Adjusting Gear and Forward Thoughts at K9ZW

Added a couple bits of kit – picked up a Flex-6300 from a ham who tried it and didn’t really take to a computer driven rig. Worked out for both of us as I avoided the backlog so I could get another Flex-6000 series radio to use up north on weekends, and he can change to a rig he is comfortable with.

It is worth commenting that there are some basic truisms about equipment that include the absolute that “Not every ham has the same style, interests and goals, so by definition no one radio will be the perfect rig for every ham.” “Horses for Courses” as they say.

In working on my Collins Vintage S-Line Station it has become pretty obvious than an antenna coupler/tuner would be an advantage if I wanted to be able to switch-in the S-Line station with my present antenna setup. I found a British Decca/K.W. 107 SuperMatch that will do the job while blending in with the S-Line gear form-factor.

The S-Line Station has been 18 months or more in the assembly, so it is time to get it on the air! This should do it.

73

Steve
K9ZW

Summer 2014 K9ZW Shack Upgrades

Have a bunch of things in the works – swapping rotors for an AlphaSpid unit and a major home shack computer upgrade (details in a later post). Bought a copy of the latest Ham Radio Deluxe to try out.

For the remote station intended for Washington Island use, a SteppIR CrankIR antenna with 80m kit will be put in use, and have acquired a Flex Radio Systems Flex-6300. Initially I’ll push the old shack computer into service there, but have another box that I’d like to put into use there.

Slow evolution, but very positive improvements!

73

Steve
K9ZW

Boomset Upgrade – Arlan RadioSport RS60CF Headset

RadioSport RS60CF Headset

RadioSport RS60CF Headset

One item I noticed at the Dayton Hamvention but was unable to buy there was the Arlan Communications RadioSport RS60CF Headset and related listen only headphones.

Several manufacturers were using the listen only version to demonstrate their radios.

I’d also recently read Stu K6TU’s account of how much he liked his new RS60CF.

Alas a search of the Hara from end to end didn’t find anyone selling the RadioSport headsets.

But they are featured on line:

http://www.arlancommunications.com/products/amateurRadio/radioSport/RS60CF.asp

These are in the same price range as a moderate to good basic aviation boomset, putting a a setup in the $350 price range.

Initial impression out of the box is these are above expectations and hugely comfortable.

I’ll post a report after I get some hours in using the RS60CFs.

73

Steve
K9ZW

Station Design and Documentation Tools – Scapple & Scrivener

Documenting an amateur radio station is very easy when you have one radio running barefoot (no amp or other gear), yet gets very complex quickly with each additional radio/operating station or accessory exponentially adding complexity to the documentation effort.

I am experimenting with using two writer’s tools to plan and document my station:

Scrivener_ArrangingWordsSmall

Scrivener – a multi-file cross-file editor and project writing system.
Scrivener Link:   http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

and

showcase-scapple_header

Scapple – a freeform graphical relationship editor.
Scapple Link: http://literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php

Both are by the British firm “Literature and Latte” and are truly much more powerful than needed for this task, but as I use them for other writing tasks it only makes sense to keep using them.

Literature and Latte Logo

Literature and Latte Link:  http://literatureandlatte.com/

These tools can be configured so very many ways, but what I am doing in Scrivener is putting every piece of hardware and software information I can gather, including my individual settings, into Scrivener “Characters” which can be grouped into operating positions (and reused where appropriate when shared or duplicated).

I’m dumping in spec sheets, operating & technical manuals, receipts, crib notes – basically everything I can gather to do with an item.  Scrivener considers that my “research” and acts like a database/filing system for all that data.

Then the mission critical is brought up into the actual station notes as Chapters & other divisions.

The Scrivener file is a type of archive that can be accessed in various ways, and is inclusive of all the research as well as the product documents.

The Station Notes export document is a flater document distilled down to what I’ve included as actual station notes.

Sounds more complex than it is, and I will do research data entry item by item over a period of time.

Did I mention you can incorporate pdfs and media files in both the research and the product document?

Awesome tool really intended for script writing, novel writing, and other complex major work projects.  I’ve just coopted it to adapt to a technical hobby use.

Scrapple comes into play as the tool to make up the connectivity and other relationship drawings to outline the Station Notes.  I know I could do these sketches on CAD software, but this is slick and easy, and rolls seamlessly into my Scrivener work.  Presently Scrapple is OS-X only, which is fine for my use, but leaves me looking for a similar resource for the Windows Based Scrivener work I do for work.

If there is interest, I can post some samples of the various levels of work to share.

Maybe using these tools (which are the huge total of $60.00 worth of software, which is amazingly inexpensive for their power & utility) is like taking something like a Ferrari to the supermarket.  Yet it is nice to know the product of the exercise will easily meet and exceed every foreseeable Station Notes use.

As a spoiler I do have point out YMMV, as I had already invested the time to learn the basics of Scrivener – without this time spent I would have an extra hour or two of learning curve.

73

Steve

K9ZW

Just the Contact, Nothing More – JT65 Mode QSOs

There are a good many people having a stab at running JT65 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JT65#JT65 )

The mode is interesting as it is much about very precise timekeeping as anything. By very carefully syncing the transmitter and receivers software the receiver can complete reception below any normal communication mode.

It sort of reminds me of when I was once asked to be part of a team watching a particular window in a particular apartment building to see if the light was on at a certain time. In the midst of all the noise (all the lights going on & off in the hundreds of windows) that one particular window would be lit up at exactly a certain instance apparently meant something – afraid we were never told exactly what, but it much have been important!

Through timing a sequencing JT65 is hundreds of “little windows” that the software checks in a certain sequence at very specific times. That binary is parsed into a 13 character message from some 47 seconds churning!

I’d originally said I wouldn’t write about JT65 until I had logged 100 JT65 QSOs. Well I am not quite there but I think my thoughts have jelled.

JT65 is a QSO distilled down to nearly the least amount of data to transfer in meeting the most basic requirements for a QSO. Remember a QSO has a certain form – exchange of reports, call signs and such – you can find more on that at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contact_(amateur_radio)

Ragchewing is simply not going to happen in a JT65 QSO – there is so little data being moved that conversation gives way to just the contact requirements of a QSO.

JT65HF Main Screen (from Users Manual)

JT65HF Main Screen (from Users Manual)

So what is JT65 good for? Well it does qualify as a QSO you can log and count for awards. It does work when conditions are very sour making even CW a task. It brings a challenge of very accurate clock timekeeping to the ham shack. I’ve found it works a charm as a semi automatic QSO process when doing other shack tasks that would make many modes difficult. It is a pretty fear-free way to try digital communications.

Using JT65HF Software a QSO is pretty well defined. Call CQ, Answer CQ Call, Send Report, Acknowledge and Return Report, RR Confirm and an optional 73. Each 13 character and the wait to decode takes about 48-50 seconds, and the next person doesn’t transmit until on the start of the next minute. A full JT65HF QSO is something like a 6 minute undertaking to exchange only the basics.

Yet what other mode can I work across the USA on 160m at less than 20 watts input (and my 160m antenna is most certainly a negative gain antenna) in awful conditions? Even interesting modes like Throb and Olivia are surpassed for rough condition basic QSO contacts by JT65HF.

Do I “like” JT65HF? When conditions are tough it does meet my needs to just reach out and confirm that I can make a contact. While it doesn’t warm up to my interest to learn about my fellow ham, understand his “operating conditions” and hopefully leave a favorable & friendly impression, it does work when almost nothing else does.

I’m impressed by the technology and cleverness of the mode.

It is also nice to have a communication alternative that is sort of mindlessly “point-and-shoot” and nearing QRP levels.

It is obvious the capabilities of JT65 have kept it alive on terrestrial HF bands for several years now. While it never will displace full conversational digital modes, it is neat and has its place.

I can see having the software on the machine and running some periodically. By the way, you get the JT65HF version of a pile-up as a Wisconsin Station on 160m. Apparently not too many fellow Packer Fans run JT65HF regularly. Here is a manual for JT65HF http://openhpsdr.org/wiki/images/0/0c/Jt65-hf-setup.pdf

Catch you on the air, broadcasting exactly on the top on the minute in JT65HF!!

All best and 73

Steve
K9ZW

Lions and Tigers and Bears – Oh My! – Serial Ports in the Complex Ham Software Setup

I’ve been amazed, and deeply frustrated, at the complexity of a full software defined radio software suite setup. I expect mine is tad bit more complex than some, but nothing extraordinary.

Behind the scenes two vital software utilities have to be fully fired up – VAC (Virtual Audio Cables) which manages audio connections “in the black box,” and a Serial Port Manager (I use VSP Manager which is further managed by DDUtil) which manages “Pairings” of virtual serial port assignments.

It is at the DDUTIL level that complexity is the greatest.

VAC – Virtual Audio Cables

Ok, inside your computer you don’t have the ability to “patch” audio to the various programs like you would if each “piece” of the Audio Chain were a separate physical component.  Unlike putting together a stereo rack where you can cable the tuner to the amp, the CD player to the Amp, the CDRom Burner to perhaps all, and those legacy Turntable & Tape Decks to the amp – or in cases where the tuner  acts as the “hub” they get hard cabled there… in the SDR software suite software has to patch the audio to where it needs to flow or return.

Eugene Muzychenko has created the needed software, his product being what 99% of radio amateurs working with this problem use.

The Wiki Page on VAC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_Audio_Cable

Eugene Muzychenko’s VAC page: http://software.muzychenko.net/eng/vac.htm

VAC is audiophile grade software, with oodles of configuration selections that arguably are best left alone or setup in known working configuration for our purposes.

Please note that the free demo version of VAC is unsuitable for anything other than setting up basic configurations.  Do not use it on the air as the Demo Message will raise havoc.  VAC is a 22 Euro or USD $30 investment that being rather unique should be planned as part of your setup costs to do complex SDR.  Actually you can buy VAC from the developer for $25.20 to $50.50 depending on the level of support you want.  He also has a number of resellers.

One reseller has a nice page explaining what this VAC thing is all about:  http://www.fox-magic.com/vac.php

In my case I have only one pair of VAC Cables setup, though technically I would benefit from a second set connected to the RX2 (technically third receiver) in the Flex-5000A.

VSP Manager

K5FR is the person behind the next two parts of the puzzle.  VSP Manager creates pairs of virtual serial ports.

VSP Manager is available on request from K5FR for non-commercial use.  Details are at:  http://k5fr.com/ddutilwiki/index.php?title=VSP_Manager

There are alternatives to VSP Manager, and various technical reasons bantered about why this or that Virtual Serial Port is better.

Working well and being highly compatible with the real gatekeeper – DDUtil – is reason enough for me to stick with VSP Manager.

DDUtil

Now we get to the “switchboard, Router & patch panel” hub of the whole setup.

DDUtil by K5FR is found at:  http://k5fr.com/DDUtil.htm and http://k5fr.com/ddutilwiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

In Steve K5FR’s own words:

…..DDUtil, which is short for Data Decoder UtilityDDUtil was designed to enhance the operating experience for Flex Radio users by providing advanced connectivity to peripheral equipment and Radio Control Programs (RCPs) not before available.

DDUtil provides the automation required to decode and present transmit frequency data to select frequency sensitive devices such as linear amplifiers, antenna controllers (SteppIR), antenna tuners, antenna band switchers, etc. DDUtil may be used in a stand-alone mode or with up to four (5) Radio Control Programs(RCPs) running simultaneously.

DDUtil automatically senses when a RCP is trying to communicate with PowerSDR and modifies it’s mode of operation accordingly.

AnXMLfile is used to provide the reference data needed for the BCDoutput data. A sample file is included with the distribution files to serve as a guide. This file may be created from scratch or modified from the sample provided and then saved with an appropriate user name. All file modification may be accomplished within the program or may be done in any XML file editor of the users choice. But, unless the user is familiar with XML file editing it is recommended that XML file modification be confined to DDUtil until proficiency is obtained. Please note that this file requires a specific format see the BCD Data File Format topic in Setup / Other Topics for details.

The initial release is designed for the Flex family of radios including the SDR-1000, Flex-5000, Flex-3000 and Flex-1500 series…..

The DDUtil Block Chart perhaps explains it best:  DDUtil Flow Chart  (also at http://k5fr.com/ddutilwiki/images/DDUtilFlow.pdf )

Setting up DDUtil is a bit of a fiddle unless you make time to read the Wiki and the excellent articles at the Flex-Radio Knowledge-Base.  I would roughly estimate that the time I didn’t invest reading first cost me 4 to 5 times as much time fiddling & fixing later.

The Enemies of SDR Software – Latency and Conflicts

First of the two big enemies of “Radio in Computer” seem to be Latency – the delays introduced by hardware & software in audio streams, program functions, program-to-program data transfer, or between the SDR hardware (the “physical radio”) and the Computer (the “Software Radio”).

Tweaking in software design and optimizing components can make a huge reduction in induced Latency.

I’ve fought issues with software not in the SDR suite of programs dragging my system down – an early version of TeamViewer and various software update nag-ware programs have been the worse.  Adobe products and some Anti-Virus packages can be a problem as well.  Flex-Radio includes in its PowerSDR and Flex-Radio software a program simply called “Flex-Radio” which can be used to closely monitor system Latency.  The software will help you configure the software to optimize given your computer’s measured latency.

The second bugabo is the Conflicts can occur and are such a devil to sort out.  Things like various software fighting to access the same Serial Port, creating more than one Serial Port assigned the same number, fights between port assignments with expansion software, programs that are “just crabby” and don’t play well with others….  The list is fairly long and sticking with known compatible combinations can help you get up and running easily.

If you are like me and want to fiddle with other software while running the station – a browser, an editor to make notes, a call book lookup program, some space weather, weather, and time programs…. well it can be a fiddle sorting things out.  Several browsers seem to “bloat” while running the SDR suite and specially Safari for Windows seems to hog system resources upsetting the rest of the system.

I’m looking into replacing the several year old Dell Windows-XP dual core machine I am using with a new Windows-7 Multi-Core machine with its greater capabilities.  One of my Dayton 2012 goals was to talk with Neal K3NC  the PowerSDR Computer guru at the Flex-Radio booth, though Neal has had to take a pass for Dayton this year for health reasons.

How do you get enough physical ports to plug in all your stuff?

I faced this right away.  Most new machine have at best one or two serial ports.  Hardly enough to run a serial cable to each of the station components.  Presently I have serial cables to:

  • An SPE Expert 1KW Amp
  • A Palstar AT-Auto Antenna Tuner
  • A Begali CW Machine
  • A Green Heron RT-20 Rotor Control
  • An Array Solutions PowerMaster Watt & SWR Meter

And I want to reserve future ports for:

  • A computer controllable remote antenna switch
  • Power Control Hardware for the Flex-5000A Unit

So how does one hook up seven serial cables to a machine that came set up for two?

I bought a Serial Port Expansion Module that had formerly been used as part of a commercial Point-of-Sale setup.  This added eight assignable ports easily and with high reliability.

Word of warning, one has to again read the directions in assigning port numbers to the expansion unit so they neither conflict with existing port assignments or overlap your VSP Manager assignments.  Some of your software may require specific restrictions on post assignments you need to work around as well.

More esoteric deep in your machine USB and Serial ports can interact as well. Consider this an advanced subject!

What do you get for all this?

What do you get for braving all the “Lions and Tigers and Bears” of doing a full SDR software suite?  As it is easy to chronicle the woes of getting (and keeping) the software running, one forgets that their is some real joy to be gained in doing all this.

What you end up with is:

A DX Chasing “Machine” that has integrated rotor, amp, tuner and wattmeter displays & controls.  In my case the SPE Expert 1KW Amp, Palstar AT-Auto Antenna Tuner, Array Solutions PowerMaster SWR Meter and Green Heron RT-20 rotor controller are all integrated.

Quick switch between a QRO SSB setup to a digital mode station running JT65-HF or fldigi(Win) seamlessly.

Integrated logging (though I do have to manually add into my master log adi logs from auxiliary programs).

Receive performance rivaling top shelf dedicated monitoring receivers costing more than my entire station investment.

An “If you can Hear it, You CAN work it” capability – for a simple station I catch a lot on the air even when other area hams say the “bands are dead.”

What’s Next?

Other than the likely computer system update, the biggest forward change I see is to replace the Array Solutions RatPAK remote antenna switch with a configuration that can be controlled by the software.  I can either reconfigure feed lines to cover 160m-10m without an external antenna switch, or find a remote switch that can interface.  Looks like a Dayton 2012 “to do list” item to figure out what remote switch would work.

Through using the DDUtil suite I have learned that under certain circumstances my Flex-5000A’s power supply is underperforming, and that is on the upgrade list.

Remoting everything is up there.  Likely to wait until the Computer Update is done, this involves a small hardware hack of the Flex-5000A itself to allow remote power switch control.

Making use of a multi-antenna “diversity” listening configuration – as mentioned if I can hear the DX station I can usually work them, so further improving the stations “ears” only makes sense.  Power SDR has built-in features that I haven’t even begun to exploit when it comes to using the RX2 receiver and multiple antenna configurations.

All in all a lot of fun, easy to set up if you bite off small chunks at a time and read the instructions, and well worth the effort in results.

73

Steve
K9ZW

L/C Meter IIB – digital inductance/capacitance meter by AADE

AADE L/C IIB Meter

AADE L/C IIB Meter

 

Just acquired a AADE (Almost All Digital Electronics) LC Meter IIB Inductance/Capacitance meter:

L/C Meter IIB zeros out stray inductance and capacitance by storing their values in RAM and subtracting them from the measured values. It can zero out any value in it’s range allowing longer test leads and slightly improved accuracy over L/C Meter II.

L/C Meter IIB works by measuring the shift in frequency caused by inserting an unknown into it’s oscillator tank circuit. A PIC micro-controller measures the frequency before and after. It then computes the value of the unknown using a floating point math package and displays the result on a 16 character intelligent LCD display.

L/C Meter IIB will NOT measure inductors designed for 60 or 120 Hz applications such as power transformers, filter chokes or motors. The minimum test frequency is about 20KHz and these devices have enormous core losses at that frequency.

Product Link is L/C Meter II, a digital inductance meter / capacitance meter..

eHam Reviews at http://www.eham.net/reviews/detail/2253

Now to learn to use the meter.

I’ve also contacted Rose Kopp N7HKW, Elecraft Cover’s lady (email ElecraftCovers@gmail.com ), about making a case for my meter.

73

Steve
K9ZW