Gaining RF Knowledge:

An Analog Engineer Dives Into RF Circuits

Chris Gammell

Analog Life, LLC

Presented at the Hackaday Superconference 2019

Goals for this talk

  • Explain how I entered the world of working with RF
  • Explain it without burying you in math
  • Give you some resources to make your own way

Who are you?

Electronics experience?

RF experience?

Ham radio experience?

You may have more experience I do!

I wanted this talk to help shortcut some of the struggles I had (and have) when I was getting started with the field of RF.

Who am I?

Chris Gammell

  • 15 years of electronics design. 
  • Have worked in a couple industries
    • Semiconductor
    • Test and measurement
    • Industrial controls
    • Component sourcing
  • Co-host of The Amp Hour electronics podcast (
  • Teaching people electronic design online for the past 5 years as part of Contextual Electronics

Started by working on these

10 PLC = 6 readings per second

Not exactly blazing speed

Higher speed stuff like digital was always there as well, but usually nothing very high speed either (<100 MHz)

So what changed?

RF is everywhere

Every product, that is

RF is everywhere AND in every product

I'm currently designing a product that has 5 antennas on it!

And it's cheap

I assume we have similar goals

You’re interested in making things

You're excited about cheap connected (RF) hardware

And you wonder about how to actually integrate it.

How I got started

I copied the app note

This is actually pretty common

I'd guess at least 80% of most PCB designs are re-implemented app notes

Followed other guidelines in Mike Ossmann's "5 Rules of RF design"

(delivered at Supercon 2015)

My first RF Design

It worked!



  • The modem and the antenna were pre-matched
  • I minimized my interaction with it (kept the RF trace short)
  • Because I didn't need to take it to production

Can we do this all the time?


It depends on your design goals

If you have a completely uncharacterized antenna and source, you are going to have to work a lot harder.

The complexity and level of integration of your circuit will also have a large impact on the likelihood of success.

Reasons I wanted to learn more about RF


What happens when things go wrong on the bench?

FCC / CE compliance testing

What happens when things go wrong at the $10K/day test lab?

Being a good RF citizen

Your signals might interfere with someone else's signals and that's not nice.

RF concepts that are tricky

Especially for beginners

We're dealing with things in the frequency domain.

When someone talks about "the spectrum" of a signal

They are asking about the frequency content contained within a signal that exists in the real world.

Waterfall Plots

Components act differently based on frequency

  • Block frequencies from "passing through" at low frequencies.
  • Allow frequencies to "pass through" at high frequencies
  • Where this transition happens depends on the capacitance of the component.


  • Allow frequencies to "pass through" at low frequencies.
  •  Block frequencies from "passing through" at high frequencies
  • Where this transition happens depends on the inductance of the component.


All components have some aspect of inductance and capacitance

Thinking Logarithmically

Logarithmic scales



You're going to see units like "dB", or "dBm" which an easy way to refer to things that change in value by orders of magnitude


As an added bonus: Gains add together


It's all about the power


Most RF circuits deal in power, not in just voltage or current

Analyzing RF subsystems is often about minimizing the degredation of the signal through the system


This is referred to as the "link budget"

What does the RF path look like?

Image courtesy of

We need to ensure all other parts of the system introduce minimal degradation and noise

If a link budget is 100 dB, that means the received signal is 1/10,000,000th as much power as the transmitted signal

Impedance matching ensures we don't introduce signal degradation

Maximum power transfer happens when a source and a load are perfectly matched

A counter example:


What happens when there is a source (like an ESP32) and an antenna (like a PCB antenna) that are not perfectly matched?

Unmatched source and load

  • You won't transmit as far as you thought

  • Your system will be less efficient

    • Energy is "bounced back" and is usually lost to heat or radiated emissions (bad)

  • It may not work at all

  • You might damage your output driver section

What is impedance though?


Impedance refers to how a device passes or blocks electromagnetic energy at various frequencies. 

Why do we need to do matching at all?

Isn't the antenna designed to work at 50 ohms?

  • The world is imperfect!
  • Environmental conditions can affect it, including things like the enclosure or thing surrounding the antenna

  • Antenna manufacturing variations means you might have different specs than stated


Pi network

"Match a 1000-Ω source to a 100-Ω load at frequency (f) of 50 MHz. You desire a bandwidth (BW) of 6 MHz."

Pi network

Measurement Tools

(and their measurements)

Spectrum Analyzer

Spectrum Analyzer

Spectrum Analyzer

  • Allows you to see a snapshot of the spectral content
  • Taken over time, you can view the "waterfall" plot
  • See all spectral content of the signal, including spurious noise and other potential sources of error

Spectrum Analyzer









Smith chart

This is actually a measurement tool, which plots various measurements

Smith Chart

Image courtesy


  • S11 - Return loss
  • S21 - Insertion loss
  • S12 - Power transfer from P1 -> P2
  • S22 - Reflected power P2 -> P1

Return loss (S11)


Also known as "reflection coefficient"

Return Loss



  • This stands for the "Voltage standing wave ratio"
  • Measures how well the antenna is impedance matched to the source that is radiating RF energy.
  • It is measuring the matched characteristics, not that it necessarily transmits the signal being pumped in.
  • VSWR defined by the equation below, including gamma (Γ), which isd the S11 parameter shown earlier

Image courtesy

Cal Kit

Cal Kit

Theory + Practice via

Hands-on testing

Cutting an antenna

Testing with a VNA

Helped to get a feel for VNA Measurements

  • Where was the resonant frequency and which frequencies will it transmit well? (SWR and Insertion Loss)
  • How well matched was the antenna at my target frequency? (Smith Chart)

Getting a feel for good and bad antenna designs

  • Good: Off the shelf antennas
  • Bad: Just about anything I designed by myself

Understanding other constraints for VNAs

  • Connectors
  • Cables
  • Calibration

What "DC" assumptions fall apart at higher frequencies?

  • A wire is just a wire

  • PCBs construction isn't as important as the components placed on that PCB

  • A capacitor is there for charge storage

  • Current can be isolated by ground cuts

  • Current follows the path of least resistance

"A wire is just a wire"

Actually every wire is an inductor

What does this mean for our circuit?

Simple example:

Past 10 MHz, breadboard signal quality falls off

Image courtesy

"PCBs construction isn't as important as the components placed on that PCB"

4 Layer Stackup

The PCB stackup impacts every piece of your signal pathways, including the impedance/inductance/capacitance of each stripline.

More complex PCB example:

In the GHz range, the small inductance of a PCB trace can have outsized effects on your signal

  • Track width: 0.1 mm (3.94 mil)
  • Track length: 50 mm (1.97 in)
  • Height above GND: 0.2 mm (7.87 mil)
  • Track inductance:  63.2 nH
  • Impedance @ 2.4GHz: 953 ohm

Ground plane should always be the layer below where your signal is running

Understanding your stackup is critical for treating your PCB as part of your circuit

"A capacitor is there for charge storage"

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of iFuture Technology

"Current can be isolated by ground cuts"

Noise reduction techniques in low level analog involves cutting the ground plane to stop noise from "leaking" over

At low frequencies, the cutout means that the signals won't "get around" the cut, effectively shielding the isolated areas

High speed signals will treat this area as a capacitor and effectively "travel through" to the other side.

They often radiate energy while doing so. This is how we make PCB antennas (!)

"Current follows the path of least resistance"

The signal actually cares about the path of least impedance.

At DC, this is the path of least resistance.

In higher speed signals, the impedance takes on more complex terms and the inductance starts to matter more.

The magnetic fields between two signals flowing in opposite directions cancel out

This means the inductance will be lowest directly below the signal path and the signal will preferentially flow black on the ground plane

What about Bluetooth, Cellular, Wifi, LoRa, _______, etc, etc?

All of these communication methods are different versions of the same fundamentals

(and most are really brand names)

  • Bluetooth - 2.4 GHz
  • WiFi - 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
  • LoRa, SigFox
    • 433 MHz (Global)
    • 915 MHz (US)
    • 868 MHz (Europe)
  • GSM Cellular
    • 900, 1800 MHz (Europe, Asia)
    • 850, 1900 MHz (US)
  • 3G, LTE, 5G
    • Various frequencies (see:



  • "A Practical Guide To RF And Mixed Signal Printed Circuit Board Layout" -  Brendon Parise and Scott Nance[1] 

  • "RF Circuit Design" - Christopher Bowick [2]
  • "Planar Microwave Engineering" - Thomas Lee [3]





Development kits/programs

  • RTL-SDR + GNU Radio
  • GSG HackRF
  • ADI Pluto

Learning is critical to my job as a consultant

I want to learn things quickly so I can apply them for clients

I'd love to talk to people about:

  • RF testing

  • Connectivity options

  • Low cost microcontrollers

  • AWS IOT implementations

Thank you!


Twitter: @Chris_Gammell


Many thanks to Jeff Keyzer (@mightyohm) and Derek Kozel (@derekkozel) for reviewing this presentation

Gaining RF Knowledge: An Analog Engineer Dives into RF Circuits

By Chris Gammell

Gaining RF Knowledge: An Analog Engineer Dives into RF Circuits

Hackaday Superconference 2019

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