The Fredbox

I first heard about The G3XBM Fredbox transceiver via Solder Smoke. As soon as I saw it I just had to give it a go. It is a very simple and elegant design. Of course it offers no bells or whistles, just a fixed TX and RX frequency, and a flea-power output on TX, but it has a special charm in its simplicity and the retro usage of AM on VHF.


I built the transmitter side first. BF199s were selected as a good candidate for the RF devices, but I lacked a crystal in the range specified in the original article. Instead, I used a common 16.384 MHz crystal and redesigned the circuit to be two triplers rather than two doublers. This crystal is a common "computer" crystal, but places the TX frequency in the high-end simplex segment. This is a bit too close to the pager-splattered end of the band for my liking, and doesn't match the band-plans. For now this is OK, I'll get a custom crystal cut eventually.

I didn't use shielded cans or variable inductors for the transmit coils (as specified by the article), rather I used fixed inductances wound on T37-6 toroid cores with bare 0.71 mm tinned copper wire. My LC resonance calculator and nH inductance meter were enormously helpful in making the selection and testing of the tripler and output stage resonators. Each stage was tuned with trimmer capacitors.

It was amazingly easy to get the TX-side working, I just built each stage from the crystal to the final amp in turn, testing as I went. Each stage is well behaved and peaks nicely.

Peter VK2TPM could hear the signal at his QTH several kilometres away when I connected the half-finished TX board into my flower-pot antenna. The DC input power was about 23 mW, and no special attempt was made to match the output into the load, in fact the series trimmer in the matching network was absent at this point, just a fixed 12 pF capacitor was used for DC blocking.

The Fredbox TX

Upon finishing the TX circuit I did experience a bit of RF pick-up in the microphone amplifier 2nd stage. A 1 nF capacitor to ground discouraged its RF gain and eliminated the problem. The 2nd AF amp stage is located immediately adjacent the crystal oscillator stage and was picking up RF directly. The effect was not audible, but was visible on the spectrum analyser as weak 16.384 MHz sidebands either side of the carrier. This wasn't causing feedback, just high-frequency modulation of the signal. If nothing else it proved the bandwidth of the modulator, which is perhaps a surprise considering the 100 nF decoupling on the modulated rail, however the output impedance of the series modulator emitter is so low it could deliver a few tens of mVs of HF ripple into that kind of load.


As easy as the Transmitter was, the Receiver was hard. It fought me every inch of the way. I spent an entire day trying to work out why it was simply not super regenerating from about 130-160 MHz. It turned out to be a 10 nF decoupling capacitor on the cold-end of the detector resonator. The article specified 1 nF, and I originally intended to use this value, but I had a strip of 10 nF mono's on the bench, so I used them. At build time I did consider why 1 nF was specified in the first place, I figured it was avoid the exact problem that would befall my unit, decoupling resonance. (Lesson #1: Trust the original builder and your initial instinct.) When the unit wouldn't oscillate properly I assumed that I had damaged the capacitor on install - this is a pretty common fault, so I tested it in-place by ensuring it would shunt a HF signal (my standard decoupling cap test), it passed this test just fine. (Lesson #2: Test at the frequency of operation.)

My hubris about "modern components" being superior and likely "purely capacitive" at VHF turned out to be completely wrong. It took *hours* to work it out, but eventually I determined the entire decoupling network was resonant near the operating frequency. Much foul language later and I replaced the cap with a ceramic 1 nF, with its "flashing" broken off and scraped right back to the disc to minimise the lead length. This cured the problem.

For the longest time I had assumed it was the source coil - and in fact the first source RFC I used (a molded choke) was being operated above its self-resonant frequency and prevented any oscillation at all. I replaced it with a few turns on a ferrite bead which seems just fine now.

A couple of other minor annoyances/mistakes were worked through (like picking larger inductances and making the entire circuit so sensitive to stray capacitance it was a nightmare to tune - DUH!).

RX Board

Eventually the unit super-regenerated right through the region of interest and the LNA stage was constructed. Initially I put the LNA drain coil too close to the detector coil and they over-coupled. This meant as I tuned through resonance on the LNA drain it would pull the detector so much it would shut down. Bugger! Moving the coils apart a little reduced this effect to acceptable levels, but the core of one still effects the other a little. I'm happy with the current coupling, and it is actually useful to help tuning the LNA resonator. As you rock it through resonance it will pull the detector, and by observing the wiggle on the spectrum analyser you can tell you've got it tuned up. The AGC action of the detector makes it hard to tune for maximum smoke otherwise, as the AF output doesn't change much at all even when the front-end isn't tuned up properly. Once you've got it nearly right you can use a weak signal to tune for best signal to noise.

Spectrogram of Super-Regeneration

Note the pagers above the 2 metre band in this spectrogram. The hump in the noise floor is the receiver super-regeneration side bands. The smaller peak in between is the output of the Fredbox transmitter, the leakage from the unshielded prototype on my desk operating into a 47 Ohm load. It is rather disturbing that the pager signals are *larger* than this local signal just a foot or two from the spectrum analyser antenna.

Fredbox RX Under Test

I used J310s for the receiver FETs, and a 2N3904 for the audio amp. Although the main design requirement for Roger appears to have been flea-power, I think a better AF amplifier that can drive modern low-impedance headphones would be preferable. Only Jaycar now carries crystal earphones with a nice soft silicone ear piece. The one I used comes from DSE and it is hard-plastic - not very nice on the ear. I really hate these kind of earphones anyway, I'll probably be rebuilding it for a low-Z output at some point, but it does work pretty well as-is.

BTW: While I was in the "Special Hell" of decoupling resonance I took the RX down to the FM broadcast band, and up to the VHF-hi TV band. It works wonderfully in both, which isn't a surprise. However, by adjusting the drain-source feedback (then a trimmer, now fixed) I could drop back into regeneration and control the Q of the tuned circuit with some precision. It behaved not unlike my copy of Francis Hall's regen on the FM band. The topology is more forgiving however, allowing grounding of the tuning cap. I also built several different oscillator topologies in desperation before I identified the decoupling fault, in one I got a Colpitts-like oscillator working with emitter coupled feedback to a tapped capacitor across the tank. This is something I should have thought about a *long* time ago, I'll probably build yet another FM broadcast regen using this topology for the detector, it seemed quite easy to control just by manipulation of the base voltage.

Boxing It Up

I am still tossing up between a cast Aluminium box, a custom box folded out of Aluminium sheet, or an Altoids tin. The circuit is small enough to just fit inside an Altoids tin but it probably won't fit with a battery. I'll pick up a centre-off momentary-one-side switch over the next week and finish off the radio one way or the other.

Finished TX and RX Boards

Note the use of an old telephone receiver as the microphone. It is nearly as large as the entire TX board. I'll have to find my electret mics, I know I have a bag of them somewhere that I got from a Rockby sale.

I'm strongly considering rebuilding the radio, perhaps through-the-hole to minimise its size. Although my prototype isn't too large as-is, it would be nice to neaten it up. Maybe I'll build it with fixed caps and variable inductors to save space too, although shielded cans are about the same size. It *might* be possible to tune the multiplier stages with stretched coils and fixed caps, this would make it much more compact and save money too if it ends up being kitted...

More TX Power

I am considering running the unit on 12 Volts to get a bit more RF out, and perhaps building in a small amplifier to get it up to 1 Watt region. This would probably involve a rebuild of the TX side to use a 2N4427 or similar final device, and a more robust series modulator transistor. This won't be efficient, but is probably easier to get going than a linear amp which would need careful drive adjustment.

I'll probably conduct some experiments around using a 2N7000 or VN10KM as the output device. The math suggests they may operate on 2 metres. I've already got them working on 6 metres in a brief experiment last month (must document that).


Working with VHF is fun! I find it a great learning experience, especially when you get problems like the resonant decoupling cap. That kind of thing really pushes your understanding of the physics and teaches you a lot.

I know a lot of HAMs won't touch anything above the bandwidth of their oscilloscopes. I can understand the frustration when something doesn't work, especially when you can't see why, but it really isn't that much worse at VHF. With just a diode probe you can achieve a lot. It does help enormously if you have VHF test equipment, for example I likely would have never noticed the HF modulation problem had I not had a spectrum analyser (although the HF was visible on the collector of the modulator drive amp, and most of us have a CRO that can see fine near 16 MHz).

A wavemeter can be helpful, if a bit retro, especially for making sure your multipliers are tuned up right and for looking for spurs. You can build one quite easily, it only needs to be a resonator with a detector and a LED or meter as a read-out. I'm a big fan of the biased 1N5711 through the decoupled bottom of the tank coil topology. For super-sensitivity you can use a MPSA18 as a DC amplifier. With a signal generator or dipper and a counter or scanner/receiver you can easily calibrate it. It can be used like a poor-man's spectrum analyser. On that note, a simple spectrum analyser isn't too hard to build either...

My only advice when you get stuck is to trust the physics, do the math and follow your instinct when nothing is making sense. Rebuild parts of the circuit and test them independently. Measure what is actually happening and try to figure out what kind of misbehaviour in the circuit would cause the observed of behaviour. That will often solve an otherwise intractable problem.

Update 2007-06-05

I took the Fredbox boards to the local Homebrew Group meeting. I had both halves hooked up and talking across the room. Peter VK2TPM had brought along a digital audio recorder and did an interview with many of us in attendance. You can hear what I said about The Fredbox on Soldersmoke 62, and even a brief snippet of audio going through The Fredbox.

Packed Ready for the Maccas Meet

Also on the recording are Peter VK2EMU talking about the 80 meter challenge, John VK2ASU talking about his transmitter modules for the challenge (and an interesting diversion into IRF510 gate-modulation with some input from Brian VK2TOX - something I was thinking about back here, apparently Drew Diamond VK3XU has already produced a design doing just this). Mike VK2BMR also talks about his great VSWR/power meter project. His unit was absolutely beautiful, I was very much taken by the excellent job he did of cutting the PCB stock that made up the external directional coupler box, essentially flawless, perfectly square workmanship.

Update 2007-06-09

I've built a weak-signal source for aligning the receiver. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Fredbox receiver is that it drifts in frequency quite significantly with Vcc variations. Powered by a 9 Volt battery near the end of its life, it may drift enough to make the receiver completely off-frequency despite its poor selectivity. If I build this circuit again I'll probably put in a stabilized supply for the detector stage to avoid this problem.

Weak RX Alignment Source

The signal source is a Pierce oscillator driving a tuned circuit which selects the VHF harmonic of interest. Because of the oscillator topology the crystal isn't pulled down as much as in the Fredbox circuit. The difference is fairly minor for my purposes, the poor selectivity of the receiver makes the difference in frequency of no real consequence. There is no active (or passive) multiplier, so the tuned circuit is merely extracting the harmonic energy from the oscillator. The harmonic energy available is very small, which is perfect for the application, giving an almost undetectable signal 1 metre away.

Update 2007-06-10

I've boxed up the Fredbox. As discussed earlier I went with the Altoids tin, despite this not allowing the battery to also fit inside the enclosure. I tossed up soldering an additional tin to the back to hold the batteries, but for now I've gone with the 9-volt battery snap just hanging out. It will work well with 6xAA battery holders which can just be held to the box with a rubber band.

The Fredbox, Boxed at last

For the RF connector I chose an RCA. I can hear all the VHF engineers cringing, but for the purposes of this prototype it works just fine. The Antenna is a half-wave of wire helical which is quarter-wave resonant (with some pruning). The former is a piece of centre conductor and insulator from RG-213 coax. The centre conductor was left in place and is soldered into the RCA plug centre conductor, adding some capacitive loading and shortening the length of wire needed for resonance. I have no idea if this is good or bad, but it works.

Inside the Tin

I didn't find my stash of electret microphones, so I ended up just soldering the telephone receiver into the top of the Altoids tin. Ugly as hell, but also kinda unique. It looks somewhat like those Vietnam-war era VHF-low walkie-talkies.

I couldn't find a momentary-one-side toggle switch, so a centre-off on-both-sides switch was used instead. A special dummy load/diode peak-voltage probe was assembled for the final alignment. The carrier power ended up being near 25 mW on 12 Volts, on 9 Volts 10 mW just like Roger says in the article.

Dummy Load/Power Probe

Update 2007-06-11

The 2N7000 on 2 metres experiment was a failure, it simply doesn't produce useful power beyond 90 MHz or so. However, it is very usable below 70 MHz. My input network was far from optimal, so perhaps with some more work it would be possible to get it working higher up, and I haven't tried an VN10KM in the same circuit.

2N7000 Experiment

I've also been fiddling around with grounded-base class-C multipliers. (Not just decoupled, biased base, the base actually soldered directly to the ground plane.) At first this seems a little weird, but if you pull the emitter low with a link-coupling to the previous stage collector current will flow. The advantage is excellent reverse isolation, which might help with stability with less than ideal layouts and devices. Such a topology was apparently quite common years ago with the 2N918.

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