Tag: DAC

Python DAC Class

Python DAC Class

Creating a class to represent a Raspberry Pi digital-to-analog converter is a good example on how to put together the concepts we have been exploring in some of the previous posts. More specifically, DAC with Raspberry Pi and Classes vs. Functions in Python. Besides a Raspberry Pi and a couple of resistors and capacitors, we need an additional DAQ device to calibrate our Pi DAC output.

In the post DAC with Raspberry Pi, we used an MCP3008 to measure (and calibrate) the DAC output. This time around I will follow my recommendation of not using the same DAQ to generate and measure the output, using instead a LabJack U3. While a LabJack is not a calibration DAQ device, it is far more accurate than a Pi, therefore moving us in the right direction when it comes to choosing a calibration device.

The setup is quite simple: On the Pi side, a GPIO pin used as PWM input to the the low-pass filter and a GND pin. On the U3 side, the RC filter output (which is our DAC output) is connected to the analog input port AIN0, while the GND port is connected to the same GND as the Pi.

The U3 is connected to a separate computer via USB and will be running a variation of the code that can be found on my GitHub page. The Python package that I made containing the LabJack U3 class can be installed from the PyPI (Python Package Index) page.

As before, the cascaded second order filter is made of two first order low-pass RC filters, where R = 1 kΩ and C = 10 μF.

Of course, if you don’t have a LabJack, a digital multimeter should do the trick and allow you to measure the DAC output in order to do its calibration. I chose to use a LabJack to gain some insight on the DAC output signal by using its 50 kHz streaming capability (and because an oscilloscope is not among my few possessions).

The next step is to layout what our DAC class should look like. You may want to put down a “skeleton” of the class, as shown below, with a brief description of what the attributes are and what the methods do. Using the reserved word pass allows for placeholders for the methods to be easily created and filled out later.

class DAC:

    def __init__(self):
        # Class constructor
        self._vref = 3.3  # Reference voltage output
        self._slope = 1  # Output transfer function slope
        self._offset = 0  # Output transfer function intercept

    def __del__(self):
        # Class destructor
        # - makes sure GPIO pins are released

    def reset_calibration(self):
        # Resets the DAC slope and offset values

    def set_calibratio(self):
        # Sets the DAC slope and offset with calibration data

    def get_calibration(self):
        # Retrieves current slope and offset values

    def set_output(self):
        # Sets the DAC output voltage to the desired value

One of the nice things about using classes is that it’s easy to add (or remove) attributes and methods as you code away. And even better, if you’re using the interactive session of VS Code, saved updates to your methods are immediately reflected in any instance of the class that is present in the session’s “workspace” (to use a MATLAB term, for those familiar with it). In other words, if you were to call that method again using dot notation, it would behave based on the latest modifications that you saved.

In the case of our example, the attributes need to hold the values of a reference voltage (Pi’s 3.3 V if you’re not using any OpAmp with your filter) and the calibration parameters which are used so the DAC can output the correct set voltage value.

from gpiozero import PWMOutputDevice

class DAC:

    def __init__(self, dacpin=12):

        # Checking for valid hardware PWM pins
        if dacpin not in [12, 13, 18, 19]:
            raise Exception('Valid GPIO pin is: 12, 13, 18, or 19')
        # Assigning attributes
        self._vref = 3.3  # Reference voltage output
        self._slope = 1  # Output transfer function slope
        self._offset = 0  # Output transfer function intercept
        # Creating PWM pin object
        self._dac = PWMOutputDevice(dacpin, frequency=700)

    def __del__(self):

        # Releasing GPIO pin

    def reset_calibration(self):
        self._slope = 1
        self._offset = 0

    def set_calibration(self, slope, offset):
        self._slope = slope
        self._offset = offset

    def get_calibration(self):
        print('Slope = {:0.4f} , Offset = {:0.4f}'.format(
            self._slope, self._offset))

    def set_output(self, value):

        # Limiting output
        output = self._slope*value/self._vref + self._offset
        if output > 1:
            output = 1
        if output < 0:
            output = 0
        # Applying output to GPIO pin
        self._dac.value = output

As far as the methods are concerned, a constructor and a destructor, being the latter a good idea so the GPIO pin can be released once you’re done using the class instance. Also, a group of methods to deal with the DAC calibration and a single method to set the DAC output value. Notice that the attribute names start with an underscore. That’s a loose Python convention to define private properties (or methods, if I were to use the underscore as the first character of the method name), unlike other programming languages which are more rigorous about it by making you explicitly define what’s private. The general idea of private properties (or methods) is that they’re not supposed to be accessible directly by the user of the program, therefore, being accessed internally by the code.

DAC Calibration

First, we create an instance of the DAC class on GPIO pin 18: mydac = DAC(dacpin=18)

Then, the output calibration is done with two output settings (0.5 and 3.0 V) using the method: mydac.set_output(0.5) and mydac.set_output(3.0). Each time the output is read using the streaming feature of the LabJack U3, as shown on the left. The high frequency noise in the signal is quite apparent and is a most likely due to the limitations of the Raspberry Pi hardware. For the two desired outputs of 0.5 and 3.0 V, the corresponding mean actual values are 0.614 and 2.854 V. Because the system response is linear, two data points are sufficient.

The slope and offset are calculated as slope = (3.0 – 0.5) / (2.854 – 0.614) = 1.116, and offset = 0.5 – (3.0 – 0.5) / (2.854 – 0.614) x 0.614 = -0.185. The calibrated values are applied to the DAC instance using the method mydac.set_calibration(1.116, -0.185). If a new calibration has to be done, the default values of 1 and 0 can be restored by using the method mydac.reset_calibration(). As mentioned earlier, the private attributes _slope and _offset are not dealt with directly by the user but instead through different methods. Of course, in this simple example, they could be changed directly by doing mydac._slope = 1.116 and mydac._offset = -0.185. In more complex situations there might be a few good reasons to avoid direct access to an instance’s attributes.

With the calibrated DAC, the new outputs to the same settings as before (0.5 and 3.0 V) give the results on the left, where the actual mean values are 0.493 and 3.006 V, respectively.

DAC Test

Let’s put the DAC device to the test! The Python code below can be used to generate a random sequence of steps every 0.5 seconds between 0 and 3 V (every 0.5 V). The data is collected using the LabJack U3 streaming feature and plotted in the next figure. Not too bad for our poor man’s DAC.

import time
import numpy as np
from gpiozero_extended import DAC

# Assigning parameter values
tstep = 0.5  # Interval between step changes (s)
tstop = 10  # Total execution time (s)

# Creating DAC object on GPIO pin 18
mydac = DAC(dacpin=18)
mydac.set_calibration(1.116, -0.185)

# Initializing timers and starting main clock
tprev = 0
tcurr = 0
tstart = time.perf_counter()

# Running execution loop
print('Running code for', tstop, 'seconds ...')
while tcurr <= tstop:
    # Updating analog output every `tstep` seconds with
    # random voltages between 0 and 3 V every 0.5 V
    if (np.floor(tcurr/tstep) - np.floor(tprev/tstep)) == 1:
    # Updating previous time and getting new current time (s)
    tprev = tcurr
    tcurr = time.perf_counter() - tstart

# Releasing pin
del mydac
DAC with Raspberry Pi

DAC with Raspberry Pi

Let’s put some of the concepts from the Digital-to-Analog Conversion post to work with a Raspberry Pi. To get the most out of it, you will need a few resistors and capacitors, as well as an MCP3008. The former will be used to build the low-pass analog filters, while the latter will be used to measure the DAC output. As a general guideline, you don’t want to generate and measure a signal on the same DAQ device, since all sorts of extraneous loops and noise could potentially show up. But because we’re not doing any instrumentation-critical work, we won’t be following that guideline.

The figure shows the layout of the components on a breadboard. The MCP3008 wires will use the same pins that were used in the MCP3008 with Raspberry Pi.

The PWM wire should be connected to GPIO12, which is one of the hardware-implemented PWMs on the Pi (GPIO13, 18, and 19 also have hardware PWM). As a side note, the software-implemented PWM is good for 100 to 200 Hz. The PWM period starts to fall apart above 500 Hz. The hardware PWM can go up to 8 kHz! However, that would be an overkill for our application and we will settle down for a lower value, as shown later on.

It’s also possible to identify on the board two cascaded low-pass RC filters, whose output is connected to pin 1 on the MCP3008 (channel 0 on the GPIO Zero MCP3008 class).

Let’s aim for a step response time (τ) of 0.01 s for our filters. We can then use the formula τ = RC to determine the RC product and choose suitable R and C values. In our case, we should select R = 1 kΩ and C = 10 μF. When putting everything together, make sure the negative side of the capacitors are connected to ground!

The following Python code (mostly derived from the example in Prescribed PWM duty cycle) will run a sequence of PWM duty cycle steps that can be used to better understand the DAC output. Check the list of comments below before digging into the code.

  • Even though the hardware PWM can go up to 8 kHz, it seemed reasonable to use 700 Hz for it. Change this number to lower values (such as 50 Hz) to see the impact on the signal ripple.
  • Both the PWM values as well as the ADC measurements are normalized between 0 and 1 in GPIO Zero. Therefore, they are scaled throughout the code to Vref = 3.3 V.
  • The PWM duty cycle output steps (that correspond to a DAC output) span the entire range. However, the 0 and 1 values are omitted. That’s because they fully bypass the PWM, applying respectively a constant 0 and Vref to the output.
  • Even though the sampling rate of the hardware-based ADC can go up to 6.25 kSamples/s, the signals are sampled at a rate of 500 Samples/s. That’s sufficient for visualization and provides plenty of margin in the execution loop.
import time
import numpy as np
from utils import plot_line
from gpiozero import PWMOutputDevice, MCP3008

# Assigning parameter values
pwmfreq = 700 # PWM frequency (Hz)
pwmvalue = [0.05, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8, 0.95, 0.9, 0.7, 0.5, 0.3, 0.1]
tsample = 0.002 # Sampling period for data acquisition (s)
tstep = 0.5 # Interval between PWM output step changes (s)
tstop = tstep * len(pwmvalue) # Total execution time (s)
vref = 3.3  # Reference voltage for the PWM and MCP3008

# Preallocating output arrays for plotting
t = []  # Time (s)
dacvalue = []  # Desired DAC output
adcvalue = []  # Measured DAC output

# Creating DAC PWM and ADC channel (using hardware implementations)
dac0 = PWMOutputDevice(12, frequency=pwmfreq)
adc0 = MCP3008(channel=0, clock_pin=11, mosi_pin=10, miso_pin=9, select_pin=8)

# Initializing timers and starting main clock
tprev = 0
tcurr = 0
tstart = time.perf_counter()

# Initializing other variables used in the loop
count = 1  # PWM step counter
dacvaluecurr = pwmvalue[0]  # Initial DAC output value
dac0.value = dacvaluecurr  # Sending initial value to GPIO pin

# Running execution loop
print('Running code for', tstop, 'seconds ...')
while tcurr <= tstop:
    # Updating PWM output every `tstep` seconds
    # with values from prescribed sequence
    if (np.floor(tcurr/tstep) - np.floor(tprev/tstep)) == 1:
        dacvaluecurr = pwmvalue[count]
        dac0.value = dacvaluecurr
        count += 1
    # Acquiring digital data every `tsample` seconds
    # and appending values to output arrays
    # (values are converted from normalized to 0 to Vref)
    if (np.floor(tcurr/tsample) - np.floor(tprev/tsample)) == 1:
    # Updating previous time and getting new current time (s)
    tprev = tcurr
    tcurr = time.perf_counter() - tstart

# Releasing pins
dac0.value = 0

# Plotting results
plot_line([t]*2, [dacvalue, adcvalue], yname='DAC Output (V)')
plot_line(t[1::], 1000*np.diff(t), yname='Sampling Period (ms)')

The plots show the output generated using plot_line from the utils.py module. Make sure you have a copy of it that can be imported. Observing the DAC response, it’s possible to notice that for lower PWM duty cycles the stead-state value is higher than the set point. Conversely, a higher duty cycle produces a steady-state value lower than the set point. Later on, we’ll see that it is possible to calibrate the DAC output so a one-to-one relationship can be obtained. It’s also a good practice to plot the actual sampling period that the execution loop is running on. Just to make sure it can keep up.

Output Ripple and Step Response

The next figures show the step response of our Pi DAC for a PWM duty cycle change from 25 to 75 % (0.825 to 2,457 V), respectively for PWM frequencies of 50 and 700 Hz.

For the 50 Hz PWM, the ripple in the output is quite significant and can be easily identified. We can also see that there’s no offset between the desired and the actual steady-state DAC output signals. In the other hand, for the 700 Hz PWM, the ripple in the output is much smaller and isn’t related to the PWM frequency. Unlike the lower frequency case, there’s now an offset between desired and actual outputs.

That offset is mostly caused by the transitions from low-to-high (and vice-versa) in the PWM signal. Because they’re not instantaneous (think of them as very steep ramps instead), the PWM signal going into the low-pass filter will assume values other than low (0V) and high (Vref). These intermediate values become more relevant the higher the frequency is. Interestingly enough, the offset will be zero at 50% duty cycle, regardless of fPWM.

The response time is not affected by the PWM frequency. The theoretical value of 0.02 s (for the combined cascaded low-pass filters used in this example) wasn’t observed on the actual signal. The higher response time of 0.05 s is due in part to the PWM not being a perfectly “square” wave form. One should also speculate other delays in the Raspberry Pi hardware itself, as well as the effect of input/output impedances.

DAC Calibration

The relationship between the set point and the actual analog output values is quite linear and can be determined with the help of a modified version of the Python code above, which also performs a linear regression on the collected data. The code stores (and averages) analog output data for the steady-state portion of every step of the input sequence. The data points are then used in a linear regression to determine the transfer function between desired and actual analog output values. The graphs below show the linear regression and the calibrated output. Check out the code on my GitHub repository for more details.

Final Remarks

While most instrumentation and DAQs these days don’t require analog inputs to do what they’re supposed to do, some of the older pieces of equipment out there still do. Op Amps can be used to expand the output voltage range of our simple Pi DAC to a more common 0 to 5 V.

In this post, I create a DAC class that can be used like any other GPIO Zero class (such as PWMOutputDevice or MCP3008) making it much easier to work with the code. The exercise of building the class also comes in handy as we explore more efficient ways to write DAQ software in Python.

Digital-to-Analog Conversion

Digital-to-Analog Conversion

As the counterpart of analog-to-digital conversion, DAC will take a digital signal and convert it to an analog one. Paraphrasing what I mentioned in previous posts, ADC and DAC walk hand-in-hand bridging the gap between the continuous and discrete domains that modern machines and devices have to deal with.

Even though there are several types of DACs, I will talk about the PWM-based one, where a reference input voltage is switched (in the form of a digital train of pulses) into a low-pass analog filter, producing an analog output. Before we get there, let’s first talk about Pulse Width Modulation, a very clever way to go from the discrete to the continuous domain, invented in the mid-seventies. A PWM signal has two main characteristics: its frequency and its duty cycle.

The figure illustrates the frequency and the concept of duty cycle for a 10 Hz PWM signal. In this case, the period of the PWM is 1/fPWM = 0.1 s. The chosen duty cycle is 25 %, which corresponds to the time the output is “on” (0.025 s). During the remainder of the duration of the PWM period (0.075 s) the output is “off”. As a matter of fact, it’s the modulation of the duty cycle that will control the output level of the DAC system.

Since it’s either fully “on” or fully “off”, the PWM signal is fundamentally a digital one. It’s the frequency and duty cycle of that “on-off” train of pulses, coupled with the response of the sub-system it’s interacting with, that will result in an analog behavior of the output of the overall system, in our case the digital-to-analog converter.

As a side note, the Python code used to generate the graphs in this post can be found on my GitHub page. Make sure to check it out and experiment with the DAC parameters.

The simplest DAC implementation is shown on the left. It consists of a low-pass first-order passive RC filter connected to the PWM output signal Vref. Typically, for a TTL circuit, the voltage can be either 0 (low) or 3.3V (high).

The cutoff frequency (rad/s) of the filter is fc = 1/(RC). Along with the PWM frequency, it can be used to obtain the desired behavior of this simple DAC.

Output Ripple

The PWM signal can be thought as a sequence of low-to-high and high-to-low step inputs into the RC filter. Even with a constantly switching input, this first order system will eventually produce a near constant output. The figures below show the effect of the RC filter cutoff frequency fc as well as the PWM frequency fPWM on the amplitude of the output ripple.

As it can be observed in the plots above, the output voltage will converge to (duty cycle) x Vref , which for the duty cycle of 25 % (used in the example) produces an output of 0.825 V when Vref = 3.3 V. Also, reducing the filter cutoff frequency or increasing the PWM frequency are both effective in reducing the output signal ripple. While having a slow RC filter can greatly reduce the ripple, that will negatively affect the DAC response time when it’s subject to a change in the desired output value.

DAC Step Response

In the case of our DAC, its response time is essentially the response time of the RC filter, i.e. 1/fc = RC (with fc in rad/s). Leaving the details for a future post on analog and digital filtering, for the first order system under consideration, the response time can be defined as the time it takes for the output to reach about 63 % of its final (steady-state) value, after a step input is applied.

The next figure shows how an appropriate combination of a higher PWM frequency and a higher filter cutoff frequency can produce a faster response time, while maintaining roughly the same amplitude of the DAC output ripple. For our example, the response time based on the RC value goes from 0.16 s down to 0.04 s.

Cascaded Filters

The output ripple can be further improved by cascading two first-order RC filters, as shown below. The newly formed second-order filter will have twice the attenuation (dB/decade) above the cutoff frequency. It’s an easy-to-do improvement which is often adopted.

Practical Considerations

Just like its ADC counterpart, DACs also have an inherent quantization in the signal. The digital PWM, generated from the microprocessor clock, has a finite resolution (duty cycle levels) given by the number of bits of the PWM. Typical resolutions range from 8 to 12 bits.

Actual PWM frequencies for DAC devices are much higher than the ones used in the examples above, which were chosen mainly to illustrate the concepts. For applications involving testing of physical systems or automation, frequencies between 500 and 2000 Hz are reasonable. In audio applications, several times the highest frequency of the audible range (20 kHz) seems to be the case. That is, 100 to 200 kHz. However, just as we observed when using higher order filtering, there’s wiggle room to reduce these numbers while still having a good compromise between response time and ripple.

It’s important to make a distinction at this point: if the PWM is used to drive a DC motor directly (or with some power amplification), the motor itself will behave approximately as a first order system. Hence, there’s no need for the RC filter. In this type of application, PWM frequencies of 100 to 200 Hz are just fine.

Amplification of the DAC output beyond the typical 3.3V Vref, can be achieved by using an Op Amp (Operational Amplifier). For a simple non-inverting amplifier, the output voltage is given by:

V2 = V1(1+R1/R2)

By choosing R1 = R2 = 10 kOhm, we can double the output to accommodate a more typical 0 to 5V requirement.

In my next post, we will explore the implementation of a DAC using a Raspberry Pi and a few resistors and capacitors. The Pi has hardware enabled PWM on two of its GPIO pins, which can reach frequencies in the kHz range! That should be an interesting project.