Dave Richards AA7EE

August 23, 2011

OMG

There have been very few times in my life when I have uttered the words “Oh my god”.  I don’t really like that particular exclamation; it’s certainly not my style. For the only the second time I can remember, I just uttered those words twice in a row when this appeared in my inbox just now:

I’m not even going to try and explain how exciting the above is to me.  Don’t worry – I’ll have plenty of words at some point in the future. By the way, although the above mentions the CC-40, I’m pretty sure the beta kit I’ll be receiving will be for the CC-20.

OK, calm yourself Dave. Try to act normal, and suppress the urge to run around in the street and yell gibberish, interspersed with maniacally happy laughter. That kind of behavior is NOT NORMAL.

I also just received notification that my WM-2 QRP Wattmeter kit just shipped today from Oak Hills Research so once again, things will be busy at the AA7EE ranch very soon 🙂

May 18, 2011

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

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio,QRP — AA7EE @ 3:05 pm
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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!

March 15, 2011

Keeping Frequencies Clear On HF and The Latest On The CC-40

The news from Japan continues to unfold on a daily basis. After reading so many reports from official news channels and reactions in so many personal blogs, it’s hard to know what to say without repeating what others have said. It is difficult to imagine what those affected must be going through right now.  I don’t imagine it’s possible to know what it’s like to have to go from having a house and a decent life to spending nights in near freezing weather with little or no water, food or other possessions.  One lady who spoke to a reporter was even having to borrow a pair of socks from a neighbor. Imagine losing everything; I don’t think we can unless we were to go through that experience.

JARL has requested that amateurs worldwide keep a set of frequencies clear in order to aid emergency communications efforts by amateurs in Japan. Other reports have requested that we keep clear a window of ±5KHz around these spot frequencies and this seems reasonable, given that Japanese amateurs will be using SSB.  Most of the time it’s pretty unlikely that CW QRP signals from US amateurs will interfere with these emergency communications from Japanese hams, but given the magnitude of this disaster and the fact that theirs is definitely the greater need, I’m keeping clear of 7025-7035 when on 40M, the band on which I spend most of my time, and I hope that others will do so too.

Listening to 7030, it’s apparent that not everyone is doing this. Perhaps they’re not too well connected with the internet and didn’t hear about the request from JARL or perhaps they assume that at many times of day, the chances of them interfering with communications in Japan are slight to nil. The interference justification is a valid one during the daytime but I’m staying away from that window anyway just to be sure, and as a measure of respect. Who knew I would miss a 10KHZ slice of band so much – I hadn’t really thought about it, but on looking through the log, the majority of my QSO’s are on or near 7030. Sure, I go up and down the band, and also to other bands, but for me, the meat and potatoes of my QRP CW life is hanging around 7030.

In the past when looking at designs of simple rockbound transceivers, I often felt that I was giving up a lot by opting for the simplicity of rock-bound design and would direct my interest toward more frequency agile circuits.  In the past year since going almost completely 100% CW with VFO-controlled rigs, when on 40M, I leave the rig on 7030 and sit there. I might as well have opted for the crystal-controlled designs!

The point that I’m trying to get to is that I often mentally discount simpler designs because I want a radio that will “do it all”, or at least do quite a lot.  There are two ways of doing a lot though.  You can either do it on all frequencies, modes and bands, or you can pick one simple approach (in this case QRP CW on 7030) and stick with it. For others, their one thing is CW on Top Band, or eme using JT-65.

Talking of 40M CW, Jason NT7S has experienced a few unforeseen challenges with the design of the CC-40 which have all been overcome. The most recent difficulty resulted in him implementing a design change that actually improves the rig’s performance; current consumption was creeping up towards 40mA on receive but is now in the region of 25mA with no loss in performance, due to cleverly switching off the micro-controller when not in use.  I find the prospect of a 40M superhet with a 500Hz filter that only consumes 25mA quite exciting – especially as I plan to power my station from solar eventually. The frequency coverage will be somewhere in the region of 40-50KHz, so I plan on setting it up to cover the bottom 45KHz or so of the band.  If you told me that I could only have a 50KHz slice of amateur spectrum, I’d opt for 7000-7050 without even stopping to think about it twice, so the CC-40 could well represent my ideal basic amateur rig.

Keeping my fingers crossed, I should to be able to report within a week or two on this blog that the CC-40 Beta Kit has been received at AA7EE, and at that point hopefully Jason will be able to take a brief and much deserved break (I bet he’s laughing as he reads this.)

March 6, 2011

Signalink USB Fried

I live in an old house with equally old wiring.  There is no ground anywhere in the house – all the electrical outlets have just 2 connections. I’ve thought for a while that I should drive a long copper rod into the earth outside for my station ground, and if I had done this, then the following might not have happened.

A week or two ago I noticed that when I touched the metal casing of either my FT-817 or Z11 tuner, I felt a sharp tingling of electricity – the metal cases were no longer at ground potential. If I remember correctly, we had experienced some storms recently, so perhaps there was static buildup on the cases. Shortly afterward, I noticed that the Signalink USB was cycling the FT-817 transmit mode on and off continuously. Turning the delay pot on the Signalink USB fully counterclockwise kept the PTT switched on permanently. On opening it up, I noticed the the chip at the top right-hand side of the board in the following picture (just above the crystal) was very hot:

This was not good.  On calling Tigertronics technical support, they confirmed that the symptoms sounded very much like the unit had suffered damage from static. If I shipped it back to them, they would take out the old board and install a new one with the same case and knobs for $49.95 plus the cost of shipping it back to me.  This sounded reasonable – even if they had opted to fix my board at the component level, the cost of labor would bring the final cost  to the same point (or even more).

The helpful tech gave me an RMA and I was all set to return my Signalink USB for a replacement board when it occurred to me that I haven’t actually used it in a couple of months. The most use I have made of it was when I was doing WSPR last year and the year before. Other than that, it has been useful on the occasion that I decide to fiddle around with a digital mode for fun, which I have done on occasion, but none of the digital modes have held my attention.

The only digital mode I’ve consistently used recently, in fact the only mode I’ve used recently, is CW, and I don’t use a computer to decode it – I use my head. For this reason, I think I’m going to hold back on getting the board in the Signalink USB replaced.  It’s a fair deal, but there are other things I can do with my ham radio dollars right now.

In other news, Jason NT7S hopes to ship the beta kits for the CC-40 transceiver to the beta testers this coming week.  If all goes well, you’ll see pictures and a description of the beta version of the kit on this blog in perhaps 2 – 2 1/2 weeks. I’m furiously trying to improve my sending on the paddle and wondering if my continuous mis-keying is due to operator error, or the fact that my Bencher paddle feels a little springy when set to operate from a light touch. It could well be a case of a bad workman blaming his tools, but I’m wondering what other types of paddle feel like.  I don’t think the Bencher is my ideal paddle and am wondering which other ones to try. What about a single lever paddle – does anyone have thoughts on that? I quite like the idea of the single lever paddle.

I was unable to operate the ARRL CW DX Contest due to an out of town trip. What awful timing!  I’m available almost every weekend except that particular one.  I was home this weekend for the ARRL Phone DX Contest but couldn’t make myself pick up a mic.  I did finally call a couple of stations in the contest, but was privately relieved when they didn’t come back to me, as I really didn’t want to muddy up the log with any phone contacts. Since taking up CW, phone has lost it’s appeal.  I really enjoy the mental exercise of decoding CW, and phone operation just doesn’t offer the same engagement; it seems too easy. That’s my take – I’m sure phone operators will have a different perspective.  I’d be happy to hear from you guys here.

February 8, 2011

The USBtinyISP – The First Step In Building Etherkit’s New CC-40 40M QRP Transceiver

Jason NT7S is currently busy building the first beta of his new CC-40 40M QRP transceiver that uses the PCB’s he designed. It hasn’t been completely smooth but then, that’s why beta versions are built before kits go out to the general kit-buying public. The beta builders are beginning to congregate on our private beta builders forum on the etherkit site (I’m sure we all feel very special – I know I do) and we’re all ready and raring to go with our beta builds. Among the beta builders are Brian N1FIY and Mike WB8ICN who are more experienced at building NT7S designs than myself, as they have both built the Willamette Transceiver.  Brian’s Willamette is a little more than half complete. Mike’s is finished and is a real beauty! I did build Jason’s VRX-1 Direct Conversion Receiver as offered by 4SQRP, but it was a simple and straightforward project, so I haven’t truly lost my NT7S virginity yet. Good grief, that didn’t sound right.

In case you’re tuning in for the first time. Here’s a link to the page on Jason’s blog in which he describes the features of this upcoming transceiver. Bear in mind that these are preliminary features; things may change a little by the time the CC-40 reaches the production stage, and also bear in mind the fact that the picture in Jason’s post is a prototype; the kit you receive will have a beautifully produced PCB (oh – and the final version employs surface mounted devices for most of the active and passive devices – in other words, nearly all the components are SMT’s.)

I have to take issue with the name of your blog post though Jason – it’s not exactly lifted out of the pages of the first lesson in the class “Effective Marketing 101”!  Contrary to the title of the post, I think a lot of folk are going to care about this transceiver. The microcontroller, which will control muting, frequency readout, keying, battery status, and possibly other functions in the future can be programmed in-circuit.  By the time the kit is available on the etherkit site, I’m sure that the firmware included on the controller will be very capable, but if you ever need to update the firmware, you’ll be able to do so with the aid of a simple device like the USBtinyISP.

For beta builders like myself, it’s pretty important that we are able to update the firmware ourselves, as Jason is still putting the finishing touches to it, and we won’t have anything like a final version of the firmware with our beta kits.  We could mail the transceiver back to him for re-programming, but it’s probably simpler to do it ourselves, which is where the USBtinyISP kit from Adafruit Industries comes in.  It’s an In-System-Programmer (hence the acronym) for AVR microcontrollers, meaing that to flash new firmware onto the chip, you don’t have to take it out of circuit – you can do it while the chip is still installed on the board in-circuit.

This is hardly worth that much of a description as it’s such a simple kit to build, but I like taking pictures of what goes on here and posting them, so here’s the bag the kit comes in:

You’ll notice that as well as being used as an AVR In-System Programmer (our intended use), it can also be used as a SpokePOV Adapter. What the heck is one of those, I wondered? I thought it was some highly technical buzz-word that had passed me by (as in “Hey Bill, you were coming in 599 when you were using the SpokePOV Adapter wired in parallel with the wim-bim-fertang-fertang-bus-stop-ole-biscuit-barrel.”) Turns out that Adafruit sell a kit for a thing called a SpokePOV which is an array of LED’s that you fix to the back wheel of your bicycle.  POV stands for Persistence Of Vision, and the idea is that as your back wheel spins round, the individual LED’s appear as solid blocks of light.  You can use this USBtinyISP kit to program the patterns that appear on your back wheel, if you also have a SpokePOV kit from Adafruit.

If on the other hand, you’re a boring old fart like me, and just want to use the USBtinyISP to flash new firmware onto the AVR microcontroller in your new CC-40 from etherkit (or any other AVR microcontroller for that matter) just make sure to install wire jumpers in place of R4 and R7 per the instructions.

Look what a simple kit this is:

Here’s the completed board:

and fitted inside the case:

Hey, if I can build this, I can build an Elecraft K2 right? (Well, joking aside, I’m sure that there is nothing hard about the K2 other than an awful lot more parts to be stuffed and soldered.)

Now to find me some small tweezers and some .02″ diameter solder for all those SMT devices in the CC-40 and I’ll be all set.

There’s only one other thing for me to do to in order to get ready for this cool new QRP transceiver, and that is to keep plugging away at the CW, but that’s a subject for another post.

January 25, 2011

Beta Testing A New CW Transceiver

I’ve been passing on news in this blog about Jason NT7S’ upcoming QRP transceiver kit, which he initially referred to as “Project X” before revealing the name of the series of transceivers as the CC series, and the first model for 40M, the CC-40. He also told us that his new open-source amateur radio company will be called etherkit.

I was thrilled to find out that I’ll be beta-testing the CC-40 which is great news.  I finally have a 40M antenna that seems to perform quite well – an inverted vee dipole with the center at 47 feet. I’ve never beta-tested a product before, and the idea of doing so is quite novel to me.  I’m not a circuit design person, but am quite proficient at building circuits and kits to other people’s instructions.  This makes me,  I think, closely fit the profile of the kind of people who build kits, and therefore, good material for a beta tester.  That’s my tin pot theory anyway!

I do like to take my own pictures of the projects embarked on here at AA7EE to break up the monotony of all-text blog posts, so as long as it’s OK with Jason, I’ll be posting pictures of the pre-production versions of the CC-40 and letting you know how construction, as well as operation, goes. When at the workbench I’ll have a radio tuned to 7030 and will be eager to try the CC-40 out on the same, or similar, frequency.

One recent update of Jason’s did make me happy, and that is that he has decided to include a sinewave sidetone. This does increase the current consumption of the circuit, but in my opinion,  should make for a much better operating experience.

I’m not quite sure when beta testing will begin, but it looks like it will be a matter of weeks.  As always, ground zero for updates on the CC-40 and CC series of transceivers will be at the upcoming etherkit site and on Jason NT7S’ blog.

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