Category Archives: Hardware

Timing and jitter in DMX512 signals

My previous post on building an Art-Net to DMX interface using an ESP8266 seems to be getting a lot of attention. However, from the comments it is clear that a lot of people that build it themselves have difficulties to get it to work, or don’t get it to work at all. This post investigates this in more detail.

We have not been using these interfaces in our performances for quite some time, and started wondering whether there is something wrong my firmware. My implementation goes back to April 2017. Over the course of time there have been some updates to my code. Furthermore, the Arduino IDE has been updated, as well as the ESP8266 core for Arduino.

Recently I received all three interfaces back that I had built for my 1+1=3 collaborators and decided to update the firmware and to test them. One of them did not work at all due to a broken connection between the power supply and the Wemos D1 mini; two of them started just fine. After fixing the broken wire and updating the firmware on all three of them; they started up just fine, showing the green light (indicating a connection to the WiFi network) and on the monitor page of the web interface I cold see that Art-Net packets were being received. However, with my DMX controlled light it did not work at all.

Testing and initial diagnosis

Using an Enttec Open DMX interface and the very nice JV Lightning DmxControl software (which supports both Art-Net and the Enttec Open DMX), I set out to debug the issue. Since DMX is all about timing, I connected my DS203 mini oscilloscope to pin 2 and 3 of the DMX connector.

I found detailed schematic information about the timing of the DMX protocol on this page. Searching for oscilloscope images of DMX signals, I also found this page with information.

Comparing the output voltage with the DMX512 schematics, it became clear that something was wrong in the signal. To make it easier to see the full signal on the oscilloscope, I configured only three DMX output channels, all set to zero. The oscilloscope shows 5 similar blocks; changing the value for DMX channel 1, I see that the 3rd block changes – that is apparently the first channel. Prior to that should be a “start code” with value 0, so the last 4 blocks make sense. But the first block is too short; there is also a very short pulse all the way at the start which does not match the specification.

Output voltage with the initial firmware:

By connecting the Enttec Open DMX to my DMX controlled light, I could confirm that the combination works and that the DMX interface to my light is not broken. Connecting the Enttec Open DMX to the oscilloscope, I see that it has a much longer 1st block which is the “space for break” (labeled 1 according to this), and slightly different 2nd block which is the slot with the “start code”. Following is a whole series of blocks/slots corresponding to the DMX channels. In this case I cannot limit the number of DMX channels, so the series contains a full universe of 512 channels, each of them set to zero. Changing the values of the first few channels in Lighting DmxControl, I can see the corresponding change in the signal on the oscilloscope.

Since a static photo of the oscilloscope screen does not show that there is quite some jitter, especially in the first part of the signal, I uploaded a short video recording of the Enttec Open DXM signal.

Output voltage of the Enttec Open DMX:

As the initial “break” signal was apparently not correctly implemented in my firmware, I changed the code to use the low-level implementation of the break that was contributed here. Using 3 DMX channels again, this results in a good DMX signal.

Output voltage with the firmware, using the low-level break:

I investigated the problem with the original code, which consists of switching to a slower baud rate, sending a single byte as the break signal, and switching back to the original baud rate of 250000. Given that the “break” appears just as long as the other bytes, the switching of the serial port speed apparently fails. On the Arduino forum I found a post that suggested to flush the serial port prior to and after changing the speed; I implemented this and now the break signal looks fine again.

I think that the reason that it broke is due to updates in the Arduino version that I am using, and/or updates to the ESP8266 Arduino core. I guess I must have been lucky with my buggy initial implementation; this may explain why it failed for some people and worked for others.

Output voltage with the firmware, using the slow serial break:

DMX512 universe size

Connecting my Art-Net to DMX512 adapter with updated firmware to the DMX controlled light initially did not work; increasing the size of the DMX universe that is is passed on by my Art-Net to DMX512 adapter solved this. After some trial and error it turned out that – although I had configured the DMX light for three channels (R, G, B) – it would not work if it would receive less than 8 channels. I suppose this is because the light has a 3, 4, and 8-channel DMX mode, and that 8 channels is apparently the minimum for DMX input to be properly handled.

Comparing the timing of the three systems

Looking back at the videos, I see that the timing of the Enttec Open DXM controller is the worst, especially in the space for break and the mark after break (MAB). This is actually a known characteristic of the Open DMX, since timing is controlled by the serial (USB) port of the computer rather than by a dedicated microprocessor; that is also the reason why it is not recommended for serious applications.

My own EXP8266 firmware with the low-level code for the break shows less jitter for the break. Using the “slow serial byte” the jitter is totally gone for the break itself, but there is still some jitter in the duration of the MAB.

Regardless of the jitter, all three are working fine with my DMX controlled light! Having seen the timing of the signals in detail, I am also more confident that they should work with other DMX equipment. One thing I noticed however and don’t have a solution for right now, is that the differential voltage of the Max485 modules that I am using is considerably lower at ~3.5V than that of the Enttec at nearly 8V.


To summarize, I was glad to have the Enttec Open DMX USB adapter for testing, and especially for having the DS203. If you are doing electronics like this, I can really recommend to get an oscilloscope!

Besides testing with the Lightning DmxController software, I was also able to confirm that it all works smoothly again with ourĀ EEGsynth, using a patch consisting of the redis, inputcontrol and outputartnet modules.

Touch-proof enclosure for OpenBCI

The OpenBCI Cyton and Ganglion boards are open hardware and maker-friendly biosensing systems. Although there are alternatives, such as Bitalino and OpenEEG and some companies and/or projects are currently working on new hardware (see e.g., the OpenBCI boards are in my opinion at this moment still the best.

The maker-friendlyness of the OpenBCI boards is somehow also a disadvantage: the OpenBCI systems come as bare PCB boards with a Dupont-style header. OpenBCI (the company) focusses on using it in combination with dry electrodes mounted in a 3D printed headset. I personally don’t value dry electrodes that much; I don’t see the problem with a little bit of gel in the participants hair, and I don’t like the pressure needed on dry electrodes to provide a decent signal. Electrodes with gel or Ten20 paste usually provide better and more robust signal quality. However, it depends on the situation: dry (or saline, like the Emotiv Epoc) electrodes are great if you quickly want to swap the EEG system from one participant to the other.

For the 1+1=3 performances using the EEGsynth setup, we not only use EEG recorded from the scalp, but also EMG recorded from muscle and ECG recordings from the heart. The standard in research and clinical applications is to use touch-proof connectors, technically known as DIN 42802 connectors. These are available in many versions, such as cup electrodes for EEG and snap electrodes for EGC and EMG.

The Dupont-style headers are ubiquitous in the Arduino scene, therefore I previously designed an 8-channel head-mounted system based on a sweat band with the amplifier mounted at the back. It is comfortable and works quite well during performances, but it is still a bit fragile, especially when replacing the battery (see below). Furthermore, after prolonged use the gold-plating of the electrodes wears off, and replacing the electrodes is a hassle. The advantage of touch-proof connector is that it is much easier to switch between different types (cup versus stick-on) and to replace worn-out electrodes. I guess this is also one of the motivations for OpenBCI also selling a Touch Proof Electrode Adapter. Connecting the adapter to the correct pins of the 11×2 header is not trivial, and results in a relatively fragile and bulky setup, i.e. not ideal in demonstrations/performances where I want stuff to be robust.

Another issue that I have with the OpenBCI boards is that they use a two-pin JST connector to connect the LiPo battery to the board. These JST connectors are not designed for frequent connect/disconnect cycles. To disconnect the battery for recharging, you have to pull the cable and I have accidentally pulled off the header from the cable more than once…

Based on these experiences I decided to make an enclosure for the OpenBCI boards that is robust in performance/demonstration settings, that uses touch-proof connectors so that it can be used with EEG/EMG/ECG equally well, that is compatible both with the Cyton and Ganglion, and that includes an easy to charge LiPo battery.

The 8-channel Cyton board exposes a lot of the flexibility of the ADS1299 analog frontend like common reference versus bipolar, and normal ground versus active bias, but I typically use it with a common reference and the normal ground. Consequently it needs 10 connectors (8x active, REF, GND). The Ganglion board has 4 channels and can be configured with jumpers for either unipolar and bipolar reference schemes. It hence needs 6 (4x active + common REF + GND) electrode connectors, or 9 (4x active + 4x bipolar REF + GND) electrode connectors. An enclosure design with 10 connectors (4x active, 4x bipolar REF, 1x common REF and 1x GND) therefore supports both reference schemes for the Ganglion.

The external dimensions of the enclosure are 100x100x30 mm. The height is needed for the 10 connectors, but also has the advantage that it should be possible to mount a WiFi shield on top of the board.

The internals of the enclosure are shown here. At the top you see a 850 mAh LiPo battery, connected to a LiPo charger/protector module with micro-USB connector. The on/off switch is this one and the LED is 5 mm diameter. I used a RGB LED, since that was the only that I had available, but I am only using a single color (green) connected through 470 Ohm resistor to the on/off switch. Both the OpenBCI board inside and the lid are secured with 2.5 mm screws. I purchased the touch-proof connectors from Medcat; these are actually the most expensive component of the enclosure.

Here you can see it with the OpenBCI board mounted, but still without the leads between the OpenBCI header and the touch-proof connectors.

The 3D design for the enclosure can be downloaded in STL format or as Fusion 360 project from ThingiVerse.

PCB etching with HCl and H2O2

As my electronics designs are getting more complex and my patience for soldering air-wires for all connections on a perfboard is decreasing, I started looking into making my own PCBs. Although there are professional PCB fabrication companies that are not very expensive, I am not so confident yet with my Eagle PCB design skills. Hence I decided to start fabricating some simple PCB boards myself to get a better insight in all aspects relevant for PCB boards.

Reading about the different options for etching PCBs, and following a instruction evening organized at the Hackerspace Nijmegen on using a small CNC mill for PCB fabrication, I opted for toner transfer using a laser printer and using HCl and H2O2 as described here.

My first attempt was with 10% HCl from the local hardware store (dat zeg ik, Gamma!) and 3% peroxide from the drugstore. Directly following mixing, etching went OK-ish, but rather slow. It took some 10 minutes for the 1-sided PCB board to be clean. The etchant turned into a nice green color. The second time (a month later) the etchant would not really work any more, and th ePCB only got dark. Rejuvenating the solution with some additional H2O2 as per instruction did not change anything. I guess the concentrations were too low, and after a few hours I abandoned the attempt and took the board out.

For the second attempt I ordered 30% Hcl and 10% peroxide in an online store. Using my old etchant solution, I diluted the H2O2 to approximately 3% and mixed that with the HCl in a 2:1 ratio (adding the acid to the HO2O, to prevent a strong exothermic reaction). I popped in my board (from the previous attempt, which had gotten quite dark). The result was a very nice etching process. The process was clearly visible and there were no bubbles.

You can see that half of the copper of the PCB board has been etched away

The result of the etching is quite nice.

Resulting PCB board. It is about 2×3 cm large and will contain a 6 pin DIP optocoupler with some resistors and a diode to implement a MIDI filter.

I am happy with the result of the etching. The ill-defined traces on the board are due to poor toner transfer; I had to make some corrections with a permanent marker (fine liner) on the board. Measuring the connection between all pads revealed that there was one short-circuit (on the left side of the board). I was able to remove that with an x-acto knife.

The next time I will design the traces in Eagle to be slightly wider and to have more space between them. In the Eagle design rules I used a 6 mil minimum trace width (the default), and a 12 mil clearance. And I have to practice more with the toner transfer… to be continued.