A View Of The Radio Room, Frugality, and Z11 ATU Failure

Ooops, I haven’t posted to this blog in a while.  My apologies. I’ve been having a QRP CW QSO or two almost every day, but haven’t been doing anything amateur radio-wise worthy of a post. Although the radio has been on every day and evening, with the occasional QSO along the way, the main activity here at AA7EE has been something I may have mentioned in this blog before, and have certainly mentioned in the occasional tweet, and that is the task of committing my sizable CD collection to hard drive. You may not think that it sounds that arduous, perhaps comparing the task to that of ripping a few CD’s to your iTunes. I can promise you that it’s a much more lengthy proposition.  Firstly, being way too detail-oriented for my own good, if I’m going to get rid of any CD’s, I want them ripped as accurately as possible.  Accurate rips tend to take longer than the rips performed with iTunes.  I use a piece of software called Exact Audio Copy and rip the CD’s to FLAC, which gives a slightly compressed file with no loss of audio quality whatsoever.  On top of that, I make high-res scans of all the artwork associated with the CD  – every page of the CD booklet, as well as both sides of the rear insert. This all takes time.

To make things just a bit harder still, when I started this project, I had 10,000 CD’s. The collection is down to around 8,000 now.  I’ve missed a CD rack or two out but for the most part, this is what it looks like. You can see the operating position in the first shot:

This one doesn’t show any more of the CD collection, just a little more of the room:

Continuing to move to the left, this is where things get a little involved (box sets on top):

And a view of the corridor leading to the bathroom:

Eventually, I’d like to have all of these CD’s on hard drive and have the physical collection curated down to perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 – though I’d like to have these accessible on hard drive also. Whether I’ll ever get there is another matter, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

While all of this is going on, I usually have the radio on. Recently I’ve been monitoring 14060 in the day, with the occasional QSO resulting. Jason NT7S tipped me off to the fact that F2GL was on 20M the other evening, and lo and behold, he almost heard my 5 watts! I say almost because he sent me a series of ??’s but couldn’t quite copy the whole callsign. The rest of the time it’s just been QSO’s with Stateside stations, though anything that will keep me in practice with CW works for me.

Then last night, I couldn’t get the antenna to tune. The LDG Z11 tuner kept searching for a match but couldn’t find one.  “Odd”, I thought, especially as I was on 40M, the band the dipole is cut for, “maybe the antenna is broken somehow” I mused.  I bypassed the ATU and checked the SWR of the antenna – not brilliant, but a solid 1.4:1 on the lower half of 40 (the half that matters to me).  I hooked up a 50 ohm load to the Z11 and discovered that it couldn’t even match the FT-817 to a 50 ohm load.

A quick e-mail to LDG confirmed that they can fix my Z11. The tech assured me that repair costs for it never go above $50.

My Signalink USB suffered damage from static a few weeks ago and I still haven’t gotten around to sending that in for repair.  The main reason is that I’m semi-retired and living on a strict budget (very early days, concerned about survivability of the portfolio until I’m old, etc etc), and the other part of the reason is that I don’t badly need the Signalink. The only mode I use it for is WSPR and though I find WSPR interesting, CW is the mode that captivates me the most. Without going into detail (I’ll save that for my “Living Below My Means and Retiring Early” blog if I ever start one – though there are plenty of ’em already around), since stopping working, I think a lot more before spending money on anything. Though in some cases this does lead to me having less fun, it’s really not that bad.

I don’t like the idea of having a piece of gear that doesn’t work, but I’m interested in maximizing my ham radio fun for the minimum amount of money, and for the few times I use the Signalink, I think I’ll leave it un-repaired for the time being. The Z11 seems like a much more essential piece of equipment, but as I was considering this, I remembered the MFJ tuner that I bought back in the early 1990’s and used with a TS520.  It’s been languishing in a box somewhere for years, and in this day and age of auto-tuners, I didn’t think I’d ever have a need for a manual tuner anymore. I mean, they take so long to tune compared with the 1 or 2 second tunes I get from the Z11.

Well, that’s what I thought.  I dragged out the MFJ tuner, hooked it up and made a little list of rough settings for the CW portion of each HF band which is now taped above the tuner.

Here’s the new set-up. FT-817 on the right, ATU to the left of it, and box for switching between external speaker and headphones to the left of that, with the straight key on top (paddle down below).  The external speaker is an MFJ “Clear Tone” speaker, which is just out of the shot:

And a close-up of that cheat-sheet:

Following the cheat-sheet gets me close enough that I can make final adjustments as I send the first few letters of a transmission – often I don’t even need to do that.  The thing that surprised me is that using the manual tuner,  once I had the cheat-sheet written up, isn’t much harder than using an auto-tuner – and the box with the knobs on looks kind of cool, in an old-school sort of way.

I like the fact that not much can go wrong with this manual tuner, so I think I’ll stick with it for the time being.

What was the point of this post, if any? Well not much, other than showing you some pictures of my place and telling you some of what’s been going on, but if I had to harvest a point from these paragraphs and my recent musings, it would be that if you want maximum fun for your ham radio bucks, here’s what to do:

  • Learn CW. It’s the best mode because decoding it keeps your brain active.  How challenging is listening to a voice transmission or reading characters from a screen?
  • Build or buy one good HF CW rig.
  • Try hard not to spend money on expensive antennas.  If you have the space, put up a good wire antenna – and get it as high and as in the clear as possible. This is far more important than spending lots of money on some shiny impressive-looking radiator. All an antenna is, is lengths of wire laid out in different arrangements – that’s all. Heck, even if you don’t have the space, try a simple wire antenna anyway.  A few months ago I worked KA6JLT. He’s in Reno, about 175 miles from me. His 5 watts was coming in 559 and all he had for an antenna was (and I quote from his QRZ page)  an “indoor ceiling-mounted random wire” in his second floor apartment.
  • What else do you need – a key, or paddle, a power-supply, and some wiring to connect it all together.

If you’re creative, you can probably procure the above for not too much but even if, like me, you’re not overly creative, and happen to like buying things, here’s my idea of a really good CW HF station based on the above:

  • An Elecraft K2  – either build it yourself or buy one from someone else.
  • An Elecraft T1 stand alone QRP ATU – more versatile than the K2 internal ATU, as you can mount it remotely if you need to.
  • A paddle of your own choosing. There are so many, but the Bencher BY-1 is not a bad start for $125 (cheaper if you buy it used). If you’re a straight key only kind of guy, the KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment is $50 inc shipping.
  • Power supply – I use some sealed lead acid batteries kept topped up by an Elk-624 charger which is constantly on.  If there is a power outage, my station just keeps on trucking!

You can get all the above,  plus some wire for an antenna, for around $1200 – less if you buy used. I know that you’re going to spend money on other ham radio things, but you could quite easily spend 10 years making the above station the main focus of your hobby. The gear will last that long (and more) and what will it have cost you? Well, that comes to about $120/year, or $10/month for a top-quality CW station. Who says that amateur radio is an expensive hobby? That calculation ignores the fact that after 10 years, if you decide to get something else, your K2 will still be worth something, but it also ignores the fact that you’ll probably need to spend a bit of dosh replacing the antenna every now and again.

In other news, the beta-testing of the new CC-40 transceiver from Etherkit has been delayed – not cancelled, just delayed.  In the meantime, Jason hopes to be putting out another 40M CW transceiver kit which I’m very much looking forward to beta-testing.  More news on that as things develop.

Well that was a bit of a rambly post.  I promise that when the beta kit arrives from NT7S, you’ll see a bit more “meat” on this blog!


14 thoughts on “A View Of The Radio Room, Frugality, and Z11 ATU Failure

  1. Nice post Dave, and glad to see you are still alive and kicking.

    That CD collection is impressive and scary all at the same time. So much media and it all needs to be converted. Yikes! Eventually CD’s will go the way of vinyl and CDROM drives will follow and then you’ll be stuck. Okay, maybe not but who knows? The rate of change for “standard” media would be a concern if I had that many discs. I have 150 video tapes that “some day” I plan to move to the hard drive. Or to DvD. Been meaning to do that for a decade or so. Maybe we will one day just lose all interest and just trash them…


    1. Jeff – I have been putting so much time and effort into archiving all this stuff that, like you, I thought that by the time I get close to finishing, I may not care that much anymore! I didn’t mention that I’ve already committed a bunch of DAT tapes to hard drive, and have several hundred cassettes of old radio shows etc still to do. Then there’s the vinyl…….

      If I could bravely get rid of half of it and put the rest in storage, I could buy an RV, go out on the road, and start the next phase of my life (a dream of mine), though I do admit that the process of archiving is quite a journey of discovery. My tolerance for highly repetitive tasks helps also 🙂

  2. Wow Dave – what a daunting task. It could be worse though – it could be me that had to do it 😉
    Like Jeff, I have a few (very few) video tapes whose conversion to digi, I’ve been postponing for a decade or so. To quote Phoebe in “Friends” “I’d like to do it, but I don’t want to!”

  3. Hello Dave,

    A very interesting post and quite a music collection there! I can’t imagine the time it would take to transfer all those CD’s to a hard drive but….Still, music is a universal language, and a worthy endeavor towards happiness and joy in life. And…I’m happy to see your enthusiasm toward both music and ham radio. I see similarities between music and Morse code. I’ve always said that listening to a good “fist” is like hearing a fine piece of good music: They’re somewhat the same animal.

    1. John – if only my fist were half as good as some of the musical recordings I have here! Mind you, it’s better than a few of them……

    1. To archive the entire collection will take 6-7TB Bill. When I began doing it, 1TB drives were at the sweet spot between size and affordability. I figured that by the time I got anywhere close to finishing, I’d be able to fit the whole lot on a single drive, and seeing that I’m several years away from that, it looks like I’m on track.

      However it’s not just a case of using one drive, as the 1TB drive I’m currently using (which is nearly full) is part of a 2-drive mirrored RAID 1 array for data redundancy, combined with another 1TB drive stored in a separate physical location as an extra backup. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to ensure the security of this data, but I have to make sure I’m not going to lose my music once it’s stored entirely on hard drives.

    1. I do still have it David – was going to send it back to LDG to be fixed, but never got around to it, so it’s sitting in it’s box on the shelf!

  4. Hi Dave,

    I wish I were as tidy as you, I doubt I could find half my CDs. I was thinking of geting a Brannan ( not sure about the spelling ) to load and play all my music, maybe one day???

    Small question, why the union flag from 1606 and not the one from 1801?

    1. The Brennan looks like a really useful piece of gear John. Since I posted this almost 2 years ago, I have made some progress in committing the CD collection to hard drive, but there is still a long way to. I hadn’t even noticed that the little flag in the picture is an earlier version of the Union Flag – no disrespect meant to Ireland. I don’t remember where it came from now – a party gift or something like that. I feel even less British now for not having noticed! Thanks for the comment and have a great day.

      1. No Prob Dave, it was just something that I noticed as I had been having a conversation about the correct way up the flag should be flown.
        I have been agonising over a Brennan for some time, I think it makes sense as I can then ditch my Denon HiFi setup and save some space on the shelf, I never did get the radio part working as the pidgeons bent the HiFi antenna long ago besides I need to find more space for a 6m dipole but a rotator seems to be a problem as I can only get one pole up there.
        Oh well need to think up a solution.
        You have a good day and 73s


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