Monday, November 30, 2015

CQ Worldwide DX Contest 2015

       Well this year's CW Worldwide DX CW Contest has come and gone. Thousands probably slept the sleep of the dead after being deprived of rest over the 48-hour contest period, eyes bloodshot from staring at receiver dials, stomachs aching from the acid of too much coffee and loads of snacks eaten in lieu of taking time for full meals and the ionosphere healing itself after being assaulted and heated by many times its usual portion of RF launched from backyards around the world. Ears are sore from headphones being pushed tightly over ears as if that would help a weak signal to be heard and foreheads may be raw from being held down on operating desks as if the operators could somehow concentrate more deeply on pulling callsigns out of the noise in an attempt to use sheer willpower to pull a signal up just one more db.  Muscles are sore from tightening as keyboards were tapped or keying paddles swung as if that extra effort would add to the strength of the RF to push signals through massive pileups.  Fingers are raw from keying with writing fingers on those of us who still use pen and scratch paper to write down tentative callsign identifications now having a callous not seen since high school days of writing term papers  before computers.
       The CQWW is a massive collective effort to heat the ionosphere and get as many callsigns, zones and DX entities in a log in one weekend as possible. For many, it also involved  the usual preparation of checking antennas, maybe putting up "temporary" antennas with wives assured they would come down and return the yard to its previous uncluttered state " after the contest" with the operator hoping he could stretch that long enough so the temporary structure would be considered part of the " new normal".  For still others, it had meant months of planning trips to isolated areas to become the sought one in the bottom of those massive pileups.
       For some of us who would spend the weekend listening in the SWL mode without being able or desiring to transmit it would mean many of these same things, with the concentration just on listening.  For all, there is the hope of logging all 40 zones, hundreds of countries and running up a score in the millions,  with the secret hope that in addition to the glory of the weekend, perhaps  a few missing entities would be added to the total overall country list, or at the very least, to the list of countries for a given band.
       The weekend was marked with particularly good prop with low noise on the lower bands, at least here in Texas.  Friday night saw the high bands hot for the first hour, with DX being logged here from the Pacific on both ten and fifteen meters.  The promise was short lived, however, as both bands folded up like a cheap tent the first hour, with 20 meters starting to fail shortly thereafter.
       Any frowns of disappointment were wiped out, however, by phenomenal conditions on forty meters.  Listening in the search mode starting at the bottom of the band turned up great signals from Europe and the Middle East early, many pushing through the big gun US East Coast stations at the bottom of the band,  leading to it taking well over an hour to get above the bottom 25 kHz of the band logging many great catches. Signals extended above 7100.  After that,  80 meters was just as good, as any left over absorption in the D layer of the ionosphere faded away allowing even Mid East signals to come through with the energy often reserved for  10 or 15 meters.  I ended up spending so much time on 40 and 80 that by the time I got down to 160 meters, the sun was already rising in Europe and I perhaps missed some opportunities.
       After a two and a half hour nap, I got back in front of the dials Saturday morning Texas Time checking the low bands for Pacific and Asia signals and they were there in force.  Interestingly, some Asian stations were logged only on 80 or 40 for the weekend. The one disappointment was no Australian signals on 80 meters. Signals from both East and West Malaysia were logged on 40, with some Asian signals coming in as late as 9 AM local time with the sun well up.
       When the last of the JA's had dropped to the noise level on 40,  a check of the upper bands showed ten meters already hot to Europe.  Like the low bands the night before, the signals just kept pouring in, with the  band being refused to be " worked out" until well after noon. Signals of unbelievable signal strength from Europe, Western Asia and Africa pushed the S meters of the FT-757GX, Icom R-75 and the venerable Drake 2B I used for the weekend well above S-9.  In fact, by the time ten began to yield few new callsigns, 15 and 20 had shifted away from Europe and to South America and the Pacific.  It would mean a shift in strategy for the next morning to start with 15 and 20 after the low bands folded to get the needed Europeans on those two bands.
       Saturday night turned out not to be a repeat of Friday night on the low bands, with 40 and 80 not being nearly as hot and 160 disappointing without a lot of good copyable European signals.
       All in all, from an SWL standpoint it was a highly successful weekend., with two new overall countries being added to the master " heard " list and several new band-countries added on 40 and 80.  The big thrill of the weekend came with the logging of A52R from Bhutan on 15 meters about 2100 GMT Sunday.  There is always something special about hearing signals from that part of the world that gives one a sense of wonder and mental pictures of the exotic.
       This was a weekend not for the faint of heart or those turning on the radio for listening to programs.  It is a weekend for digging in the dirt of noise and pushing through the crowds to pull out a new one, or to log DX from JA and other entities until the log is gorged. It is a weekend for those who know how to copy CW to put things into the log that those who listen to broadcasts can but hope and dream about.  It is about a shameless wallowing in a veritable sea of DX, picking them off in a target rich environment. It is a weekend with so much over indulgence in RF that one will almost not want to turn on the radio for days.Well, almost.
       For me, it means being very pleased with a special new vertical antenna put up " just for the weekend"  that got an extra good ground from a weekend of rain that provided the grounding without lightning and static.  The vertical provided the great loggings on 40 and 20 meters, being 5/8's wave high on 20 and just a little too long  for 40, but nothing the Dentron Super Super tuner could not handled matching.  The slopers and ground planes provided the RF for the receivers on 160,80, 15 and 10 meters.
       Stats are still being worked out, but initially it looks like over 1500 stations logged in 127 countries ( or "DX entities" for the purists) and 37 zones. Well, I did my best to create an RF "low pressure zone" in the neighborhood by pulling in as much RF as possible to protect the neighbors from the excess RF being launched into the air by all those amateur stations transmitting over the weekend.
       Was the indulgence in one of the primo DX contests of the year enough to assuage the appetite for DX and playing with the radios for at least awhile?  I guess so.  But then there are a few DXpeditions planned for the holidays coming up, there is the new schedule of broadcast stations to check out. And there is the 160 meter contest next month and the ARRL DX contest early next year...

       73 and good DX!!

DX entities logged  with notations on which bands they were heard.

Japan 160, 80, 40,20, 15,10
New Zealand 40, 15
Madeira Island 10,20
Canada 160,80.40,20,15,10
Senegal 80,20,40
Brazil 10,15,20,40
Peru 10,20
Uruguay 10, 15,20
South Africa 10,15,20
Hungary 40,20,15,10
Slovenia 80,40,20,15,10
Canary Islands 80,40,20,15,10
Aruba 160,80,40,20,15,10
Spain 80,40,20,15,10
Germany 80,40,20,15,10
Slovak Republic 80,40,20,15,10
Russia ( European) 40,20,15,10
Azores Islands 40,15
Moldova 40
France 80,40,20,15,10
Cyprus 40,20
Czech Republic 80,40,20,15,10
Belgium 40,20
Scotland 40,20
Ireland 20
Poland 80,40,20
Serbia 80,40,20
Bulgaria 40, 20
Switzerland 80,40,20
Cuba 80,40,20,15,10
Albania 15, 40
Italy 80,40,20,15,10
Wales 40
Iceland 15, 20
Croatia 80,40,20,15
Morocco 10, 40
Gibralter 40
England 80,40,20,15,10
Corsica 80, 10
Montenegro 20, 40
Greece 40
Venezuela 20, 15
Hawaii 160, 80,40, 20, 15, 10
Puerto Rico 40,20,15,10
Curacao 160, 80,40,20,15,10
Sweden 15, 20, 80
Netherlands 80, 40, 20
Dominican Republic 80,15,10
Shetland Islands 40
Portugal 10,20,80
Bonaire 160,80,40,20,15,10
Mexico 160,80,40,20,15,10
Marianas Islands 80, 15
Philippines 80
Asiatic Russia 80,40,20,15,10
China 80,40,20
Hong Kong 40,20
Kazakhstan 40
Vietnam 40
Thailand 40,20
Georgia 40
East Malaysia 40
West Malaysia 40
Colombia 10
Mozambique 15
Cayman Islands 15, 20
Martinique 10,15,20
Cape Verde 20,15,10
Madagascar 15,10
Barbados 10
Finland 10,15,20
Argentina 10,15,20
Belize 20,15,10
Suriname 10,15
Zambia 10
Costa Rica 10, 15
Chile 10
Ascension Island 10, 15, 20
Rodriguez Island 15
Virgin Islands 15
Australia 15, 20, 40
Guadalupe Island 15, 20
Anguilla 15
French Polynesia 15
Trinidad 15
Honduras 15
Aland Island 20
Alaska 20,15
Fiji 15
Guam 15,20
French Guiana 20
Maldives 20
Norway 20
Bahamas 20, 80
Bermuda 160, 20
Turks and Caicos 15
Svalbard 20
San Andres 20
Antarctica 20
Oman 20
Qatar 20
Micronesia 80
South Korea 80
Romania 20
Ukraine 20
Denmark 20
Lithuania 20
Jordan 20
Israel 20
Latvia 20
Bosnia 20
Kuwait 20
Belarus 15
Grenada 15
Northern Ireland 15
Estonia 15
Luxembourg 15
Paraguay 15
Rwanda 15
Nicaragua 10
Saba & St Eustatius 10
Easter Island 15
St Lucia 15
St Kitts 10
Saudi Arabia 20
Greenland 15
Bhutan 15

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A First Big Antenna Project Adventure

Everyone has had their first “ big antenna project.” Some are carefully planned out, some are haphazard and some turn into great adventures. My first “B.A P” came when I was thirteen years old. I had been a shortwave listener for a few years, had obtained my Novice Amateur Radio License and had taken my General Class exam and passed.

While waiting for the General Class License to appear, I began thinking about new antenna possibilities. The antennnas up in our yard consisted of two longwires suspended between twenty-foot-high masts made of 2X4's. The wires were seventy feet long and supported by three foot long hardwood spreaders, running parallel between the masts, one for transmit and one for receive.

I knew that the twin longwires I had would work at least passibly. I had used them for shortwave listening and had made numerous contacts in the Novice Bands, including a fair amount of DX. But I had also been reading that antennas needed to be up higher to get a lower angle of radiation. At the same time I knew that my dad had mandated “ no guy wires in the yard” and the yard had to be uncluttered.

A tower was out of the question cost-wise. Masts would require guy wires. So what was I to do?

The answer came a few days later after an accident down the street resulted in a utility pole being broken. The Texas Power and Light Company crew came and replaced the pole, but left the old one that had been broken off at ground level lying in the ditch.

My dad and I got the idea about the same time. If that pole were left lying there for very long, it might just get a new home! After a week, he called a friend of his with TP&L and asked if the pole was going to be picked up and he was told they would when they could, but that if it were to “disappear” it would save them the trouble of disposing of it.

The problem was getting it home. It was about three or four blocks away down Harrison Street where we lived at the time in a suburb on the east side of Waco in Central Texas. My dad was not one to be deterred once he got an idea. It was fairly late on a Monday night when he told me to get in the station wagon and take a ride with him.

At that time he was driving a '57 Chevy station wagon for a work car. He loaded a long, heavy chain in the back and off we went. He turned around in the street and backed up to where the pole was in the ditch. The two of us managed to lift one end of the pole off the ground and propped it up on a concrete block he also had brought. He looped the chain around the pole a few times and hooked the free end into a link. He then ran the other end of the chain under the back of the station wagon and hooked it to the frame of the car.

My eyes were getting a little big about this time. We were actually going to drag the thing home? At 10:30 at night, there was virtually no traffic on our semi-rural street. He told me to ride in the back and watch to make sure nothing was coming lose and he cranked up the Chevy and eased forward.

The chain tightened and the loop snugged up around the pole. There was much groaning and vibrating of the chain as the load came on it. With great care and a little slipping of the clutch he then slowly got the Chevy rolling with the pole dragging behind us. He managed to get into second gear and we were soon going up the street at about ten miles per hour with the pole dragging behind us. Once or twice he had to slow down or stop when the lower end of th4e pole started swaying back and forth across the road a bit. The heavy end of the pole dragging on the street made quite a noise and I could just imagine they residents of the street coming out to see what was going on and maybe calling the police! After what seemed like an eternity and much gnashing of teeth it appeared we would make it to our house without incident. Luckily we did not meet any cars coming toward us as my dad was driving in the middle of the road, trying to keep the end of the pole from swinging into a ditch or hanging on a culvert or mailbox. Somehow, things went ok and we got home without a crash..

Instead of pulling into the drive, he parked alongside the yard on the street and got a dolly and a

small wagon. We unhooked the chain and lifted the small end of the pole onto the wagon and tied it firmly in place with a short piece of rope. He then got the dolly under the large end and we began the slow process of getting the pole off the street and into the back yard.

He already had in mind where he wanted to put it in the back, right corner of the yard. It took a bit of maneuvering to get the bottom or larger end of the pole into the right spot. The pole did not want to stay in place on the wagon and at one point during the turning and backing process we gave that up and just lifted it by hand and moved it a foot or two at a time. ( it was HEAVY!!) Sometimes it was more lift and roll than carry. There was a lot of sliding and rolling of this thing because it was not only heavy but over 40 feet long. We got it into the back yard before we realized we had to reverse ends with it to get the large end in the corner. That meant making a sharp bend to miss clothesline poles and a fence. It was about an hour long job to get it in place.

We got it in place parallel to the side fence with the bottom about ten feet from the back fence when it occurred to me that I didn't know how we were going to get something back there to dig the hole. My dad said we were going to have to dig the hole by hand. He wanted about eight feet of the forty-five foot long pole in the ground and it would be my job to do most of the digging! If I wanted a DX Pole, I would have to do the work!

After all the work it took to get it in place, I found myself full of doubts and questions. How would we ever be able to lift the heavy pole into a vertical position when we could barely move it into the back yard? How would we get a hole dug for it when there was not a way to get a tractor with an auger into the back yard? We certainly could not afford to pay anyone to do it! Most importantly, how would I ever get any antennas on it after it was up because there were no climbing steps on the pole. They had apparently been removed by the power company after they cut it down.

As usual, my dad already had a plan. He probably had it all worked out before we even drove down the street to drag the thing home. He was a carpenter and had come from a farm background and was expert at working out ways to do things in a way that would substitute manual labor and ingenuity for expense in getting a job done.

The “manual labor” would be mine. The ingenuity would be his.

I would dig the hole. We would start with our regular manual post hole digger. This was basically a small auger with a four foot stem and wooden handle. You made it work by putting the auger end down and turning the handle round and round. It would eventually “bite” into the ground but it required not only turning, but downward pressure.

It would not dig a hole nearly big enough around to accommodate the pole. It would cut a hole only about ten inches in diameter and the bottom of the pole was was almost two feet across. But my dad said that “would not be a problem.” I would use a heavy chiseling pole and a sharpshooter shovel to cave the sides in once the hole was started, then use the post hole digger to haul out the lose dirt. I could see a lot of work in my young future!

It was not long before I would learn just how big a job this would be.. The first afternoon, I got the hole down about three and a half feet. His plan worked well. Dig down with the auger, pull out the loose dirt. Cave in the sides, dig out the loose dirt. Then cave the sides in some more and lift out the loose dirt. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

When he got home from work that next day, my dad told me I needed to round out the hole even more to make sure the pole would not only fit in it, but slide down without problems. He also noted that the hole was not nearly deep enough, even though at the depth it now was, the handles of the post hole digger were just about scraping the ground. It turns out he already had a plan for that.

With a pipe wrench, he unscrewed the handle off the pipe stem of the post hole digger and with a heavy coupling, put a five foot extension of heavy duty water pipe on the shaft and then screwed the handle back on the top of that. It would mean I would have to stand on top of a small platform to be able to turn it until the hole was deeper, but “ that should not be a problem for you”.

The next morning I got up early and started digging. It took all day of climbing on top of the platform, dropping the post hole digger down into the hole, turning it until it filled up, then lifting it out hand-over-hand to dump it out. Then there was the caving off of the hole and removing the loose dirt. I don't know how many times I actually dug and redug that hole before it appeared to be ready!

But there was till the question of how we were going to lift the pole and how I was going to get the antennas on it. That question was partially answered when my dad got home from work that day to inspect and pass on the hole.

He had brought with him a couple of lengths of used water pipe salvaged off a remodel job he was working on. He had somewhere obtained a couple dozen large, 18-inch long lag bolts and rummaged through his massive collection of used hardware and dug out a couple dozen large washers.

He figured that about nine inches of lag bolt going into the side of the pole would be enough to support our weight. My job for the next day would be to cut the water pipe into six-inch-long pieces. The large washers would be put under the heads of the lag bolts, the pipe slipped over the bolts to provide foot rests and the lag bolts screwed into the side of the pole. Instant climbers! Actual climbing steps such as appeared on regular utility poles would have cost a small fortune. I am sure that even the lag bolts were probably not cheap, but I am betting he bought them at a used and salvaged materials store in town where he often bought lumber for projects and I am sure he got a good deal on them!

He set me up with a pipe vise and a couple of saw horses to use in cutting the pipe and left me with a hack saw and some spare blades. The next day was spent cutting, assembling and screwing the lag bolts into the pole at intervals of about 18 inches.

The attaching was not as easy as one might imagine. I had to drill a small pilot hole to get started, then get the large lag bolts screwed in. The wood in the pole was creosote treated, aged and tough. Of course this was a good thing, because it meant that the bolts would be well anchored and not be liable to slip out or loosen when one's weight was applied. This would be a good thing when one is over thirty feet in the air! There was more than a little bruising of knuckles using a large crescent wrench for the final tightening. The washers on the ends were to provide a stop to prevent the climber's foot from slipping off the ends of the climbers.

The question of raising the pole was still open. That day after work my dad came home and we moved the bottom of the pole away from the pole a couple of feet. This confused me a moment until the shovels once again came out and we began digging a small ditch just a bit bigger than the width of the pole along its length. The ditch went from a depth of about 18 inches at the edge of the hole and sloped up to ground level over about five feet. This resulted in a little loose dirt once again falling into the hole and more digging of it out.

While I was doing this, my dad was cutting up some two by fours and two by sixes of different lengths and nailing them into “x” shapes of varying lengths. We got the pole moved back over with the bottom extending over the top of the hole and lying in the freshly dug ditch.

Part of the plan became evident in a few minutes when one of my uncles and a neighbor showed up. We began by lifting the small end of the pole up and slipping the smallest of the “x's” under the end. The pole would be lifted a little and the “x” scooted up a little more, raising the end of the pole about a foot off the ground. Then a slightly larger “x” was placed under the end and both scooted up. This continued until there were four or five braces under the pole. Two ropes were tied to the pole about two-thirds of the way up and a long heavy chain attached a little higher.

My dad then cranked up his station wagon and drove down to the neighbor's place whose field backed up to our house. The houses on our street lay in a single line with a large open field behind them all where the one neighbor ran cattle and horses.

My dad drove out into the field and backed up to the fence. The plan soon became clear. The chain was hooked to the frame of the car, my uncle and the neighbor got on the ends of the two other ropes, stretching them out in opposite directions at right angles to the pole. I was told to “ stay out of the way”.

As he slowly began to drive forward, the chain tightened. The pole began to lift. The bottom hit the back of the hole and could not slide forward any more. The chain tightened more and began to vibrate, the pole lifted and the x-braces fell away. There was no turning back now. The two men on the ropes pulled against one another keeping the pole straight while the lift-chain stretched and creaked. The pole lifted to about 45 degrees, then seemed not to want to go farther. My dad gunned the engine in the station wagon, the rear wheels began to spin and for a moment I thought it wasn't going to make it.

The pole moved up and as it came to near vertical, the two men on the ropes both moved back toward the house to pull against the rise a bit, I am assuming to keep it from going over and falling onto the station wagon. The pole reached vertical and stood there. It wiggled . It did not drop into the hole. The neighbor and my uncle yanked on the ropes and my dad worked the clutch in the station wagon, working the pole back and forth and finally with a loud “thunk” it sank into the hole.

Never to leave anything to less than perfection, my dad came back to supervise the filling in of the dirt, holding a level to the pole in several places to make sure it was plumb. Slight adjustments were made by filling in dirt more on one side or the other and jamming the heavy chisel pole as a tamping tool along the sides. Then as more dirt was filled in, the garden hose was brought in and the hole was soaked while more tamping and filling went on.

The tools were picked up, everything cleaned up and the men took a Pearl Beer break. I even got a small glass.

The directions for the next day were to continue to soak the hole and as the dirt settled to tamp more on top. No climbing was to be attempted for a week until everything settled. The job was done in a way that I am sure some government safety organization would have had a hissy fit over. ( OSHA did not exist in those days!!)

The DX pole was up. The planning of the first project for my expanding “antenna farm” was underway.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

DX-ing as a Magical Adventure

             Someone on one of the SWL Facebook groups  of which I am a member said something in a post about one of his "adventures " being magical.  It seems he had heard a station on his main rig, then listened to the same station on a portable while he worked doing something else.  It seemed like magic to him.  There followed several posts echoing that idea.
       That struck a strong chord with me because I have felt the same thing many times over the past fifty plus years of spinning the dials.  Even before I began listening to weak signals through my own first crystal set going back to the times I, as a child, listened to kid's stories broadcast by one of our local stations back in the early fifties, adventure seemed to pour out of that small wood box with lights inside.
       There were radio dramas that let the story play out on the stage inside the mind.  It was limitless. Whether it be The Lone Ranger, Rocky Jones, Space Cadet or even Little Orphan Annie.  I still remember the children's stories broadcast by long defunct KMLW and the wonderful performance of Peter and the Wolf that first introduced me to classical music as a child. ( I still laugh when I see a bassoon!)
       The adventure changed somewhat when my dad was taking a radio-tv repair correspondence course.  He built radios that brought in stations from all over. These were only AM broadcast stations at the time, but the idea of listening to The Grand Ol' Oprey via WSM in Nashville or The Louisiana Hayride from ( I believe) KWKH in Shreveport in our living room just outside Waco, Texas was amazing to the then seven year old.
       As I learned ( and was allowed) to turn the dials of our old standup Silvertone radio I was able to find music and programs that kept me busy on hot afternoons on our small farm.  The radio transported me beyond the confines of that room.  And I must admit, the sounds of that radio along with the drone of the big evaporative cooler that fought the Texas heat long before we could even dream of air conditioning often lulled me into sleep and real dreams,  sometimes guided by what was on the radio.
       But most of all it was the sound of the distant stations brought in at night that really fired my imagination. Maybe it was the exotic sound of the selective fading.  Sometimes there was a bit of angst as the station would fade and my dad would say,
       " Don't worry,  it will fade back up. It will be back in a minute."
       A little later as I sat with my Bell headphones clamped tightly over my ears listening to the faint sounds coming from the Remco crystal set kit the hook was really and truly set. Those faint signals, particularly those I strained to hear after our local stations signed off at midnight, fired the imagination. Somehow, some way what was going on in that distant studio was leaping into the air, traveling miles and miles through the air and being snagged by the wire strung between the peak of the roof of our house to the tall water pipe mast my dad had erected at the back of our garden.
       When I would ask if we could get stronger signals or more distant stations, he would say we might if we added more wire.  So we added more wire along the side of the house and further out beyond the garden to the chicken houses.   We must have had over 250 feet of wire ranging from about 20 feet to maybe 35 feet high.
       While adding the wire seemed to aggravate the situation of making the local stations spread out on the dial of the crystal set,  it did help the signals coming into the six tube radio he had built as a kit that came with his training course.  And after the local stations signed off,  when I would sneak the headphones onto my head in the midst of the night,  there were more stations to be heard on my little Remco.  The ones I remember were WOAI from San Antonio, KRLD and WFAA from Dallas and WBAP from Fort Worth.  There were others I just don't remember and at seven or eight years old I had no concept of logging.
       Every time I would put on those headphones,  the idea that sound was coming from them that was sent from some distant place was being transmitted to my ears was truly magic. Even if the stations were the same as the ones heard before,  it was still the same.
       The level of magic increased over the years. First it was listening to my Watterson table radio that had belonged to my grandfather,  hearing stations from Dallas, Houston or San Antonio.  Then listening at night to signals from Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati and various points in Mexico.  Then came the shortwave days with the sounds of England, Spain, Switzerland, Ecuador, Australia.
       On a Facebook post in one of the groups made up of short wave listeners I have recently joined, someone noted that same thing.  A distant station was heard on a receiver that was on an outdoor antenna that was later heard on a small portable while he was doing something around the house.  He noted that it seemed magical that he could be hearing something from a distant land with no intervening wires.  Others soon posted on the same entry of their similar feelings.
       What is it about radio that brings these feelings?  Perhaps it is not just the radio itself,  but something that still lives within some of us.  A sense of wonder at something special,  the ability to recognize and enjoy something for its own value, and somehow not become jaded to its reappearance over time.
       There are some in the amateur radio community who work DX and contests and such.  I am among them.  But some have approached the ham radio hobby, and perhaps the SWL hobby in a big rush and work or log countries in a hurry, win contests, collect QSL cards,  trade equipment it seems every other week and burn out on it quickly, losing interest. 
       Others seem to savor the experiences, listening for programs,  studying the prop, finding things to tune for even when the bands are poor. I think perhaps there is a difference within people in how they react to experiences in general,  not just the radio hobby, that has something to do with it. It is not a "competition" except perhaps with one's own skill level.  It is an enjoyment of what is!
       There is nothing to match the thrill of being a kid and hearing Tokyo for the first time on 25 meters on a morning before school. The difference for some is that it is noted, then tossed aside with no interest in doing it again.  But for some of us, every time that signal comes out of a speaker or headphones,  some of that thrill comes rushing back.
       The same goes with working DX or hearing it on the ham bands.  There are literally thousands and thousands of hams in Japan,  but somehow hearing a JA or JH or JO station come back when my hand pulls back from the key never diminishes.  Even just the idea of pulling a signal that someone launched into the air from their backyard with a small box in their home has never lost that shine.
       From the other side,  I had a moment while working at my first radio station back in the 1960's. I had been playing records on the radio on a Saturday afternoon, answering the request line, "playing the hits" when I happened to turn and look out the back window of the control room and saw two of the four towers of the station's antenna array in a new light.  What I was doing in that control room where the meters were dancing, the phone lights were flashing and Rock and Roll was coming out of the monitor speaker at a level that was probably near the pain threshold was being sent from that room into the transmitter room through the window to my left, the glowing tubes were generating the signal that was going to the towers outside, where it was leaping into space and reaching out to touch those very people who had been calling on the phone asking for their song.  It was also reaching out and touching hundreds, perhaps thousands as far as 150 miles away.  It was both a sobering and wonderful moment.
       Its something to think about when we spin the dials. There is indeed a magic in what we experience.  Somewhere, in a distant place,  what we are hearing is being created by someone in a studio or spoken into a microphone or keyed into a transmitter in a home somewhere.  It is leaping into the air, flying through space, bouncing around and sweeping by our antenna leaving a little mark of its passage as it continues to fly yet farther. What could be more magical than that? 
       No matter what the content of the program from a broadcast station  or transmission from the radio amateur, the effect is the same.  Something created in a distant land has come to us. Those who recognize it are blessed with a true experience.  Those who note it and let it go miss part of it.
       There are other wonders that come along with our hobby.  Someone else noted when commenting on a kit receiver someone had purchased and was enjoying that looking inside it was sort of like looking at the person who wired it.  Listening to a song is like looking inside of the person who wrote it or sang it.  Looking at a painting like looking into the soul of the artist.  Reading a story or a poem is like hearing the thoughts of a writer.
       Perhaps all of this is not so much just about radio or cold, technical facts.  The enjoyment of the hobby is just like the enjoyment folks get from actually " seeing" or "hearing" anything that goes on around us in the form of art or just life.  Perhaps we should be thankful we were given the ability to see what others might just pass over.
      Perhaps a little philosophy has crept into what some would see as a cold, technical geeky hobby!
Good DX and Happy Listening.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tuning Tricks, Antenna Trimmers and Observations

       This weekend ( November 14 and 15, 2015) has indeed been an adventuresome weekend on the radio.  Three new  band-countries jumped into the log.  I call it a "band-country" when its a new country on a given band.  In this case it was Willis Island as the current DX-pedition got underway and I managed to snag them on 12 and 10 meters for the first time, having logged them on 15 meters from an earlier trip to the small island.  This is an example of how the only way to put a country into the log is via the amateur bands, because there is just nothing else there to generate a receivable RF signal! That takes my 12 meter total to 173 and my 10 meter total to 216.
       The other was Ascension Island heard for the first time on 80 meters, taking my 80 meter country total up to 118. I realize my total on that band is not that impressive compared to the " big guys" but given the size of my antennas and my relatively noisy location,  I am happy with any new one I can get! Of course this did not add to the overall countries total because Ascension has been there for a long time thanks to much more powerful transmitters pushing out the BBC's signal!
       Overall it was a pretty good weekend to be listening.  It was rainy most of Saturday and outdoor chores had to wait. The bands were fairly good. Friday night 40 meters was very good.  While it was not a new country, it was a thrill to hear Kenya , Western Sahara and the Canary Islands on the ham bands between what was actually 0200 and 0300 Saturday the 14th.
        Earlier time in the evening was unfortunately spent in front of the television watching coverage of the tragedy in Paris.  It also appeared that the BBC was quite strong in several spots, leading me to wonder if they did not lay on some additional transmitters and beam headings that favored the US for their coverage.  Perhaps some of you who keep track of them more closely might add comments. I could post them later if you should notice such.  International events often generate transmissions that are outside the norm.
       Saturday morning Texas time listening began about 1300 GMT. ( OK, so I slept in a bit!!) The initial WWV sweep showed it would be a good day. Beginning at 1348 GMT, the  2.5 MHz  WWV was S-9 + 20 DB with WWVH from Hawaii just barely detectable in the background. The 5 MHz WWV was S-9+ 20DB with WWVH clearly audible behind.  On 10 MHz WWV and WWVH were about equal strength with the S-meter at 20-over. On 15  Mhz surprisingly WWV was S-8 to S-9 but bouncing around a lot with no signs of WWVH.  The best was yet to come!. Even this early with sun probably just rising at their transmitter site, WWV on 20 MHz was already up to S-5 and S-6 and was clearly audible on 25 MHz!
       I noticed when checking the amateur contest listings for the weekend that the OK/OM DX contest ( Czech Republic and Slovak Republic respectively)  was going to be on CW and the JIDX ( Japanese) DX contest was going to be on phone.  That would mean some possible DX targets two ways.  One, it would be fun to see how many Czech and Slovak stations could be logged on CW and how many Japanese stations could be logged on phone on difficult bands.  But also, these smaller contests are also ways to log other countries listening for stations calling those hosting the contests.  The trick is often to listen at times when prop is NOT good to the host country and to listen for other DX stations calling THEM.  The " trick" is to look for pileups or to look on one of the spotting websites like DX Summit and look for stations host country hams are posting that might have prop to you and go park on those frequencies.
       Of course for listeners within the host countries its an easier deal.  Find a station in your country that is working a good run and park on that frequency and let them bring the DX to you!
       Or, if there is a relatively rare station working the contest in your continental area that those working the contest in the host country would probably like for a points multiplier,  park on HIS frequency and let him attract the DX to you.  This works particularly well on the " hard " bands for hearing the host country.  For example, here in Texas listening on 160 or 80 meters if there is a Caribbean station working the contest parking on his frequency will increase your chances of hearing the host country's stations on a tough band.
       The same works for DX-peditions. For example, this weekend was VK9WA on Willis Island was working stations and telling them to call  " up" or above their working frequency.  By tuning off the expedition and into the " pileup zone" you will find lots of goodies to put into the log.  It may take careful tuning and highly concentrated listening to pick callsigns out of the pile, but it can often be worth it.  QSL's sought from these stations will be easy to get as well, because you can believe those operators will remember the time and place where they were trying to bag a good one!
       For those whose CW is just developing, listening like this is great practice.  It always help in building speed to listen in deep concentration in tough conditions.  Also,  anyone can copy for short bursts at a much higher speed than their average copying speed.  As in physical exercise,  "stretching" always leads to improvement!
       This also applies to listening in pileups on phone, just in a different way. It will help develop your " DX-er's ears" by helping to develop the mental technique of pulling what you want out of apparent chaos through concentration. 
       In both cases,  phone and cw,  it may take callsigns going by several times to allow you to pick them out.  You will find yourself getting one letter at a time, until the entire callsign is filled in.  I usually write them down on scratch paper and while digging in a pile, either add each new letter to those already written down, or drop down a line for each "listen",  finding sometimes it may be required that a letter be changed because it was not heard properly the first time.  For those familiar with mathematical terms,  I guess you could say this is a form of " mental integration"!
       I have found that the same "mental integration" technique works in trying to identify a station down in the noise.  Listening over and over and over will sometimes have the signal fade up and down or noise bursts be present or absent in different places to let the ID finally pulled out and another one in the log!
       Of course the old hands reading this will be saying " I  knew that all along" but maybe trying some of these things will help the " newbies" learn a little faster, develop mental acuity and perhaps avoid frustration that might lead to ( "gasp!") dropping the hobby!
       These techniques can also be used for DX-ing other things than just the ham bands. Broadcast stations ID's or clues to identity can slip by quickly.  For those who run audio recordings, often running them several times will allow some form of mental integration.  For those with SDR's, the same might be the case, perhaps with different passband or selectivity settings.  For those who take the hobby beyond just listening to programs this could lead to bagging a good one rather than letting it go by because copy is tough. ( not that just listening for programs  is not a good thing, there are some great cultural things to be experienced listening to SWBC not to mention the exotic feel of listening with the fading and knowing you are doing it yourself without intervening wires...I am sorry but listening on the internet is just NOT the same!!!)
       OK, so back to Saturday morning. A quick check of twenty meters showed European signals coming in already at 1400 GMT. They were not strong but were readable. Many had a marked echo on the signals, indicating either multiple arrival paths or multiple backscatter effects. 
       Sometimes when signals sound like that here in Texas it is when they are passing through the auroral zone and are generally from Northern Europe ( particularly Scandanavia) or parts of Russia.  In this case, however,  the echo was pronounced on many Southern European stations.  Regardless of the mechanism, such makes copy of CW signals difficult because the delayed or echoed sounds tend to fill in the gaps or spaces between the " dits" and " dahs". 
        On voice signals, it makes understanding the words very difficult. The effect can be quite interesting sometimes.  I have heard instances where prop has brought signals  from Asia to my radio by both long and short path at the same time. There have been times when the long path was actually stronger than the short path and the "echoed" syllables were actually stronger than the "original". I still remember the very first time I heard this effect and was amazed.   It was in 1959 or 1960 while using my first, home built shortwave receiver and heard the Voice of America relay station from the Philippines early in the morning on 31 meters for the first time.
      In any event,  there are a few things that might be tried to make either the phone or CW signals more readable. The first thing to remember is that the Automatic Volume Control ( AVC) or Automatic Gain Control (AGC) is doing its best to "level out" the signal.  On CW particularly this means bringing up the gain when signals drop in level  or are absent.  This means the AVC ( or AGC) is actually aggravating the situation by making the echo and original signals the same strength.
       The first thing to try depends on whether you have a selectable AGC speed.  If so, select the slowest speed.  If not, it will be necessary to find some way to reduce the AGC effect.  The only way to do this is to reduce the strength of the signal to the point that the AGC has no room to "recover gain". If you have an RF gain control, back it off. If you have switchable attenuators, switch them in. As long as the signal is audible, it matters not if the S-meter is swinging above S-9! If there is enough difference in strength between the original and echo signal you might find a point where it becomes more readable.
       The same can be said of phone or AM signals. The effect may not be as pronounced and in some cases will not help much, but it doesn't help to try.  In some cases where the signal is " just ALMOST readable" every little bit can help!  The technique works better on SSB phone signals than AM signals.
       One other thing you might try if you have more than one antenna is to select a different one. A different antenna might have enough of a different pattern that one or the other of multi-path signals might be reduced or enhanced.
       For hams working CW and trying to make a contact with a station marked by heavy echo,  if its on a path going through the auroral zone,  be aware that your signal is being affected in exactly the same way on the distant end. If signals are strong and the other station is not answering your calls even though you know he must be hearing you,  its possible that the echo is making it impossible for you to copy you regardless of strength.  The answer is to slow down. Not just with more space between letters with your keyer or bug sending letters at the same rate,  but actually slowing down the  letters to allow more space between "dits" and "dahs". 
       I keep a straight key in the circuit wired in parallel with the output of my electronic keyer to allow quick and easy switching to a slower speed.  Often this is the difference between being just heard and actually copied.  This technique can also  be used in other times than just multi-path or echo situations.  Sometimes it can work in pileups and other heavy QRM or QRN situations.  When its tough, whatever works !!
       During part of the weekend's listening,  I switched away from the R-75 I had been using and fired up my old Hallicrafters SX-111. I still think this is one of the prettiest of the old boat anchors.  When I was in junior high school, an older fellow who was in high school at the time and an active ham  lived across the street from one of my aunts.  I would visit him frequently and he was  a great help with learning the code and generally learning radio in general. He had an SX-111 and I remember thinking it was really something. It was so much more stable and selective than the little National SW-54 I was using for SWL at the time.  I guess when the opportunity to do some trading to get one years laer presented itself,  it just would not do that I would pass it up.
       By the way, it is unfortunate but I have lost track of that ham over the years.  His name was Lou and his call was K5HFR. That call is not active in any data base now and of course many people have changed callsigns or obtained vanity calls since then and I have not been able to trace him.  Of course it could  be he is no longer active.
       In any event, as I fired up the Hallicrafters it came to mind when I switched to forty meters and calibrated the dial that for some reason I was struck by the need to adjust the antenna trimmer.  It occurred to me that many who use these radios today as collectors or who did not use them in " the day" may not know the purpose of this control.
       On these radios,   tuning is accomplished by multi-gang variable capacitors.  One section or "gang" tunes the mixer input, one tunes the local oscillator that generates the signal to convert the incoming signal to the Intermediate Frequency and if there are third and fourth gangs they tune the RF amplifier (s).  They must all track together to maintain even gain across the band.
       The rub comes in when an external antenna is connected to the receiver  Even if link turns on the coils are used to couple the input signal into the first tuned circuit,  capacitance of the antenna system can "load " the circuit somewhat and cause some detuning,  meaning the first tuned circuit will be pulled down in resonant frequency somewhat and might not track properly.  The antenna trimmer control is used to counteract this effect.
       There are multiple ways  it may be done.  In some receivers, the antenna trimmer is simply in series with the incoming "hot" lead of the antenna, with the idea being series capacitance will minimize the  capacitive loading effect ( see any electronics book on what happens when capacitors are connected in series).
       In some receivers the antenna trimmer is a small capacitor connected in parallel with the input tuning variable. In alignment, the first stage is tuned with the capacitor partially or nearly fully meshed.  Then when the effect of additional capacitance from the antenna is added,  by turning the antenna trimmer to a more un-meshed position, the effect of the added antenna capacitance is effectively nullified.
       It is not necessary for the receiver operator to know which method is used or in fact how it all works.  All one must do is when one stops in any general part of the band is to rotate the antenna trimmer control for maximum  signal. Any time you move an appreciable amount in frequency,  just peak it up.
       This is not to be confused with the preselector tuning in some receivers.  That is a whole 'nother deal!
       Hope all of this has been of some help and not just the rantings of an old guy! To many of you, this might be old hat,  but to new guys or folks dealing with boat anchors for the first time, some of it might be useful.  For those DX-ing the ham bands, it might be of some real use. As I have said before, none of these techniques should be taken as " the only way" but ways that I have found that work for me and hopefully will be of some assistance to others.
       Happy hunting and good DX!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Was it Really a Poor DX Weekend?

       This past weekend ( November 7-8, 2015) was supposed to have been a poor DX weekend. And perhaps in some aspects, it was.  There was some solar activity and there was to have been a solar mass ejection that was to reach Earth and cause radio blackouts and such.
       There were complaints on Facebook of dead bands and poor signals from stations that are normally heard well. There were also not the usual high strength  DX signals obvious on the amateur bands.  However, as is often the case in fishing,  when the fish aren't biting in the usual holes,  they might just be found somewhere else. It also might be that the openings were there, just shorter and during limited times of the day. And the third possibility,  the DX signals were there,   just from different places than usual and at lower signal strengths.
       In the case of this past weekend,  it was a combination of all of the above.  I am not certain what the mechanism of the appeared malaise might have been.  It could have been a result of a hiccough on the sun, the CME or maybe just the overall low solar activity coupled with the change of seasons. In some cases it might have even been folks looking for broadcasters on frequencies they had abandoned with the seasonal frequency shifts and they were just in different holes.
       My own tuning actually started a little late in the weekend. It was Saturday morning a bit before 6 AM Texas time or about 1200 GMT that I woke without the usual alarm that during the week goes off about two hours earlier.
       After the morning ritual of feeding animals, walking dogs, making coffee, etc, I managed to get in front of the radios about 1220 GMT.  The sun was already starting to lighten the sky.   I used the R-75 and  80 meter quarter wave sloper ( which is actually a little long for the band, being about 80 feet long) top fed with the feedpoint up about 45 feet.
       I like to start with a sweep of the  WWV and CHU frequencies first to get some idea of what the bands are doing.  They are always there, with predictable schedules and signals and known antennas and give a good day to day picture of what generally is going on.
       It appeared things would be a little abnormal when there was no signal at all to be heard on 15 MHz. I didn't really expect to find anything but quickly checked the 20 and 25 MHz spots.  Absolutely nothing.
       The 2.5 MHz signal for WWV was a blistering S-9 + 20 DB!  WWVH was also audible very strong behind it.  The surprise came with a check of the 3.33 MHz spot for CHU and it was already gone.  The sun had come up at the transmit site and prop to the east was already gone.  Well!
       Let's check 5 MHz.  WWV was S-9+20 DB and WWVH from Hawaii was almost as strong! Then 10 MHz told the rest of the story.  In the mild static crashes present locally that morning, I at first thought there was nothing there. But then came the top-of-the-minute beep and I knew something was there,  but I had not heard the WWV voice.  Waiting another minute for the time station cycle told the tale. WWVH was coming it about S-5, but WWV was not to be heard.  Interesting!
       The 15, 20 and 25 MHz positions showed no sign of signals. A quick scan of the 10, 15 and 17 meter amateur bands showed nothing.  Not too much of a surprise there.  The only band that has been showing any signs of life even occasionally this time of the morning the past month or so has been 17 meters.
       So that's how  we started Saturday morning. I knew it was probably too late, but I checked the 120 meter band, hoping perhaps to hear the  Northern Australian stations, but they were gone.  No signs of the Koreans or the Papua New Guinea stations on the 90 meter band.  the closest thing to Asian DX I found was way up on 4940, one of the Chinese stations was coming in, actually rather well. Up the band a little bit radio Rebelde on 5025 was still S-9+20 DB but its band mate radio Havana on 5040 was missing.
       Up to 49 meters we go. On 5830, WTWW was blasting through, then 5875 BBC World Service from Thailand was about S-5, doing the usual Southeast Asia morning bounce on the S-meter. Another Chinese station on 5915 was not so strong, struggling to S-4 with the same bouncing level.
        I knew that stations up in the higher bands had probably changed their seasonal schedules and the usual spots I checked might not be updated yet on them, so I switched to the amateur bands. By now it was  1330 and I knew it was getting late for the Pacific on 40.  Even at that, usually the Japanese stations roll in well past sunrise.  However, it was not a major  contest weekend that would draw large number of them out and even the small contest of the weekend, the Ukraine Contest, would not likely turn a lot of them out on 40 meters at this time.  Forty would already be closed to DX for Ukraine with the sun well up there. And such was the case: only one lonely Japanese, JS1SUT was found on 7025. I should have gotten up earlier!
       The next fifteen minutes tuning around the band proved it all out.  The short skip was in. Northeast US stations were already weak with their sunrise complete.  The West Coast stations were ok and either in "local" QSO's or hopefully calling CQ DX.  Only the Midwest stations were stoutly over S-9 and involved in local chats.
       Thirty meters showed the same thing. Mostly US stations either calling CQ DX without much luck or involved in US to US QSO's. What was the deal?  The band was obviously open.  Some of the stations calling CQ DX actually were showing signs of backscatter and echo from return skip from very distant locations. Had everyone just believed the dire predictions of bad prop because of solar activity and CME's? Were the Asian stations all on the higher bands working the Ukraine contest?  Where was everybody?  WWVH was if anything even stronger on 10 MHz now.
       A quick tune down just a bit from WWVH showed that there were broadcast stations coming through.  At 9975 was KTWR from Guam at well over S-9 at 1358 GMT.  The band was not dead, just open to a little different place than usual. Still not knowing for sure if the usual places where broadcast schedules  were posted had been updated,  I decided to default to the ham bands.
       A little aside here: It seems I have become a little spoiled by the readily available freshly updated station lists and schedules.  I guess we all have gotten used to the almost  " instant gratification" of easier station identifications.  Its easy to forget how things were back when I started SWL-ing in the fifties and sixties where there were few updated lists.  Even the WRTH was months behind some schedule changes the day it came out!  And other lists such as White's Radio Log did not even have schedules,  just long lists of frequencies used by the various stations.  In those days it took long, sometimes tedious periods of listening to pull out an ID and then try to figure if what you heard in those fleeting seconds was accurate.  Of course the stations in those days used Interval Signals or pieces of music  around ID time that helped out.  Those DX-ers who had the money and luck to have reel to reel audio tape recorders had at least a leg up in being able to record the ID breaks and play them back over and over in hopes of picking out the ID.
       So anyway, it was up to the 20 meter ham band I went without a lot of confidence,  with all indications being that the Maximum Useable Frequency ( MUF ) was probably just over 10 MHz. Wrong!
       There were stations there!  The Ukraine contest was underway and tuning up from the bottom of the band I immediately ran into K3WW at 1410 GMT  on 14007 calling "CQ Test".  He was fairly strong, RST 579,  leading me to believe that this band, too, would be a fairly short skip affair.
       Wrong again! The next signal I ran into was at 14019.5 and was also calling " CQ Test" and working stations.  He was not as strong,  only about S-4, but readable.  LZ5W from Bulgaria was having a fair time of it ( a signal heard often here during contests!)  This was at 1413.
       The band at first glance did not appear to have a lot on it and for the uninitiated it may have appeared in poor shape.  But after a few minutes of tuning around  I discovered there WERE DX signals there,  just not as strong as usual.
       There appeared not to be much coming through via high latitude paths.  Even Canadian VE1DT at 1437 GMT spotted on 14012.6 was only S-5.  I had run across him just dropping his call, apparently trying to attract a European that had been working other stations. Maybe the signal strength was just down because he had a yagi pointed away from me, because I eventually heard the station he was working. It was the first Ukraine station of the morning in the contest, UT0U, who as I listened came up from being almost in the noise to S-5.
       From there things proved to be a little easier.  The DX WAS in fact there,  just at a lower level. The band being open was confirmed when I heard N5WX  on 14002.5 at 1442 on backscatter.  The station he was working was another Bulgarian, LZ5R who was also about S-5.
       That proved to be the average signal strength of several Europeans heard over the next couple hours.  I logged several Ukraine stations over that period and many Southern European stations.  Some like HG7A from Hungary were marked by flutter. It would have been easy to give up on the band after a quick initial glance, but sticking with it proved that signals were, in fact, there.
       I would think that tuning SWBC bands would be similar.  For those interested only in their regularly heard programs, there might be disappointment and a temptation to just turn the radio off.  But for the DX-er wanting to put neat stuff in the log,  it might prove to be more an opportunity.  If the band is just open differently than usual,  either longer or shorter or in a different direction for some reason,  it would be an opportunity to log something else that might usually be buried under the "usual suspects" one would normally find there.  Don't give up so easily!
       After our usual family brunch we enjoy on the weekends, it was back to the radio about 1700 GMT.  The WWV sweep showed 2.5 inaudible, 5 with a barely detectable carrier ( not unexpected for nearly midday!) 10 MHz at S-9+ 20 DB but with some fading, 15 MHz at S-9+10 DB with slow fading and with WWVH audible behind it.  Then came the big surprise. The 20 MHz WWV was booming in at S-9 + 30 DB!!!!  Stronger than I had heard it in a long time. I posted such in one of my Facebook groups and right away a couple postings appeared of others in the Northeast US hearing it well, too!  The 25 MHz WWV however, had a just audible carrier.
       The first thought was to check the 15 meter ham band.  There were lots of signals there,  but mostly single hop stuff.  They were very, very strong, however.  I am thinking the MUF must have been right around 21 MHz for those paths.  Many like KD2RC and K6LL were S-9+20 DB.  This was on the R-75 on the 80 meter sloper at 45 feet. 
       One good catch during this time was a PJ6N on Saba Island.  he was heard at 1820 GMT on 21005.2.
       Being curious, I took a look up on ten meters.  I am not sure why, given the fact that the 25 MHz WWV signal was so weak.  But it paid off.  Perhaps the skip on 25 was just a little long for the path to Central Texas because ten was alive! Unfortunately, not with stations working stations,  but the beacons were pouring in.  For those who do not know,  beacons are very low power stations put up by amateurs generally in the area between 28.2 and 28.3 MHz  Most operate with between one and five watts  with Omni-directional antennas designed to be indicators of whether the band is open.  And it was.  First heard at 1830 GMT was N7UTP on 28200.1.
       After that, over a dozen were logged in quick succession,  including 4U1UN at the United Nations club station in New York heard with an S-9 signal on 28200.5 at 1832.
       Interestingly, even though the band appeared open, there was little activity.  Once again, it appeared the "news" about poor prop or predictions of same might have deterred folks from even looking or making more than a cursory tune across the band. There was one island of high activity, however, around  28017.2 where TG9ADM in Guatemala had set up shop.  He soon was working a very busy pileup.
       A quick drop back to fifteen meters around 1900 showed some activity prior to the beginning of the ARRL Sweepstakes contest.  One really good one was found when a good sized pileup of rather weak stations was found  around 21009.  After considerable listening and pulling out one letter at a time, it was determined that at the bottom of the pile was 9Q6AL from the Democratic Republic of the Congo!  Careful listening and diligence pays off!!
       From then on through the afternoon  it was hopscotching between bands and the TV for college football. At 1933,  a new one for me on 17 meters  was VP2MVI from Montserrat on 18072.  Don't know how I had missed that one in the past,  but sometimes that's the way it works.  One that would seem to be a "given" somehow either gets missed or just isn't heard. That filled the line across the tally sheet for Montserrat for all bands 160-10.
       The afternoon on ten meters turned up many South American and Caribbean stations.  The catch of the afternoon for fifteen meters was V51YJ in Namibia  at 2010 on 21012 working a spirited pileup.  Just in time, too because as the Sweepstakes Contest began a little later, the US stations would have pretty well covered any possibility of deep DX, at least on CW.  The rest of the weekend would have to be either on phone or tuning the WARC bands ( 30,17 and 12 meters) which are contest free by convention.      
       Even though the ten meter beacons were still coming in and a beehive of Sweepstakes Contest stations were audible on ten meters,  twelve did not yield much.  Obviously the band was open, because PY3NA was coming through calling CQ on USB  at 2314 GMT on 24945 with a pretty good signal.  The background noise indicated the band was open. 
       I don't know how many of you have noticed the actual " sound" of an open  band.  There is a sound other than that which is locally generated noise that is often heard that can give you the feeling that the lights are on but nobody is home.  I do not know if it is the aggregate noise from other places that props in like other skywave signals or just what it is,  but sometimes you can actually hear it, sometimes even with a little selective fading in it.  In the old days  when cars generated spark plug noise you could sometimes hear the total sum of that adding up to provide a background floor in an open band.
       I had a friend who is now a silent key who spent time in Panama and on Swan Island on work assignments who told of many times hearing Stateside or other ignition noise propping into Swan Island when there were no engines running on the island at all.( Swan Island is very small and off the coast of Honduras. In the 1960's it was the center of some controversy as a supposed location of a station known as Radio Americas that broadcast on 1160 and 6000 KHz carrying anti communist programming aimed at Cuba. That story could almost make a novel by itself!!!!) But I wander afield again...
       While there were few signals present, it was a matter of just finding where the band is open and drop the hook there. In this case, it was back to 17 meters.  As it was getting close to sunset local Central Texas time, the hope was to find some Asian or Pacific stations.  They were indeed there.
       It was a classic late-in-the-day,  upper-band condition.  South American and Japanese stations were showing up in large numbers.  At 2318, I first found PX5Z in Brazil and  JO1WXO from Japan just a kHz apart on 18076 and 18077 respectively.  The dual 250 Hz filters in the R-75 easily separated the two  The pattern remained the same as the band was scanned.. South American stations were running about S-7,  the Japanese stations were running S-5 or lower.  They were not jumping out of the radio by any means,  and if you spun the dial quickly just doing a  "quick cruise" you might miss them.  But slow and careful tuning would turn them up.  In conditions like this,  I often open the selectivity up to " CW wide" or even a narrow SSB position while looking for stations in the grass,  then if I find a group of stations, THEN tighten things up and gingerly turn the dial to pick out the goodies.  Over the next half hour I filled almost a complete page with callsigns on an afternoon when " the bands are crummy"!
       The one that would have been missed if I had just given up and said " oh there's nothing here" was found at 2334 on 17 meter sideband,  one that would be good in anyone's logbook: VP8LP in the Falkland Islands  on 18155 working a fair sized pile.  Interestingly many of the stations he was hearing and working were inaudible here..
       After dinner, one more check of the bands were made before a little family time. As is often the case,  the upper bands sounding bad were an indication that the lower bands would be fine.  Eighty meters handed up EA8ZS with a fair signal even through the evening static crashes and Sweepstakes Contesers  on 3515 at 0203 GMT on the " next day" GMT though it was of course, evening in Texas.
       Sunday was going to have short time for listening because of an impending visit by grandbabies
and playing of a different sort!.  I got on for a few minutes at 1200 GMT or 6 AM local time and fired up the R-75.  The WWV  sweep showed 2.5 MHz WWV  at S-9+30 DB, CHU on 3330 at S-7, WWV on 5.0 at S-9+40 DB(!!) with WWVH well audible behind it.  On 10 MHz, WWVH was again on top about S-5 with lots of QSB and WWV inaudible.  There was nothing audible,  not even detectable carriers on 15, 20, or 25 MHz.
       Someone had mentioned on Facebook  FEBA from their Philippines Manila site coming in to England, so I made a quick check there.  They were S-7 on 9400 and S-5 on 9430,  the opposite being stronger I Texas  than in England where the poster had shown 9430 to be the stronger of the two.  Thirty-one meters is always interesting and surprising around sunrise and sunset.  This was an interesting logging in particular because he was most probably hearing the signals coming to his location from the East  while I was most probably hearing them  coming from my West!  This is one of the little observations that makes this hobby fun.
       With the little time I had left, I dropped to the "basement " of the HF range and checked for the Northern Australian signals. VL8T on 2325 from Tennant Creek was S-4 but actually readable on a morning where the noise was very low here. Its band mate VL8K on 2485 was  stronger at S-7.  I remember wondering if there was that much difference in prop over 160 kHz or if there was some difference in the characteristics of their transmitting antennas.
       Up the band a bit at 2850 Pyongyang, North Korea was rolling in at S-9, better than its transmitters on 3220 and 3320 which were about S-5.
       One thing I miss from these morning sweeps is the old HCJB signal that held down 3220 for so many years with its local  language programs. I guess times change, but the loss of their facilities in Ecuador marks a change I could have done without!
        The Voice of the People from the other side of the Korean DMZ was coming in well on 3480 and 3912, along with its jamming counterparts.
       The last loggings of the morning and of the weekend was Radio Nikkei on 3925 which was an amazing S-9+10db and sounding good.  The last logging was actually a  " no log" as it appeared, and was noted in the log,  that Radio Nikkei on 3945 appeared to be missing!
       It was not too bad for a weekend that so many folks had moaned about as being poor! I had chosen to spend most of the time in the ham bands because of uncertainty about schedule info being updated for the broadcast stations,  but it might have been a good time to confirm what I believe about band conditions.  Often when the "regulars" are not heard,  it is not because the band is dead,  but because it is open to somewhere else.  The band may be longer or shorter than usual. There may be other things to hear in the absence of the regulars. Or there might be other targets to be sought out on other bands.   Often the WWV sweeps can tell you things about that.  For those on other continents where WWV and WWVH might not be useful as "prop" beacons, there might be other stations you can use as barometers...maybe even other time and frequency standards or stations that you regularly hear at certain times.  Checking the barometers can often save you time and tell you where to drop the hook to find the fish!
       For those listening mostly for programming,  it might be a time to find other programs that you do not usually hear.  For the DX-er,  its  often a golden opportunity to hunt for new things on new bands. It is not a time to give up and default to the TV. There are enough differences in conditions on the different bands stretching from LF to 30 MHz that there is always something to be found  to put into a log!
         Good hunting!


Friday, November 6, 2015

Crystal Filters and Phasing

       While looking at older receivers for SWL DX purposes, there are a few features that are particularly helpful.  After the usual  " default " requirements of at least one tuned RF amplifier stage and at least two IF amplifier stages comes some means of tightening selectivity.
       When it gets down to it, almost all boat anchor receivers that have two IF stages with a 455 kHz Intermediate Frequency  ( which covers about 95% of those built in the 50's, 60's and 70's) the selectivity of all of them are pretty much equal. About all you can count on is about 10 kHz selectivity without some kind of additional selectivity enhancement.  This is not to say that two broadcast stations 5 kHz apart could not be identified, but that if one was particularly stronger than the other, there would be considerable  "slop" between the two of them and listening would not be comfortable. CW reception on the amateur bands would be possible but digging out the real DX would be difficult because of interference from neighboring stronger signals.
       We have covered the Q multiplier in a previous post.  The next selectivity enhancing feature is the crystal filter.  This was considered a significant expense to add to receivers in that time period and would boost the price considerably. Now because of collectors looking for even the lower level, or entry level receivers, things have kind of evened out.
       The simplest form of crystal filter consists of one crystal cut for the Intermediate Frequency and at some point in the IF chain in series with the signal path. The crystal will pass frequencies on its frequency fairly well, with response falling off rapidly on either side of its resonant frequency.
       The peak on a single, simple crystal filter is fairly sharp. The center frequency is the resonant frequency with response falling off in a curve.  The selectivity figures for receivers are usually referred to in how many DB down the signal is from the resonant frequency.  The points usually used are 6  DB down and 60 DB down.  The difference between the two gives some idea of the sharpness of the filter or tuned circuits in the radio. The 6 DB down figure indicates the frequency separation at which the signal strength is half what it is on the peak. The 60 DB down figure indicates the frequency separation at which all but the strongest signal would be practically gone.
       A graph of the response can be either very "pointed' or sharp, or slope down gently.  The lower parts of the curve are referred to as the "skirts".  The closer in the skirts as the response goes down, the sharper the selectivity.
       More complex filters can be built to shape that response.  These filters make use of more than one crystal and are sometimes referred to as " crystal lattice" filters or  " multi pole" filters.   The purpose of the filter determines how the lattice is set up.  A filter designed predominantly for cw operation might be made up of crystals very close in frequency to give a very sharp, narrow filter with steep skirts. There might be a design that leaves the top a little flat to avoid ringing in the filter.
       A multi pole filter designed for Single Side Band or AM might be made quite differently.  It would be made of several crystals spaced in frequency to give a fairly flat topped response over a 2.5 to perhaps 6 or 8 kHz bandwidth to allow the sidebands of the SSB signal or AM signal to be passed without muffling the sound.  At the same time, the multiplicity of crystals will also insure very steep skirts outside the desired passband. These kinds of filters are often optional filters and are usually found in more complex, communications grade receivers.  They are also very expensive!!
      If you are lucky enough to have a receiver with positions or sockets for optional filters, such as the Icom R-75 or others,  you may have a choice of purchasing filters made by the receiver manufacturer or other after market filters made by other companies.  When looking at the information for these filters,  you will often find charts and graphs that illustrate the responses of the various models of filter.  Careful study should be given to these graphs with thought toward what kind of listening you plan to do.  Casual listening to AM signals on shortwave broadcast bands or Medium Wave might call for a slightly wider bandwidth while serious DX-in and digging for weaker signals might call for something sharper. But once again, I am wandering a bit from the central subject!
       Most common boat anchor receivers have the more simple, single crystal filters. The question sometimes is, which ones have them and which ones don't.  With Hallicrafters,  this is easy.  The receivers without filters have a model number with just the "S" and a number,  such as S-118,  S-120, S-85, S-38, S-40B etc.  The receivers with the filters have an "X" in the model number,  such as
SX-62, SX-71, SX-96,  SX-99, SX-100, etc.  With the others, its a matter of looking them up.
       When looking at a receiver,  it is often easy to tell by reading labels on controls.  If there is a selectivity switch with multiple positions,  its a pretty good clue.  If there is a control labeled crystal phasing" or just " phasing" it is a certainty! 
         Using a crystal filter is a little easier than using a Q multiplier, but there are some things to know beyond just turning it on or setting to a tighter selectivity position.  The phasing control affects its operation by in some ways bypassing it partially and in some ways shifting its peak and null frequency a little.  Some folks get the idea its like a passband tuning control,  and while it may act a little like that, it is not exactly what is going on.\
       While the crystal filter has a passband narrower than the bare IF amplifier, it also has some nulls and secondary peaks off the main frequency.  The phasing control affects them somewhat.  If you are tuning casually on AM,  I find it useful  to have it set off to one side a bit. Then when a station is encountered that you are interested in, rotate the phasing control back and forth to get the best response. You might find that one of the off peak nulls might just take out a pesky heterodyne, though it may affect the desired signal a bit.
       A good thing to do when first obtaining a receiver with a crystal filter is to conduct  a little "experiment and training" session.  If you get a manual with the receiver, there will probably be a general discussion of the operation of the various controls including the crystal filter. There may even be a graphic representation of the crystal's response.  This can be helpful if you can picture what is happening as you are tuning and trying to get the filter to help you.
       As part of the "experiment and training" session, the best thing to do is find a good, steady signal, preferably a not-too-local broadcast band station.  If the receiver has an S-meter, you can get a really good picture of what is going on. 
       First tune the station in with the crystal filter "out" or selectivity control in the broadest position. Peak the signal carefully with the receiver tuning control.  Then switch the filter in or go to the next tighter position.  You might actually see the signal strength drop a bit.  Depending on the alignment condition of the receiver and the insertion loss of the filter, it might drop a little or it could drop a lot.  All crystal filters have some insertion loss and its not unusual to see a drop of an S-unit or two even on those in the best condition.
       Turn the phasing control back and forth and see if the signal peaks up or drops down.  If it peaks, set the phasing control for maximum signal.  Then carefully rock the tuning dial back and forth and see if you can get any more out of it.  Go back and forth a few times to make sure you have it at its highest. Note the position of the phasing control for future reference.  This will be the position you will want it in while you are in the general "hunt" mode for AM or broadcast stations.
       Next watch the S-meter and tune the dial off the station, then slowly go across it to center and beyond.  Note the actions of the S-meter.  There should be the one main peak, some dips and maybe a minor peak again, probably just on one side.  These filters are not usually perfectly symmetrical,  with the symmetry somewhat affected by the position of the phasing control.
       This exercise will give you some idea of the basic shape of the passband of the will also give you the best starting point while tuning.
       After noting the best " center" position for the phasing control, center the station up well and move the phasing control back and forth, noting the actions of the s-meter.  This will give you some feel for the shape or impact the control can have when you may need it.
       Some users of these radios will come away with the idea that the crystal filter is of no use or help or has no effect.  Going through this little exercise should cure that notion.  Often those who get that impression are just turning knobs aimlessly and don't get much of an effect simply because the randomness does not take them into an area where the effect can be seen!    
       The crystal filter can really help out on CW and SSB.  To set up for CW tune to a quiet place or disconnect the antenna.  Put the selective switch in the narrowest position. Turn the phasing control off to one side or extreme range of its setting.Turn on the Beat Frequency Oscillator or set the radio in the "CW" mode. Rotate the BFO pitch control back and forth, listening for a light "swishing" sound as it moves through the receiver passband.  Find the lowest pitch spot which should indicate the center of the passband.  Note this position.  Hopefully,  if the receiver does not need a serious realignment, it will be near the center of the travel of the control. Remember this position for future use. Now offset the pitch control one way or the other just slightly from that center position so that it is toward one side of the center of the  passband. Turn off the BFO.
       Now with the antenna reconnected, tune in a steady AM carrier, preferably a medium wave station within groundwave range but one not too strong. Center it up in the passband by either watching the S-meter or listening for the slight swishing sound that sort of "bottoms out" as you get it centered. The selectivity switch if there is one should be in the narrow, or if there are multiple settings, in the narrowest position.
          Turn on the BFO.  Rotate the pitch control back and forth, finding the zero-beat position over the carrier you have tuned in.  It should be near or at the spot where you had centered it earlier if your tuning has been careful.  Now offset the pitch control slightly giving a heterodyne of a pitch that would be comfortable copying CW for you.
       A short aside here: Normally I would say to set up for copying with a low pitch.  However, with simple crystal filters anything much lower than 800-1000 Hz might put the signal on the " other side of zero beat" too close to allow what is known as single signal reception.  After you finish this set up you can experiment with what pitches give the best compromise between copying at a low pitch and selectivity.
       Now leaving the pitch control in the same spot, using the receiver tuning, tune back to zero beat and on to the other side where the pitch comes back up to about the same pitch as you had when you set the BFO.  Now adjust the crystal phasing control for minimum signal or lowest indication on the S-meter.
       Once this is done, with the receiver tuning, go back through zero beat and take a look at the signal strength of the desired signal.   It should be significantly higher than the nulled side.  With some receivers, this may take a little juggling of the pitch control, offset and phasing adjustment to get the effect you close to single signal reception of  CW as you can get.  Finding the " sweet spots" sometimes takes a bit of experimentation,  but once you have found them, you will find that you are getting the maximum effect out of your crystal filter and can most easily separate CW stations on a crowded band!  Once again, the "art" of tuning comes into play and this is another example of operator skills that can be developed to get the most out of any receiver.
       For SSB, once again turn the BFO pitch "off".  You will find that there will need to be different settings for  BFO pitch and crystal phasing for Upper Sideband ( USB) and Lower Sideband ( LSB).
In each case you will want to have the desired signal centered in the receiver passband but because of the nature of needing to have the missing carrier re-injected in different places to make the SSB signals audible you will need to have the BFO pitch control set differently for the two modes.  And to have the crystals peak and null features in the right spot, there will need to be different settings of the phasing control for the two modes as well.
       Fortunately, finding signals that are definitely known to be USB and LSB is easy.  By convention in the amateur bands, operation on 160, 80, and 40 meters is on LSB while operation on 20,17,15,12,10 and 6 meters is on USB ( there is no phone operation on 30 meters).
       Once again turn the BFO " off " or set the receiver into the AM mode.  Tune in a signal on one of the bands where LSB is used and pick out a signal that is kind of by itself to make set up easier.  You will not be able to understand the talk at this point, but as best you can, center the signal up in the passband.  Selectivity should be in the "narrow" position if there are just " wide" and "narrow" positions or in one of the mid selectivity positions if there are multiple selections.  Set the crystal phasing control off to one side or extreme.
       Turn on the BFO and rotate the pitch control until the signal becomes intelligible or sounds most natural. If the signal is really strong, you might have to back off on the RF gain or sensitivity control on some receivers.
       A this point there needs to be another aside.  If during your initial CW set up you found that the BFO hit the center of the passband well off center of its range, the receiver may be slightly out of alignment and you might not be able to get the control " far enough over " to reach the intelligibility spot.  If such is the case, its ok to "cheat" a little and move the receiver tuning slightly to hit the spot. At some point a receiver alignment would help this situation out, but most basic crystal filters are not so super selective as to make tuning in the signals with a little "cheating" impossible.
       Once the signal is intelligible and the sound is comfortable to hear, use the receiver tuning to move the signal through the passband, going toward the zero beat or in the direction that makes the voice lower pitched until you are on the " other side " of it and it is unintelligible. Make sure you are completely on the " other side" and are hearing the signal effectively " upside down".  At this point, adjust the phasing control for minimum signal.  Then take the receiver tuning control back through zero beat and to the position where your signal is intelligible. It should still be readable and not too reduced in signal strength.  As with the adjustment for CW, there might need to be a little jockeying of the positions of tuning,  BFO pitch and crystal phasing,  but with a little experimentation you can find the settings that will give maximum intelligibility and selectivity.  Note the positions of the BFO pitch and phasing controls and when you start looking for LSB signals, preset them to those positions and you will find your initial search for signals much easier.
       Now go to a band where you know USB signals are located and repeat the process.  Again, note the positions of the controls for future reference.  You will find that the BFO pitch control is at the opposite end of its range from where it ended up for LSB signals. 
       Again, every receiver is a little different,  every crystal is a little different and every receiver alignment condition is a little different.  It take patience and practice, practice, practice to get to the optimum settings.  These initial settings will get you " into the ballpark" and you may find slightly different settings as you further learn your radio. Under certain QRM conditions you might find yourself playing with the controls a bit to hear the station you want.  But always going to these initial settings will save you a lot of time and prevent simple "flailing in the dark" trying to tune a signal in and generating a lot of frustration.  I cannot over-emphasize the existence of a real art to tuning in DX!!
       One other note about tuning SSB signals on older boat anchor receivers.  Many were built before what are know as "product detectors" were routinely put in radios.  In  fact,  many were built before SSB was routinely used in amateur bands and was predominately found in commercial point-to-point operations. They were not designed for optimum SSB operation.  That does not mean they cannot do an admirable job in copying SSB signals.  It DOES mean that some additional care will be needed to make it possible.
       If there is difficulty in getting the SSB signal fully intelligible even when you hit the position where the pitches appear right,  back off on the RF gain or sensitivity control.  It may be that the signal is too strong for the BFO injection level of your receiver.  Tuning SSB signals with these receivers sometimes requires more frequent adjustment of RF gain to make it work out.
       By the way,  the description of tuning in SSB signals with a BFO pitch control outline above also applies to the newer portables that can copy SSB.  The method up to the point of adjusting the crystal phasing should be the same to avoid some wild-eyed frustration in getting the signals audible.  For those portables with pitch controls or an equivalent there-of  the method outlined will help considerably.
       One other note about crystal filters and receiver alignment.  Because crystals can "wander" somewhat with age and because quality control may not have been the best with some manufacturers, the crystal may not be centered exactly on 455 kHz ( or what ever the design Intermediate Frequency of the receiver might be).  For this reason,  when doing an alignment of these receivers it is highly important that a signal generator be fed into the IF's before the filter, meaning in some cases may need to be fed into one of the grids of the mixer tube.  It also means that instead of arbitrarily setting the signal generator at 455 that it be swept slightly back and forth two or three kHz to find the peak of the crystal ( with the phasing control off to one side or extreme) and aligning the IF to the crystal. The difference of one or two kHz will not be enough to affect the tracking and calibration of the main tuning.  The important thing is that the Intermediate Frequency amplifiers be peaked to the frequency of the crystal because that will keep the narrowest response possible.  The frequency of the IF peak can be shifted a little, but the response peak of the crystal cannot!
      One other note about alignment at this point that applies to any boat anchor regardless of whether it has a crystal filter:  Once alignment has been complete, turn on the BFO and swing it through its range with the signal generator still feeding at IF signal in.  You should always have the signal generator output level set at the lowest setting possible to allow alignment.  Rotate the BFO pitch control for zero beat against the signal generator carrier.  Note if the BFO pitch control is at the center of its range.  If it is not,  look in the service materials for the receiver and find a below chassis adjustment for the BFO frequency.  It will probably be a slug tuned coil.  Once you find it, set the BFO pitch control on the front panel to the center of its range, then bring the BFO frequency to zero beat with the other adjustment.
       Older receivers with crystal filters are not all exactly the same,  but the principal of the operation is. There are still differences in quality of components and even of the crystals themselves.  The single crystal filter may not be as tight as some of the multi pole filters that appear in the more expensive radios,  but they do tend to be more effective than some of the ceramic filters that appear in some of today's budget portables.
       Once again, I will note that the methods described here are not to be taken as " the only way" to do things,  but are the methods I personally have found useful in fifty plus years of spinning the dials.  They work well for me and have put 326 countries in the log.
       For those who enjoy tuning with the vintage receivers and capturing some of the adventure of the golden age of SWL,  a crystal filter equipped radio will provide the additional satisfaction of greatly improved selectivity. There is something special about tuning one of these "beasts" though for a beginner, there are many things to learn and some  frustrations to avoid.  They are not necessarily for the " dial in the frequency and forget it and listen " crowd. For that group, even the most expensive, digital dial and DSP equipped radio might be found to be frustrating for them.  But for others seeking a bit of adventure from the hobby the boat anchors do offer a level of performance and sound quality that is difficult for many of the inexpensive portables to match. DX-ing, like life in general, offers a bit more to those willing to put a bit more into it ( a little personal philosophy there, too!!)
       Whatever type receiver you chose to use, the important thing is to learn how to use it to the fullest of its capabilities.  Tuning shortwave is not like turning on your cable-fed television and dialing to a channel number and having a station pop up!
       Good DX.  Good Hunting!