Playing with new data modes

This weekend (1 & 2 August) saw FPARC holding a Special Event Station activation weekend, activating GB1PF at Fort Purbrook.

In the true spirit of membership I stuck my nose around the marquee flap on Saturday lunchtime to find the usual suspects enjoying a BBQ and real ale rather than chasing DX!

That said the bands were dead so what else do you do on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon?

A chunk of the afternoon was spent trying to get a very dodgy looking antenna working and getting to see first hand the advantages of being able to afford an MFJ Antenna Analyser. Unfortunately, it didn’t resolve the issue with the antenna but all learning is good learning in my book.

Here’s a rather nifty panoramic shot taken from the the trig point within Fort Purbrook, showing the home of FPARC in all it’s glory, along with some of the antenna arrays being worked this weekend.

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On a nice day what a place to be playing radio! I really need to sort a portable rig to catch some of the action sooner rather than later!

Needless to say, the lack of activity on the bands extended into my available time on Saturday which is disappointing. I’ve pulled a couple of late nighters in the past, when things start waking up as the D layer diminishes and the F layer kicks in and have been rewarded by plenty of QSO’s but at the same time been equally frustrated by seeing all sorts of exotic call signs from south of the equator flash by unable to hear my meagre 1W response to their CQ calls.

I’m at that dichotomy point where I can either invest a sizeable chunk of money in a linear amplifier and then wrestle with getting it to work with my SoftRock or put the same wedge towards a rig that will give me the portability I crave along with a greater power output as standard.

For once common sense is prevailing and I’ll stick with what I’ve got and look to the future, so I need a solution to increase my number of contacts that will count towards recognised awards and personal challenges I’ve set with as little financial expenditure as possible!

With my recent mast install I can try playing with the orientation of the antenna to see if that will give me anything I’m not already hearing. There’s always a massive temptation to try building a yagi and mount that but again zero expenditure is the objective here!

I have got a degree of “code envy” as I listen to the number of contacts being hammered out on the bands in CW. My attempts to learn morse would make a snail look like Usain Bolt in comparison, but like learning any new language, these things take time and a lot of dedication. As such I’ve got a limited number of options.

Since getting my rig running exactly how I want it, I have had a good play with the various modes supported by Fldigi with a reasonable degree of success. So I was a little surprised on Sunday morning to find partial decodes of messages which the modem was attempting to translate despite a reasonably clear signal. The message fragment included the characters “new sim”. Odd? Break out Google and guess what, SIM_PSK31/63 was what Fldigi was trying to decode.

After a quick read of the site http://www.on4nb.be/sim31.htm I was installing the software and ready to give it a go.

http://www.on4nb.be/sim_description_en.htm provides a full description of the mode

I’ll come back to configuration details in a minute but on spinning up the application I was gob smacked at the amount of traffic that was buzzing around out there and a lot originating from countries that for some reason are being elusive to other digi-mode contacts!

Not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth if another mode bags me a few more QSO’S then all the better.

The setup for the SIM_PSK31 application is relatively straight forward but it’s worth a read of the manual before diving in. The existing setup I was using between HDSDR and Fldigi using the VB audio cable connections was supported directly in the drop down menus and the Rig-Cat works fine if the TS-50s option is selected. With a few sub settings completed, all that was needed was to hit the start button and see what happened.

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I need to sit and have a really good play with the application to fine tune a few bits but it appears to work, so forwards and onwards!

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Monitoring the ATU power meter via webcam

The snag I’ve now got is that I want to monitor the ATU power meter which is fine if you’re sat next to the rig, but no use if I’m remote.

The easiest solution is to stick a camera in front of it and view the output over the VNC connection. I toyed with several ideas of how to do this, but at this point the simplest and cheapest is to use a conventional USB webcam and just have an open window to the output on the screen when using the radio.

I managed to get hold of an HD webcam relatively cheaply, picking the Hewlett-Packard HD 4310. People had commented that it only had a plastic lens, was generally too plasticy etc but at the end of the day it’s looking at an ATU so I wasn’t overly fussed

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With a the application of a few sticky fixers and a strip of insulation tape the camera was anchored to the desk in the right place so hopefully it doesn’t get knocked or moved.

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Unfortunately I’m still using the default software which comes with the camera which is bloated to the point of crazy with all sorts of rubbish for social media use. I’ll eventually install something like Yawcam (http://www.yawcam.com/index.php) as a server and stream the output to VLC which has a very nice minimal interface and does server streaming very well, but in the meantime I’ve got a visible power meter which can be viewed wherever the radio is accessed from.

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The next problem to overcome is the required manual interaction with the ATU when changing band. At the minute I’m happily sat on 20M playing PSK-31, with an SWR of 1:1 but I’m sat next to the radio. If I want to be anywhere else the issue comes as to how to tune the antenna. The obvious solution is to use an auto ATU such as an SGC SG-211 auto-ATU

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I’m kicking myself as there was one on eBay a month or two ago and I let it go and no one bought it which is a bummer as now there’s none floating around. It would have been the ideal solution.

I like the Elecraft T1 but there’s still a need for interaction to kick it off into tune. Oh well, that’s a problem for another day!

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Java update nukes Denkovi board

Just a word of warning. My system recently performed a Java update to v1.8 of the runtime environment. As a result, all of my lovely auto switching on power up and power down of the Denkovi board stopped.

After a bit of playing around with the Denkovi Command Line Tool, I found that it was generating this error which was flashing up too quick to read in the shell script pop ups within Windows. “Java version 1.8 is detected but version 1.7 is required” – helpful!

So, the only solution I could find in the absence of an update from Denkovi was to uninstall v 1.8 manually. On reboot, all is back to where it should be.

I’ve also added commands to power the ATU back light so things are clearer in lower light.

Resolving Softrock Ensemble RXTX transmission problems #3

After the past attempts to get the system working successfully there’s been a bit of a lull in activity due to Christmas and the pressures of modern day life!
By way of a recap, the theory of the fault finding and proving of this system has involved breaking down the radio to its component modules on the system diagram, checking the functionality in various transmission modes, then adding modules back in and repeating until hopefully a functional system is achieved.

Radio setup variations
So far the attempts to date have involved trying to get the SoftRock and HDSDR to transmit a clean CW signal. The test rig receiving this signal has been a Realistic DX-440 linked to a SoundBlaster Live 24 USB soundcard feeding into Fldigi running on my Dell Netbook.

A lot of time has been spent trying to fathom out why the received signal on the waterfall within Fldigi is about as straight as a banana and it was at this point I’d just about given up.
This time the test instrumentation and encyclopedic knowledge base came courtesy of Andy G7UHN, who gave up an afternoon of his time, for which I will always be in his debt.
Using Andy’s Elecraft K2 hooked to a Tigertronics Signalink feeding into Fldigi running on a netbook, the CW signal produced by HDSDR is clean and straight. The DX-440, as good as it was in principle is, is causing the bendy signal and all of the confusion!
Anyway, in a Top Gear style, moving on, the next step was to test a voice transmission from the SoftRock/HDSDR rig.

By adding a cheap microphone to the onboard Realtek soundcard microphone input an SSB audio test call was made and monitored on the K2 using a set of cans. After a little tweaking of levels, voice was received load and clear! Huge steps forward in all of 20 minutes!

Now the next step was to calibrate the RX and TX channels within HDSDR. Bearing in mind you get absolutely no help in HDSDR as to what this actually entails, other than a very bland dialogue box buried away in a sub menu, it transpired not to be as onerous as I’d thought.

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The K2 generates a very nice tune signal which was used as a reference. Checking the waterfall clearly showed a spurious signal at 10 kHz down frequency. By adjusting the amplitude and phase raw and fine sliders this was reduced to zero.
One down, one to go! The next head scratcher was what to test the SoftRock’s TX against. The advice from Guru Andy was to test against another SDR to give a comparable bandwidth of radio spectrum. But I don’t have a second SDR? Oh yes you do! My first foray into the world of radio was playing with RTL-SDR dongles and using one as an ADSB receiver to pick up the transponder broadcasts from passing aircraft as virtual radar.

Take said dongle, plug it into an HF upconverter courtesy of Nooelec and Robert’s your fathers’ brother!

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Thankfully Andy had one in the boot of his car where it had been lurking since he’d been using it at work so there was a strong possibility this problem child may get sorted in one sitting!
With a laptop running SDR# and a jury rigged RTL-SDR / upconverter / every conceivable gender changer the pair of us possessed / dummy load strewn across the bench we were good to go.

Corrections used for the upconverter and dongle within SDR# (upconverter shift = -124,997,870, R820T = 136)

The answer to the next question wasn’t so obvious “How do you key the TX button in HDSDR with the calibration dialogue and slider adjustment screen open?” As I’ve said before, HDSDR really isn’t my favourite piece of software because it’s written possibly from the perspective of a software engineer rather than a radio operator and these weird little nuances can be a pain. Anyway, believe it or not, you can control the TX functionality of HDSDR with other menu windows open, which flies against every other Windows program I’ve ever used!

Again, gentle tweaking of the amplitude and phase raw and fine sliders within HDSDR resulted in a nice clean signal and waterfall on the SDR# test rig.

Remember, this isn’t about being anal when it comes to dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. Your licence stipulates that “the licensee shall ensure that the emitted frequency of the apparatus comprised in the Radio Equipment is as stable and as free from Unwanted Emissions as the state of technical development for amateur radio reasonably permits.”

Apart from hacking off other amateurs with your poor quality splattery signal, having Ofcom banging on your door and inviting themselves in for tea and biscuits is never good form!

At this point, everything is working! It’d be very easy to start reaching for the Cubans and San Miguel at this point as victory is close and we have a fully functioning and proved SDR radio, in effect the left hand side of the system diagram.

Radio setup variations
The next step is to get Fldigi working with the radio so digimode transmissions can be sent and decoded.
Thankfully, no one had reached for the beer yet as the minute Fldigi was run, both the TX and RX signals reverted to a complete pile of mush on the waterfall in both Fldigi and HDSR. What the hell was going on?

Fldigi uses Virtual Audio Cable to pipe its feed to and from the radio. RX input is via VAC1 and TX output to HDSDR via VAC2. The settings on both were revisited over and over in my initial fault finding months ago with no effect and we spent a good 20 minutes of educated guessing as to what was going on before we gave up. VAC is a proven product used the world over by radio enthusiasts who have documented its use. Admittedly a lot of enthusiasts are still using Windows XP and a lot of the software in use was designed on that platform. Despite Microsoft’s cross platform compatibility modes and so forth, nothing is going to be 100% comparable on a brand new high end machine running Windows 7 x64 and a Windows XP machine from several years ago. Just consider the driver differences for starters.

With that in mind we switched the TX and RX piping to VB Audio Cable which markets itself as a fully functioning virtual audio cable solution. With two cables set up, one for input and one for output things were good to go and a test call made. Guess what? It only bloody well works!

Now at this stage you’ve got two grown men giggling like school girls and wondering if what’s just happened was a fluke of technology.
Test again, it works. Test again; it works, again, again, again. It works! Crystal clear CQ calls originating from Fldigi in PSK31 and being picked up on the K2 rig sat next to it on the bench.
This thing needs to be on a real antenna and talking to people!

With the ATU plugged in and a live antenna on the back of it, all that was needed was minor tweaking of the microphone gain and Windows audio levels to give a good 1W TX and 1.1 reflected power on the ATU’s power meter.

Time to do this for real! Thankfully at quarter to five in the afternoon there was a healthy number of amateurs chatting away on PSK31 and with a little bit of patience, someone eventually calls CQ and we’re in!

First contact on my SoftRock SDR rig was with Giovanni (IN3GNV) in the Dolomite region of Italy at 1711 hrs on Monday 16th February 2015, reporting a 599 signal.

What can I say?

Has it been a pain? – Yes it has.
Was I ready to launch the whole thing out the window? – Yes I was.
How much have I learnt? – More than I could ever imagine!

This has been one of the biggest and steepest learning curves of my life, which if it had worked first time when I took it out of the box, would never have been attempted let alone conquered.

Admittedly I could never have done it alone and my heartfelt thanks have got to go to Andy for his patience, insight, advice and support. Also, things wouldn’t have been possible without my sponsor (you know who you are!) There have also been a load of people on various forums who have offered advice in one form of another, but if nothing else the encouragement and the offer that “when you get there and are on air it’ll have been worth it.”

They’re not wrong!

Capacitive CW Touch Key

With the continuing saga of the SoftRock still not playing ball it crossed my mind that getting the SoftRock itself to generate the CW signal, rather than from within software, might not be a bad idea. It’s got a socket for a paddle and attaching one and seeing what happens might not be a bad idea in the course of things.

Not owning a Morse key was a relatively easy situation to overcome until I realised how much these things were! I was gob smacked at the prices they commanded on both the new and used market. To own something that had seen service during WWII, combined with the nostalgia factor would be great, but at the end of the day my Morse ability is somewhat lacking and the furthest it has ever been pushed is the “appreciation of Morse” session in the Intermediate exam training. I needed a quick, simple and cheap solution.

A lot of internet research eventually landed me at M0UKD’s site. I’ve been here before and used John’s guide for modding my MFJ-971 ATU. In amongst a whole host of useful stuff on the site is the Capacitive CW Touch Key project in the homebrew section, which set me thinking that building one would be the way to go http://www.m0ukd.com/homebrew/capacitive-cw-touch-key-circuits/

I liked the idea of the project so ordered one of the pre-built boards. I’ve played with surface mount stuff before but I wanted something up and running quickly, plus by the time I’d bought all the solder paste and bits and loused it up a couple of times I’d no doubt have spent as much as I would have securing a WWII relic off of eBay.

Suitably armed with the tiny board, a cheap project box and a chunk of aluminium L-section from good old eBay I set about putting it all together. It took a little bit longer than I’d hoped to build, simply because my workbench is in the garage and with the soldering iron being the only source of heating, numb fingers meant my dexterity wasn’t what it usually is! I need to install some sort of heating in there but that’s for another day!

Anyway, with a few hours careful work, the majority spent drilling and filing down the plastic for the enclosure, its all done. It’s small, solid and functional. John quotes 3000 hours life from 2 x AA batteries so I’m not complaining.

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The board is available from http://www.m0ukd.com and for £20 including P&P you can’t got wrong!

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There’s a video produced by M0UKD of the circuit in use on YouTube if you want to see it in action

Resolving Softrock Ensemble RXTX transmission problems #2

TRANSMITTING A CLEAN AND STABLE CW SIGNAL #1

The first objective is to get the radio working to the point that when Tx is pressed in CW mode a clean and stable CW tone is transmitted.

I’m rapidly learning that with this SDR radio setup there is a strong need to have a conventional radio or a second radio on hand to check the signal that the rig is transmitting.

This leads to the proverbial chicken and egg situation, plus the potential financial considerations. Should I have bought a conventional rig and then thought about building an SDR? Now I’ve built an SDR I need a conventional rig available to test it against. It may have been easier and cheaper to build a 6 foot brick wall and paint a bullseye on it and just head butt it repeatedly!

Thankfully, a very generous Andy has leant me a Sangean 803A/Radio Shack DX-440 (http://www.eham.net/reviews/detail/2814) from his youth. It is a truly classic receiver, which unfortunately they don’t make any more and I wish I could lay my hands on one. It has the advantage of having a separate BFO which is needed for this exercise.

Using the DX-440 with my trusty Sound Blaster Live 24 and an old Dell Inspiron netbook I was gifted over New Year, I’ve got the means to test what’s coming out of the Softrock.

The netbook has been reinstalled with a copy of Linux Mint 17.1 Xfce 32-bit as the Windows 7 installation on it meant it took nearly 20 minutes to boot! Gotta love Microsoft! It now boots in just under 40 seconds and comes with a whole host of useful radio based applications thanks to the repositories available. Our old friend Fldigi is installed and ready to go!

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It’s a simple setup which allows the spectrum to be examined easily.

The baseline settings on the radio PC are as follows –

Within the Windows sound settings ‘Recording’ Line In for the Asus Xonar DX audio device is set to 2ch 24bit 192kHz

Within the ‘Playback’ Speakers for the Asus Xonar DX audio device is set to 16bit 192kHz

Both are set to 100% volume at present. There is the potential to overdrive the radio which may be causing an issue but at the minute we’ll leave them as they are.

Within HDSDR Soundcard options –

RX Input (from Radio) – Xonar Line In

RX Output (to Speaker) – Realtek Speaker

TX Input (from microphone) – Line 2 VAC (I’m ignoring this at the moment as I haven’t plugged a microphone in and annoyingly you can’t select an audio device option when there’s no device plugged into it. There isn’t a non or not connected option, so you have to select something)

Within HDSDR Options –

TX Output (to Radio) – Xonar Speakers

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Within HDSDR Options –

Options > Input Channel Mode for RX > I(Left) / Q (Right)

Options > Output Channel Mode for RX > AF to Left Channel only

The RX settings aren’t relevant at present as this a test of the Tx functionality

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Within HDSDR TX Options – (only available when the program is running and you hit the TX button!)

Options > Input Channel Mode for TX > I(Left) / Q (Right) [No Mic!]

Options > Output Channel Mode for TX > not selectable but set at I(Left) / Q (Right)

Swap I and Q Channels for TX output > enabled

Now the logic of this test goes like this. Tune the DX-440 to 14087 kHz, tune HDSDR to 14088 kHz in CW and hit Tx with a dummy load attached

The CW signal which is produced is received on the DX-440 and appears in Fldigi on the waterfall.

Again after much fiddling and stupidity on my part we eventually got somewhere.

This is a snapshot sequence of keying on HDSDR

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On the DX-440/Fldigi setup this is what is received

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Unplugging the cable between the sound card and the DX-440 and listening in a reasonable quality CW tone can be heard. After a bit of playing around, bearing in mind I possess zero Morse key skills, I was able to key out a few letters sufficient enough for Fldigi to accurately decode them.

But it’s no time to for high 5’s and cigars! Look closely at the received signal in Fldigi. It bends and then becomes linear! That said, there are no spurious signals around my CW signal.

This is as far as it goes at the moment as I’ve run out of time, but we’ve accomplished something! We’ve got a radio that transmits a CW tone sufficient for a receiver to detect and decode it.

As to the quality of the signal, that still needs work. I have concerns about possibly over driving the radio and I need to have a long look at the Output Channel Calibration for TX settings within HDSDR. The bent signal is almost as if there’s a lag somewhere. These things need to be looked at again in a methodical fashion but it’s progress!