Tag Archives: microwave receiver

Micro-Tel MSR-902C Receiver: root cause analysis, and a volt meter

Finally, some time to deal with the MSR-902C repairs. After replacing the 7401 TTL, and a 7404 TTL, the band select logic seems to work well, except two bands. This could be traced to a dead transistor on the A3A5 band control board. Still a mystery, what caused all these defects? Tracing the line going to the dead transistor (which appears to be a simple +15 V on/off switch), it only goes to one place – a circuit far inside the receiver. As it turns out, this is a hand-wired circuit, not really a circuit board, but a piece of sheet metal with various solder posts. And, on the other side, two filter. One filter mounted properly, the other tied to it with some thread. As you can see, this holds the filter in place, but it can still move around the other filter – and cause a short on the 15 V rail, including the signal coming from the transistor switch.



To avoid similar defects in the future, I put some plastic sheet around the filter, and fixed it in place with better ties.

Finally, time for some alignment of the YIG filter, by using a fairly complex setup, a microwave signal generator, a scope to test the receiver output, etc. – see below picture.


The YIG filter needs to be aligned for each band, same for the YTO band edge frequencies. This is all done on the A3B7 board. Not much adjustment needed, fortunately, only some fine tuning of the YIG preselectors.


Receiving… quite fun to operate the receiver, easy to tune over the full range of frequencies. Maybe this is what makes it so suitable for detecting microwave bugs.


Some last repair relates to the frequency display. It did work in some bands originally, not sure how the defect came about – maybe I slipped with a screwdriver, or some other mishap, or some already damaged part, I can’t tell. But now it only shows erratic values, and without a schematic, it is a tough task to fix it.


A fairly complex assembly, keep it mind, it is just a volt meter for the frequency display… so much easier nowadays…


The LED display: hand-wired with Teflon coated wires. Sure, this receiver was never intended for the layman, but for some agencies that don’t care about cost and taxpayers’ money.


After some tests and checks – the voltmeter uses a voltage to frequency/time converter, and a MIC5005 integrated timer! Quite a nice and complex chip for its age!


Two hours later – found the issue. A bad reference diode, 1n821. Unfortunately, no such diode in stock, but it is quite similar to the 1n827, only that the latter is more precise, and more expensive, and only a used part in my bin. But easy to check, just put a resistor in series, and run at about 1 mA, and check the voltage drop over the diode. All good.



Finally, reception is pretty good over all bands, no detail tests of noise levels done yet, but already now it is clear that this is pretty capable receiver, build with only the best components at a time – just the style is not quite service friendly.

Demodulators work as well, receiving 1 kHz demodulated signal, all looking pretty good and clean.


Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: AM detector/AGC circuit fix, A3B5 assy

After fully refurbishing and fixing the MSR-904A receiver, and some months of service, another look at the AM detector. It is working fine, but at times, is seems to have some microphonic resonance and random shifts of level. Nothing that prevents use of the machine, but a small flaw worth correcting.

Locating the faulty assembly – pretty obvious when knocking at the A3B5 assembly. This takes in a sample of the 250 MHz IF signal, and performs the AM demodulation, and also generates the AGC signal.

msr-904A a3b5 assy schematic AM detector 250 MHz

These are the inner workings, the signal is first attenuated, about 20 dB, then amplified, about 25 dB, using an Avantek GPD-202.
GPDGPM gpd-202
The signal is then futher amplified via a tuned transistor amplifier.

Demodulation is performed by a zero-bias HP Schottky diode, a HSCH-3486. This was state of the art at the time, and still, there aren’t many diodes around that are any better.

hsch-3486 hsch-3206 hsch-3207

Turns out that this diode must have suffered damage earlier, and it was fixed with a drop of epoxy!

msr-904a a3b5 assy open

The HSCH-3486 are not so common any more (with the SMD package HSMS-2850 being widely used), here a comparison:

hsch-3486 sens

hsms-2850 sens

hsms-2850 hsms-2860

The HSMS-2850 and HSCH-3486 use the same technology – the HSMS-2850 is more or less a SMD version of the earlier HSCH-2486 (glass package, similar to DO-35).

Now, should I replace the flaky diode with a HSMS-2850? Well, after some thought, rather keep the parts as they are, for such a rare instrument. With some effort, this is what I found:


Glad I didn’t have to buy at USD 20 each, that’s what some vendors are asking for.

A bit of soldering, without taking the whole assembly apart:
msr-904a a3b5 new diode soldered

Finally, a quick sensitivity and microphonic test – no issues at all.

Quite interestingly, someone must have fixed this assembly before – note the ECG opamp, 1991 datecode (it is a LM1458 replacement; for the AGC circuit).

msr-904a a3b5 assy ecg

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: a wire, another 2N2905A – repair completed (!) – sensitivity test passed

After quite some heavy work with the MSR-904A, we are close to completion. The last defect, supposedly last, was an issue with the 0-9 V internal tuning voltage – could not get it to change from 0-9 V even with all adjustments suggested by the manual, and looking at the schematic – no other way to adjust. There can be drifts of some resistors over time, but all checked and very much as spot-on is they can be.

So, the issue comes from a part of the AFC circuit – there is some gain switching with a 4051 CMOS switch, and as it turns out, this was missing the -6 V supply voltage – causing a positive voltage at the output, which upset the tuning assembly, even with AFC disabled. The wire, not sure if it was broken when I received it – well, easy fix, but took me the best part of 2 hours to find it.

With the machine now ready to be put back in service and fully operational, a few hours warm-up, and all the oscillators and YIG filters fine-tuned, I slipped with the screw driver – a spark – and the 250 MHz amplifier was dead. Fortunately, no major defect, just the 2N2905A that switches on the power for the 250 MHz amp. Added a “new” one, 1984 vintage…

Finally, closed the lid, to keep my screwdrivers out, and did a quick check of sensitivity at about 1.7 GHz (because I have a really well calibrated 0.1-2.1 GHz source, a HP 8642B here already on the bench and did not want to carry around heavy microwave synthesizers…).

Here, the result, which I would call pretty much satisfactory. Doesn’t get much better unless you cool down the receiver with some liquid helium.

msr-904a sensitivity test

The machine, in all its beauty.

msr-904a completed

msr-904a completed 2

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: three bad guys, an a revised YIG filter

There are a few remaining items that need to be fixed:

(1) The frequency marker doesn’t work
(2) The AGC circuit is acting up a bit
(3) The 21.4 MHz IF chain – it is working but gain seems low
(4) The YIG driver – it has too much inherent noise when using the external input (EXT frequency mode). Added a 100 n capacitor (see earlier post) – but this interfers very much with the faster sweep rates, where full YIG driver bandwidth is needed. So I need to add a switch that takes out the 100 n cap, except when in EXT mode (not planning on any super fast sweeps in EXT mode, but definitely need low phase noise)
(5) The ‘signal strength indicator’ is working (a nice LED bargraph), but the offset can’t be adjusted properly, and it moves eratically, at times.

With the manual, the search defect (1) – marker that was so far difficult to track down has an end: the issue is one more of the CMOS switches, a 4052. Well, already the second of these switches which is bad. Maybe, I should just replace all the 4051, 4052 and 4053 switches of the units, as a matter of preventative maintenance. Well, we don’t want to fix things that ain’t broke.

Item (3) – nothing worse that disassembling the IF chain – by all admiration for this unit, the 2nd IF chain is not build for troubleshooting. But, following the instructions, first a check of the control assembly. And, quite to my surprise – a defective transistor switch, using a 2N2905 PNP transistor that provides +15 V power to one of the 24.1 MHz amplifiers – this is switched on and off depending on the BAND setting. The transistor – only had a 2N2904 around, same kind, but a bit lower gain. Well, it works – need to check stock back home in Germany when I get a chance.

These are the bad guys-
msr-904a more bad guys

Item (2) – this was “just” a matter of adjustment. Adjustment isn’t all that straightforward – and the manual doesn’t cover everything. Needed to peak the 250 MHz amp/AM detector circuit – there is a tuned amplifier inside, which has and adjustment capacitor not described in the adjustment instructions – fortunately, pretty clear from the schematic.

Item (5) – turned out to be a 1458 opamp not working properly, replaced. Pretty easy – most of the integrated circuits are in sockets. Sorry, no picture of the defective 1458 😉

Item (4) – added a good Chinese brand SIP reed relay, PAN CHANG SIP-1A05:

Routed a wire with the EXT signal (low when activated) to the YIG driver board. This is now taking the 100 n cap out of the circuit, unless the EXT mode is active. Added a protection diode, to avoid voltage spikes damaging the TTL circuit driving the reed relay.

msr-904a a7b3 yig driver

msr-904a yig driver bw limit ext mode

The 100 n cap and reed relay is installed parallel to the R4 resistor – same as for the C5 capacitor, which is activated in CW mode.

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: manual found!

I had almost given up. It seemed that a full manual of a MSR-904A would be perfectly unobtainium. Well, most secrets of the MSR-904A were reverse engineered anyway, but there are some subtle details and adjustments – just a bit arbitrary to do without proper documentation and at a least a bit of insight into the thoughts of the designers of this marvelous apparatus.
One reason might be that these units were long banned from export and mostly governmentally owned. Eventually, the units reached the secondary market, but the manuals, they rest in some archives, or have long been disposed off by the agencies.

Now, to my greatest surprise – a copy of the manual has been located – in Germany. The paper copy, it seems to belong (or have belonged) to a certain H. S. in Webenheim, a place, a mere 72 miles form my German home.
Another fellow German must have scanned this, and again, another fellow, send it to me, electronically. Albeit, not for free, but, fair enough.

msr-904a manual

It is complete with all adjustments instructions, explanation of how it works, parts list, and SCHEMATICs.

Here, a block diagram of the IF chain – without the 160 MHz 2nd IF output option (by conversion of the 250 MHz 1st IF using a 410 MHz LO) installed in the unit I have for repair.

msr-904a if chain

Screening through the manual, the complexity of the thing is pretty much amazing. All without any controllers or processors – but there is at least one programmable part, a PROM that has the filter switching matrix. Come on, this could have been done with a diode matrix!

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: some progress

With the basics done (power supply, potentiometer), a few hours were spent to get everything tuned up.
And, quite amazingly, it is receiving:

msr-904a first sign of activity
– notice the dirt, and the sticker residues. Also the crosshair (which is printed on a piece of plastic foil), will be replaced.

Finally, the exterior. The front panel, easy enough, all brushed and cleaned with diluted isopropyl alcohol.

The top, bottom and side panels with the sticky green stuff – all the old junk (“paint”) has been removed, my soakin the panels in methylated sprits, sanding, solvent cleaning, sanding. Then, a layer of aluminum primer (self-etching automotive primer). Followed by a light sanding, and a layer of ‘Hunters Green” alkyd paint. After 10 hours of air drying, final curing at about 150-170 deg C, for a bit over an hour.

All in all, quite an effort. The result –
msr-904a panels - newly painted

Missing items – one fastener like this – no idea where to find, seems like a part from the aerospace industry.
micro-tel quick release fasteners
Should you have any of these around, even of somewhat different length, or if you know a source, please let me know!

msr-904a receiving at 8.1 ghz
Sweeping test around 8.1 GHz – with the refurbished panels installed.

Two more handles are still needed – either need to get spare handles from a parts units (which may be impossible to find), or ship the MSR-904A with 2 handles only, and provide the remaining two later, once I had a chance to fabricate them back home in Germany. At least, I have the exact dimensions measured, just a matter of some CNC milling.

msr-904a receiving AM modulated signal at 8.1 ghz
-this is a test using a 8.1 GHz AM modulated signal, with about 1 kHz modulation frequency. Carefully checked the IF chain (different chains are used, depending on filter setting) – the MSR-904A uses 250 MHz, 160 MHz (by mixing the 250 MHz IF with 410 MHz, from a low noise LO), and 21.4 MHz (for the 100 kHz BW setting).
All seems to be functional.

With the receiver now basically functioning – some weekness of the AFC circuit alignment, and the frequency control was noticed. Therefore, some more effort was spent on the frequency control and AFC circuits, and the tuning indicator circuits. Really tough without any instructions or schematic.
There are some nice indicators on the front panel, LED bar graph displays – one for signal strength, and one for tuning.

These displays, now, in working condition and properly adjusted, are great fun to use. They are extremely responsive – nothing to compare with the time lag and sluggish nature of a modern SDR.

After several hours – here, receiving at 6.1 GHz, with 1 MHz bandwidth, and the AFC keeping the frequency, counteracting artificial drift:
msr-904a receiving at 6.15 GHz with AFC active

Monitoring of the AFC control is by looking at the IF frequency, 250 MHz (on the EIP 545A counter), derived from the (non-phaselocked) MSR-904A LO frequency, minus the RF input frequency (from the Gigatronics 605 Microwave Synthesizer; the EIP 545A is locked to the 10 MHz signal from the 605).
This setup allows me to check for any drift of the MSR-904A IF chain (and AFC, if activated), to 1 Hz resolution.
Had it running now for several hours, no issue, signal stays perfectly tuned.

The only remaining item, internally, is the alignment of the cross-band assembly – still lacking one CD4051 multiplexer circuit – which is on its way. A quick check with a CD4051 taken from another board showed that there is no defect, the board just needs some alignment of the band-to-band transition points. The crossband assembly allows a full 0.5-18 GHz sweep, with automatic band selection.

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: the monitor output

The MSR-904A has a few outputs (and inputs), most of them, easy to identify, but two, are pretty much a mystery to me, with no schematic – their function is clear, but with all these wires TTL logic boards -difficult to guess the pinout.

msr-904a monitor output

The more easy thing first, the monitor output. Arguably, this was intended to be connected to storage displays, digitizer, chart recorders, or the like – to more permanently record the activity over the bands.

So, what do we have. Using a scope, and a multimeter, and activating more or less all the functions of the apparatus, that’s what I found out.

msr-904a monitor output - pinout

Sorry for the rough draft, but any questions, please ask – for the given purpose, good enough.

The only pin that doesn’t do much, is pin 9 – always stays on logic 5 V – maybe a +5 V supply line? Doesn’t seem to be an essential function, anyway.

Micro-Tel MSR-904A: some basic repairs

Quick initial assessment, these are some of the items that will need attention:

(1) Exterior. Need to fabricate instrument feet, re-paint the panels, handles are missing – either need to get spares, or fabricate replacement handles (can only be done back at the main workshop in Germany, lacking machine tools here).

(2) The ground leakage -need to check the power supply. Hope it is not the transformer or other critical part.

(3) Power cable. Absolutely non-standard! Uses a BENDIX connector, 3 pin, type PT02E8-3P-027.
msr-904a mains connector bendix PT02E8-3P
Interestingly enough, found a suitable cable, especially made for the MSR-904, on xbay, Army surplus! PN: SC-D-627094-5FT NSN:5995-00-165-3806, the guy has more then 10 pieces – seems the Army was really worried to run out of cables for their MSR-904s.

(4) The frequency display works but doesn’t show the right frequencies.

(5) The F2 adjustment (upper sweep stop frequency in F1-F2 mode) doesn’t work.

(6) Figuring out the major adjustment pots – this is all documentation I have:
msr-904a documentation

(7) Figuring out the pinout of the “Monitor” port (intended to connect a storage scope, I might connect a digitizer), and of the “Remote” port – the remote control signals (TTL).

(8) Figuring out the external frequency control and phase lock voltage requirements.

(9) Drafting a block diagram of the RF deck and IF chain, just to better understand the inner workings, and to see, which parts-components Micro-Tel used.

Now, on item (2).

The power supply –
msr-904a triple shielded power supply
It’s held in place, and held together, by a cup full of screws. And, it has a layer of what is presumably Mu metal (high magnetically shielding sheet metal), to keep the 50-60 Hz in the transformer.

The filter, at the input, it is a sight in itself. Not sure how much it would cost to fabricate a custom aluminum case of this size, and to manually assembly it these days. Parts value alone, over 250 USD.
msr-904a mains filter
Well, and as it turns out, exactly these parts are leaky. SPI filters, 51-321-610, still available, after being around for 30+ years, at Mouser and elsewhere – 119.64 USD each, 18 pcs minimum order….

The spec data:
SCI 51-321-610 hermetic RFI filter

After a quick thought – I will give these parts a miss. With all the shielding, transformers and wires, we can do without hermetic feed-through filters – keeping in mind that also the bottom and top lid of the unit have ventillation holes.

So, filters removed, and wires re-connected… and, quite to my satisfaction, no ground leakage any more – not even a few microamps.

Before putting it back together – quick check of the power supply – all seems to be working fine now, and well adjusted.

Item (4) – complicated. Took me quite some hours. The frequency meter is acutally a voltage meter, and this is controlled by the tuning voltage, and a complex digital circuit spread over some hard to reach board. After searching around – it’s just a defective CMOS multiplexer switch, setting the gain of one of the voltage conditioning stages (which are needed to handle the various bands). It’s and CD4051, standard item, no problem. Put in a good one, from another part of the circuit that is not criticial at this point, and ordered a few spares, just USD 1.75 for 3 pcs, including shipment, from Macau.

msr-904a a few more broken parts

On item (5) – the sweep circuit is pretty similar to the Micro-Tel SG-811, and for the SG-811, I have the schematics around.
It uses a dual 10 turn potentiometer. 10k.
msr-904a helipot 8106 defective

Helipot 6108 series, a type common to high-grade analog-control instruments. Seems that one of the stages (the stage that controls the sweep range) is defective – the hybrid resistance material used for the pot (these don’t use wire, because they are made for high resolution applications) is open at the “cold” end – sweeper is always at full scale.

As these are all fully sealed units, no way to repair – found an exact replacement second-hand, for a reasonable charge. For the time being- changed the wires: the F2 display (controlled by the second stage of the pot, which is still working), has been disabled, and the wires changed so that the acutal sweep range is now controllable – so I can do all adjustments, just don’t get a display for the F2 frequency.

Well, and after all this, the unit is at least basically working, responding to controls, and not triggering any fuses. To move things further, setting it up with a few GHz range synthesizers, and an EIP 545A counter, for some first tests with RF.

msr-904a adjustments

To be continued…

Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver: the big box arrived!

Look what I found on the doorstep yesterday:
msr-904a big box

Wrapped in 20+ feet of bubble wrap, nothing less than a Micro-Tel MSR-904A Microwave Receiver, needing some TLC, later, to be added to a special equipment collection elsewhere.

The MSR-904A. Arguably, it is the last member of a series of 18 GHz+ receivers, build by Micro-Tel at Baltimore, MA, and intended for surveillance work, by governmental agencies. If you ask the right people, these receivers are pretty famous, and have been considered a strategic item for a long time.

They are build using all discrete parts, and hardwired CMOS and TTL logic. After all, many parts, but if you have seen other Micro-Tel instruments, not too unfamiliar. Some say, 80s technology, but actually, is is build in time-less style – from the best components available (not only at the time – these components, YIGs and filters haven’t really improved since).

Some performance data:
Frequency range: 0.5-18 GHz – fundamental mixing; fully YIG pre-selected over the full range (using 18 dB drop-off filter, i.e., three YIG spheres; one preselector for 0.5-2 GHz, the other, 2 to 18 GHz).
1st Image rejection, 70 dB, and 65 dB at above 12 GHz.
IF rejection: >70 dB
IF filters: 100 kHz, 1 MHz, 5 MHz, 30 MHz – quite handy.
IM3: about 5 dBm
LOG and LIN detectors
AM and FM demodulator
Spurious: 90 dBm at input equivalent over full range.
Noise figure is about 20 dB

Note: All in all, 3+3+1+1 = 9 YIG spheres are used, and an uncounted number of filter crystalls. The 100 kHz 21.4 IF filter, it’s quite impressive.

In the 2 to 18 GHz range, a 250 MHz-21.4 MHz IF chain is used, with LO 250 MHz above the signal.
For 0.5 to 2 GHz the signal is mixed with an additional 2.08 GHz from an auxilliary LO. I.e., LO frequency is 2330 MHz (2080+250 MHz) above signal.

The other great things about it:

(1) Fully fundamental mixing, using YIGs – lowest phase noise possible. Fully preselected.

(2) Unit has a 250 MHz IF output, with about 40 MHz bandwidth – this makes this unit ideally suitable as down-converter, if you want or need to receive at medium to high GHz frequencies. Can be directly fed to any SDR for demodulation. The MSR-904A has very small group delay, seems pretty suitable for handling of digital modulation schemes.

(3) It is fully remotely controllable, and has a phase lock input – will hook it up to a ADF41020, and/or a fractional-N PLL, same PLLs as already developed and tested for the Micro-Tel 1295 receiver. Such PLL unit will go along with the MSR-904A, once the repair and proper adjustment and testing is finished. Micro-Tel used to offer a frequency stabilizer (PLL) for the MSR-904A, but I have never seen one offered. If you have one, please let me know!

Two downsides – NO serice manual, no manual or documentation at all. If you have one, even if only for another MSR unit (MSR-901, MSR-902, MSR 903), please, let me know.

Second downside – the condition. Well, there don’t seem to be many of the MSR-904A around for sale any more. One unit I know off, but it doesn’t have the panoramic (scope) display. Other might be available, at outrageous cost. This unit was sold even blow the market value of a fraction of the components.

msr-904a as received - front

Note the tuning know – different from the typical Micro-Tel style. But nevertheless, seems to be the original, unmodified part.

msr-904a as received - top

msr-904a as received - bottom

msr-904a as received - back

The full repair, it will be a major job, because currently, it is a bit beat up – I wish, the earlier owners would have treated it a bit more carefully, and Micro-Tel should have never touched the green paint that just isn’t lasting and a sticky mess on a good number of their instruments – fortunately, only the panels are affected, and these are easy to remove – re-painting already in process!
Also, it doesn’t seem to work well, powers up, but seems to have a leaky supply – keeps tiggering the RCD. It needs a through inspection.

Cosmetically at least, the inner working are in much better shape than the exterior would suggest.

Center – edge-connector boards, mainly YIG driver and analog control. The metal box on the right – the RF box with the microwave stuff. The other items – IF converters, detectors and so on. Everything: very well shielded.
msr-904a top view

2.08 auxilliary LO. Mixers.
msr-904a aux LO filters mixer

A Narda 2-18 GHz broadband -10 dB coupler. Still available from Narda today!
msr-904a narda 4203-10 LO sample coupler

The preselectors: S082-1630 (2-18 GHz, might work up to 20-22 GHz), and a custom Systron Donner 0.48-2.05 GHz YTF.
msr-904a preselectors