Tuesday, February 14, 2017

All keyed up

Sometimes I can't decide which CW key to use

As I've been posting videos I've received requests to display the translation of the CW as it's received and sent.  I have tried narrating a bit in some of the videos but that doesn't cut it.  So I did this little video test to see how FLDIGI would translate the code and capture that translation from my computer screen then display it in the video at the bottom.

It worked reasonably well for this short message but I think when I have my next video QSO I'll need to capture the entire FLDIGI translation window and include it as a video insert.  This was just a test for me to see how to use iMovie to overlay a video within a video.

Hopefully you'll enjoy this little test... No QSO, just me rotating sending different words across each type of key I had on the desk.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

Sunday, February 12, 2017

First Down Under contact

The bands aren't dead yet

Still relatively new to the HF CW scene I have a bit over 1400 contacts and I've found that more than half my calls now are with stations I've previously worked.  Don't get me wrong, that's not a problem, and I enjoy the camaraderie of frequent chats.  But even so, I want to expand my reach and begin working some DX stations on a more regular basis.

My 80m OCF Dipole (Windom) is resonant (below 2:1 SWR) on 80m, 40m, 20m, 17m, 12m, 10m and 6m.  So I've been spending time on 17 and 10 meters, trying to work beyond my normal circle of CW contacts.  Yes the solar cycle is definitely on the wane but I am pulling in a few contacts on 17m and each one is a new call for me. 

This afternoon, after about 10 minutes of fruitless calling on 18.080 I spun the VFO and behold, I heard a VK station (VK2DX) calling on 18.074.  I had to send my call a few times but he copied me and we exchanged reports and names.  

A QSO with Australia, I was psyched!  

My first VK contact with VK2DX in Australia -- 9636 miles

RF is indeed magic

Now for you old timers with thousands of contacts in the log and dozens of VK's in the log you're thinking no big deal, but if you're new to this and started on the downside of the solar cycle you may be thinking, like me, that 10,000 mile DX is rarer than hens teeth.  

So, if you're still new to HF and you think you'll need to wait until the solar cycle 25 for a CW contact with the other side of the world, because your using a low power radio and a wire antenna; just keep plugging along and you'll probably find the RF pixies are smiling at you.

So give those higher frequencies a shot even when they sound dead and RBN shows nary a spot.

Just checked my RBN spot page (spots for AA4OO) and I did indeed get picked up by a RBN station in Australia but on 20m rather than 17m.  So maybe it's not so surprising that I was able to work him today.  I need to pay more attention to my RBN spots.

Richard, AA4OO

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Over the waterfall

Situational awareness 

After reading all the hoopla surrounding the ICOM 7300 with its nice touch screen and waterfall/spectrum display, it got me to thinking that I was missing out on something.

HDSDR display on 40m tonight

When I first got my Electraft KX3 I hooked it up to HDSDR running on my PC and played around with the panadapter display. I admit it is very cool to visualize signals on the band.  That 44kHz view shown in HDSDR covers a large portion of the commonly used CW band segments.  I'd click on a signal and bam there it was tuned right in. I'd listen for a while and click another, and another. It was like shooting fish in a barrel (although I admit I've never tried shooting fish in a barrel).  After a while the novelty wore off and I went back to just tuning around the band.

There seemed to be more magic in stumbling upon someone calling CQ than looking at the bandscope and choosing the strongest signal.

Taking it all in

But I'm starting, just starting, to be more interested in working DX and potentially doing some contesting this year and for that I can definitely see an advantage to using a panadapter with the radio to see what's around me at a glance. 

However, as you may have read, I prefer using my TenTec Eagle over my KX3 at the desk.  But my Eagle is an older model made before the panadapter output came standard and even before they offered a provision for hooking one up.

My friend AA4XX uses a separate SDR with a input splitter and a DX Engineering RTR-1A receive interface to switch the SDR out of the chain when transmiting. The advantage of his solution is that it works with any transceiver but the relay in that unit is quite noisy and I appreciate the quiet full QSK offered by my radios.

Using a SDR as a receiver
protected during transmit by a DX-Engineering RTR-1A

One option for an older Eagle like mine is to take the input for a SDR straight from the input of the Low Pass Filter. That line is switched out on transmit by the Eagle to protect its own receiver so no separate switching circuit is required.  There's a tiny coax that would need to be spliced into which Paul assures me is doable mod with the right equipment. I would still need to buy an external SDR and it should be a good quality one or there's little point.

So I've been operating my KX3 at the desk this week using its built in RX/IQ to feed HDSDR to see if I like the idea enough to spend the money on doing this for the Eagle.  It's been over a year since I had this setup and I've switched computers so I had to go throuth the setup again and I thought it was worth documenting in case there are others that want to do this with their KX3's.

HDSDR is a really nicely done program, doubly so because it's free. It can be fed from an SDR or from your sound card. It interfaces to the control the radio using Omni-rig software.

So the setup is in two parts, configuring Omni-rig and secondly configuring four your sound card.


Omni-rig is freeware CAT control software.  In the case of the KX3 it interfaces using the USB control cable that comes with the KX3.  Simply choose the serial port that your computer assigned to the KX3 and match the baud rate settings in the KX3. 

omni-rig settings for my KX3

HDSDR configuration

Download HDSR.

Configuration for the KX3 is mostly straightforward. Click the options button HDSDR.  The only part that trips me up each time is configuring the CW offset in [RF Front end configuration]. Make note of your side tone Hz setting on your KX3 by pressing and holding the CMP/PITCH button. Also be sure that you haven't inadvertently set CW reverse on some bands because that will really have you pulling your hair out as you try and figure out why the signals line up on some bands but not others.

So to set your CW offset correctly put your sidetone Hz as a negative number in CW_L and subtract your sidetone from 1000 Hz and put that value in CW_U as shown below.  Everything else should be set as shown.

RF-front end configuration screen

Choose the Omni-rig configuration as shown below to match your station settings.

CAT to radio settings

Lastly make sure RX/IQ output is turned on in your KX3 by setting MENU: RX I/Q to ON.  Run the KX3 RX/IQ cable to your mic input on your PC.  Then  choose your sound card bandwidth setting in HDSDR.  I'm not sure what the available bandwidth from the KX3 RX/IQ actually is but on all the PCs I've tried it with a bandwidth of 44100 seems to work best.

soundcard bandwidth

That's basically all there is to it. If you see a bunch of "lines" in the waterfall display that do not correspond to signals and if there is a thick signal line right at your input frequency then your station grounding is insufficient.  See my article on grounding.  When I first set this up I had insufficient station grounding and saw a lot of artifacts in HDSDR that were due to bad grounding between my PC and the radio.  So it will let you know if you have grounding problems.

So if you're lusting after that pretty display in the IC-7300 and don't want to shell out for another shiny toy, you can at least get a pretty display out of your KX3 without buying a PX3.  Just use HDSDR and the built-in RX/IQ.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and see the signals in technicolor

Richard AA4OO


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hard fought SKCC QSO using the Ten-Tec Century/21

Sometimes you need to move your QSO

My ever changing station configuration
Left to right - Elecraft KX3, Ten-Tec Century/21 with Ten-Tec Eagle on top, the MFJ 493 keyer on the right
4 keys - Navy Flameproof, Kent Hand Key, Vibroplex Bug, N3ZN QRP paddle
The Elecraft AF1 audio filter is sitting unused in front of the Century/21
After starting our QSO the ARRL QST program started right on top of us causing QRM that forced us to move to another frequency
My old Ten-Tec Century/21 is a lot of fun to use and its direct conversion receiver makes CW sound beautiful. But the frequency dial is fairly imprecise so when I asked the station to QSY up 1kHz finding him again was a bit of a challenge.  When I heard him I had to zero-beat him again to make sure I was on the correct side of the direct conversion receivers passband.

Enjoy the QSO and the QRM dodging...

Shooting this video

This video was a bit harder to shoot than what I normally do.  I usually place my camera to one side but I wanted to use my fisheye lens and shoot the QSO from above.  

While shooting I was straddling the tripod with the camera right in front of my face so I was reaching around the tripod to use my keys and get to my keyboard for logging.  It was a bit awkward, and in the video you'll see me bump the VFO while trying to operate the radio because I couldn't really see what I was doing.  It's always fun to add a level of difficulty while making these videos.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Weight for it...

Slowing a Vibroplex Bug using an aftermarket 1.9 oz weight

Left to right - 1.9 oz weight, standard bug weight, homemade weight
I've been using my Vibroplex bug about a year now.  When I first received it I slowed it down with a homemade weight made from a couple of steel spacers on a drywall screw anchor that fit over the end of the pendulum.  It was effective at slowing the bug down to about 15wpm (words per minute) but I couldn't go over 17wpm when it was on the end of the pendulum.  My homemade weight is fiddly to take on and off when I want to go to a faster speed.

There are a number of aftermarket options for slowing down a bug.  One of the more common options is the vari-speed armature that Vibroplex sells.  But I think they are ugly and I think it makes the DITS sound mushy because it places the weight above the pendulum and causes some twisting.  So I ordered the heaviest aftermarket weight I could find which was a 1.9 oz stainless weight.  It looks like the standard weight and still allows me to take my speed up to 24 wpm by sliding it forward. 

But it didn't slow the bug down as much as I'd hoped.  On my Standard Vibroplex but it only slows it down to 20wpm and I was hoping for more.  The largest weight Vibroplex shipped with their bugs was a 1.1 oz weight and with that one the slowest my bug will send is 24wpm but it goes up over 35wpm at it's fastest position.  I can't send or copy much above 25wpm yet so I was hoping for something that would give me a range of 15wpm to 25wpm.

There is variability in the spring tension of many bugs so it may slow yours down more than mine and I've borrowed a friends Champion bug which is significantly slower with its standard weight, so maybe I'll try and get a Champion to go alongside my Standard at some point.

This video demonstrates the different weights

For grins I made a video of what the pendulum is doing in slow motion

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Quirky Keyer - The MFJ-493

The MFJ-493 has some cool tricks and some not so cool flaws

MFJ-493 "Super" Menu Driven Memory Keyer

Memory keyers do the repetitive and boring stuff

The bands have not been kind in this declining sunspot cycle and I've been sending out my call repeatedly on occasions before receiving a response.  I wanted to get a memory keyer to lessen the burden of repeatedly sending my call and to also give me opportunities to do a bit of contesting this year.

If you want a good memory keyer, the K1EL Winkeyer is the natural choice to go with, so of course, I chose to acquire a 23 year old MFJ product instead.   

Take the road less traveled and you'll find wonders or fall in a ditch, I always say

The MFJ-493 is no longer sold but you'll frequently see them available used for reasonable prices and MFJ still sells a less featured variant (the MFJ-492).

Memory keyer at the the ready


Typical of many memory keyers the MFJ-493 let's you store messages in up to 8 memories of 4,000 character each using your paddle, an external keyboard plugged into the back or a terminal program via the serial interface.  If you make a mistake while entering a message you can send 8-DITS and it will erase the previous word and send the last word in the message so editing is fairly easy.  Messages can be constructed from other memories, i.e. you can store your call in Memory #1 and then use "/1" in other messages to reference your call.  Repeats and timers are available within the messages as well.

Any of the 8 messages can be sent with the press of a button, although to send messages 4-8 you switch to the second bank of memories.

I won't list all the features because I think they are relatively common across memory keyers and I've posted a link to the manual later in the post, but I will mention that I enjoyed the ability to vary the character AND word spacing sent in messages.  So you can create "Farnsworth" type messages that sound (to my ears) far more natural than the typical "squashed" sounding CW sent from most memory keyers.  I demonstrate that in the video review.   I know a contester would never want to slow down the CW sent from his memory keyer but I have different priorities.

Most of the functions are clearly visible on the front panel so you don't need to refer to the manual to operate most features.  Some of the commands are not listed on the front panel so don't totally ignore the manual.

Back panel
The back panel sports a couple interesting ports.. an external keyboard interface and a serial port interface.  The external keyboard can of course be used to generate Morse code without a paddle and can make programming memories easier.

The serial port can be used with a terminal emulator like PuTTY set to:

  • 1200 baud
  • 8 data bits
  • 1 stop bit
  • no parity
  • xOn/xOff flow control.

If you power up the keyer while it's attached to a terminal emulator you can see some interesting information:
[help]           LISTS GENERAL TOPICS
[help-list]      LISTS ALL COMMANDS
[send#]          SENDS MESSAGE NUMBER #
Among other commands.  There are also commands for printing out the contents of the memories.
So the keyer has a sort of built-in manual if you connect it to a terminal.  Very full featured at used prices.

Using a terminal to the keyer via the serial port also displays everything you send with your key as well as allowing keyboard (terminal) input to the memories or allowing you to send code by typing in the terminal emulator.

Lastly regarding commands.. a useful command to know that's not on the front panel, is that you can reset the 493 to factory settings by holding the menu button down while turning it on.

Cool features not seen in other memory keyers

Two functions FCC Exam Practice and QSO Practice are lots of fun.  The FCC Exam practice sends a standard FCC CW exam from back when code was required for license upgrades.  It varies up the messages but sends the standard elements required back then.  Good for practice.

But the super-cool feature is "QSO Practice". This mode performs an interactive QSO with you.

Are band conditions getting you down?  No one answers your calls?  Have a QSO with your keyer!

I'll leave the video to do most of the explaining but basically, the keyer will listen to you send CQ and answer your call and then exchange information with you answering after the turn around.  You're expected to get the call it SENDS you correct or it won't answer you back.  If you send poor CW it makes raspberry sounds at you.  It's just a lot of fun to play around with and copy.

MFJ-493 "QSO Mode" demonstration


A couple features that are completely useless are the "hand key" mode and the "semi-automatic-mode".   Once the hand-key mode is enabled you can use either paddle as a straight key but it is very unresponsive at anything over 5-10 wpm.  So keep your straight key wired into the output of this keyer.  Similarly the "semi-automatic" mode is supposed to simulate a bug, where the DITS are sent automatically but the DAHS are manual.  Well it's even worse than the hand-key mode, don't bother as it's for entertainment purposes only.

Another problem with this keyer is related to the weighting commands 'C' and 'W'.  If you have either of them set to a value other than zero you cannot accurately record a message into memory using the paddles.

I'd hoped to be able to run both my paddle and bug into the input of this keyer and switch it to hand mode when I wanted to use the bug and use it as a bug "de-scratcher" but it doesn't buffer the bug input and in hand key mode misses about a third of the DITS sent by a bug so no joy there.  I'll just keep using my old Ham-Keyer as my bug de-scratcher.

MFJ-493 Manual

Many thanks to Paul/N6MGN for sending me a copy of the manual and schematic for this keyer so I could share them.

View manual
Download manual

View Schematic
Download Schematic

So many connections

Adding this additional keyer finally made me break down and build a connection box for all my keys and rigs.  I have 4-5 CW keys on my desk at any given time and 3-4 radios.  Each of the two external keyers have female RCA jacks for output.  The Ham Keyer uses 2 independent 1/4" inputs for straight key and paddle while the MFJ-493 uses a 1/8" stereo plug for the paddle.  The Ham Keyer expects the DIT to be the tip of the plug and the MFJ (by default) expects the DIT to be the ring of the plug.


To top it off, each of my primary 3 radios expect different wiring from an external keyer.  
  • The Elecraft KX3 needs a 1/8" stereo plug with the ring terminal un-grounded
  • The TenTec Eagle needs a 1/8" stereo plug with the ring terminal grounded or a mono 1/8"
  • My TenTec Century/21 needs a 1/4" mono plug (my rig is modified, I believe a stock C21 needs a male RCA
So I took a project box drilled it for 5 phono jacks wired in various configurations for each of the rigs and keyer inputs.  I still can't leave the KX3 key plugged in when not in use because when that radio is turned off it presents a high impedance on the plug and makes the C21 think the key is down...  (nothing is ever simple) but now I don't have a bunch of 1/4" to 1/8" and stereo to mono plug connectors chained together like a box-cars on a train.

Video review

This video review demonstrates a few of the features and contains the same QSO in the video above at the end...


The MFJ-493 is a feature rich yet somewhat flawed keyer.  For the price I think it's a good buy but don't expect some of the more esoteric functions to work up to your expectations.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations... and send your call a couple dozen times using a memory keyer

Richard AA4OO

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Callsign lookup when portable

Obtaining callsign info when portable

When I operate portable I travel light and don't take a computer but I do carry my smartphone.  As long as I have a signal I can lookup callsign information using my phone.  One clean and simple website I've found to use while mobile is https://callook.info  

However a big drawback is that it is only for US stations because it is using the FCC ULS.  To lookup a US callsign call keep callook.info in one of your browser tabs open.

cal look.info website


QRZ is one of the more popular websites for looking up callsigns but the website is not formatted for use on mobile devices.  It can be used but pinch-zoom is required and honestly the ridiculous number of blinking ads on the website is obnoxious so I stay away from it as much as I can.

Here's what QRZ.com looks like on my mobile phone...


There's an app for that...

These days there's always "an app for that".  There are a number of mobile apps that can lookup callsign information as well.  I've used QRZDroid with success and it is not limited to US callsigns.  I'm confident there's something equivalent for IOS devices.

QRZDroid mobile app

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO