Op-Amp Layout Guidelines for Noise Reduction in Your PCB

Created: February 6, 2018
Updated: December 2, 2020

Stereo dials with a hand turning one

I remember my younger self daisy chaining a stereo system and powered speakers to try and get that perfect sound. You quickly realize the power of amplifiers and the havoc that multistage amplifiers can wreak on your favorite music. I was specifically reminded of a fundamental component: operational amplifiers. Op-amps are particularly useful devices in a PCB design and they form the basis of many devices that make modern life possible.

As op-amps are analog components, they can be quite sensitive to noise. If you want to ensure your signals are noise-free, you need to follow the right op-amp layout guidelines for your next circuit board. We've compiled some tips you can use to ensure your analog circuits will be noise free and your op-amps will work as intended.

  1. Use a Bypass Capacitor
  2. Pay Attention to Stray Capacitance Between Output and Input Pins
  3. Remove Heat from High Power Amplifiers
  4. Separate Analog and Digital Components

Basic Principles of Operational Amplifiers

Operational amplifiers are signal conditioning components capable of filtering and amplifying signals through basic arithmetic operation. An operational amplifier has three terminals: an inverting input, a non-inverting input, and an output which forms the basis of many configurations. The output is single-ended, meaning it is referenced to some ground level in your board. This is normally the nearest analog ground plane. However, differential op-amps are also available for working with differential pairs.

All operational amplifiers display these characteristics: high open loop gain, high input impedance, low output impedance, and a limited bandwidth. A typical amplifier can have a gain of 10,000 or more. The input impedance is less than 100 ohms and the output impedance is typically at least 0.25 MOhm.

Chart of operational amplifier formula
Operational amplifier: a simple but versatile electronics component.

Op-amps have some pretty simple rules of operation. If you apply a positive input to the non-inverting input, the operational amplifier will produce a positive swing at the output. Similarly, if you apply a positive voltage to the inverting input, a negative swing will occur at the output. In short, the output is proportional to the difference between the voltages on both inputs.

Gain is provided by adding a feedback loop between the output and one of the inputs. DC feedback only involves resistors, while inductors or capacitors are used to create feedback with frequency-dependent gain. The list of op-amp applications goes on forever, but the most common include voltage comparators, active rectifiers, signal filters, and voltage followers.

Op-amp PCB Layout Guidelines

You’ll often find op-amps playing a role somewhat between that of analog and digital components. One use of operational amplifiers is amplifying raw analog signals from sensors before being captured with an ADC in a microcontroller or other circuit. They are also commonly used in audio applications. When designing with op-amps, it is important to be aware of the following op-amp layout guidelines:

1. Use a Bypass Capacitor

The operational amplifier needs a stabilized voltage to produce the right output signal. To suppress noise produced when switching the power supply, place a grounded bypass capacitor close to the supply pin of the operational amplifier. The bypass capacitor should have a short path between the op-amps power pin and the ground connection.

Closeup of electronic circuit board that is blue
A bypass capacitor will ensure the operational amplifier produces the correct output.

2. Pay Attention to Stray Capacitance Between Output and Input Pins

It’s common knowledge that setting a ground plane reduces noise susceptibility by reducing loop inductance. However, in the case of op-amp design, when the ground plane spans below the entirety of the op-amp and passes beneath the op-amp's input pins, stray capacitance can be introduced between the input pins and the output. This stray capacitance can allow high frequency components on the output signal to couple back to the un-grounded input pin. This is a known problem in high frequency power amplifier design.

3. Remove Heat from High Power Amplifiers

When using a power op-amp, you'll need to maintain a low-temperature junction to prevent thermal runaway. Proper heat dissipation techniques, including thermal vias or heat sinks, may help in dissipating excess heat. High power op-amps may be packaged in ICs that include a die-attached heat sink, which can be used to dissipate heat directly into the interior of the board.

4. Separate Analog and Digital Components

Proper design techniques for analog devices apply to op-amps as well. An op-amp is often used to amplify a low-level signal before it is fed into an ADC for amplification. Don't place the downstream digital components within the same region as your other analog components. This will prevent noise from the digital section of the board from coupling back into the upstream analog section.

Avoid Schematic Errors With Interactive Design Software

Op-amp layout can be a challenging and lengthy process without the right PCB layout technology. The ability to access complete design history and efficiently customize component layout can mean the difference between a nonfunctional schematic and a high-performing design. Designing advanced analog systems is much easier when you have the right PCB design software to help you follow op-amp layout guidelines. Altium’s CircuitStudio® will help you develop a thermally stable design with accurate integration and adequate clearance between analog and digital components.

Need more tips on designing op-amps? Talk to an expert at Altium.

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