Tag Archives: DDUtil

Flex-6700 – Review after Four Months In

My FlexRadio Systems Flex-6700 is radio #11, and arrived as part of their public Beta Program – the SmartSDR Preview Program – third week of June 2013. Software at the time was SmartSDR Preview Edition 0.12.x which was fairly basic.

As I write it is October 2013 and the radio is now on full production release SmartSDR 1.0.0, the Preview program having wrapped up after four-five updates, each which transformed my Flex-6700.

Most importantly SmartSDR 1.0 is the first step on a road map of quarterly updates, each which will bring major additional features to my Flex-6700. By download I’ve got a “New Radio” arriving every three months!!

Flex has implemented an excellent collaboration tool during the Preview Edition program that is staying in use. http://community.flexradio.com/flexradio Combined with their main website’s HelpDesk, ZenDeck (warranty system), KnowledgeBase and Downloads the support is excellent. Their main website is at: http://www.flex-radio.com

The Preview Edition experience:

It was an absolute privilege to participate and when the technical discussions were outside of my knowledge zone, to be an insider spectator during the forging of the earliest widespread release of SmartSDR into a form that could stand as production. At times I was a bit embarrassed when fellow participants forgot that the Preview Edition software was a work-in-progress. Those who had the big picture view were amazing in the amount of testing, troubleshooting and “what if” challenging they gave a radio-in-progress. I personally learned a lot about our hobby by being part of the process.

Each 2 weeks, provided candidate software passed small group quality checks, an update of “SmartSDR Preview Edition” rolled out. In a few cases the candidate software did not pass FlexRadio Systems small group quality checks and therefore was not released to the Preview Edition group. Some very silly grumbling from some of the Preview Group who moaned they didn’t get an update – as if FlexRadio Systems would ever knowingly distribute software that failed quality checks? In all honesty there were members of the Preview Group who should have not asked to have their radio shipped until the features they felt critical were completed.

A few of the Preview Group struggled with “The Radio is in The Software” capability of the next SmartSDR Preview Edition to transform their radio to the next level. It is worth remembering to check either the SmartSDR software level being reviewed or the date any SmartSDR commentary you read on the internet given the massive improvement achieved in the SmartSDR Preview process and planned with the roadmap taking SmartSDR v 1.0 forward.

Added along the way added has been SmartSDR CAT. SmartSDR CAT can replace other virtual serial port driver software packages, or serve as the Flex-6000 SmartSDR aware additional virtual serial port driver software package. This add-on is slick, making the virtual serial port driver issue very simple. While it comes bundled with SmartSDR it does require a manual Windows Program Uninstall and then Installation when SmartSDR CAT is upgraded. This separate Manual Uninstall/Install is a Microsoft Windows requirement and may be with us on Windows platform clients for some time.

Adding into the integration is v3 of DDUTIL by Steve K5FR – http://k5fr.com/DDUtilV3wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page

DDUTIL hooks SmartSDR CAT and SmartSDR into an environment your other radio software and hardware will recognize. In my shack DDUTIL integrates an Expert Amp, Palstar Autotuner, a Green Heron rotor control, and several software packages to my Flex-6700.

The Flex-6700 running SmartSDR version 1.0:

Okay, here is where the rubber hits the road – with the first public release of the SmartSDR software my Flex-6700 is already equal to or better than any other amateur transceiver on the market. At least any that I have had the pleasure of spend time operating. There is a remarkably easy-to-listen-to nature of the received audio and it is a true DX hound.

The receiver is a very good match to the Tennadyne T-8 Log Periodic antenna, making the most of the no-tune nature of the Log.

I’ve been able to leave the Expert Amp on half or lower power with the same effectiveness.

All in all it is a ready to rock-n-roll SSB DX rig. Similar reports speak of sound CW performance. Laggard at this time is the Digital Mode capabilities which are sound provided an external interface and computer sound card audio routing like a black-box transceiver is used, as the full digital implementation is further down the road map. Reports are solid on those using a Flex-6000 for digital in the old school setup.

The ability to pop open panadapters on additional bands and drop receivers to monitor other band segments/bands, is awesome. The features presently released work quite well, with only a few glitches being reported at this stage.

Now what is cool is about every 90 days a new updated version of SmartSDR will be out.

http://community.flexradio.com/flexradio/topics/smartsdr_development_roadmap-5gkip

Here is a pdf snapshot of the present (Mid-Oct 2013) roadmap, showing that several features have already been pulled ahead:

PastedGraphic-2.pdf

The Flex-6700 Future Beyond the Road Map:

Obviously the road map is just a scratch at the surface of unleashing the Flex-6000. SmartSDR is just one of several possible GUIs and non-GUI interfaces. FlexRadio Systems has hinted about add-in modules to Contest, work on other client platforms, link/combine several Flex-6000s, do wide-area diversity and things as users we’ve not likely even thought of.

One has to remember that FlexRadio Systems is building on years of experience with professional grade products, and is distilling down the best of that experience to an amateur radio products.

You can see my pre-launch series of articles for some of the possibilities I had thought up.

What the Flex-6000 Series is NOT:

The Flex-6000 Series is very different than a conventional transceiver. In its present form the Flex-6000 is not:

  • A micro-DXpedition/Mobile ready radio as the radio’s present interfaces are all PC based.
  • A prepper’s primary back-up radio.
  • Ready for the visual impaired (though alternate UI’s are possible).
  • A single-box shack – you need the PC to access the radio.
  • A likely radio for an “Internet Free” QTH unless arrangements were made to get physical media with various upgrades.
  • Simple Plug-n-Play – while SmartSDR is easy to install, if an operator would have trouble installing Microsoft Office they will need help with a Flex-6000.

Like any new technology the Flex-6000 and SmartSDR have attracted naysayers – the vast majority who have an agenda rather than first hand observations to share. Again it is important to date reviews/comments against the SmartSDR Preview Edition version or production roadmap version, as the comments may be of historical interest only given the rapid evolution of the radio.

The Flex-6000 Mindset:

The Flex-6000 is seriously challenging to conceptualize as the hardware/software combination is layered, complex, exceptionally simple at the User Interface while immensely powerful under the hood, elegant, evolving, and vacates concepts like VFO-A/VFO-B architecture.

This is not a comfortable mindset for some users, as their personal concepts of what an amateur radio should be is something different than this brave new world of the Flex-6000. A few SmartSDR Preview Edition participants sold their radios to other hams, or simply put them on the shelf waiting until a general release with the feature they hold dear is available.

The latest generation of technology always stretches the operator. The “Game Changer” of the Flex-6000 series is here, to stay. That doesn’t mean that IC-7800’s, or FT-1000MPs, or TR7s, or Gold Dust Twins – or any other layer of prior technology – is somehow anything less. I have no intention of suddenly selling my favorite older radios because of the Flex-6000 revolution. But I do understand that the new cutting edge has been pushed way ahead – the boundaries of the hobby have suddenly expanded. And I am thrilled to be a participant with radio #11 of the new wave of Flex-6000 technology.

What could be any more fun?!

73

Steve
K9ZW

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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

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K9ZW Shack Reconfigured – Expert Amp and Palstar AT-Auto Tuner

Have been doing some reconfiguration in the K9ZW Shack.

To keep all the bits talking to each other I’ve started running DDUtil

This Utility allows for “passive listening” devices doing frequency following of a transceiver’s VFO and will control or read the Array Systems PowerMaster SWR Meter, the Green Heron Rotor Control, the Expert 1K Amp, the Palstar AT-Auto Tuner and of course the Flex-Radio Flex-5000A Transceiver.

Here is a sample of what my dual screen set up looks like. The blue window behind MixW is Flex Radio’s monitor, as I was debugging at the time.

The SPE Expert 1KW Amp is doing very well! I quite enjoy its instant-on feature, and how it syncs with the Flex-5000A through DDUtil.

I am a bit less convinced about the Palstar AT-Auto Antenna Tuner. I only need a tuner on 80m and 160m, as all other bands tune 1:1.15 or better barefoot. This particular tuner is a bit of an orphan due to some legal wrangling that has left Palstar unable to service the unit, and the successor a complete unknown. It is also pretty slow tuning between bands.

Here is a close-up of the Right Hand Screen – the Business Screen.

Power SDR is running at the bottom, then clockwise the DDUtil SPE Expert Amp Panel Control, next to it the DDUtil Rotor Control Program, above that the Map Display from MixW, next to it (smallest item) is MixW Frequency Output, the MixW DX Cluster is running top center and then to the right the main DDUtil Program.

I am still tweaking this setup, and hope to have the bugs worked out soon.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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Sometimes the bands can leave a person simply puzzled!

Sometimes the bands can leave a person simply puzzled!

Working the regional 160m net was a chore, with S9+20 roaring noise.

It was only that I was having configuration troubles after upgrading software – much of which I may have avoided by more carefully reading the manuals and making better notes during upgrade setup – that I stuck in the station fussing with settings.

Much of the time I was wrestling with Audio Gremlins and Port Control Software configuration.

In the midst of messing, some listening & some DX Cluster watching suggested that 15m and 17m were moderate to long.

Hmmm……

A quick point to the Caribbean brought Martinique and Cuba quickly:

TO5K 31Mar2012
00:40 17M SSB

CO6LE 31Mar2012
00:42 15M SSB

Then a swing to Asia based on DX Cluster reports start with a long listening session interrupted with several reboots as I sorted out software and working Japan, Thailand, North Cook Islands and Cambodia during an hour of much listening a tweaking on the station. A kind fellow ham tipped me off that my Audio was still messed up, so it was dummy load at 10w time with PowerSDR set to monitor my audio output back into my headset until I adjusted out the issues. Here is what I worked in between software tinkering:

JK1MZT 31Mar2012
00:54 15M SSB

HS0ZJU 31Mar2012
01:27 15M SSB

E51M 31Mar2012
01:33 17M SSB

XU7SSB 31Mar2012
01:54 15M SSB

On Software the two recent station changes – upgrade of PowerSDR to the latest v2.3.5 and use of DDUtil integration software – the PowerSDR upgrade has been the most frustrating. It would seem that my cheat sheet of “good settings” from the prior version is not going to work, and many of the Audio enhancements are suddenly so sensitive that I have to either turn them off or cut them back to less than 25% of their prior levels.

Audio settings are important for me, as my natural voice is not a good DX voice, being too baritone and resonant. With the Flex-Radio I sidelined my external processing audio gear and use the various software equalizers, compression options and other enhancements to create a competitive DX Voice.

Basically I filter and process my voice to a broadcast sound that is higher in pitch focus and has a more precise audio core.

One really weird part of doing the monitor of self listening technique is the slight delays in the system – they are minuscule though you do end up talking slower as you naturally wait to hear the end of your phonetics – “kilo niner zulu whiskey” slows down into “keyyylooow nighnnneer zoooolooooo whhhhissskeeee” as instinct creates a feedback cadence slowdown. Sounded link an Andy Warhol painting in audio!

I didn’t work but heard 9N1AA (Nepal) and an Indian station – the pileups were huge and I didn’t want to add to the din with questionable audio & weak copy on receive.

As I didn’t have Thailand or Cambodia in the log under my own call, it was a real pleasure to find that my “Mr Fixit” session had a bonus of a couple new DX Entities!

Sometimes the bands can leave a person simply puzzled!

73

Steve
K9ZW

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