Sunday, May 15, 2011

Technological change finally comes to my basement

So, I do this blog dedicated to rapid technological change and its effect on society, media and my beloved hobby of amateur radio.  Seems I spend an inordinate amount of bandwidth on the "media" part, but that is where there has been the most fodder for blogs lately.  I suspect it shall remain so.  At least from my limited perspective, since that is where I make my living.

But I am pleased to report that technological innovation has finally come to my basement--right here in my office/ham shack.  After years of resisting it, I have finally succumbed to the lure of DIGITAL MODE communication!  My excuse has been a good one.  I spend ten to twelve hours a day on a keyboard...doing advertising and marketing stuff at the office and writing books here in the home office.  When I get ready for some ham radio operating, I don't necessarily want to go back to a keyboard yet again.  The available gear has also been very kludgy with lots of cables running about, tricky interfaces to radio gear, and devices that put a big strain on computers.

But a couple of things shoved me in the direction of such acronyms as PSK31 and RTTY.  One was the urging of some buddies (W9YNF, KW4J, and others) who sing the praises of the fun that is digital.  Another was the claim that I could work much DX with very low power.  And then I keep seeing rare countries pop up on the DX cluster spotting systems that are only working teletype or PSK31.

Then here comes a tiny little box that addresses my cables-everywhere worries.  It is a neat little device called a SignaLink USB, which offers the ability to easily and quickly link a computer to a ham radio receiver/transmitter using minimal cabling, and, obviously the USB port.  It does not get in the way of anything I might want to do on the computer or the radio, and simply plugs into a USB port on the 'puter and the accessory socket on my Kenwood TS-2000 radio.  It even contains its own sound card so it does not muck up anything on the computer while it decodes digital tones being transmitted by other stations and takes my own keyboard input and converts it to a long list of modes.  And hooking it up and getting it adjusted took a whopping fifteen minutes.  Downloading and figuring out one of the shareware software programs was a bit more of a challenge but nothing to really fuss about.

I must admit I am impressed so far.  I played with teletype back in the '70s when we had to use big, noisy, oily teletype machines and fairly frightening voltages to be able to print out stuff on fan-fold paper.  Tuning in a station was a real task and any nearby interfering station ruined any hope of a good chat.  The way it's done now is so far superior to that it is silly. 

When I first tuned down to 14.070 megahertz on the 20-meter ham band, it sounded like a choir of banshees all screeching at once.  Or like punk rock.  But you know what's cool?  You don't have to listen at all.  You can turn down the volume and not hear anything at all when you use the accessory port on the radio.  The SignaLink gets its audio back there.  But how do you pull any intelligence out of all those stations, all basically on the same frequency at the same time, competing with each other?

Amazingly, it's easy.  The software (I'm using a free program called Digital Master) shows what is called a "waterfall."  It is a moving view, with each signal displayed as a little red/yellow trace making its way down the screen.  All I have to do is click on one of those traces and words start appearing in a text window above.  And it is guys chatting.  On Saturday night, there must have been a dozen traces at once, all perfectly readable.  Some are more yellow than red, indicating they are weaker, but I was able to print them even when they were almost invisible on the screen.

OK, so I decide to jump right in and answer a "CQ" (someone putting out a call looking for another station to talk with).  He came right back to my call and we had a nice, short contact.  And he was in Russia.  So were the next three stations I spoke with.  All came back to my initial call and all gave me "599," which is a very strong signal.  Oh, and by the way, I was putting out a mere 20 watts!  I was hooked!  And after 48 years in the hobby, I had "gone digital."

I'm still having trouble getting used to dropping in the pre-set information at the right time without messing up and sending the wrong thing, and I'm still learning which function keys do what with the software, but so far, it seems like a very nice way to chat.  I've talked with guys all over Europe so far on PSK31, and am soon going to play with this new-fangled version of radio teletype that promises to be so much better than that old oil-slinging, sprocket-throwing Kleinschmidt clunker I used back in the '70s.

See, embracing change is no big deal!

Don Keith N4KC


recumbent conspiracy theorist said...


Great news in this post! Yes the digital soundcard modes are great. My best dx is using psk-31. I'm mostly just a cw station but I always boot up flgigi and tune to 14.070. Thats how I check propogation conditions on 20m. I'm sure your DM program has a feature that allows you to decode all the signals in the spectrum display at one time in a seperate window? That makes it real easy to look for the dx.

73 and have fun

Don Keith N4KC said...

I have been already! I really did enjoy RTTY back in the old days, but this is far, far better on so many counts. I don't think this digital stuff will pull me away from CW (as you, it's my favorite mode) and SSB, but it will definitely carve off a slice of my ham radio time from now on.



Anonymous said...

You DID it, Don!

Congratulations on finally biting the bullet and hopping on board the PSK31 train. You will not be disappointed.

I use this mode (with SignaLink USB) and the tried and true DigiPan software to chase rare DX and ragchew and it has brought back all the fun of ham radio.

Please e-mail me and give me some sked options. Would love to chat with you on PSK31, Don.


Wayne, K9YNF

dave said...

I just passed my general on the 16th, have an ic-706mk2 and am dying to get onto psk31! It's encouraging to read your story and how easy it is to do it! Thanks Don!