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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Vibroplex Vibrokeyer

Get it right the first time

The electronic keyer, for sending Morse code, came into into use in the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Vibroplex introduced their first paddle key, the Vibrokeyer, in 1960. 

1960 Vibroplex Vibrokeyer

The Vibrokeyer key looks like a stunted Vibroplex Bug.   Vibroplex took the frame, pivot and lever mechanism straight from the Bug and simply did away with the sprung pendulum.  After all, why wouldn't they?  The Vibroplex Bug had been one of the best selling keys for sending Code for decades, and its design had barely changed since 1947.  Vibroplex had a winner with the Bug.  

But did that same design translate well to a key for use with an electronic keyer?

Vibrokeyer next to a Bug

The roots of the design

Vibroplex carried over the roots of their design principles, and two things stand out that make them different from other modern day keys designed for use with an electronic keyer...  The finger-pieces and the non-symmetrical, left-right movement.

The ergonomic finger-piece

The tip of our thumb obviously does not reach as far as our index finger without contorting your hand, so why do most key manufacturers make finger-pieces that assumes your thumb reach is equal to your other fingers?   

The Vibroplex finger-piece takes the shorter thumb into account by allowing the thumb to contact nearer the hand than the index finger.  It just makes sense, right?

Non-symmetrical lever operation

The split, and unequal length design of the lever requires different forces from the DIT and the DAH side.  Again, this is a carry over from the Bug, but it makes ergonomic sense.  We employ more force from our thumb than our index finger when moving the paddle lever.  It's simply the natural mechanics in the hand when it's in that position.  So, the Vibrokeyer not only provides different spring pressure adjustments, but also makes the mechanics of the DIT side different from the DAH.  

I don't know whether this was intentional or just making use of their existing Bug design, but in my opinion, the result makes the Vibrokeyer a better paddle with regard to the dynamics of our hand movements than keys with a symmetrical design.  Our thumb and forefinger do not move symmetrically.  The force and stroke length of the unequal lengths of the Vibrokeyer lever compliment our non-symmetric design.  Maybe it's my imagination, because other keys allow for independent tension and distance adjustment but the Vibrokeyer just feels different.  It feels more natural.

Non-symmetric split lever design

What's not to like?

The Vibrokeyer seems to check all the boxes, and patents have long since expired. So, why don't other modern keys copy this design?  For one thing it's a single lever paddle... In the 1970s IAMBIC keyer circuitry became popular, sparking the surge of dual-lever paddles that took advantage of squeeze keying.  Single lever paddles seemed to fall from grace for all but the QRQ crowd.

I own a work of art, dual-paddle key, from N3ZN that I enjoy using.  But I admit that even with the N3ZN key on my desk, right next to my Bug, I would frequently choose the Bug.  Part of it was the challenge and the anachronistic nature of the Bug, but now with the Vibrokeyer I find that the finger-piece and split bar design just seems to feel more natural and comfortable for my hand than a traditional dual paddle, symmetric design.

When Vibroplex created their first paddle-key, I think they got it right the first time

Vibroplex Vibrokeyer video

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations...

Richard, AA4OO

Friday, November 27, 2015

Don't Bug OUT when hearing a Vibroplex semi-automatic key

Vibroplex Bug Morse Keys 

Since starting to work CW on-air a few months back I became familiar with the sound of other operators using Vibroplex Bug telegraph keys.  I have been curious to try one of these semi-automatic keys even though I know that they are not recommended for new operators.
Vibroplex Original Semi-automatic Bug
The Bug uses a sprung pendulum to automatically send DITS.  The action of moving the lever to the right starts the pendulum in motion and it creates evenly timed DITS automatically.  DAHS are created by manual timing moving the key to the left.  Using the key requires quite a bit more practice that using a straight key or paddles. 
The Vibroplex semi-automatic Bug is considered a manual key by the SKCC (Straight Key Century Club) so it counts in SKCC contacts.
Used Bugs in decent working condition can often be had for under $70.  This one was advertised as being "un-used new in box".  Indeed, when I received it, it still had the shipping bumpers on the main spring and still had shipping grease.  The glue on the nameplate had deteriorated and come loose and there was significant oxidation on the parts.  This bug is a few decades old but that doesn't matter because Vibroplex bugs haven't changed much in design since 1907.  The history of their creator, Horace Martin is interesting.  He created the bug to help deal with his own degraded sending ability due to long hours operating a straight key as a renowned telegrapher.
Horace was a professional telegrapher so he designed the bug for professionals who sent at speeds well above what is normally used in amateur radio.  The slowest speed this bug can send DITS without modification is about 25wpm and goes well above 40wpm.

As a beginning CW operator you will generally be well below that speed in your copy skills and likely your sending speed as well.  But when experienced hams work you with a bug they will slow their DAHS down to your speed, however without special added weights there's not much they can do to slow down their DITS to your speed.  This gives their FIST a unique sound.  The DAHS are sent slowly but the DITS are zinging by.  When you first hear this style your brain will not know how to interpret what you hear but give it some time and you will learn to copy them.

You can slow the Bug down by adding weight to the end of the pendulum.  An inexpensive method is to wrap the weight with some solder.  I've wrapped mine to bring it down to about 22wpm.
Wrap the pendulum weight with solder to slow it a bit
Here is a little video letting you hear a bit of the cadence of the bug.  Now I just received this thing today and I practiced with it for about 30 minutes before making this video so I'm no bug operator for sure but it will give you some idea of the bug "swing"...

Here is a video running through the keys to see if learning a Vibroplex messes up my ability to use a paddle with an electronic keyer

The Vibroplex Bug next to a Kent Hand Key.

Manual Morse Code Keys

So don't "bug out" when you hear one of these on the air.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard - N4PBQ

Thursday, November 2, 2017

2B Radio Parts replacement bumpers for Vibroplex keys

Rubber baby buggy bumpers

Sometimes I needlessly struggle with a problem because I'm cheap.

My Vibroplex Vibrokeyer was manufactured in 1960.  My Vibroplex Bug was manufactured in the mid 1970s.  In both cases the once flexible, non-skid rubber feet have since turned to hardened rubber fossils. In order to use the keys without them skating all over the desk I employ a variety of non-skid solutions, except for the obvious.

For some reason I seem to have to move stuff on my desk all the time.  I guess I'm never content and constantly reorganize the station and accessories.  Inevitably I misplace a rubber mat or some rubberized shelf liner sticks out from under a key in an unsightly manner. In general it makes the station look shoddy.

Fossil feet on a 1960 Vibroplex Vibrokeyer

Bring out the buggy bumpers

Enter '2B Radio Parts'.  

2B Radio Parts, provide replacement parts for Bugs, paddles for various makes of keys.  I ordered Replacement Vibroplex Bumpers (6 Bumper Pack).  I wasn't aware the 'feet' were called 'bumpers', but there you have it... I have new rubber baby buggy bumpers for my bug and vibrokeyer.

The 6 bumper pack replaced the feet on both keys.  In case you never noticed, many keys, including those made by Vibroplex, have 3 feet rather than 4.  It keeps the key from rocking on a surface that isn't entirely level or flat.

Parts is Parts

The replacement feet... err... bumpers from 2B, fit fine. They were nearly an exact match for the old feet on the 1970s bug but were a smidge taller and slightly different design than those on the 1960 Vibrokeyer.  The older key had a chambered, internal design that I'd guess had a bit more cushion back when it was new.  57 years later, the rubber foot is a brittle relic of its former self.

new bumper left, 1960 Vibrokeyer bumper right

new bumper left, 1960 Vibrokeyer bumper right

Ahhh, no more slip siding away

The old feet are simply held on by countersunk machine screws and the receiving holes in the new bumpers fit without a hitch.

Shod with new boots, shoes, feet, bumpers, whatever

My Vibroplex Bug has a more solid disposition as well now

The moral of the story is stop being cheap and buy some new feet!

That's all for now...  

So lower your power and raise your expectations

P.S.   Oh, speaking of which (lowering your power and raising expectations)... I was sending out my call on 7030 unsuccessfully a couple nights ago, for about 10 minutes.  I was using my TenTec Century/21 at 5 watts QRP and getting lousy spots on RBN (6 to 9dB SNR).  I decided to keep sending CQ a couple more minutes and was finally answered by S51MF, Franz in Slovenia, 4700 miles away.  You just never know what your QRP signal is going to net you.

Richard, AA4OO

Friday, May 27, 2016

Let your fingers do the talking...

Let them play different instruments

Keys left to right
Nye Viking, Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug, N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle, Palm Single paddle
My collection of keys has grown over the past few months and I find that I like each for their particular qualities.

Keys from left to right

The Nye Viking is somewhere between a traditional J-38 low style American key and a tall European style.  At first I couldn't get any sort of coordination with it even after a couple hours of practice and it stayed in the closet for a few months.  Eventually I wanted to leave a key hooked up to the old Century/21 so I didn't have to move the output of my external keyer so the Viking came back out.  I've finally become accustomed to it and am even beginning to enjoy it as much as the Kent.  I'm amazed at how different two straight keys can be.

The Kent Hand key continues to be my favorite key for straight key operation.  The Kent is operated using your entire arm off the desk and when I send using it above 15wpm I get the entire desk shaking with the motion.  My desk light starts casting dancing shadows across the equipment from the vibration and with the clacking of the key and the blare of the sidetone the world of CW becomes visceral.

The Vibroplex Bug remains at the center of the collection because I have some strange affinity for the quirky bug.  I use it on every QSO where I hear another bug operator or with SKCC operators that are sending faster than 17wpm.  It has a non-cosmetic, yet effective, weight added from an old steel spacer to slow it down to a range of 21wpm to 16wpm and some dental floss around the DIT contact spring to reduce the potential bounce which results in scratchy sounding DITS.

The N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle is a work of art and when I'm working higher speed CW it's my go-to key.  The carbon fiber finger pieces and lightweight clickety action always puts a smile on my face.  I keep it connected to the external Ham Keyer which has a handy knob to for quickly adjusting keyer speed.

The Palm Single to the right is magnetically mounted to a steel base a friend made for me. I pull it off the base when I go portable as it's my go-to key for all my portable operations.  But when I'm at the home station I leave it hooked up to the keyer input on the Ten-Tec Eagle because the Eagle's keyer is only Iambic-B mode and I just can't get used to "B-Mode".  Using a single, non-iambic paddle eliminates the weird timing of the B iambic mode.  I really should learn mode-B since it seems to be standard on Ten-Tec and Kenwood radios. 

The 3 stars in the center are the Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug and the N3ZN paddle

The 3 keys in the middle (Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Bug and N3ZN paddle) remain hooked up to the Ham Keyer and I move the output of that keyer to whichever rig I'm primarily using at the time.  That keyer uses Iambic-Mode-A which I'm comfortable with and it debounces the scratchiness of the Bug.  I hook the output of the keyer up to either the PTT line on the Eagle or the secondary key input on the KX3.  When using the C21 I just use the Nye straight key.

Debouncing a Vibroplex Bug

Side story on the Bug... If you get a Vibroplex bug and hook it up to the PTT line of your radio you may find that you're missing DITS or that the output sounds broken or scratchy.  The PTT line of many radios is not "buffered" meaning it is reacting to every contact closure.  On a bug, the DIT contact is actually bouncing potentially hundreds of times a second since the contact force is so light and doesn't make a clean closure.  Many keyers will filter out those multiple contacts or bounces.  My old HAM KEYER weight control actually serves as a DIT weight control for the manual keys as well so it's ideal for use with the bug.

KE6EE offered me this nice explanation of what was going on:
The more usual term for the process of dealing with problems of contact closure is "debouncing." Google and you will find lots of interesting visuals and explanations.

The actual start and finish of contact closures and openings in switches, relays and keys, is not a simple off-and-on process but a series of "bounces." Dit contact closures on a bug are likely to be very bouncy. 

Bug dit contact design and bug maintenance and adjustment are critical for minimizing bounce. Ops with Vibroplex-style dit contacts often put a piece of rubber or plastic foam in the U-shaped dit contact spring. The Begali bug uses a unique pointed and spring-loaded dit contact. Many bug ops, from my observations on the air, do not adjust their dit weight properly to minimize a scratchy sound.

Transmitter keying circuits are usually "debounced" in various ways, the simplest perhaps being to put a capacitor across the key contact circuit. A PTT circuit doesn't need to be debounced so it isn't. Keyers often have debounce circuits designed to be used with straight keys and bugs.

Try different keys

So if you are getting into CW try some different keys.  I think you'll be surprised by the differences and find that your mood or situation will dictate the use of one key over another.   Morse keys on the used market aren't expensive if you shop carefully so you can build quite a collection.  They also tend to hold their value if you find that you've obtained a key or two that you just can't grok.

My ever changing station sporting a spiffy new chair

 That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

Friday, October 13, 2017

Vibroplex Bug Vari-Speed

How Slow Can You Go ?

My friend Kurt (N4KJK) has loaned me his Vibroplex Original Deluxe Bug.

Shiny, Indeed!

Vibroplex Original Deluxe Bug with Vari-Speed 
I've enjoyed my used Vibroplex Standard Bug made in the 1970's.  That bug has really grown on me and it's now my preferred key for casual operation.  But when I want to work operators who prefer speeds below 20wpm I either have to add a pile of magnets onto my already non-standard pendulum weight or switch to the straight key.

Vari-Speed to the rescue

The Vari-Speed, sold by Vibroplex, gives the bug an enhanced range down from its high-speed at 30+ WPM down to about 13 WPM.

The Vari-Speed accessory is affixed to the pendulum arm, near the middle, and moves the weight up onto the rotating arm of the Vari-Speed.  To change speed, instead of moving the weight along the pendulum, the Vari-Speed arm carrying the re-located weight is pivoted toward front or back of the key.  The added weight of the Vari-Speed attachment coupled with the ability to move the weight further to the rear is what allows the DIT speed to drop all the way down to 13 WPM.

Other options exist to slow down a bug this much but they usually involve extending the weight behind the bug through extension of the pendulum tube.  I don't have room at my desk for that option, and additionally, the pendulum extensions don't allow for the bug to be returned to a QRQ speed without quite a bit of effort.

How does it perform?

In practice the Vari-Speed does its job.  It allows the DIT speed to be slowed down a ton compared to other options that don't extend the pendulum arm.  

However, there are some drawbacks...  Changing speed now becomes a two handed operation.  You can't loosen the nut holding the Vari-Speed arm and move it to a new position single-handedly (or at least I couldn't) so it requires reaching over the bug and using one hand to loosen-tighten the set screw while the other hand moves the Vari-Speed back and forth.  This is a bit awkward and much slower that simply gripping the standard configured weight on a bug and sliding it forward or backward on the pendulum with one hand from the side.

The second issue, is the amount of mass added to the pendulum. It is considerable, even when the Vari-Speed is not being used to slow down DITS it makes operation feel quite different than a standard bug.  I found that my inter-character timing suffered due to the extra mass and getting the DIT arm moving for initial DIT elements of a character.   Admittedly, I've spent very little time with the Vari-Speed so I'm sure I would adapt, but I've had the opportunity to try about 6 different bugs at this point and none of them felt this strange for initiating the DITs.

Following is a video demonstrating the Vari-Speed.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

72/73  de 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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

QSO fun with a C21

It doesn't get much simpler

After dinner tonight I headed up to the shack to make a couple of QSOs.  I felt nostalgic and powered up the old TenTec Century 21 rather than one of my modern radios.  

My Vibroplex Bug and Kent Hand key are connected in series and I plugged into the straight key input on the back of the C21. I tuned as near to 3550 kHz as I could determine from the somewhat vague VFO dial and listened for a clear frequency.  I adjusted the output until I was producing somewhere around 10 watts to my lovely, no-tune OCF Dipole.  This old radio doesn't have a tuner so it's nice to use an antenna that is resonant on the bands the I use.

I turned on my camera, sent my call out once and was immediately answered by Dick (WB3AVF) up in Pennsylvania.  Turns out he was using a Standard Vibroplex bug that is very similar to mine.  It was my first contact with WB3AVF and we had a nice chat.

Fired up the 1977 TenTec Century 21 for a couple of old-fashioned QSOs

Switching the keys around

Dick and I had a couple exchanges and then he switched from his Vibroplex bug to a straight key so I followed suit on my next exchange, using my ever so clackety-clackety Kent Hand Key.

Vibroplex Bug and Kent Hand Key... both date to long before I became a Ham

The joys of an old radio

If you watch the video you'll note me chasing around the caller with the TenTec's audio offset knob.  I wasn't changing frequency with the VFO, I was trying to keep his signal in the audio bandpass sweet spot on the C21.  Unfortunately, my offset knob has become extremely touchy; as you can see in the video.  When I barely touch it, it will jump by a 100 Hz so it's fiddly to use.  I need to open up the rig again and find the out of spec components.  Maybe a Christmas project but I'm kinda hoping I get a new transceiver kit to build this year.  I keep planning to work on the C21 but other projects get in the way.

You can hear that the VFO drifts a bit as it warms up. That was the first QSO after turning on the radio so you'll hear after every exchange that Dick's station had dropped in frequency a bit and I was compensating with the offset knob.  He probably had to chase me about 300 Hz during out QSO while the components stabilized.

This C21 is from 1977 and uses a direct conversion receiver allowing you to hear the same station on both sides of the zero beat.  That makes for interesting zero beating...  I normally tune from a higher frequency to lower while keeping the offset set to the high side of the zero beat, about 600 Hz.  That way as I approach a signal and it's pitch decreases from high to around 600Hz I know that I'm on the correct side of the pass band.  If QRM becomes bad during the QSO I'll use the offset knob to jump to the other side of the zero beat and often that gets me away from an interfering station by moving their received "pitch" out my audio passband.  It's more complicated to explain than demonstrate.  I didn't do that during this QSO but, trust me it works well unless the band is really crowded.

The offset knob works on both sides of the signal due to the direct conversion receiver in the C21


Band conditions on 80m were nice tonight.  I was outputting around 10w and Reverse Beacon network showed that I had good coverage to the North which my antenna favors.
I saw decent RBN spotter reports even though I was using low power and my antenna is compromised for 80m use since it is only 25 feet above ground at it's apex and slopes down to 10 feet AGL on the long end of the OCF.

You can see that one report was as high as 34 db over noise and 9 reports were 20+ db over noise range, so not too shabby for the poor solar cycle and low power.  There were some faint static crashes, which are frequent on 80m especially in the summer but they weren't bad tonight.  

I really enjoy the 80m band in the winter for ragchewing in the evenings. Other than QRN it's much lower band noise for me and not as busy as 40m.  I can use my older radio without trying to dodge QRM from close packed stations.

Right after the first QSO was over I was called from different station, also in PA, and that operator was also named Dick.  So it was an evening of QSO coincidences.   

Make some calls and see how many QSO coincidences you enounter.

Ah.. the sounds of a 1977 QSO... 

I hope you make it to the Kent Straight key clacking toward the end

I'm glad I had the camera rolling when WB3AVF answered my call.  I enjoy listening to a two-way Vibroplex bug QSO.  I know the copy is a bit rough in a couple of places since I had not warmed up prior to the QSO. I normally need 15 minutes or so of time with my bug to smooth out my sending, and that didn't happen tonight.  If I can make the time, I'll add a transcript. Or if someone wants to send me a transcript of this QSO I'll give them full credit and include it here.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations... (and use old crufty radios)

Richard, AA4OO

I've added a video detailing operation of a Century 21...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bugging Out

Vibroplex Bug QSO

Sometimes I'm in a mood to use my bug.  I'm still a relatively new CW operator and using my Vibroplex Original Bug is both novel to me and a challenge compared to my Kent Straight Key or using paddles.

The key lineup with the Bug in the center
I purchased my bug used on a well known auction site for about $65.  It dates to sometime in the mid 1970s but it doesn't differ much from bugs made in the past 75 years.  I have added some weight to slow it down to around 19 wpm DITs by taping a heavy spacer onto the factory pendulum weight as well as adding a heavy metal spacer to the end of the pendulum.  The weight on the end of the pendulum is held on by a simple plastic drywall screw anchor.  I can pull the weight off the back quickly if I want to let it go up to about 25wpm DITs.  Without the extra weights this bug sends at around 27wpm at it's slowest speed and up to... well I don't know how fast because I can't control it at the fastest speed yet and I certainly can't copy others at that speed so I usually keep it below 20wpm for now.

If you haven't used a bug I encourage you to give it a try.  It's a challenging key to get the hang of but the effort to learn it is fun and rewarding. I especially enjoy the tactile feedback from that swinging pendulum and the the click-clacking of the pendulum against the hanging damper.

I was using my Ten-Tec Eagle (model 599) purchased used from a local ham.  The Eagle is a super little QRO radio although in this QSO my output is 5w.  If you have sharp eyes you may see that the power level is set to 7w but that is actually 5w output according to my external meter.  The 100 number under the CW symbol is the bandwidth that I was using.  I generally keep the bandwidth at 500 Hz but there was a station operating above us that I wanted to mask.

Ten-Tec Eagle 599
The Eagle is a great CW rig.  This model has 3 front end crystal filters 2400Hz, 600Hz and 300Hz giving it nice selectivity for any mode. 

I was working Ed, KG4W in VA who is an SKCC member.   If you want to work other manual key stations 3550 kHz is a calling frequency for the SKCC.  Ed told me during the QSO he was using a VIZ vertical bug which is a unique and interesting bug design.  

He reported my signal as 599 and he was 599 as well.  I was running 5w output power to my 80m OCF Dipole. He was using an Yaesu at 100w to a fan dipole.  5w was sufficient for this QSO but if he had reported me as 559 or weaker I would have raised my power to 20w to make copy for him easier.  I enjoy using QRP but when I rag chew I don't want to make it difficult for QRO stations to copy me if I can help it so having the Eagle allows me to raise my power if necessary for the communication.


So here's the qso between two bug operators.  I hope you enjoy it...

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations


Richard, AA4OO

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.


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

Richard N4PBQ

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


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

Richard N4PBQ

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Don't forget -- Straight Key Night 2018 is tomorrow !

Straight Key Night -- 2018

Don't forget January 1st, 2018 starting 00:00 GMT (7pm EST Dec 31) is the start of Straight Key Night 2018.  Bring your tired, old equipment on-air and mash your favorite mechanical key.  This is not a contest, just an opportunity to make lots of fun QSOs.

I'll be on the air with my 1977 Century/21 using my Junker Straight key and Standard Vibroplex Bug.

ARRL has details on their website...

Video from 2018 SKN

If you hang in there until the 2:08 mark you'll see my new, spiffy, dual camera angle recording method that I plan to use in all my videos.

So, lower your power, and raise your expectations...

Richard AA4OO

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ewww Cooties

Take a swipe at it

The "Cootie" key or "Sideswiper" is basically a double-sided straight key and has a reputation for being very hard to learn, possibly harder even than the Vibroplex Bug.  My recent bug practice has been going well so I figured I would add a new level of difficulty by adding a completely different style of key into my brain mix... 

A Cootie key

Using a Palm Single in Sideswiper mode.  It is magnetically attached to a solid steel base.

My Palm Paddle Single has an internal adjustment that turns it into a sideswiper... 

Instructions for turning the Palm Single into a Sideswiper

That means that touching either side of the paddle closes the tip contact of the key jack, rather than operating the ring and the tip independently.   


Google "cootie" and you come up with 'body louse'... well at least you come up with that definition.  (hopefully you don't actually get body lice).  We are talking about a different kind of cootie here... 

Morse Express has an article with an excellent description and history of the cootie key here.  

I had some interest in operating a sideswiper because a good friend of mine Kurt (N4KJK) uses one regularly and I admire his skill with it.  I spent a short time in 2015 practicing with my Palm Single as a sideswiper and was horrible.  I quickly gave up.  Now with another year of CW in my brain and different types of keys (straight, iambic paddle and bug) swimming around my consciousness I took another shot.

I figured that I would spend an hour practicing side-swiperry and if I was making some progress I would continue the process, and maybe build a real side-swiper key using a hacksaw blade.  Before building a key I wanted to practice with what I already had.  I spent an hour this morning practicing sideswiper style with the Palm Single in Cootie mode and I went from really terrible to simply terrible, which in my book is great progress.

Level of Difficulty ?

You might have heard that the sideswiper is hard to learn... In general I'd say it is very different to what you may have already learned.  If the sideswiper were the first key you tried to use you might have no more difficulty learning it that anything else.  The problem is that it's completely different than EVERY OTHER morse key in the way it's operated.

The sideswiper is operated by swinging your thumb and forefinger back and forth rhythmically, where each opposing finger operates the key once for an individual element, rather than repeating any elements on one finger.   For a straight key you are always operating in the same direction... down.  Repeating elements, say the 3 DITS in an 'S' are repeated downward on the key.  In the case of a paddle or bug, your left thumb is pressing to repeat the 3 elements of an 'S'.  In the case of the letter 'O', your right index finger (or fingers) are accomplishing the repeating elements (DAHs in this case).  In the case of the sideswiper/cootie each finger participates in repeating elements and the order in which finger begins the process is completely up to chance.   So for an 'S' or an 'O' you might start with the thumb or the index finger depending on which finger last operated the key... the finger that's swinging toward the key at the time performs one element of the character then leaves the next element to the other finger...
"Arrrgh... it burns, it burns"
This is so completely different than operating other keys you simply must practice the mechanics that you've painstakingly built into your hand away to the beautiful simplicity of the cootie.  Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

So operating a bug takes some getting used to because you are timing the inter-character element transitions from index finger to thumb rather than an electronic keyer, but at least it's similar enough to a paddle that you are expecting to do the DAHs with your index and middle finger and your DITs are always accomplished by your thumb.  

The old rules are gone.  All your finely tuned muscle memory is thrown to the ether.  You are freed of preconceptions of sending code and you become "Ambidextrous" with regard to DITs and DAHs.  All your political affiliations are out the window as you now are able to approach a character from the  RIGHT or LEFT.

Ok I'm obviously just being silly now but maybe you get my point.  Give the sideswiper a try.  It will absolutely clean plaque out of your brain.  I'm fairly certain that just as learning and using Morse Code staves off brain disease... using all 4 types of Morse code keys in a round-robin fashion (Straight, Paddle, Bug and Cootie) will make your brain look like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger back in his Mr. Universe days.


Here's a demonstration after an hour of practice... be kind in the comments section :)

That's all for now

So lower your power and take a swipe at your key... from both directions

Richard, AA4OO 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Swinging QRP

Park Swing QRP

During lunch today I went to nearby city park.  I threw my end-fed antenna up in a tree and made a couple of contacts on 40m while rocking on the swing.

Beautiful weather, a swing and CW.  What more could you ask for?

Well, if I'd only had my Vibroplex Bug with me I could have been swinging the CW while I was swinging on the bench.

operating position

The radio and log
That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations.

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

You can swing a dead cat but you shouldn't swing your Bug

If it ain't got that swing, that's a good thing

The bane of those who work Bug key operators is the dreaded "swing".  Swing is when the DAH to DIT length doesn't match the accepted ratio of 3 to 1... often with Bug ops the length of the DAHs stretch out to way more than the accepted ratio and the poor schmuck at the receiving end has to make sense of someone speaking CW with a thick accent.

Sometimes a bit of swing on a manual key adds some interest to the sound of the CW and when Bug ops work other Bug ops we often throw some extra-spicy whoop-swing into our FIST.  But by and large non-standard DAH to DIT timing is frowned upon because, after all, we are supposed to be communicating and communication is easiest when it is understandable.

Make 'em think you're using a Paddle

As I've been learning to send CW with my circa 1970s Standard Vibroplex Bug, I've strived to make my FIST sound as close to the accepted timing of a paddle through an electronic keyer as I can.  I'm very much still in training, as you'll hear in the video, but I thought it might be helpful to have a little show and tell.
Wow! I need practice.  After listening to my video I realized my inter-character spacing was terrible with too little spacing between characters.  So please don't run your characters together like I did...  

Practicing the bug to sound like... errr well a paddle

The phrase I'm sending at the end of the video is a quote from Albert Einstein..
"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination"

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations, and "enunciate" your DAHs

Richard, AA4OO

Friday, February 19, 2016

1 Watt and a Wire... in the Attic

You can't always get what you want, but you try sometimes...

Recently I've dialed my normal 5 watts down to 1watt (one watt, singular) for all my contacts.  To throw some water on the fire I've decided to use my attic antenna which weaves all around my metal ductwork and electrical wiring.   Mostly this was to prove a point to myself but it may be enlightening to deed restricted hams that they can use a qrp radio and an attic antenna successfully.

Key lineup... Palm Single (paddle), Vibroplex Bug (circa 1970s), Kent Hand key

It only seems pointless until you try

Calling CQ with 1w QRPp into a poor attic antenna isn't as pointless as it would seem.  I didn't have to wait long when calling CQ before I got an answer most of the time.  

Now am I going to bust a pileup with 1 watt ?  Possibly not but I think that my assumptions about both how much power I need and how big an antenna I need are usually out of proportion with reality.

1 mighty watt

My assumptions are often incorrect

I made QSOs on 30m, 20m, 17m and 10m this morning all at 1 watt.  The solar conditions report was not really fantastic, especially for 10m.  Yet 1 watt through the attic antenna bagged the only DX I heard on 10m.  I had a couple of other multiple exchange contacts on 20m, 17m and one good old fashioned 25 minute long ragchew on 30m where I received a 599 report for my one watt from Bob (NR8M) in Ohio.  Admittedly, Bob was booming in and we had good propagation to each other.


The recording below was number 4 or 5 this morning.  I wanted to post this one because I was working another QRP station in Arkansas (K5EDM) and we did NOT have great propagation to each other.  He was running 5w while I was running 1w so it was QRP to QRPp.  In the video you can see that I'm using some of the KX3's tricks to pull the signal up because there was a lot of QSB and noise (note the GEOMAGNETIC FIELD UNSETTLED in the solar report).  

I had the volume maxed and was using the RF gain control mostly.  I eventually had to turn on the preamp which really washed me in noise but I dropped the RF gain more and eventually switched in the APF (audio peaking filter) which performed magic on this contact.  Often I find that APF doesn't help but this time it made a big difference.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard N4PBQ