I suspected the usual (for me) wiring error, but after carefully checking the circuit, it turned out OK. Actually, that was a relief to me, because for the first time in many years, I did not make a single stupid wiring error in this project, all circuits worked first time. Wow!

After measuring a few things, I started to suspect the TIP151 series transistor. I only received my order for them literally just two days ago, after having waited 6 weeks for the delivery. I ordered a set of 4 TIP151 transistors from a vendor on When they arrived, I found two sets in the package, both pairs in separate plastic bags, and with separate markings on them. That seemed a bit odd, but I didn't pay any further attention, and soldered one of them in my circuit. Because I started to suspect this transistor, I actually wired the lower voltage Darlington transistor that I had been using before with some jumper leads, and yes, that worked as before. Big relief!

The markings are very hard to read, and my camera didn't really pick it up either. All four are supposedly from ST Microelectronics and look pretty genuine to me. The markings are CC0RH W MRC 608 on one set, and CC00JV6 MAR 17 26 on the other. I'll keep them, they are perfect testing candidates for the finished curve tracer. 😀

Receiving counterfeits only happened to me once before, when I ordered 10 x LM317 Voltage Regulators. They seemed to work OK, but they all popped and developed a short when more than 25 or so Volts were applied, so I had to dump all of them.

Ordering from China has it's risks, but I must say that from the hundreds of different parts I have ordered over the last 5 years or so, it only happened twice. To be honest, I am to blame as well, because 4 x TIP151 transistors for the price of 1.90 Euro, including shipping sounds too good to be true, and usually when that is the case, it probably is.

Bummer! When I checked availability earlier with my preferred suppliers (5 of them), none of them carried these parts. It's not easy to find replacements for them either. You really need the high voltage (300V) at a few Amps, and the replacements I found, were not available either. Final story is that now I had to order them through the local Element14/Farnell outlet for private people. I try to avoid them like the plague because they charge an arm and a leg! Often 50% to 150% more. Well, I didn't want to wait for another 6 weeks, so I pulled the trigger.

After receiving them and testing the circuit with the new TIP151 transistors, everything worked as it should

The Front Panel
The X-Y amplifier circuit in addition to the output terminal/DUT circuits and connections will be mounted on or close to the front panel, together with the adapters, switches and potmeters. I now need to figure out how I'm going to mount all this to keep the leads short, and noise out.

Below is a mock-up of the front panel with most of the parts mounted. The only thing missing are the LED's.
This mock-up is an earlier version of the front panel printed in B/W. By doing this, I was able to see that in a few areas I needed more room, so I could rearrange a few things before drilling the real front panel. I also wanted to verify that text wasn't too close or underneath fastening nuts and knobs, and a few had to change as well.

I used double sided sticky tape to mount the front panel design on a carton sheet, so I could mount the parts. The exact locations are difficult to obtain, because drilling holes (by hand) in carton is not precise, but good enough.
I later trimmed the carton so it would just about fit in the enclosure and I could have a 3D look inside.

This is the first time I'm actually building a 3D model of a front panel, because you can see that it's pretty busy and cramped. I wanted to have a 3-D view of the front panel, to see if my fingers can get to everything easily enough. Especially the adjustments that will be most used, like the Step Output and the Collector voltage need to be accessible by two hands at the same time if possible.
I also wanted to have a 3D view of the back, to be able to design the parts layout on the X-Y circuit board.
I decided to put the Collector voltage adjustment in the upper right hand corner, using my right hand to adjust the Collector Voltage, and the Step selections with my left hand.
Because I wanted to group the various adjustments, I ended up with the Step section on the left, the DUT section in the middle and the Collector Voltage and Current limiter as well as the X-Y outputs and adjustments on the right.

Here is a picture of the "final" design in PowerPoint, after making the changes that became apparent during the 3D mock-up stage, the mechanical build and the first testing of the completed instrument.

The size of the holes represent the drill size, (except for the Step Selection, that will be a 6mm hole) and the cross is the drill mark. The above panel print is the same size as the actual front panel, but that slides into slots of the upper and lower shells. Because of the added thickness of the final glossy printer paper and the double sided sticky tape, the front panel will not fit anymore, so I need to reduce the back of the front panel by about one mm in thickness for about 4-6mm along all 4 sides. The casing shell panel slots are 3mm deep, so this amount will disappear (covered) from every side of the above front panel print.

I used my hand-held router to reduce the outside edge of the plastic front panel by 1mm in thickness, to accommodate the glossy paper and the double sided tape. This was a little tricky, so next time I will build a small router table, like I had already done for my hand-held circular saw as well. I'm to fond of my fingers so I'd rather be safe than sorry, and I don't want to mess with the only front panel you get with every enclosure.

With the back of the front panel reduced, I printed the above design on glossy paper, and used double sided sticky tape to fix it to the front panel. I then carefully cut the holes with a sharp knife and mount all the front panel parts.

After I mounted everything, I noticed that I forgot the BJT/FET switch on my first version. It shows up above, but I don't have any text around the switch that I needed to add later. See the picture below. The switch sits between the Step Selection and the Step Output (the V below the switch means Voltage or FET) There are a few more tweaks that I would like to do to the text on the front panel, but I'll wait to replace it until everything is working. One more mistake that I found after the initial testing was that I had 8 steps maximum, while the maximum is 7 steps. There are 0..7 steps, and I don't use the "0" step.

I also removed the X10 amp switch for the Y-Amp because it did not do what I expected it to do.

Finally, I made an error with the number of steps that can be selected. It's 1..7, not 1..8 as I have on this front panel.

After I started the wiring of the back of the front panel, and worked on the interconnects between the boards, I noticed a couple of errors and confusing inter-connects. To fix them I updated all the circuits and re-posted them above. I think I have all of them ironed out, so I can now continue to finish the remainder XY amplifier circuit and the connections between all the boards and the front panel.

All the interconnects are checked and the flat cables are crimped and ready to be connected. (except for the three LED's)  I will take this a little baby step at a time and test it all out before everything will be powered-up at once, especially the Collector supply will be last.

Now that the inter-connects are hopefully sorted out, I could also finish the XY Amplifier board.
Here is a picture:

On the top left is the connector where the ground from the Triangle Waveform Gen is connected and also the DUT common connection. In between is the 1 Ohm IC current shunt. I could not get 1% resistors at 2W, so I selected the best value from a set of 10, to get as close as possible to 1.0 Ohm. This resistor is raised a few mm from the board, it may get hot.

The Y-amp measures the voltage across the shunt to give an indication of the Collector current (IC). The other half of the dual Opamp is for the X-Amp, which measures the C-E voltage, which comes from the DUT Common signal and the CS- voltage. The  CS- and the +10 and -5V come in through the connector on the right hand top, which connects to the Triangle Waveform Gen board.
The connector on the bottom right connects to the horizontal calibration potmeter for the X-Amp. This is located on the front panel.

The shielded cables coming from the X and Y BNC connectors will be soldered on the right hand edge connector.

After wiring the three LED's, I added power to the Triangle Waveform board only, just to see if the generator worked. It did, so I had the trigger pulses required for the Step Generator. When I connected that board, I noticed a few minor wiring errors and fixed them. I was able to play with all the controls and verified that everything is working as intended. The Step Generator works really well, I'm happy with that section.

After some time debugging while tracing an error, caused by an incorrectly mounted component on the Collector Supply-2 board, I was able to power-up the complete instrument. At this point I verified that the Collector supply is up and running. After that I mounted and connected the rest for the first trials.

First Time Power Up

After the first time power-up, things looked OK at first hand, but when I looked into more details, it just wasn't right. Turns out I found another conceptual wiring error, but below is a picture of the now working Curve Tracer.

This is with a BD138-16 PNP power transistor.
This was taken with 100uA Base current steps and 40V VCE.
Note the inverting setting of the Vertical Y channel (blue) to get the origin to the lower left hand corner.

There are a few calibration points that need to be adjusted.

1. Step Generator Step Voltage
On the Curve Tracer select NPN Polarity. Then select the Voltage Output (for FET's) and by setting the Step Output to 100mV/Step. Connect an oscilloscope (X10) probe between the E/S terminal for Ground and the probe tip to the B/G terminal. (You can do that because the Curve Tracer is floating from the mains ground or earth) The scope was set at 100mV/Div, in a normal (Y-T) display setting and the Stepped Trace trace was moved to align with the first bottom graticule line. This allows you to see all 7 steps on the screen of the scope. Adjust the Step Calibration (R47) for an exact 700mV level for the 7th step, resulting in 100uA/100mV Steps.

2. Triangle Waveform Base Level
Connect a (10x) scope probe between the E/S terminal for ground and the C/D terminal for the Collector Voltage. The scope is set for 10V/Div.

WATCH OUT! The ground clip of the probe goes to the C/D terminal and the probe tip to the E/S terminal. If you reverse this, you'll create a short because if you have one of the BNC cables connected to the scope, the ground of the BNC connector is at the same level as the C/D terminal.

Dial in a Collector voltage of about 70Vp-p (full screen of the scope) and then adjusted the lower edges of the triangle waveform to be at 0V with R32.

3. Maximum Triangle Waveform Output Level.
With the Scope now set to 20V/Div, turn up the output to the maximum level and adjust the top of the waveform to be at 120V by R33.

4. High Voltage Switch Level.
Reduce the Collector output to about 20V and slowly move up to 30V. Use R13 to let the HV relays switch at that level. You probably have to go back and forth a few times. Then confirm the hysteresis of the relays when it switches-off at about 3-5 Volts below the turn on level of 30V p-p.
That's it.

5. Lastly, there is the front panel adjustment for the Collector Volts/Div. Setting
This is something you may need to adjust based on the display (scope) you're using, or the Collector voltage you are currently using, which is why the ELV designers put it on the front panel.

The way I calibrated the Volts/Div of the XY display with the actual Collector voltage went as follows. I connected the X output connector with a BNC cable to one input of my scope. I then used a x10 probe to connect the second scope channel to the E/S and C/D terminals.

WATCH OUT! The ground clip of the probe goes to the C/D terminal and the probe tip to the E/S terminal. If you reverse this, you'll create a short because the BNC cable ground is at the same level as the C/D terminal.

For the X channel output, I selected 2V/Div and for the probe 20V/Div. Adjust the bottom of both waveforms to be at the second graticule line and then adjust the collector voltage to the maximum 120V which should be 6 divisions for the Probe channel. Adjust the front panel X-Cal potmeter to make both wave-forms overlap. The result is that the horizontal display in the XY mode is now representing 10V/Div when the input sensitivity is set at 1V/Div for that channel. Obviously, you can make this adjustment for just about any V/Div setting, use whatever you prefer. The adjustment is very sensitive, so I will probably change the range of the front panel potmeter somewhat.

Revisiting the DSO XY Trace Flickering Challenge
When I first powered-up the unit and used the calibration procedure for the maximum Triangle Waveform output (3), the baseline of the waveform started to go up at about 60V and finally raised to about 22V at the full 120V output. There was also some waveform distortion at high voltages. This baseline effect will distort the XY trace in combination with the Step Generator, because the Triangle Waveform will no longer cover the complete step. I did not realize that earlier, because this was the first time I was working with the maximum Collector voltage of 120V.

The root cause of this effect is that the Voltage control amplifier and series transistor for the Triangle Waveform cannot handle the rather large and fast transitions, or swings. (limited Slew Rate) There really should be no reason for this effect, because the Slew Rate of the Opamp is rated at 13V/uS, and it only goes between -5 and +10V. The TIP 150 has a rising edge speed of 0.18uS, and a falling edge speed of 1.6uS. It must be the whole amplifier that is somehow limited, unfortunately I don't know enough to pin-point the problem or fix the circuit.

Luckily, there are two remedies (work-a rounds) to address this. One simple remedy is to give the amplifier some more time by lowering the repetition rate and you can do that by lowering the waveform frequency. Unfortunately, as I eluded to in the beginning of this post, lowering the frequency starts to conflict with the acquisition rate of the DSO itself.

The display will start to flicker and there are large gaps in the display that move around randomly. The gap is caused by the time for the acquisition system of the scope to analyze the capture buffer and display the scatter plot on the screen before the next buffer will be filled.

Here is what I mean:

Note that I increased the trace brightness by adjusting the WaveIntensity from the default 50% to the full 100%. This screenshot was taken with a 22nF capacitor for C9, resulting in a Triangle Waveform of 220Hz. There is no base line effect, that's fixed, but now we have another problem.

The next remedy is to speed-up the acquisition/display turn-around of the DSO. With the Rigol, you can do that by lowering the used Memory Depth. I had to go to the minimum setting of 7K points to get rid of the acquisition gaps.
There is still a slight flickering of the display, but that is about the same as you would get on a phosphor CRT display, plus, the fuzziness is reduced because there are fewer samples to put in the scattering plot.

Here is the combined result of both changes:

There is still a little gap in the first horizontal step curve. This is the remainder of the "off" time that scope needs to calculate the collected samples and present them on the screen. However, this only shows up on a "printed" picture, which is a snap-shot, and the gap can be located anywhere on the screen. The good news is that you don't see that gap in real life. You only see some slight flickering.

Unfortunately, if you now go back to a normal time-base setting, you have to undo the WaveIntensity and the MemDepth changes, but because I normally don't flip-flop between these modes, this is acceptable to me.

Analyzing the Curve Tracer

After the calibration and the improved scope settings, let's do a verification of what we have so far.

Below is another measurement with a BD138-16 PNP power transistor.
This was again taken with 100uA Base current steps and 40V VCE.

Let's see what we have here.
The X channel (Chan 2 in blue) scope setting says 2.00V/Div, but it is actually measuring 10V/Div. due to the horizontal calibration of 5X.

Because there is a 1 Ohm current shunt in the Collector supply, and the Y Opamp has a 10 X multiplication factor, every mV across the shunt translates to a 10 X value going to the scope. This means that the mV/Div setting should be divided by 10 to get back to the "real" Collector current. To avoid this math, you can set the scope to a 0.1X input Ratio as I did here. The Y channel (Chan 1 in yellow)  now says 20.0mV/Div, which is actually 20mA/Div for the Collector current IC.
With that Volts/Div setting, the first step is at approx. 20mV or 20mA IC. With a Base step current setting of 100uA/Step, the beta would be 20mA/100uA or 200.  The datasheet for this transistor says it should be between 100-250 typical.

From the graph you can easily see that at lower Base step current values, the beta is fairly constant for the Collector voltage range up to 40V, but goes up steeply at higher base currents. This is something you can really only see with a good Curve Tracer.

As an example, my little component tester (below testing the TIP151 fake), which only uses a 5V Collector supply, reports a beta for the same BD138-16 transistor between 161 and 175 and that's it.

The maximum Collecor-Emitter voltage (VCEO) for the BD138 is 60V. This can be verified as well, but you will have to be careful. You can easily damage or even destroy the transistor. First of all, you could lower the Base steps to limit the heat development, and second you need to carefully limit the maximum Collector current by the CL adjustment.

I lowered the Base steps to 20uA/Step and changed the horizontal V/Div to 50mV/Div which represents 30V/Div now. You can see that the base curves go up steeply at about 100V, so we really have a BD140 which is rated at 80V.

Current Limiting
So how does the limiting of the Collector current looks?

This is basically the same picture as before, but now with the Current Limit (CL) in effect. You can see that the top base steps are reduced in number, because they will ask for a Collector current that is now no longer supplied. You can think of this effect as a horizontal line that is lowered by the CL setting, cutting off the excursions in the higher current area.

Two Small Transistors
The usual "go-to" transistors I use for general purpose applications, are the well know 2N3904 NPN and the complimentary 2N3906 PNP transistors.

Here is a screenshot of the 2N3904.

And here is the 2N3906

Both measurements were taken with 50uA/Step and 7 steps. It's easy to see that even though these two are supposed to be complimentary, the beta differences are glaringly obvious. Something to be aware of.

A Power Darlington Transistor
Because of the very high beta, Darlingtons pose a special problem. The Step value needs to be very low, like 1uA, and one of the first steps will already put the transistor in full conduction. Keep en eye on the heat, or keep your fingers on it.

Here is a shot of the DC40C5.

This was taken with 1uA steps and only just 3 of them.

Measuring FET's
Measuring FET's a little different from normal transistors.
Here is a screenshot of a P-Channel LP0701N3.

This is using 200mV per step for the Gate, and 7 steps. You can see that the first step is almost invisible, so 200mV is not enough to turn this FET on. The second step is at 100mV, and that causes the FET to start to conduct. Note the vertical resolution of 50mV/Div.

Here is an N-Channel FET, the BS170

This was taken with 200mV/Step and 7 steps. Note the vertical resolution of 20mV/Div.

Power MOSFET's
Testing Power MOSFET's is tricky, because of the small RDSON. You can quickly let the device conduct a lot of current, so make sure you use the CL function, limit the number of steps or otherwise keep your fingers on the FET to check the temperature. The offset feature is nice, because you can determine exactly when the device starts to turns on.

Here is a screenshot of a P-Channel Power MOSFET, an FQP27P06.

This was taken with 2V/Step and with only 3 steps. I used the offset feature to add a positive offset to just make the MOSFET fully conduct. This is shown by the flattening step line. The RDSON is only 70 milliOhm, hence the flat line.

Looking at the Fake TIP151
The TIP151 is a Darlington transistor, with on chip bias resistors and a protection diode.

Because of the very high beta, you can't really get a normal set of stepped curves.
To test the difference between the real one and the fake ones, I selected only 1 step, and then rotated the step output from the lowest value up to where the transistor started to conduct.

For the real one, this happens at 1mA steps. For all of the 4 fake ones, this already happens at 100uA, a factor ten lower. This means that in the circuit, the fake one was conducting way too early, so the Opamp had probably no way or regulating it. It was fully open and it could not take enough bias current away I think.

I tried to get a steady base step by using the offset, to see the exact turn-on level, but due to the temperature drift, it would drift up too rapidly as soon as the transistor started to conduct.

Some oscillations
In some settings, especially measuring FET's or Darlington transistors with high sensitivity step settings, I saw some oscillations on the step curves. I need to investigate that and see if I can put a damper on them.

Final Pictures
Still with the old front panel.

It's boxed-up for now, but I'm not completely done with my Curve Tracer yet. I now need to spend some more time working with it, to see if there are other issues that show up.

When I will revisit this project, I will post it below so you can see what is happening.
It may take a while, so don't hold your breath! After this project that I've been researching and working on for several months,  I have a couple of other projects eagerly awaiting some of my devoted attention.


PCB in the making!
One of the followers of this project, Mark Allie, has contacted me and is in the process of making a layout for this project. In order to do that he has converted my schematics into a version that allows him to do that. Mark's activities can be followed on his Github site here :

UPDATE Dec 2020: Mark has finished his design, and now has a working version. He has published a lot of information on his Github site.

Here are pictures of the PCB's to wet your appetite. The front-panel board will remove most connection issues that I faced, and will turn my design in to a relatively simple exercise if you want to build one yourself.



I fully endorse and support his activities. As far as I know, there are no decent DIY kits available on the open market anymore, which is why I started this project myself. It's even difficult to find a used commercial version. A pity, because a Curve Tracer is such a great tool for learning about analog devices and it is almost a shame that in this digital age they are almost forgotten.


  1. Hi Paul, great article. I am looking to acquire a curve tracer. If I were to build, I would be copying you. I am not sure I am up for that challenge though and am weighing getting a Heathkit for about $200, or a 5CT1 for about the same price (I have a Textronix 5000 series scope). The Heathkit seems to have better capability, while the Textronix would have better build quality and integration. I am leaning toward the 5CT1. What is your recommendation.

  2. Hi Lars,
    Thank you, I enjoy doing these projects!

    Well, the big question for you is if you want a DIY project or "just" a curve tracer. If you lean towards DIY, you have the possibility of a kit form (Heathkit), or one of the others that are floating around on the internet, including mine. (information in my post at the beginning)

    If however, you "just" want a good curve tracer, I suggest you get the 5CT1N. It has much better quality and more measurement possibilities compared to the Heathkit, and many others, even mine. (as an example, mine has more power, but I don't have leakage measurements implemented)

    Besides, it's analogue, thus has crispy screens and you get more life out of your 5K mainframe.


  3. Thanks for your response Paul. I wasn't aware of the leakage measurement. Just the difference in power. Thanks again.

    I am also interested if you resolved the digital display issues with the Rigol.

  4. Morning Paul!

    A great well written-up project! Having lost out to a ridiculous bid of £205 on a Leader C.T., I'm going to make one!

    Can you tell me what knobs you used please?

    Chris Williams

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  6. Hello my friend

    My name is Serkan Hoten I write from Turkey
    I'm dealing with electronics as an amateur hobby
    I have my Instrustar ISDS205A brand oscilloscope
    unfortunately my money was enough to take it
    no component testing capability unfortunately ( X-Y Mode Curve Tracer )
    I wrote it in electronic forms. but no one didn't help ☹

    I did this circuit, but it didn't work with the Instrustar isds205a oscilloscope!
    I also tried on the Soundcard Scope program again failed
    if you don't mind I would be happy if you help on this Have a good day

  7. Hi Serkan,
    Sorry I can't help you with this topic.

  8. Hey Paul great article. I love your writing style and of course the content. I am seriously considering creating a/some PCBs for your design. Have you made any modifications you would recommend. Any comments on sections to isolate would be helpful/useful. Thanks again.

    Mark Allie

  9. Hi Mark,
    Thank you for the compliments.

    I have not made any modifications this far.
    A PCB would be a great way to let other build this tool, so my only request in using my information is that you make the details (Gerber files) available for others. You can put a link here, and I will add that to my post.

    Having a proper ground plane and better decoupling of the opamps and logic chips would be a great improvement. Designing a PCB for the front panel would eliminate a lot of wiring.

    Keep us posted!

    1. Paul, I would gladly supply gerber files. I would also supply all the original Altium design files and libraries for what ever I can come up with. I agree with you on the front panel and so I will try to come up with something for that. I also agree with your comments on ground plane and decoupling.

      Mark Allie

    2. I too would be interested in a pcb design. Leaving a comment here just in case you do make one and post here. Thanks.

  10. Replies
    1. I usually make my printed circuit boards using surface mount parts when possible. Paul I noticed you said you were considering this but you had through hole stuff laying around so you chose TH. I believe that surface mount is easier to build and modify. Do you want the PCB surface mount or through hole. By the way I am almost finished with my slightly modified version of your Curve Tracer with surface mount. I can easily make your original design surface mount or through hole. You tell me what you want.

      Also I have been simulating your whole design using LTSpice VII. I have looked at your recent power supply post as well. I am not quite sure how the CS- can be triangular shaped. I am probably missing something. I see you have a 3300uF cap between 30V and CS-. I think this would keep the voltage of CS- and 30V at a solid 30V. Am I missing something or is this the case. If the voltage is 30V how do you get a triangular voltage on CS- as you discuss in your post. In the HV switch you talk about the triangle as well as the voltage delivered to the DUT. Where am I going wrong thinking about this?

    2. Never mind about the CS- triangular shape. I figured it out!

      Mark Allie

  11. Hi Mark,
    It does not matter what my preference would be, because it is unlikely that I will rebuild my Curve Tracer again, although I may.
    If I were to do it, it would be surface mount as much as possible.

    Think about creating the triangle wave form as you would a Power Supply. With a PS, you would use a stable reference voltage and amplify that to the desired output voltage. The output voltage will follow the reference voltage. If use use a triangle waveform in place of the voltage reference, the output will now follow the triangle waveform. I hope this help to explain.

    1. Thanks. I do follow your power supply reference.

  12. Paul, I have created schematics in Altium which is the program I use for PCB layout. I have started the layout. I would like to upload the schematic files for publication on your blo if possible. That way if anyone can look at them, if they have that kind of time, they can review the schematics for discrepancies compared to your original schematics. Either way I will continue to lay out the board until I either hear from anyone else or finish it. Please let me know how to get you the pdf versions of the schematics. There are four sheets in all

    Mark Allie

  13. I have created schematics for Paul's Original Curve tracer. I am presently laying out a circuit board based on the schematics. I have put them on GitHub with the following address . I would like to ask anyone who has time to review these schematics for errors. There is a pdf document on the GitHub site which explains the schematics and a few differences there are compared to Paul's schematics posted on this BLOG. If anyone reviews these new schematics and finds something they don't understand or thinks are in error please let me know. my email address is You can of course post things here which everyone will benefit from. I will post more files when the board is completed and also when I successfully build one.

    Mark Allie

  14. I have added Rev1 schematics and PCB layout info for the version of Pauls Curve Tracer that I am building now. There are now 2 boards. A front panel PCB and a main PCB. The schematics and PCB's are in a single zip file on the GitHub page. There is also a 3D version of the PCB's. Not all components are represented in the 3D version. I have also uploaded a Rev1 differences document.

    Mark Allie

    1. Are you selling the boards? Parts? Complete unit?

    2. Mark can you post the PCB build package(s) on GitHub?
      Need Gerbers (Layers) and Drill Data and it would be great if you would place the schematics in native format up there.
      Thanks, your work looks fantastic!

  15. Unknown, look at the post just above from your comment. I don't have a board layout so I can't sell them, but Mark Allie has made a layout.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. This is a report on the PCB design of Paul's curve tracer. I haven't been idle. I built 2 PCB's. A main board and a front panel board. I wired the 2 boards together using connectors and most of the circuitry is working. It might all be working but I don't know that yet because: I blew out some circuitry.

    The triangle generator and the step generator are working, The low voltage power supplies are working. The circuitry on the from panel and main board are working well together. What I didn't test first was the -CS supply circuitry. I was going to supply a low say 25V power supply to -CS to see if this part of the circuit was working. I did apply a 25V signal to -CS. I forgot that I had shorted -CS to GND for testing the other circuitry and blew out 4 IC's. I am about ready to replace them. I'm getting the op-amps tomorrow. If this works then were almost there. I have modified the PCB's to correct little things I found during my testing. Once the final testing is done I will order the modified circuit boards and call it ready for prime time. \

    Sorry it is taking so long. I had to bring everything home from work to continue as we have a work at home edict going on. Any way this is an overdue report on what is going on.

    Mark Allie

  18. Thanks for the update Mark, I was about to ask you how things went. Good luck with the next steps and please keep us informed as I'm sure several are watching your progress.

  19. Any luck on getting yours off the ground, Mark? I was thinking about doing an SMD version as well, but if yours is working that saves some time.

    1. I have made the second rev of circuit boards. They have all the surface mount parts on and a few through hole. The semester is starting now so I have stalled on testing with all through hole parts. Soon though. I will put the design files on the github site I have mentioned above when tested and verified. Sorry for the delay.

    2. It's all good. Paul's version and your's are both awesome projects. I just tend to do surface mount.

  20. Mark,

    Would you mind if I had a go at some PCBs as well?

    I'm thinking of making it using ordinary TH components tho!

    Is there any chance you could upload the PCB Switch Components with a note as to what types your front panel PCB please/

    I'm not after full gerbers or your native design files, if you're not ready to post them yet, as I'd like to try and learn Altium myself, just the Library Component Files (*.olb) so I can try them in my own copy of Altium!

    Kind regards,

    Chris Williams

    1. Chris I have sent you an email to your address directly. For the group it said I will share anything and everything I have in terms of schematics, PCB's and libraries I used in Altium 18.

  21. This is Mark Allie. I have successfully built the next and probably final version of Paul's curve tracer. It is rev 1B and works. I have put all of the files on the github account set up as Pauls curve tracer. The rev1 docs are there and now Rev 1b docs. There are gerber plots, Bills of material, pdf's of schematics and the PCB's. There is also a new version of the document explaining the differences between Paul's original curve tracer and rev 1b. You can contact me at for more details or files etc. Paul suggested a make a blog for this version of the curve tracer project. I may do that if there is any interest.

    1. Hello, want to build with your gerber-files.
      Did you build the HV-supply with 2x40V transformers?

  22. I have added some transistor curve plots to the github files. There are 1uA/Step, 10uA/step and 50uA/Step plots for both NPN and PNP transistors.

  23. I will be publishing my TH design on four simple PCBs, made with "Easy PC" by Number One Systems, based on Paul's basic circuitry but with improved rail-to-rail op-amps as per Mark Allie's design. The Design Files, Gerber Files plus Viewers for the software will be in a folder named "Chapter 144" of my Git Hub Repository, which is actually a very large Test & Measurement Theory & Repair Book Git Hub Repo, writing of the book's Chapter 144 will go along with the PCB designs and all will be posted and a link provided when complete!

    1. Great development Chris!
      Looking forward to see the results.

    2. Great CHris. If I can help in any way let me know. I can review too.


  24. any update on a board set being made available ?

  25. Mark and I are still working to profile his SMD based design. He has everything on his Github (see above) if you want to build that version. I have now put this project back on my list because there seems to be an increasing interest. If more people are interested, I want to make sure it can be build easily and then functions properly. I also plan to do some redesign here and there, and I will update this Blog. If you can, I recommend that you wait a little more before you embark on a build.