Dave Richards AA7EE

January 26, 2010

The Perfect CW QSO

I’ve started the packing process for my sojourn to Southern California (see previous post) and it looks like this particular move will be the most enjoyable so far.  I’m putting much of my stuff into storage in the Bay Area and moving down to So Cal with a small truckload of belongings.  Because I’m a QRP’er,  there will be no big heavy radio gear, and due to the tall trees at the property I’m moving to,  a roll of dacron antenna rope, a couple of hundred feet of stranded insulated wire and a pulley or two will pack into a small space and should make for a great antenna (with the help of a slingshot to get it up there.)

The ham radio gear at this end may well be some of the last stuff to be packed.  It gives me a good diversion from packing every now and then. Trust me – you don’t want to own 10,000 CD’s – it’s more music than anyone can properly take in during a lifetime, and all those boxes weigh a lot.

So while plonking CD’s into the umpteenth box this afternoon, I heard a very weak but fully copyable CQ on 7030 from KG6SNV. I called him back and we had a brief but very enjoyable QSO.  I gave him a 519 (he gave me a 529), but it was armchair copy.  I don’t have an S-meter on the Norcal 2N2/40 but band noise was probably at about an S4.  His sigs were almost imperceptible at an S1 (and below the band noise) but due to no QSB, no QRM and his excellent sending (his speed and rhythm were perfect for the conditions) copying him was a breeze.

I’m not sure how to put this into words, but any CW operator reading this will be able to identify with these sentiments. There was something very satisfying about receiving a signal so weak that I was able to copy with ease. There was nothing groundbreaking about our QSO; we were only 61 miles apart, in adjoining counties.  Mario was running 10 watts into an indoor vertical at 20 feet (apartment antenna maybe?), and I was running 4 watts to an outdoor vertical also at 20 feet. The thing that made this QSO so much fun was that I was able to take such a weak signal and decode it in my head. For anyone who is either thinking of learning morse code, or who has started and is having trouble becoming fluent, take it from me that your effort will be rewarded many times over if you keep on plugging away. Your brain has an amazing number of built-in algorithms and a lot of  “filtering”, and using it to decode CW signals is fun.  Just think – free DSP!

I’ve had one or two e-mails in the past from folk reading this blog who are learning the code and have taken inspiration from some of the blog posts here. I hope that if you’re on the fence about either beginning to learn, or continuing, that you’ll take heart from reading this.

Incidentally,  I’m no veteran CW op.  My speed lies somewhere in the 10 – 20 wpm range and I have a long way to go with the code, but I’m on course.  I guess a good analogy would be with learning the guitar.  Let’s just say that I’ve taught myself to play 3 chords and can bang out a lot of rock n’ roll songs at this point. I haven’t learned to play like Mark Knopfler or The Edge yet though.

On a side note, it looks like the Fort Tuthill 80M Direct Conversion CW Transceiver Kit is days away from going on sale and I hope to bag one of the kits in this first run of 100. Dan N7VE has just uploaded the assembly manual to the Yahoo Group and this looks like it’s going to be one fun rig to build.

January 21, 2010

No Amateur Radio For A While – But Good Prospects In The Future.

Filed under: Uncategorized — AA7EE @ 4:15 pm

Several of the bloggers that I follow are prolific in their postings. Although I only blog occasionally about my particular ham radio activities, I do enjoy reading the blogs of my fellow radio amateurs who post about subjects other than amateur radio.  As few and far between as my blog posts are,  it looks like they will be pretty non-existent for the next few months.

I will be moving to San Diego in a month or two to live with an elderly family member who needs the company and help in order to be able to stay in her house.  It will be quite a big life change.  Most of my belongings will be going into storage but of course, I’ll be taking the ham radio gear.  Besides – there are a few tall trees on the property that I’ll be living on and while I don’t know if visible feedlines will be too welcome, a nice high longwire that can be loaded up on 80 (and perhaps even 160) should be very achievable. Going from an apartment to an acre of land with tall trees will be great from an amateur radio point of view.  (It will also be fun from a “mowing the lawn” point of view too!)

So not much radio for me until I get settled in the new place, but I am really looking forward to seeing how QRP CW will work when I am able to hang a nice high sky-wire.

January 14, 2010

The Art and Skill Of Radio-Telegraphy

As anyone who reads this blog or follows my Twitter knows, I have an interest in SDR. At this stage in the game, I would imagine that almost anyone with an interest in radio, whether amateur radio or any other kind of serious listening, would find SDR very compelling.

Ever since Flex sent me a copy of PowerSDR on CD about a year ago, I haven’t been able to get it to work on my PC.  Long story short, it turned out to be a soundcard configuration problem and once I figured that out a few days ago, I’ve been happily playing with PowerSDR in conjunction with my SoftRock Lite II on 40M. While perusing the FlexRadio website for documentation on using PowerSDR, I came across a free download of a fantastic publication called “The Art & Skill Of RadioTelegraphy” by N0HFF. I’m sure that most CW types are well familiar with this 241-page tome, but it’s a new one to me.  It is subtitled  “For those who are interested in telegraphy, for those who would like to learn it, for those who love it, and for those who want to improve their skills in it” and to anyone who is interested in furthering their skills in CW,  it’s a fascinating read.

William Pierpont N0HFF

There is much space given over to the discussion of high speed reading and copying, including interviews with several very accomplished high speed code operators.  When discussing high speed code, Bill Pierpont mentions that as you progress and are able to read and copy at higher speeds, at some point (I believe the range of around 50wpm was quoted) , it becomes impossible to think of code as being made up of separate letters.  At that point, you’re not really consciously even decoding whole words, but listening to the flow and rhythm and just knowing what is being said. The author quotes examples of operators who couldn’t recall individual words or phrases that were used, but knew precisely what information was being conveyed. This is a truly proficient operator; the code has become transparent to him.  It is analogous with the point where you finally get the hang of riding a bicycle.  You no longer concentrate on pedalling and keeping your balance – you just do it relatively effortlessly.

I found that interesting, because even at my much lower speeds in the range of  10-20wpm, I have moments where I experience block and cannot read code. If I relax, my ability to read comes back. This morning while making the first cup of coffee of the day (a wonderful moment!) I was listening to a mini pile-up on 40.  I heard one fairly loud station calling and wanted to know his callsign. I don’t know why, because he wasn’t sending fast, but I had to listen intently to his callsign several times before figuring out that he was W6AUG.  At the very moment that I consciously decoded his callsign, I realized that I had already known who he was. The unconscious part of my brain already knew it was W6AUG.  The only reason I kept consciously trying hard to decode it was because I wasn’t trusting myself.  Interesting stuff, and it backs up a fairly common experience I have; whenever I experience a block in reading or copying code, all I have to do is relax, and the ability to read it comes back.

If you have the slightest interest in morse code and haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend this free download.  Googling “The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy” will give you links to many places you can get it. I got mine by going to the downloads section of the FlexRadio site and searching for “manuals”. It’s at the bottom of that list of downloads. This edition was revised in 2002. As Bill passed away in 2003, this version is probably the most up to date one available.

EDIT – Reader Howard informed me that the link I had to the Flex Radio downloads page was broken. I found the new url, but couldn’t find a link to the download of this book. This one is working as of right now – and if it doesn’t, a quick Google search should locate this book for you.

And now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, it’s time for my second cup of coffee of the day.

January 11, 2010

Software Defined or Hardware Defined – Which Way to Go?

The main project going on in the AA7EE  “shack” (for which read “main room of my studio apartment”) has been, and will continue to be, the monumental task of committing my sizable collection of cassettes, CDs, DAT tapes and broadcast carts to backed up hard drives.  This is an ongoing project which I expect to take several years. Over the course of a 22 year career as a DJ, I amassed a lot of stuff that is becoming wieldy and expensive to lug around, so it’s time to start consolidating.

So whenever I’m listening to the radio or soldering something, I’m often also ripping a CD, scanning the artwork, or calling up my friend Antoinette and trying to give her as many of the CD’s that I just ripped as possible. I spent 22 years accumulating stuff (opens in a new browser window) and I now want a good portion of it gone (thanks Antoinette!)

All that aside, the amateur radio goings-on here have included building a neat little direct conversion receiver for 40M – the VRX-1 designed by NT7S and sold by the 4SQRP club. It’s a cool little DC receiver.  I’ve been having a bit of a problem with the input bandpass filter, so it’s on the back burner for a while, but it’s been a fun Manhattan building experience:

NT7S’ fun DC receiver got me all charged up.  The first successful TX/RX I ever built was an 80M DSB TX/RX designed by G4JST and G3WPO and published in the UK magazine “Ham Radio Today” in March 1983. It utilized a direct conversion receiver, to which I added an audio filter built from a 741 op-amp.  It was my first experience with DC receivers, and I remember being surprised that such a simple receiver could sound so good. Jason’s VRX-1 re-introduced me to the pleasures of DC receivers, as well as the technique of Manhattan construction (my first time), so by the time I’d finished construction, I was all primed up and ready to swoon at any direct conversion receiver that might flit it’s tail feathers at me.

John AE5X’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. Allow me to repost this picture of the 80M direct conversion TX/RX that the Arizona ScQRPions will be providing a kit for very soon:

The details are here. I was beyond excited when I found about this (thanks John).

I have a mental list of several different QRP rigs that I want to build, among them the Weber Dual Bander, and either the Elecraft K1 or K2. However……SDR has been on my mind too recently.  I built the SoftRock Lite II for 40M a few months ago and was impressed with the performance for such a simple piece of hardware, and low price too.  Of course, the simplicity of the hardware and the low price is a bit misleading because the signal processing is all done in software.  This is the beauty of SDR though – if a better demodulator or filter is available, you just download it.

I’ve been using the SoftRock to monitor the CW portion of 40M, and then once I see a signal, I can work him on the main rig, which is currently a Norcal 2N2/40.  Yesterday, I built a combined switch and dummy load into an Altoids-type tin so I can easily accomplish switching the antenna between the SoftRock and the 2N2/40.  The 2N2/40 is a cracking little rig – a sensitive low-noise receiver with a stable VFO (after the intial warm-up period).  It has a nice narrow crystal filter too which is great for working people, but not as convenient when you’re trying to find stations to work.

So….what I do is use the SoftRock to look at a wide portion of the band.  With my soundcard, I can look at a 96KHz-wide slice of the band on my screen, and the minute I see a station, flip over to the 2N2/40 and work him. It works well but it got me to thinking – why switch over to a traditional radio to work a station that I find with SDR? Why not just get an SDR transceiver and avoid having to switch over to a hardware defined radio?

Hardly original thinking.  I’m sure it’s the same thought process that has led many an amateur to adopt an SDR rig as their main station radio. FlexRadio are about to introduce their Flex-1500, which is a 5 watt all HF band SDR transceiver.

Mighty tempting and with my limited amateur radio budget, I’m now wondering whether to continue building all the QRP transceiver kits I’ve had my eye on, whether to build the SoftRock v6.3 HF TX/RX, or whether to go for broke and get the Flex-1500 when it comes out.

In the meantime, I have a KD1JV Digital dial on order, which will turn the Norcal 2N2/40 into an even more usable little radio.

Oh, and I have 1,000’s of CD’s to rip and perform hi-res artwork scans.  It’s not as if I’ll be sitting here twiddling my thumbs.

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