Dayton 2013 – Friday Report

Been an interesting Hamvention so far.

There are some new products – the IC-7100 successor to the IC-7000 and the TS-990 was being shown.

Interestingly the Kenwood was somehow locked up and the floor team didn’t have a way to reboot it.

My first focus was a visit with Julius at W2IHY where I was having a very serious look at the new line of switch gear.  I’ve always admired the quality of his gear and this new range of products doesn’t disappoint.  http://w2ihy.com will fill you in on the new gear.  I already have a lot of his audio gear and will be adding some of the new line.

A visit at Hilberling found that they fully up and running for the USA market.  Never intended to be “everyman’s transceiver” they have delivered over $1million of these new “uber-radios” so far.

Long chat at FlexRadio Systems and one has to admire their willingness to trickle out radios even while the eagerness and requests to ship are so huge.  It was hard to get up close with the crowd, but i did get some time on their Flex-6700 simulators.  Tim W4TME was kind enough to give me a guided tour of the inside of the visual Flex-6700 – and I obliged by pretending I knew what all that stuff was (actually it is pretty neat and straight forward.)  FlexRadio Systems has put the Flex-5000A on end-of-life status with a when stock is sold, they are all sold noted on their website.  Flex-5000A critical components have become unavailable and it was fairly easy to see their was a product line overlap (a fully loaded Flex-5000A was within five hundred dollars of the new Flex-6500).

Very nicely the FlexRadio Systems team explained to me that when my radio is ready to ship, it will be ready.  Tomorrow is the FlexRadio Systems Dayton Hamvention Dinner where I hope to hear much more.

Over at Alpha the long awaited Alpha-4040 Tuner was being shown in working form.  The tuner looks well worth the wait.  The touchscreen display is awesome!

I was really taken with the dual port VNA (Vector Network Analyzer) at Array Solutions.  This “black box” connects to your PC to create a full test lab doing much more than I can recollect.  Jay (Array Solution’s owner) showed me how to do a TDR (Time Division Reflectometry) examination of a feedline and antenna system (including the VNA even measuring a human hand touching an antenna element), how to do a full in depth coil measurement, and a bunch of stuff I am going to have to brush up on.  This look like my next test gear addition.

The Japanese LUSO tower people took the time to explain their very cool crank-up towers.  Really amazingly serious amateur radio gear.

I was surprised at a couple vendors living the past.  Some of the big name rotor/rotor-controller folk have amazing new technology (Green Heron Engineering is a personal favorite, and they sold me one of their new station control modules) and other are promising to catch up to market norms by adding computer control to their rotor-controllers in perhaps a year….

TenTec was showing off their latest and a new Model 506 “Rebel” QRP transceiver I hadn’t seen before.  Apparently this new radio has the guts of an Arduino running the show – very cool!

More tomorrow!

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

Can I Hear You? – Exploring Receive Antenna Options

We’re perhaps 6-7 weeks from the likely end of “fun” antenna season, so it sounds like a perfectly good time to decide to add some antennas!

Modest set of plans before the weather sets in (actually it is the very short daylight hours that limits me more until the hard frost comes in):

First to put the Gap Titan DX vertical antenna back on line, including installing the DX Engineering tip-over base that I’ve had for a year now. I’m not looking to use the Gap all that much for a transmit antenna, as I would like the vertical Omni-directional receive as my log periodic is deaf to anything weak that it isn’t pointed directly at. So the Gap would become “receive vertical for 80-6m” in my antenna farm, as well as an occasional transmit antenna – specially for digital.

Gap Titan DX Antenna

Gap Titan DX Antenna

DX Engineering Tilt-Over Base

DX Engineering Tilt-Over Base

Second receive antenna I am considering is a K9AY loop receive four-way array, like the Array Solutions offering. This would be a space effective way to add a topband (160m) and 80m directional receive to put some “real ears” on my lowband efforts. That their Wolf Systems K9AY setup is potentially DXpedition portable seems a plus, though whether I’ll get to use it for a DXpedition is a question.

Unlike the first antenna, I need to order this K9AY unit soon if I am to get it cabled in before the frost hardens the ground.

Array Solutions K9AY Array - General Layout

Array Solutions K9AY Array - General Layout

Array Solutions K9AY Array - Controller

Array Solutions K9AY Array - Controller

Perhaps I will have to settle for getting the underground in for the Gap and getting it sorted out. Those limited daylight hours you know….

73

Steve
K9ZW

Dayton Hamvention 2008 Follow-Up Report No. 5 – Hiberling Impressions

At Dayton Hamvention 2008 I again had time to meet with Herr Hans Hiberling. Meeting with Hans is always a pleasure, as everything he does appears to be the best possible he can do.

Impression of the Radio were solidly reinforced with a mere 10 minutes operating the Hiberling PT-8000 with QSOs with the Icom 7800 station 100 yards away and a few in-region QSOs.

This radio is slick.  I had only moments to work with it, but the initial perception is that “I want one!”

I’ve been in touch with Array Solutions to find out how I could get some station time to evaluate the radio over a couple hours or couple days or operating.

The display is outstanding, the bit of set-ups I did seemed intuitive and everything “feels” first rate & more!

The design features include simple things including having the key operating manual instructions on durable pull-out cards that you pull  from beneath the radio when needed, to exceptional station presence in color & design.

Reports were outstanding, and given the poor operating situation massively remarkable.

Thinking hard on including a PT-8000 in my station!

73

Steve
K9ZW

Dayton Hamvention 2008 Follow-Up Report No. 18 – VNA – Beyond SWR

One of the items that very much caught my attention at Dayton was the new VNA (Vector Network Analyzer) units available at “shack-friendly” prices.

I’m not going to cover the use of a VNA, as there are web write-ups that explain it better than I ever could.

Wiki is a first stop: Vector Network Analyzer (VNA) – Measures both amplitude and phase properties 

One of the advantages that struck me as most useful is the ability to “Move the Reference Plane.”  What this allows is through a number of techniques the test equipment – the VNA – is excluded from the circuit or antenna being tested.  This contrasts with usual metering techniques which tend in highly influence certain test results as part of the test process.

At least that is what was explained to me!

Two commercial products I have started looking at are: Array Solution’s VNA  and  TenTec’s VNA

Both are targeted price-wise decently and appear to be reasonably easy to use.

If you are using a VNA in addition or in replacement of an Antenna Analyzer, please tell me how it is working for you!

73

Steve
K9ZW

Doing the Firmware Update on Arraysolutions PowerMaster Meter

PowerMaster with Coupler

 I’ve been a fan of the PowerMaster meter since I purchased an early model from Array Solutions.

 ArraySolutions has continued to improve the product.  The case design show in the photo is the second design, as the early ones have mounting plates on them, for rack mounting.

There has also been a series of firmware and software updates.

I had put off taking the time to do the updates.

A couple weekend ago I went through the process and found it easy.

Download the needed files, run the update program with the unit hooked up to the computer and it is done!

Added a number of Alarm features,  some low power features, appearance features, and some minor updates.

Also took the time to fine tune my personal settings.

Took all of a couple minutes and greatly improved the unit!

73

Steve
K9ZW Logo

 

 

SPE Expert Amp North American Announcement – Sales and Repair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPE Expert Amp

NOTE – Update Nov. 6th, 2011 – After a series of various arrangement Expert SPE has a USA branch – details at:  http://www.expertampsusa.com/

Original Article follows

———-

Just up on the SPE Website:

Announcement for all the U.S. and Canada purchasers of Expert 1K-FA.

SPE is very pleased to announce that with immediate effect, Custom RF Solutions, Colorado, USA is appointed sales and repair agents for North America. The parent company of Custom RF Solutions is B&B Technical Services, well known for their capacity as excellent service engineers for all brands of equipment, and owned by Bill Leahy, K0ZL,and Bonnie Leahy, KB0HTC. Contact details are as follows

Custom RF Solutions
5293 Arbutus St.
Arvada, CO 80002
303-424-4858
email: bbtech1@gmail.com
Website: www.customrfsolutions.com

Following recent technical improvements to the Expert 1K-FA amplifier, SPE wishes all customers to have the benefit of these improvements, and invites all US owners of the Expert to contact Custom RF Solutions who will arrange for shipping, and for the improvements to be carried out, all at no cost to the customer. In addition to this, SPE is aware that some Expert amplifiers previously sold by Arraysolutions may require service attention and invites those customers to contact Custom RF Solutions accordingly”

http://www.linear-amplifier.com/

73

Steve
K9ZW

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