Showing posts sorted by date for query contest station. Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query contest station. Sort by relevance Show all posts

Saturday, December 10, 2016

No love for my station from RBN on 10m today?

RBN is a great tool but sometimes it doesn't tell the whole story

Since it's the second weekend of the month I got on the air to make SKCC WES contacts.  The SKCC Weekend Sprint is great fun because it's a slow paced, friendly, pseudo contest for SKCC members.  There's even a page that you can schedule a contact with another SKCC member if you're needing their state, grid square, another Senator, whatever.  Well, this post isn't really about the SKCC WES other than to give it a plug that it's super fun for both those new to CW and old-timers as well wanting a slow paced alternative to high pressure contests.  And no one gets mad at you for using a bug.

I like to use RBN to determine if I'm getting out on a band before I spend too much time sending my call.  I find an open frequency, send my QRL? a couple of times and then send my call.  If no one responds I take a look at the RBN report.

RBN spot search for AA4OO

Band conditions

I was working SKCC members on 20m because I've worked all the nearby states and it was not giving me great results.  Everyone seemed a bit in the noise which isn't unexpected given the current lousy band conditions.  So I opened up RBN to look for spots from AA4VV who is a spotting station within about 50miles of me.  Looking at a nearby spotting station using RBN DE spot versus DX spot shows you what they are hearing from all the bands they cover and it showed activity up on 15m. Other spotting stations were even seeing traffic on 10m today.

10 meters?  In this lousy part of the solar cycle?

So I hopped up to the CW portion using my mighty attic doublet and heard a bunch of stations sending CQ at 27 - 35 wpm.  Well, they likely were not SKCC dudes since even the SKCC bug operators usually stay below 23wpm. I found an open frequency and sent my call out a few times and no one responded.  I checked RBN and it only showed one spot for me up in Wisconsin with a lousy 5db over noise report.  No one was going to hear me that close to noise.  But obviously there was a lot of traffic on 10m so I went up to the phone portion of the band around 28350 kHz and heard dozens of operators working a 10m contest. Of course this wasn't the SKCC WES but I responded to a couple of them and what do you know, they heard me, and in most cases I didn't have to repeat my call or my state report.  Now most contesters don't take the time to give an honest signal report and I received 59 from all of them except a couple of the more laid back operators giving honest reports, but the point was I was getting out on 10m just fine.  There was a station who was only S5 to me for whom I had to repeat my call and state about half a dozen times to complete the contact.

So why didn't I get any love from RBN spotting stations when I was obviously getting out well on 10m?  I don't have an answer. Maybe many of the RBN spotters have stopped monitoring 10m.  10m wasn't flying as far as it normally would as I was making contacts with stations in MI, WI, OK, and AR.  I was hearing stations in UT but they were very weak. I only made one DX contact in Mexico, but the band was open for my station.  I was using my attic doublet which is about 68 feet long.  I've tried modeling it but I'm not too practiced with the modeling tool, but what I have modeled estimated that on 10m I may get 9-12 db of gain in some directions which I'm guessing accounts for the strength of my signal on SSB.  

The point?

RBN and other spotting tools don't necessarily always tell the whole story.  Just because you aren't getting spots doesn't mean you aren't getting out.  I had to quit shortly after making a dozen SSB contacts on 10m but next time I'll be more diligent and try to schedule some SKCC contacts on 10m when I'm hearing stations from their region, no matter what the RBN is telling me.  I'm still missing some SKCC operators on the west coast and up in Alaska.  Given the lousy state of the solar cycle I'm unlikely to get them on the lower bands so I'll keep an eye out for when 15m or 10m opens up.  

The band conditions may be very poor right now but radio is still magic.



That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

72/73
Richard, AA4OO

Monday, June 27, 2016

First Field Day as a CW operator

Field Day 2016 with the Knightlites QRP club

I had the privilege to be part of the Knightlites WQ4RP 2016 Field Day event.  They are a great bunch of folks dedicated to QRP radio.  They operated CW and SSB on 80m, 40m, 20m, 15m, 6m, 2m and 440.

After listening to CW for nearly 19 hours straight; my brain is turning even normal sounds into morse code...  I may have had a psychotic break.  

Gary, N3GO, operating 80m straight through the night without leaving the oh-so-comfortable lawn chair

My 80m/15m station


This is my first year operating CW and my first full, field day event.  I've dabbled in field day (FD) in the past but did not work it as part of a club.

For this FD I was responsible for supplying the equipment to get a station on the air for 80m and 15m.  The WQ4RP club operates QRP only using battery power, so anything associated with transmitting was to be battery powered including the computer.  My Elecraft KX3 was powered by a 12 year old 50ah UPS battery and the laptop was powered using an inverter with a large deep cycle battery.  Following 20 hours of operation the UPS battery had only dropped to 12.2v  The Elecraft KX3 is frugal with power even after hundreds of contacts.

My antenna was the one we'd previously installed at Excalibur during the spring.  Paul brought it down for us to use at the FD site.  We cut the 40m part of the fan dipole to work for 15m. Tall trees on either side of the tent provided the antenna supports and the tent was positioned to be close to the feed point of the ladder line.

80m - 15m Fan dipole with home brew ladder line

Honda generators powered the lights in the evening and fans/AC during the heat of the day. Honda generators are quiet in both the audio and radio spectrums.  Three Knightlite stations used Honda generators to power equipment not related to transceivers.

Power was supplied to all stations by Honda i-series generators

Operating CW during Field Day

Unfortunately for FD operations I'm the opposite end of a CW contester.  Since starting my CW/Morse Code journey last year I've just worked at getting my ragchew (conversations in CW) skills improved.  I practice listening to the most common 500 words and listening to e-books sent as Morse Code.  I'm not good at copying calls, when they are sent at 25wpm.  Compounding my new(ish) operator struggle is that FD uses an abbreviated exchange, so it was tough going for me when operations kicked off at 2PM local time Saturday and the exchanges began flying by...

A Field Day CW exchange

Calling Station sends an abbreviated CQ, sometimes the CQ and the ending FD were omitted:
CQ FD N4HOG N4HOG FD
Answering Station sends call by itself, repeating as necessary:
WQ4RP (repeat call after a brief pause if no response)
Calling Station sends my call back to me then his station class and section:
 WQ4RP 1E NC
Answering Station sends station class and section:
3A NC
Calling Station sends thank you and that's it, you're done:
TU
Since we were operating QRP we often had to repeat our call and our class and sections.  I don't have much experience at copying calls at speeds above 20wpm.  The 15m band was weak and most signals were no better than S2 or S3. I was trying to copy calls sent at speeds higher than my norm with QSB (fading) and I was getting frustrated.  Paul came and sat beside me to coach and provide some encouragement.  He is a patient tutor.

I was advised to operate "search and pounce" rather than sending CQ myself because I needed to hear a caller complete a QSO once or twice to copy their call and their response but even then copying the section was often harder for me than the call.  Many of the sections are 3 letter designations that I was unfamiliar with (i.e. California has 10 sections abbreviations).  Between QSOs Paul would explain where each of the sections were located. I should have studied up on this stuff prior to FD.

I'd hear the station class (a number and a letter) and then while my brain was chewing on that I'd miss the section.  So I was sending a lot of AGN? to get the stations to repeat their response. Sometimes I'd finish a contact and realize I'd mistyped part of the response so I would wait and listen for the caller to go through another contact to hear what they sent to copy it correctly for the log. I wasn't really racking up the contacts.

This type of operating is very challenging for me.  While I can understand why contesters enjoy honing these skills, for me, it was stressful and wore me down mentally.  I took breaks at least every hour and asked other, more seasoned operators to take the helm (errr. key) while my brain cooled down.

80m magic

When dusk arrived 15m contacts were few and far between and I switched to 80m.  Gone were the weak signals and speed demons on 15m.  The 80m band was surprisingly QRN free and stations sending FD calls were stacked like firewood throughout the CW portion of the band.  Our QRP station was also heard better by the callers with fewer needs to repeat the call or the response.  I had more enjoyable time working 80m.  Paul still sat with me and offered advice which I greatly appreciated.

Gary N3GO, loves the 80m band and he is the Knightlites anchor man for running 80m through the night.  Gary sat down at 10PM to begin his shift on 80m and he didn't get out of that chair until 5AM.  I was dozing on and off (more off than on) in the tent and doing my best to head copy what he was working.  Seven straight non-stop hours of CW later Gary needed a break and I spelled him for a while.  After a bit of rest he was back for more and operated until the band gave out in the morning.

N3GO is the anchor man for 80m through the night shift

WQ4RP Knightlites

The Knightlites operate using the club call WQ4RP.  Here are some of the participants from the 2016 FD.
Left to right: AA4OO, WA4GIR, WF4I, (visiting ham in red ????), KD4PBJ, KC4PHJ, AA4XX, AB4PP
Thanks to W4MPS for taking the photo

Photos

"JP" AB4PP -- 20m Band captain

 Kurt N4KJK - assisted with 15m CW

6m / 2m / 440 stack - Thanks Alex!

Alex KC4PHJ -- Band captain for 6m / 2m / 440

Joe WA4GIR - 40m band captain

40m Station

40m Loop

Derek WF4I - working 40m at dawn

Sunday daybreak and the 80m station is still cranking

Lots of weed eater support lines tied off at the base of this tree

Summary

My first FD as a CW operator was challenging but fun,  The WQ4RP club has some patient and talented operators, many of whom have rarely missed operating a FD since becoming hams.  I enjoyed getting to learn from them.

Next year I will make the effort to practice copying FD exchanges prior to the event so that I'm not so overwhelmed.  It also turned out I'd made a poor choice for logging software.  The RumNLog software for my Mac laptop didn't have a preset for the FD contest.  I had to use a general contest setting and now will have to programmatically manipulate the resulting ADIF output to have the necessary fields for submission.

The Elecraft KX3 is unsurprisingly a good QRP field day radio.  It's small size, low power consumption and phenomenal internal auto tuner made it a pleasure to work with.  It has a knob, button or display element for everything you could want.  For instance, the dedicated knob for changing internal keyer speed was very useful to fit each station we worked during an exchange.  I also used the secondary frequency display area to check on the power supply voltage throughout the event.  The KX3 truly does have the kitchen sink.


Update 7-11-2016

Paul sent me the Knightlites field day results. Lists below.  I'm interested to see how our group fared .

Call Used: WQ4RP     GOTA Station Call: (none)     ARRL/RAC Section: NC     Class: 3A

Participants: 10     Club/Group Name: KnightLites QRP Society

Power Source(s): Battery

Power Multiplier: 5X

Bonus Points:
  100% Emergency power                            300
  W1AW Field Day Message                          100
  Submitted via the Web                            50
Total Bonus Points                                450

Score Summary:
                  CW  Digital  Phone  Total
   Total QSOs    539      0      58
 Total Points   1078      0      58   1136   Claimed Score = 5,680


That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

72/73
Richard, AA4OO

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A visit with a QRP contest station

160m Spring Stew Perry Contest - QRP style

I had the opportunity to visit with Paul Stroud AA4XX as he worked the early hours in the 160m Spring Stew Perry Contest.  Paul is an avid CW operator dedicated to QRP and QRPp operations.   When he works contests he often participates using the Knightlites club call WQ4RP (Note the QRP in the call).


AA4XX operating as WQ4RP during the 160m Stew Perry Spring Top Band contest

160m Top Band

160m (top band) is challenging due to the physical logistics of a suitable antenna.  I had the opportunity to assist with a portion of raising the 160m vertical loop antenna at the "Excalibur antenna site" and installing the 24 elevated radials that help make this antenna so effective.  There's a lot of wire in the ground system.  The antenna site is located in the woods, off grid, and away from electrically noisy homes.  

Power to the remote shack is supplied by a quiet Honda 1kW generator operating a couple dozen feet from the shack.  Due to the lower power requirements of QRP Paul can run the generator on eco-mode allowing its small fuel tank to provide 8 hours of operation between fill-ups.

Paul uses a Ten Tec Argonaut VI, running 5 watts output into the Excalibur 160m vertical loop.  He uses N1MM+ logger software and a WinKeyer interfaced to the software.  He also employs a SDR (software defined radio) feeding CWSkimmer signals across the band.  An antenna splitter simultaneously feeds the SDR and the Argonaut. The SDR receiver is switched out during transmit by a DX Engineering RTR-1A Receive switch.  His CW key is a N3ZN ZN-QRP model.

The N1MM+ logging software keeps track of which stations have already been worked and the CWSkimmer interface displays calling stations on the band being heard by his antenna.


The remote QRP station setup for contesting

In the Stew Perry contest the only information exchanged was grid squares.  I'm still relatively new to CW and watching Paul casually copy grid squares sent at 30wpm was impressive.  I would have had to ask the caller to re-send their grid squares 5 times but Paul makes it look easy.


Instructions for the newbie

Paul explained to me the in's and out's of operating in a contest.  Speed and timing the openings were important, as was persistence. The integration of the software and receiving tools optimized his operating but experience and skill seems to be the biggest factors to success.  I could have sat down there using the same tools but I would have been dumfounded with the logging controls and the speed the other stations were sending information.  However, not all stations were sending at mach speed.  When Paul worked a station sending at a slower or faster speed he would use the interface to Winkeyer to speed up or slow down the sending simply using the Page-up / Page-down keys.  He would change frequency to a new station in the skimmer display by clicking on it.

Due to the limited amount of information exchanged during the contest most of the sending is accomplished via macros programmed into the contesting software.  Paul rarely had to touch the CW key during the time I was there and his primary physical interaction with the radio seemed to be changing bandwidth or bandpass settings (he tends to keep bandwidth at 500Hz).  


Paul demonstrating the contesting software and usage

Why QRP?

This contest was not a QRP-only contest although there were multipliers for working QRP.  There were plenty of big gun stations operating and the Reverse Beacon spots showed some of them with 56dB SNR reports pounding the ionosphere with their big amps.  

The strongest signal spot  last night for WQ4RP was 35db with the average at around 18dB.  Paul has worked QRO in the past but the challenge of QRP operation is now in his blood.  During a previous 160m CW contest this winter he and Dick Hayter N4HAY worked 3 stations in Hawaii with Excalibur which thrilled them given the current propagation on 160m.  QRP adds a bit more challenge and those multi-thousand mile per watt contacts on the top band make it all the more special

Finding the next station to work. (N3ZN QRP CW key in the foreground)

Why contest?

As a new CW operator I'm still getting my feet wet and enjoying the process of improving my CW copy skills doing more ragchews than adding stations to the log or chasing DX.  I casually contest with the SKCC weekend sprints and it can be fun to see how many stations I work but I'm not ready for real contesting.

During the time I observed, I could sense Paul's excitement seeing the propagation progress across the band and when a distant station in Russia was heard he looked forward to the challenge to getting that one in the log using QRP.  He let the stations running big amps get their fill before jumping in.  Ultimately he wasn't able to work that station but he later worked a GW3 station in Wales which was a first for him on 160m.  The rewards of contesting seem to be in the accomplishment of something difficult and achieving something new.  I can understand that.

What's next?

With summer coming on 160m will turn noisy from atmospheric static and the opportunities for top band contacts fewer.  Attention will turn to other bands and challenges for a while.  Maybe Paul will decide it's time to get that 40m Moxon back up on the tower as the sunspot cycle decreases this summer.

I enjoyed the opportunity to watch real CW contesting first hand.  It is technically challenging and requires skills I do not yet possess and I look forward to progressing in my CW/QRP journey to the point where I can assist Paul in a contest.
That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

73/72 
Richard, AA400

Sunday, December 13, 2015

QRP fun and games in the December SKCC WES

Sprinting with a Straight Key - QRP Style

So far in my CW/QRP trek I had not entered a contest nor tried to work so-called "sprints" other than making a few casual contacts.  My copy skills and knowledge of what was going on just was not up to the task.  But after getting my SKCC Centurion certificate last week I was motivated to accelerate my timeline for making the SKCC Tribune level and for that I needed 50 new Centurion contacts.  This weekend was the December SKCC WES (weekend sprintathon) and I determined to make an effort to see how this sprint stuff worked.

I operated 5 watts QRP and used my Vibroplex Bug for most contacts but switched to my Kent Straight key for stations that were sending slower than 13 wpm.

SKCC operators only use manual keys; straight keys, bugs and cooties during SKCC contacts.  So, in general, the operating speed is quite sedate compared to other sprints or contests.  I'd guess most exchanges were below 20 wpm.  That is a good thing for a new CW operator.  The flip side to that is that the operators are all using manual keys and thus the precision of the Morse Code that would be lent by an electronic keyer is let's say, missing.  While most stations I worked had great sounding FISTs I was challenged on a few occasions to copy some very non-standard sounding code so, as they say; YMMV.

For the most part I called CQ rather than tuning around for contacts. There were a few times where multiple stations answered at once and I admit that I couldn't make heads or tales of what I heard and just sent AGN? until I could hear part of one call separated from the others.  I have a greater respect now for contest operators who can pick a call out of the cacophony of multiple stations calling on the same frequency.

My "Weekend" Sprintathon was actually only 3 hours

I only had the opportunity to operate for about 45 minutes Saturday morning when there were a lot of stations looking for contacts, then I had to break until around noon and the bands were not as lively.  I then had another break until late afternoon before I had a Christmas party to attend, so in total I only had about 3 hours.   The WES is actually still running but you can only operate for 24 hours of the 36 hour sprint so my 24 hour window is over.

In my 3 hours had a rather poor showing of 41 contacts but I recognize that if I could have operated longer during the morning and some Saturday evening I certainly could have logged more contacts.  Nonetheless, it was a good experience.  I realize I need to work on copying call signs.  I'm used to listening to them at least a couple of times to copy them but often in a sprint or contest they are only sent once so you need to be listening carefully.   After maybe a dozen more such sprints I might think about entering an actual contest.

Log Snippet

SKCC Logger

Summary

My goal was to get 50 new Centurion contacts but as you can see from my log summary above there were only 3 "Cs" logged.  Centurions appear to be the rarest of the breed so getting to Tribune is going to take longer than I thought.

Correction: I was contacted by a couple of SKCC members to tell me that any new contacts since my Centurion award with Cs, Ts or Ss count toward the Tribune.  Also they told me the 24 hours is operating time rather than a window... so I should have hung in there but I already submitted my log so I'll know better next month.

So if you are a new(ish) CW operator and want a low stress, slow speed introduction to a contest "type" event,  I can highly recommend the SKCC WES.  I think it's also ideal for QRP operators because these don't seem to be zillowatt station operators or big-gun contester types working these events and your modest power should be sufficient.  One suggestion is that if you're calling CQ rather than chasing stations you will only be getting called by stations who can hear you well enough to copy and likely their signal to you will be better than yours to them so that makes it even easier.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

73/72 
Richard N4PBQ

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Can anybody hear me

Calling QRP CQ - Inconceivable


My 80m OCF Dipole has been a surprisingly good antenna and I've made contacts with it on all bands except 6m and 160m.  Based on my past experience trying to tune up short antennas on 160m I really hadn't considered trying to use this Windom for 160m.  But through some email exchanges with another ham in Illinois who had recently put up a 160m antenna we decided to try a scheduled QSO on the top band.  So it was time to give the Windom a shot on 160m.

Amazingly my 80m Windom / OCF Dipole has  4.5:1 SWR native around 1.8 mHz and it matches easily with a tuner across the entire 160m band.  That was a surprise. 

I tossed my mighty 5 watts call out at 1810 kHz not expecting much...

Within a minute of calling CQ I had a faint QRP station from Maine tried to work me.  After about 4 tries I finally copied his call correctly but then lost him.  Immediately another station called me and we exchanged the niceties of signal reports, location, rigs and weather.  I received a nice 579 report for my 5w and I gave him a 599+ report for his thundering kilowatt station.  He needed to work my County so I was glad to be able to provide him with the contact.  Following that call the former QRP station from Maine was back in there and finally we worked each other.  We had a nice QRP to QRP QSO on the top band.  He gave me a 549 report but he was using a 400 ft beverage receive antenna.  I was struggling a bit more to copy him through local QRM on my side and a less qualified receive antenna and reported his signal as 339.

Those were my first two contacts on 160m using CW.  Who'd have thought my cloud burner antenna and QRP power would get me such quick results on the top band.  I just figured no one would hear me.  
So how do you know if and where your signal is getting out ?

The Reverse Beacon Network

I had to quit right after those two QSOs but when I later checked my email the original station with whom I'd planned the scheduled QSO reported that although he had not heard me he said I was getting out and sent me a link to something called the reverse beacon net showing a couple of stations that were hearing me on 1810 kHz.

You mean I can find out in near realtime if and where my signal is being heard by an automated system? No way!  That is cooler than a Ronco Pocket Fisherman.  Recall that I'm relatively new at this stuff and this may be old hat for a lot of you.  But the ability to toss out your call and in real-time check where your signal is getting to just warms the push-pull final transistor in my heart.

The Reverse Beacon Network can give you the last 100 reports of your station. So I took a look and saw some of my weekend activity where I was shooting some fish in a barrel (I mean working contest stations) and there were beacon reports of my call from such places as far South as the Antilles and as far West as Utah.
Map of the last 100 reports from Reverse Beacon stations of my call sign
Color coded by band

So the reverse beacon network report tells you what station heard you, the frequency, the signal to noise ratio (higher is better) and your word per minute (wpm) speed.  

It even includes a speedometer

Being a new CW dude my word per minute speed is of interest to me.  Most of my QSOs in the past week have been at 15-16 wpm.  I'm using a Vibroplex Bug I received last weekend and have slowed it down with a home-made weight attached to a drywall anchor pressed on the end of the pendulum.  I found it interesting that some beacon stations reported me at 19-23 wpm.  I looked at the time and the frequency and realized that the higher speed was from my first on-air QSO using the Vibroplex Bug with N4HAY before I slowed it down with my junk box bug tamer.  
My brief speed key session with N4HAY
So if you are using a manual key and don't know what speed you are sending just check out a beacon to see what speed they are reporting.

Summary

This reverse beacon stuff has been around a while. So unless you're a newbie like me you probably already knew about it.  But if you haven't used before it's very cool, especially with regard to knowing how your QRP station is being heard. Are you making it 1000 mile per watt?  Is your antenna propagating East, West, North or South.  How and where is the skip?  This answers many questions that I had been wondering about as I'm operating.  A shiny new toy, just in time for Christmas

So that's all for now.

So lower your power and raise your expectations

73/72
Richard N4PBQ

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Learn Morse Code - All the Cool kids are doing it

Amaze your friends / Confound your enemies

Ok so maybe all the cool kids aren't doing it... who wants to be a cool kid anyway?  They have issues.




So whats up with all this beeping?

Morse code is fundamentally a method of encoding every letter in the alphabet plus numbers and punctuation as two pieces of data. Two sounds actually, one 3 times longer than the other.  If you were to speak the two sounds out loud one would sound like DIT and the other DAH.  That's it.  That's all you have to know.  Two sounds, one 3 times longer than the other. There, and you thought this would be hard?  Pah!

Beep Beeeeeep -- There you have it... Morse Code.  Any questions?

Why is it called Morse Code?

Samuel Morse was a painter. Yep, a portrait painter. Ah, you're thinking he must have painted numerology into his portraits thus developing a "code".  Nope, nothing so cloak and dagger. The motivation for his invention was due to a sad event in his life.

While he was painting a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washing DC he received a message delivered by a messenger on horseback telling him that his wife at home in New Haven Connecticut was sick. He received another message the following day informing him that she had died. He immediately returned home but she was already buried. Morse was heartbroken that his wife had been ill for days before he could receive a message. He decided to explore a means of long distance communication. Along with his assistant Alfred Vail they developed the primary language used in telegraphy across the world and collaborated with other men to design the mechanism to deliver messages in Morse Code over long distances.

The rest is, as they say, "history"

Why learn Morse code?

Morse code has been in use for over 160 years, the longest of any electrical coding system. Morse code is still transmitted by some automated aviation beacons and the US Navy still (?) employs the code when using signal lamps for radio silence operations.  Submarines have signal lamps in their periscopes. Morse code is still taught by the Air Force at Goodfellow base in Texas.

So that's cool but the main reason to learn and use Morse code is for use in amateur radio.  CW (continuous wave) communication is the most energy efficient mode of electronic wireless communication that doesn't require computerized encoding/decoding.  In the case of Morse Code the human is the modem.  CW mode allows amateur radio operators to communicate world wide at QRP (low power) and QRPp (very low power) levels. CW's power density and simple transmitter/receiver requirements provides for simplified station operations and ideal emergency operations.  You can carry a small, battery powered radio and some wire in your backpack and talk around the world.

CW is small but powerful

CW uses between 100Hz and 150Hz of bandwidth compared to 2400Hz - 3000Hz used by phone modes.  That makes it about 20 times more efficient, or put another way, your signal to noise is improved by a factor of 20 over phone.  It's also easier to copy (interpret) a CW signal down in the noise than a spoken voice. 

A 5 watt CW station can run off of AA batteries or a small solar panel and communicate locally, say across the county coordinating emergency services via ground wave, or to other continents for message exchange.  QRP radios operating CW are the ultimate fallback mode for emergency communication.

But the real reason to learn Morse code is that it's fun and unique.  Learning it can be the mental equivalent of climbing a mountain and, most importantly, all the cool kids are doing it.

So you want to learn "the code"


Usually your first exposure to Morse code will be some chart that shows you what combination of DITs and DAHs (or dots and dashes) make up each character.  This might encourage you to listen for the individual DITs and DAHs to learn the code.  But it's a trap.  There is a part of your brain that counts and another part that handles language.  The part that counts will quickly hit a limit as to how fast it can count and interpret what you are hearing.  The part that handles language is designed to interpret and transmit communication at incredible speed but the language part of you brain works with sound.

Thus you have to approach learning Morse Code as a language by the way it sounds.  An "A" sounds like DIT DAH.  Say it out loud a couple of times, go ahead, don't be embarrassed, the people around will simply think you've finally lost it and pull out that power of attorney they've been keeping in the drawer.  Ok are you saying DIT DAH? If so you are hearing the letter A.  Congratulations, you just learned the first letter of the alphabet in Morse Code.

A "C" in Morse Code sounds like DAH DIT DAH DIT.  It has a beautiful rhythm when you listen to it out loud.  Go ahead and shout it out, you've got nothing to lose at this point.

So, if you have toyed around with learning Morse Code and have some visual chart with dots and dashes. Shred that chart right now.  Go ahead and do it.  I'll wait... Did you shred it?  Ok let's proceed.



Methodology

There are probably as many ways to learn Morse Code as there are days of the year but I'll address the two ways I learned it.  First, a wrong way, then a right way.


One wrong way

Morse Code was a requirement for my General amateur radio license in 2006, but I only had to prove copy skills at 5 words per minute.  Someone recommended a set of tapes that employed mnemonic phrases to memorize each letter.  Basically each letter "sounds" like some phrase. I'm going to tell you one of the mnemonic phrases as an example but please immediately erase it from your memory because it takes a long time to un-learn this method. The letter "Y" sounds like the following phrase said out loud "Why did I die?"  OK, now just imagine you've memorized some phrase like that for every letter of the alphabet and punctuation mark.  Now every time you hear a letter in Morse Code one of these phrases runs through your head and you have to let it run its course before the letter pops out on the other side of your consciousness. You can understand how crippling this becomes when the speed goes above 5 words per minute.  Trying to counts DITs and DAHs hits the same wall.


One right way

I'm not going out on a limb to say there is only one right way to learn Morse Code so I will say that what follows is "One right way" to learn the code and it is working for me. 

Learn the code by its sound. Learn the code by its sound. Learn the code by its sound. Let's review: Learn the code by its sound.

There are lots of different software applications out there that will teach you the code by the way it sounds.  Many employ two well established methodologies; the Farnsworth Method and the Koch Method.

Farnsworth Method

Learn the sound of the letters at the full target speed you wish to be able to copy.
Keep the speed of the letter spacing (silence between the letters) to be at your current learning speed to give you thinking time.  I.e. you're letter spacing may be set at 8-10wpm to start out with while you're actually learning the characters at a target speed of 20wpm.
This method is recommended by the ARRL and is implemented by many applications used for Morse Code training.  This allows you to learn the sound of the letters at the full target speed you want to operate at.  If you learn the sound of the letters at 13wpm then you will find yourself stuck there until you relearn them at a higher speed because you're learning to recognize sounds, not DITs and DAHs. Our brain has an easier time of slowing a sound down than speeding it up so if you start at the target speed the slower speeds will work themselves out.  I started with a target speed of 18wpm and I am kind of stuck there right now, while learning the sound of the characters at a higher speed to progress.  I wish I had originally chosen 20wpm as my target speed because in my experience that is a common speed in many QSOs.

Your training should also incorporate the Koch Method which directs the order in which you learn the letters, numbers and punctuation and determining when to progress to the next element.

Koch Method

Begins with just two characters (K, M). Once strings containing those two characters can be copied with 90% accuracy, an additional character is added, and so on until the full character set is mastered.

Code Trainer

I looked at a number of different code trainers.  I tried PC applications, mobile device apps and internet based applications.  I live in a very internet connected place and I nearly always have access to the internet.  I don't always have my PC with me but I do usually have access to a guest PC or a mobile internet capable device so I chose a website that has a training application  that incorporates both the Farnsworth and Koch methods and would keep track of my progress.

Learn CW Online  http://lcwo.net/

Learn CW Online is a really nice Morse Code tutor. You create a login for it to keep track of your progress and settings for character speed and effective speed.  It has multiple ways to train so try the different ones out to find out what works best for you.  I used the Koch Method CW Course which is accessible after you log in.  It starts out with two letters and keeps track of your accuracy, making suggestions as to when you should add an additional letter. There are 40 lessons in that course which include the alphabet, numbers and punctuation.  I've read that other people really like the MorseMachine application on that site.

After you've gone through all 40 Koch lessons you may still have trouble with a particular set of characters.  Use the Code Groups application to work through your stumbling blocks.  Lastly natural language training is provided in the plain text training application which sends real sentences at your speed settings.  You can also paste text into the convert text to cw  application and download the resulting MP3 to practice off-line.

Play / Pause  
Learn CW Online - LCWO.net -
Text to Morse Converter

Listen to real QSOs

Machine learning is patient tutor and the best way to get started but after you have learned your letters and numbers and a comma you should incorporate copy of real on-air QSOs into your learning regimen.  

Copying real QSOs will teach you a couple of things.  First, you'll realize that people by and large do not send perfect, machine generated code.  Much of the slower code you will hear on HF is being sent with straight keys, bugs and cooties.  Some of these manual key operators will send with timing that is, let's say, creative.  At first you may be dismayed that you can't copy a single complete word from some of these operators but give it time and your brain will adjust to the unique cadence used by many manual key operators.  Some manual key operators pride themselves in their distinctive style of sending and there are a few operators that I recognize before they ever send their call just by the unique style of their FIST.  I'm not encouraging you to emulate that style because it is in essence communicating with a thick accent but you should begin to become familiar with hearing the code sent by these folks because you will eventually have QSOs with them.  Even operators using paddles and electronic keyers won't sound like the machine generated code because their letter and word spacing will vary, or in some cases, be nearly non-existent.  I describe some operators FIST as sending one extended prosign (no space between the letters) for an entire transmission.

Secondly you'll begin to start copying the myriad of abbreviations and prosigns and jargon used during QSOs that exists nowhere outside of amateur radio CW conversations.  As you come across new "words" that you copy.  Circle them until you begin to recognize what they mean.  Some of the abbreviations are standardized but many others are just shorthand and sometimes unique to a particular operator or region.  You'll also start to become familiar with the way operators communicate their goodbyes which vary greatly in content, abbreviations and length.  Some goodbyes in morse code seem to take as long as the entire previous part of the QSO.  In other cases the conversation ended and you didn't even hear the door slam behind you.
Update 2016-05-06: This article concerns a couple eays to practice your CW copy skills.

A word about Morse Code translators

There are a number of Morse Code translation programs available for mobile devices and computers.  My recommendation is to NOT use them when you're learning to copy.  They will become a crutch and in real QSOs they tend to not be accurate (excepting for CW-Skimmer) and will get you distracted from trying to actually copy the code yourself.  Where they ARE USEFUL is in translating your own sending (see below).

Pace yourself and have fun

The most important thing is to have fun.  No one makes their living as a telegraph operator any longer and the code is no longer required for a license. So don't stress out about learning the code or push yourself too fast.  This is just a hobby and hobbies should be fun.

If you can, practice a little every day. When you start, if you're like me, you will find that you mentally tire out after about 15-20 minutes so don't push it.  You are exercising a part of your brain that hasn't had to work much since you learned to talk, and that may have been a few years back.

Different people will learn at a different pace but I haven't met anyone that doesn't make progress if they keep plugging away at it a little every day and if you miss a day no big deal, just try not to let it lapse.  You are building a new muscle in your brain.  You may also hit a couple walls along the way where you don't seem to progress but it's coming.  Just be patient.  Morse Code is not fast food.  

Morse Code is a mode for folks that don't have a lot to say but want to take a long time to say it; so why rush?

Sending Morse Code

Learning to send code is a different skill than learning to copy.  Your ability to send good code is primarily formed by your ability to hear good code.  You have to be able to hear the code as properly timed sound bites in your head before you can expect to send properly.

Personally, I'd recommend that you hold off practicing sending code until you have worked through all the lessons and can properly copy.  Your brain needs time to memorize the proper sound for each letter.  If you start practicing too soon you could develop poor timing habits that will take time to correct.

When you are ready to practice; try sending something like a news article.  Or write a few sentences about your weekend and practice sending them.   At some point you should begin practicing simulated QSOs. The SKCC beginners corner has a good sample QSOs to practice.  When I started real over the air conversations I had my QSOs written out with blanks for the other station's call-sign.  I didn't try to stray far from the text in the beginning since trying to think of what to say while spelling it in my head and remembering the sound for it was just too much for my puny brain.  But after a couple dozen real QSOs the nervousness starts to wear off and you can think and send.

I have had a little over 300 CW QSOs (as of Fall 2015) and while that is still a relatively small number easily a 3rd of them have been lengthy ragchews lasting over 20-30 minutes so I've spent a lot of time "off-script" from the standard exchange.  At this point I don't have to concentrate much on what I'm sending, it just comes out.  I only have to think about spelling long words.

When you practice I recommend that you record yourself and then go back maybe a day later and see if you can copy what you sent.  You will think you're doing great until you listen to yourself.   Then you will practice sending more carefully! 
Remember the golden rule. It's better to send good code than receive.
Another useful practice tool for sending is a Morse Code Translator but as stated previously only use a translator to work on your own code sending.  Don't use one to copy in real QSOs or you will become dependent on it.

What kind of key


Of course there are different opinions on whether to learn to send code with a straight key or a paddle with an electronic keyer.  They each have their merits and detractors.  I wouldn't recommend starting with a cootie (sideswiper) or bug, they introduce too many variables for a beginner, but they are lots of fun to use after you're solid with a straight key and paddle..

Straight Key and Paddle... which to start with?


The video below discusses some difference in learning to send on a straight key versus a paddle...


Straight key

Straight Key (manual key)
Straight keys are simple, inexpensive and can work with many inexpensive practice oscillators such that you don't need a radio to practice sending.  The disadvantage of straight keys is that your reflexes are entirely responsible for properly spaced DITs and DAHs in addition to intra-character and word spacing.  The advantage is that after some practice they become an extension of your arm and simply repeat what you're hearing in your head.  I personally started with a straight key and still like to use one regularly for QSOs under 17wpm.  My reflexes are not good enough yet to use my straight at higher speeds so I use a paddle when I talk with an operator at speeds above 18wpm.

Paddle with electronic keyer

Paddle -- requires electronic keyer
A paddle works with an electronic keyer. The disadvantage of a paddle is it requires additional equipment and that you will be learning a different reflex from the actual code that is in your head. I.e. when you send an I or an S or an H you are not reflexively sending the DITs that make up the letter but are instead training yourself how long to depress the paddle for the string of DITs.  This is a new skill and doesn't directly correspond to what you hear in your head.  The advantage to using a paddle with an electronic keyer is that the keyer will send perfect length and ratio DITs and DAHs every time so your reflexes don't have to be as quick or precise.  Also it requires far fewer movements of your hand to send code with a paddle and you won't tire as quickly as you would with a straight key.  I won't go into the concept of squeeze keying here.  For now don't worry about it.

As to the specifics of using a paddle with a keyer: 

The electronic keyer may be external or built-in to the radio. If it's external then it will normally have a speaker or mic jack to provide a sidetone allowing you to practice without connecting to a radio. If you don't have an external keyer and want to practice with a paddle you will need a radio with a built-in electronic keyer and be aware how to set it to not transmit for practice. Usually this is accomplished, strangely enough, by turning off VOX (which stands for voice activation) in the radio's menu. Keyers have a speed setting and weighting. Speed seems pretty obvious. Weighting is the ratio of the length of the DIT to the DAH in length. In general the weighting should be set to a higher value when you are sending at a slow speed and set to a lower value as your speed goes up.
Update (5/3/2016): Here is a video I made a few months later regarding equipment for practicing sending CW.  Among other key types, this video shows me using a Vibroplex Bug.  I do not recommend a Bug for a beginner, and at the end of the video you can see why...


Your first on-air QSO

So now you've practiced your copy skills and you can confidently copy on-air stations at the speed you wish to operate.  You have also been practicing sending and when you listen to a recording of yourself it actually makes sense.
You are ready to venture into your first, heart pounding, fight or flight response on-air QSO
If you can find a local ham who already knows the code to practice with that certainly makes for a less intimidating first foray.  If you don't know anyone ask your local 2m repeater club if they have any CW Elmers who are within ground-wave distance of your station to work with you.  Barring that ask someone in a forum and see if you can schedule a QSO but scheduling QSOs is often hit or miss based on propagation.

If none of those options present themselves then just go for it on-air.  Find an ongoing QSO that you feel you can copy or is moving just slightly faster than you can copy.  Copy the call-sign of the station you can best copy and wait for them to sign with each other (they will each send their 73s / 72s and send a DIT DIT at the very end).  Then call that station.
AA4XX AA4XX DE N4PBQ N4PBQ N4PBQ PSE QRS KN
If you've been listening to regular QSOs you'll recognize the form above.  The repetition of the other station's call is to get their attention.  You repeat yours for their benefit.  The PSE QRS is asking them to slow down and the prosign KN means you're asking only them to respond.  Have a prepared QSO text ready in terms of what to send.  The SKCC beginners corner has a good sample QSOs.

Here is a sample QSO from when I was just venturing onto the air.


What is going on in the radio

As far using Morse Code in radio communication  is concerned; a transmitter modulates a 100Hz to 150Hz wide signal called a Continuous Wave or CW at a particular frequency.  The time the signal is transmitted corresponds to the length of time the trasnmitter key is depressed.   When listening on a receiver you hear a tone whose pitch is determined by your offset from the frequency of the transmission. If you are listening exactly on the same frequency you will hear nothing because there will be zero Hz offset.  So most modern receivers offset the receiver frequency above or below the signal and offset their own transmit frequency by the chosen offset.  So if the offset is 750Hz you will hear a 750Hz tone if you are exactly on frequency with the other station.  Confusing?  Good, you're well on you way.

Summary

So you know as much as I know now... well admittedly I don't know a lot, I'm just learning this stuff myself but I can almost promise you that it will be fun if you have some patience with it and you will meet some of the nicest people in ham radio... well meet them virtually, well meet them as monotone beeps, well meet them as decoded signals sent from one human computer to another human computer, but trust me; after you've had a 15 minute conversation with them and only exchanged your names, where you live and what the weather is you'll feel as though you've known them your entire life.

So lower your power and raise your expectations

73 / 72
Richard - AA4OO (formerly N4PBQ)

Update 11-05-2016:

I wrote this article after about 6 months of operating in the Fall of 2015.  A year later now I have over 1,100 CW QSOs not counting contest operations for Field Day using our club call WQ4RP.  I'm presently operating up to 23 wpm during ragchews and still working through the challenges of improving my operating skills.  I still think this old post is valid for new operators and I re-visit it occasionally to make sure I still agree with myself... Usually I argue with myself all the time but by and large I think this is still a decent primer.  I appreciate corrections and constructive pointers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

CW Contests for new CW operators ..--..

WARNING:  CW Contests Require Arcane Knowledge

Before participating in last night's NAQCC Sprint I had previously stumbled into responding to a CQ that was for a contest last week.  The calling station was patient with me and was looking for specific information which he tried to repeatedly coach out of me.  It was frustrating not knowing how I was supposed to reply.

CW contests occur frequently on the HF bands so as a new CW operator you're very likely to accidentally respond to a caller in a contest.  A CW contestor uses an extra couple of letters thrown into the CQ to identify the call as being for a contest.  Sometimes stations may send "CQ TEST" which I would think means they are testing something but apparently that is shorthand for a contest.  I've done web searches on CW contests but it's not clear to me if they are organized or described in any one place for the HF bands or have information for total newbies.  I also haven't found if there's a standard formula for interacting with a contest or if they are each unique.

I became a member of the North American QRP Club a couple of weeks ago, at AA4XX's suggestion, to get on the mailing list to learn about QRP CW operations.  I received an email saying there'd be a "Sprint" contest that evening so I thought I'd give it a try.

I went to the website  where it described the contest protocol as follows:
Send "CQ NA your_call"; then respond with "RST state abbreviation and NAQCC#".  
That seemed simple enough even for me.

The Sprint Begins

A thunderstorm with big scary lightning delayed my getting on the air, but once the storm cleared I turned on the KX3, re-connected the antenna and began listening.  Keep in mind that the contest is for QRP  (low power) stations so the signals are weak, fade in and out and are generally hard for my less skilled CW ear to copy.  I turned up the volume and listened through the static crashes of lightning from the recently departed storm.  Stations seemed to be sending different information than what the website indicated but it turned out it was just in a shorthand format that I was unaccustomed to hearing.

scribbled listener log
As I kept listening I could make out a general pattern used by the contestants.  Maybe the following will help some other new CW operator who's trying to figure out what's going on:

The calling station sends:
CQ NA N4PBQ N4PBQ K
The responding station doesn't go through the niceties of calling station "DE" their station they simply send their call a couple of times:
N9KK N9KK
The calling station then responds with a shorthand report and info required for the contest.  No To/From nonsense or even the RST abbreviation.  Just an "X" (I assume is shorthand for here's your xmitted RST) the state repeated and the number.  I thought stations were sending an"X" but after listening to other contests I think I was mis-copying a "TU" as an "X".  So I believe it should be a "TU" which I think means "Thank You".  
I didn't hear anyone repeat their club number which seems strange because that was the hardest thing for me to copy and it's required in the submitted log for the contest.  The response is ended with BK (back to you):
 X TU 5NN 5NN NC NC 7935 BK
The responding station returns something in kind.  Sometimes they'll spare a nicety such as "GE" (for good evening).  One of the calling stations also included the operators name of the responding station although I'll assume that was an automated macro that would look up the station OP name because there was no way he had time to look it up given the speed of the response. The QSO is ended using the QRP response:
TNX 72 K
And that's it.  None of the typical exchanges in the CW QSOs I've listened to, not even the station's call at the end of the transmission which I thought was an FCC requirement.


Conclusion

So for any other new CW operators out there tying to figure out what they are supposed to respond with in a contest hopefully this helps.  Submitting logs for the contest is also a bit arcane but at least the NAQCC web page gives very clear instructions on how to do that.

I'm not really a competitive type person so I don't foresee getting the bug to be a competitive contestor but I do see the value in participating to increase your copy and sending skills so I'll keep giving these sprints a try.  I appreciate NAQCC sponsoring them.