The Negative Rail Explained

With the high availability of modular components and incredible wealth of information and tutorials online, it’s now easier than ever for hackers and makers to assemble complex electronic projects without getting bogged down with the theory behind it all. But the downside is that the modern electronic hobbyist often doesn’t have as deep an understanding of the low-level concepts that they would have if they had to build everything from scratch. This can be a problem when they try diagnosing and repairing faults, or when they start to branch out into reverse engineering.

Which makes “Building Blocks” by [David Christensen] a very compelling series. Every week he will be demonstrating a new circuit on his blog, complete with a plain English explanation of how and why it’s used. In this first installment of the series, he’s tackling a concept most of us have seen when poking around in more complex electronic devices, but maybe never really gave much thought to: the negative rail.

What exactly is the negative rail, anyway? It’s pretty easy to understand the positive rail in a circuit and its relation to ground; even multiple positive rails, such as in devices which use both 5 V and 3.3 V, are simple enough to wrap your head around. Unfortunately when something drops below that logical 0V reference, it isn’t quite as intuitive. But as [David] explains, the negative rail in a circuit is critical for dealing with bipolar signals, such as audio, which ride above and below the 0 V center point.

[David] goes over a few methods used to create the negative rail, from the classic center-tap transformer to using a buck-boost converter. But not content with just describing how these circuits work, he walks the reader through the creation of a charge pump circuit that you can drop into your next project if you find yourself in need of the illusive voltage. After explaining and diagramming it, he builds the circuit on a scrap piece of copper clad board and puts it through some benchmarks to prove it matches the theory he laid out.

If you’re in the mood for more negative talk, check out the battle our very own [Steven Dufresne] had with voltages of varying polarity when building his BB-8 robot.