Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (October 2013)

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

By Bryan Bergeron

The trouble is — without external nudging — I tend to stay in my comfort zone at the expense of learning something new. With neuromuscular training, if you don’t mix it up, you won’t grow.

It’s the same with technology. After I’ve spent months or years with a given microprocessor, I can usually do what needs to be done — even if it requires a few tricks here and there. Why invest the energy learning something new? In my case, it’s simple. I need to keep up with the latest wave of microcontrollers, sensors, and other devices to do my job as editor.

It turns out that getting out of my comfort zone inevitably introduces me to techniques that I can bring back to my favorite microcontroller or analog chip set.

What about you? Lacking external pressure to leave your comfort zone puts the motivation completely in your own hands. If you’re proficient at cranking out circuits with discrete logic chips, why bother learning to program the PIC or a Raspberry Pi? Conversely, if you’re a wiz at the Arduino, why bother with stand-alone A/D converter chips and high performance analog chips?

Well, I’m confident that you’ll likely learn something worthwhile as you grope around uncharted technology landscapes.

Continuing with the example of an onboard A/D converter in microcontrollers, let’s say you want to create an effects filter for a microphone or instrument pick-up. You could simply feed the audio signal to the A/D port of an Arduino. Once you’ve captured the signal, you could devise any number of digital filters to enhance or distort the signal before sending it out to an audio amp.

Of course, your filter design would be limited by the processing power and memory of the microcontroller. You might waste much of your microcontroller’s filter capabilities by creating the equivalent of a low-pass filter — something easily and inexpensively done in the analog world with a capacitor and resistor.

Or, if you’re after a distortion sound effect, you could do most of the work with a diode and resistor on the input of the A/D converter. 

There’s also the issue of noise. Laying out a microcontroller board doesn’t take much forethought if you’re making a blinking LED controller. There’s input and output and power. Most often, experimenters with limited analog experience pay little attention to how the signals get where they’re supposed to go.

However, if your expertise includes analog audio circuits, you know that signal routing is critical to minimize noise pickup — whether from the 60-cycle power mains, a poorly regulated power supply, or from capacitive coupling of the signal output to the input.

Someone versed in analog audio circuit design will consider adding a ground plane in the form of, for example, a third layer in a printed circuit board to keep input and output coupling to a minimum, and ample use of bypass capacitors on the microcontroller power input leads and analog components. They might also consider using a pre-amp and dedicated high resolution/low noise A/D converter chips instead of the relatively modest A/D circuitry in the microcontroller.

So, from a practical perspective, how do you get out of your technological comfort zone? One way is to scan through this issue of Nuts & Volts and try your hand at a project that you’d typically skip because it’s not in your area of expertise.

The best way, of course, is to team up with someone who is both comfortable in his or her technological area and uncomfortable in yours. You’ll both expand your comfort zones and, as a bonus, get a bit of practice mentoring — a great skill to develop. NV