Sometimes, real world events tend to get in the way of one’s radio listening. Such has been the case with me for the last few months as other things demand more and more of my radio time. Fortunately, I managed to be in front of the radios last week for one of the best catches I’ve ever made in my lifetime.
For years now, whenever I could hear the VL8 stations out of Australia, I have checked for Radio Symban on 2368.5, but I’ve never heard them. I’ve caught a carrier wave a couple of times, but nothing more than that. I did know that, for me at least, the best time to catch them would be in the early morning hours of March and September at around sunrise. March seems to bring the best propagation for me, as the spring thunderstorm season hasn’t gotten started yet, and daylight savings time makes my schedule a little more ‘radio friendly’.
I sat down in front of my computer just before local sunrise on March 10th and found this posted to Facebook from Tim Tromp:
2368.47 low powered Radio Symban (Australia) being heard right now in Michigan and 2325 kHz & 2485 kHz both have crushing signals right now! Never heard these two so loud. Go get ’em!
I fired up the Perseus and found a very weak signal from Radio Symban on 2368.5
Needless to say I probably should’ve played the lottery on March 10th. This recording isn’t much, but it is by far and away the best I’ve ever heard them. I remember talking to another DXer from here in Iowa who never seemed to pull this one in, and he’d been trying for a lot longer than I have. Hopefully there’s a little more excellent propagation left in this spring.
Other than a lot of Christmas decorations, not much has been happening here lately at my QTH. Unfortunately, that includes blog posts. While I have something sort of EPIC (or is that foolhardy?) in the works for this blog, I figured I’d end the radio silence with a quick rundown of what I’ve been hearing lately.
Radio Candip – November 9th, 2014. This low power transmitter out of the Congo is a new one for me. Thanks again to Tim Tromp for the head’s up.
A Mystery Signal on 9420 – December 4th, 2014.
While I presume this to be RTN out of Greece on 9420, I have no idea why it would be strongest when the SAL is pointing to the Southwest. Also note the multipath echo when I point the antenna to the Northwest.
Radio Rwanda, December 7th, 2014. This is a new one as well, sandwiched in between Radio Havana Cuba and HCJB.
I noticed while I was hopping around the dial that 9665 is listed as both Radio Voz Missionaria and KCBS Pyongyang. While the long wire and the magnetic loop could both ‘see’ a second carrier, neither could get away from the stronger R. Voz. The SAL was able to separate the two stations, and bring the North Koreans up enough for a positive identification.
I found myself in between doctor’s appointments this afternoon, and decided to fire up the radio looking for Nigeria’s 1900 broadcast in DRM.
As you can see, we had some great propagation out of Africa today!
You might notice that I’m not using my usual SDR software. That’s because I’m using the Elad rather than the trusty Perseus I usually do. Unlike the Perseus software, which requires a 3rd party DRM decoder, the Elad software has its own built in DRM decoder. While I’ve ran the Dream software with the Perseus before with no issues, I had some trouble finding the right codec to work with it on the new desktop. As a result, I fired up the Elad and pointed the SAL to the East.
Expect an SDR ‘shootout’ between these two capable receivers within a couple of weeks.
In honor of Global 24’s recent sign on, we bring you a piece on another commercial shortwave broadcaster from 25 years ago: Superpower KUSW, I happened to be rummaging through my storage unit a while ago when I found this QSL card, an artifact from what is still my all time favorite shortwave station. They’re long gone now, but I still remember them fondly.
It’s hard to explain what these guys meant to a 17 year old kid from Central Iowa. While their playlist wasn’t nearly as daring as I seem to remember, they sounded almost revolutionary to these teenage ears. Their format was mostly AOR with an adult contemporary spin to it, but they also played bands like Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians and the Replacements. They were also my first exposure to Bonnie Raitt and John Prine as well, not to mention the first place I’d ever heard the Band’s Up On Cripple Creek. Like I said, they probably weren’t all that different from a lot of major market stations at the time, but they were a huge departure from anything else I could hear. I embraced them with open arms and became a loyal listener.
I soon got to know the on air personalities of John Florence and Faith Martin, who had the sexiest radio voice I’d ever heard. Later on, I got to know Cheryl Schaffer, “Skinny” Johnny Mitchell, and even Utah Jazz Basketball. I listened in while they broadcast listener requests, mine and others, as well as the time their broadcast was blasted by the U.S. Army to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy in Panama. Fun times!
Unfortunately the economic realities of shortwave broadcasting quickly caught up with KUSW. No matter how good the programming was, and it was very good, there just weren’t enough advertisers interested in shortwave to make a go of it. Over time, more and more paid religious broadcasting found its way onto the station, until one day in the fall of 1990, they through in the towel and became just another international Christian broadcaster. Their run may have been brief, but it was a glorious one nonetheless.
This particular card is dated January 15, 1988, but I remember my report dating back to a few weeks earlier. I had just received my first “real” shortwave radio, a Realistic DX-360, for Christmas of 1987, and discovered KUSW a day or two later. To this day, they’re the only international broadcaster I’ve ever QSLed.
Along with the card, I found a form I was supposed to fill out and return (which I obviously did not), and another for the Superpower KUSW Premium Club. $20 was a lot of money for a 17 year old kid back then, so I didn’t join up. I wonder what you got for your money?
While I was digging around on the net for KUSW-related material, I found this sound check from one of their early broadcasts. I’m not even sure where I found this or who made the recording, but if they ever stumble across this page, let me know and I’ll give you full credit for your efforts.
From the West, to the World. This is Superpower KUSW.
You never really know what you’ll hear on the ‘graveyard’ frequencies, do you? While 1430 is usually KASI around here (I’m about 15 miles from their studios in Ames, Iowa), that’s no guarantee I’ll actually hear it at night when their power drops. Tonight’s demo starts off with an unknown AM station to the South and East of me, possibly KZQZ out of St. Louis.
A note about the Pro-1B. As you may remember from my earlier demo, the magnetic loop is bi-directional, so there’s no forward gain. It is, however, very capable of some pretty deep nulls of stations that are off to the sides. By rotating the loop to the Southeast/Northwest, I was able to effectively null out KASI in favor of our mystery oldies station. You will notice a ‘chug’ in the signal on the magnetic loop that isn’t there on the SAL. I think it has something to do with the smaller antenna being more susceptible to phasing differences between the two sidebands. The radio probably could’ve corrected this if I had turned on the synch detector, but its an interesting observation nonetheless.
UPDATE: Tim Tromp, a DXer in Michigan who has some of the most amazing DX catches you’ll ever hear, has a much better explanation for the ‘chugging’ sound heard on the magnetic loop:
The chugging is an interesting radio phenomena and can be heard throughout the AM dial. The chugging (or “whoosh whoosh”) that you hear is caused by two (or more) stations who’s AM carriers are very close to the exact same frequency, but are slightly off from one another. The slightly offset heterodynes beat against one another causing a “sub audible het”. The resultant effect is this chugging sound which can be avoided by listening in LSB or USB. The slower the chugging, the closer the two heterodynes are to one another. The effect is most evident on the graveyard channels which makes them very difficult to listen to at night and the cause of the “roaring” sound you hear on those channels at night. Of course when the two co-channel hets are more than a couple hundred hertz apart, the chugging turns into an audible tone when listening in AM mode.
The Big SAL has been up and running for over a month now, and all is well. The wind hasn’t taken it down, and I’ve peaked and tweaked it to get as much performance out of it as I can. But was it worth it? Can it hear things that the other antennas can’t? With that question in mind, I have put together a few comparisons of the SAL and my other two antennas on different frequencies and under different conditions. The results are dramatic to say the least.
First, a brief description of our contenders:
The Longwire. This antenna is about as basic as it gets. It’s a sloping longwire going from a ground rod up into a nearby walnut tree. It’s about 65′ long, slopes at about a 30 degree angle, and is about 30′ at it’s highest point. There’s no balun, just a direct solder into a SO-239 connector. It shouldn’t work as well as it should, but all in all its a pretty nice antenna. The antenna runs from North to South.
The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B. This would’ve been a godsend when I lived in Baltimore, and spent most of my time fighting the leaky transformers and transmission lines that ran down my back alley. Since it receives off of the ends, it spends most of its time oriented North and South, but it can be rotated.
The Shared Apex Loop array (SAL 20). The latest tool in my listening arsenal, and the one I’m sure my readers are about sick of hearing about. Hey, what’s not to love though? This is easily the most directional of the three antennas I have, allowing me to choose incoming signals from any of eight points on the compass. With the additional computer interface, I can also steer this antenna with a couple clicks of a mouse, making it about ideal for remote listening.
Each of these three antennas is connected to a four port Alpha Delta antenna switch, which feeds into another four port Alpha Delta switch that allows me to select one of four different radios. Only the Perseus was used in this case.
With all this in mind, let’s see if the SAL can earn its keep so to speak, or if I would’ve been better off spending my hard earned money on a dummy load and a keg of beer.
Comparison 1: Radio Vanuatu, October 29, 2014. Approx. 1230 UTC.
This video is pretty much a slam dunk for the SAL-20. It takes a signal that neither the magnetic loop or the longwire could really hear and makes it intelligible.
While I could tell something was there with the other antennas, the SAL was the only one to recover any listenable audio.
Comparison 2: VL8A, November 5, 2014. Approximately 1230 UTC
Radio Australia (VL8A out of Alice Springs) on 4835 isn’t a very difficult catch, it is very difficult to get an intelligible audio before WWCR’s sign off at 1300. Their transmission on 4840 usually overwhelms the Aussies. note the really narrow passband on the Perseus.
Comparison 3: 1030 kHz, mediumwave. November 6th, 2014. Approximately 0300 UTC.
This is another case of seeing how each antenna handles co-channel interference. In this case, it’s the 50,000 watt WHO radio on 1040, located about 40 miles to the Southeast of my location.
Comparison 4: WPSO, October 7, 2014. Approximately 0230 UTC
Not much of a comparison really, but interesting nonetheless. All three antennas had a loud copy on ESPN Radio out of Indianapolis on 1500, but I could hear something else underneath it on some of the deeper fades. When I pointed the SAL to the Southeast, I heard Greek music. After some digging around, it turned out to be 250 watt WPSO out of Port Richey, FL. The music matched up with their web stream, so no doubt about this one. No video, but I do have some audio:
Obviously the SAL-20 is a beast, and I’m happy to have one at my disposal. Its performance and relatively compact size make it a no brainer for guys like me who do not have the real estate for a Beverage wire. No, it is not a cheap antenna, but what in this hobby is? Getting the last 10% of performance out of any hobby will cost you, and this is definitely an antenna that gets you into that last 10%. Is it better than a Beverage? No, probably not, but that would be a really interesting comparison.
There’s an old adage in the ham community that says more receive antennas are better than less, and I would agree with that. Each of these antennas has a role to play at my listening post, and each can excel under different conditions. One example of this was Dr. Benway’s recent Undercover Radio transmission on 1720. While I don’t have any audio or video of this, I found the magnetic loop to be the best performer of the three. It gave me just a little more signal strength than the SAL in a situation where I really needed it, and the longwire didn’t hear much of anything.
So yes, the SAL definitely earns its keep and then some. I’m glad I have my other antennas to fall back on, but the SAL will definitely be doing most of the heavy lifting from here on out.
I haven’t had a lot of time to do a proper write up about the Shared Apex Loop array just yet, but I will have some more information on how it performs here in the near future. In the mean time, here is a demo video I made this last weekend of the loop antenna on 6070.
It should be noted that, on my long wire antenna, both stations were about equal in strength.
While I suppose it could be a case of weak Google-fu, my searches for info on how to decode weather facsimiles off of the shortwave turns up a whole bunch of not much. There’s some very helpful frequency guides and a few decoders, but not much else on how to put it all together. With that in mind, here is my effort to make this seemingly daunting process a little easier to wrap your head around.
First off, keep in mind that this process only SEEMS daunting. In reality, this is a nearly 90 year old technology. People were doing this back in the early days of radio with tube powered equipment and lord only knows what for a printer. With your modern receivers and computer technology, you’ve already got a huge head start over what the earlier experimenters had to work with. After this tutorial, you’ll find wefax decoding to be a piece of cake.
Heeere’s What You Need!
A radio. Yes its an obvious requirement, but you will need a radio capable of receiving upper sideband (USB). Since these signals are transmitted on frequencies not allocated to international broadcasting, it would be best if the receiver is capable of listening in on the entire HF band, and not just shortwave broadcasters. A software defined radio will be a BIG help, but its not necessary. Stand alone radio users will need to come up with a way to feed the signal into your computer, but we’ll talk about that later.
A computer. Mac, PC, Linux, Windows… doesn’t matter. There’s decoders out there for pretty much anything you’re running if you look hard enough.
Decoding software. There’s a lot of weather fax decoders out there, but I’d recommend fldigi to start with. It’s available for Apple and PC, and it does an excellent job. If you can’t run fldigi, give Sorcerer a try. It’s a little less intuitive, but it can decode just about everything on HF that isn’t encrypted, and works well. Just to keep things simple though, this tutorial will only focus on fldigi.
Audio cable. If you’re using a stand alone radio like a Sangean, Tecsun, Sony, or Drake, you will need to get an audio cable to feed the signal from your radio to your computer’s sound card.
You won’t need a separate cable if you have an SDR, but you may need an extra piece of software called Virtual Audio Cable. Configuration of VAC is a little beyond the scope of this tutorial, but there are a lot of other VAC resources out there if you have problems.
Guide to Weather Fax Frequencies. You’re REALLY going to want to download this now. This is a comprehensive guide to all known weather fax transmitters around the world, and is very helpful when it comes to finding weather fax frequencies.
Putting It All Together
The first thing you’ll need to do is connect the radio to the computer. The actual connection can be as simple as running a cable from the headphone jack of the radio to the microphone input of the computer, but keep in mind you might need a stereo to mono adapter to make it all work. Your mileage may vary.
Next, if you haven’t already installed your decoder software, go ahead and do that now. Once it’s installed, and assuming that you’re using fldigi, go to the Op Mode section at the top, go down to wefax, and select WEFAX IOC-576. The only difference between the two (that I know of) is that the other standard gives you smaller maps, so stick with IOC-576 for now.
Fldigi software is broke up into three separate ‘window panes’. The top pane is the view of what you’re receiving at this moment, sort of a sneak preview of what is being decoded. The pane below that is a viewing window where you can see previous faxes you’ve already decoded. The bottom one is a view of the signal as it arrives, and is where you can make fine adjustments to the tuning. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Now that the radio is connected, turn it on and see if there’s any trace of a signal on your decoding software. If the bottom pane of fldigi goes from black to yellow and blue, you’re in luck! Your computer is hearing your radio, and you’ve succeeded in getting the signal from one into the other. Go ahead and switch the radio into upper sideband if you haven’t already, and lets try decoding some faxes!
Now, take a look at the guide to wefax frequencies and find a station relatively close to you. Here in North America, I’d recommend New Orleans, Port Reyes, or Boston. All should work though, just choose your frequency based upon the time of day. For our example, we’ll use Port Reyes on 12786.
Its important to keep in mind that a lot of radios have what is called an ‘offset’ in sideband modes. Without getting into the nitty gritty details of radio waves and sidebands work (although that might make a good future blog entry), just remember to aim low. For example, if we are trying to tune into a fax station on 12786, you will want to enter in something like 12784 into your radio and start tuning around. Also remember that you might have caught the station between faxes, which means you might be waiting a while for another transmission. You can either try another transmitter site when that happens, or check out the schedule for the next transmission and wait it out.
Once you do hear a transmission though, which should sound something like this, you should see something like two yellow and red streaks running down the bottom pane of fldigi, and a red box sort of thing. That red box is your fine tuning, and can be moved around with your mouse. Go ahead and line up those two red lines onto the centers of the red and yellow streaks, and wait for the magic to happen. If you can’t move the box around with your mouse, look down in the lower right hand corner of the program for a button labelled AFC. If there’s a green light in that box, click on it to turn it off. You should now be able to move the red box to wherever you need.
After a while, you should start to see your results appear in the preview screen. The first one might be off centered, but don’t worry about it. It will synch up on the next transmission. While your first fax is coming down, this would be a good time to tell the program where you’d like them saved. To do this, go to the Configure drop down box and select modems. Navigate to the ‘Wefax’ tab, and select the directory where you’d like your faxes saved. I have a folder on my desktop called, originally enough, Wefax Decodes where all of my faxes get saved.
So you’ve got everything worked out. There’s signal from the radio to the computer, you’ve tuned into a transmission, and you’re waiting with wide eyed anticipation as your first fax materializes in front of you. There’s just one problem… Why is it crooked??
Don’t worry, this can be corrected. Just below the first pane in fldigi you will find a box labelled Slant with an arrow to either side. Use these arrows to straighten out your fax while it is decoding. The solid black line on the side of the fax is a big help with this. Once your lines are straight, you probably won’t have to do this again. In my case, the slant is set to .008 and I haven’t had to adjust it since it was first calibrated.
So there you have it, a semi-brief primer on how to decode weather faxes. Hopefully you’ll find them as enjoyable and addictive as I do.
Back at the Dayton Hamvention in 2013, Array Solutions debuted a new compact receive antenna system called the Shared Apex Loop array, or SAL. Building upon the foundation laid by the EWE, K9AY, and the flag and pennant antennas, the SAL featured true time delay phasing, and no need for a control wire from the shack to the antenna or grounding. Best of all, if the plots and modeling were any indication, this antenna might actually live up to the promise of Beverage like performance in a small lot.
This last weekend, after being flooded out the last time I tried to put it up in July, I took advantage of what may be our last good weather of the year and got a SAL 20 up and running in my yard. It wasn’t easy, but its up and receiving signals.
Since the wires that came with my antenna had a close encounter with the lawnmower, I needed to cut new ones to make into the four loops. According to Array Solutions, they recommend 62′, but a little longer is fine as long as all the wires are the same length. With this in mine, I cut four lengths of wire each 64′ in length, using up the rest of my 12ga wire minus an 11″ remnant.
After that, I went ahead and fed them through the mas before feeding the couplers, an insulator, and a shrink wrap tube over the wire before tinning them. There’s a reason soldering is not listed on my resume as a skill, but I did ok, and sealed the joints with the shrink wrap after I was done.
Now it was time to get this beast up in the air, and here’s where I met my first obstacle. I managed to tangle my wires up pretty good while I moved the antenna over to where I’d be putting it up, and I ended up having to cut them and start over. This time though, I didn’t solder them before setting the mast up. Instead, I taped them to the mast at the base so that they wouldn’t get tangled again, and soldered each one individually.
Now that I finally had it up in the air, I went and put the stakes into the ground and tied each loop down at the corner, forming four triangles at right angles to each other. Since my dog bone insulators didn’t show up until this morning, I improvised and used inch long sections of PVC pipe. They’re cheap, they were available, and the antenna won’t care.
Once everything was in line and tied down, I measured out the distance for the couplers from the center mast. According to Array solutions, Each coupler should be about 86″ from the center of the mast with the positive lead facing outward. Using a measuring tape from the base of the mast, I lined up each coupler so that the center was at the 86″ mark. This will need a little fine tuning before its a finished product, but it’s a good starting point.
Now that everything was positioned properly, I wired all of the couplers up to the central ‘junction box’, and attached the delay cable. After making quick work of a coax run to the shack (thanks to DXEngineering and their awesome F type connectors and crimping tool), it was almost time to see if this antenna was worth the effort.
Of course, as with most of my projects, I came up a cable short. The control box for the antenna uses an RCA out jack, while everything I own is either an N or SO-239. Time to break out the soldering iron again, and one sacrificed RCA cable and a PL-259 pig tail later, I had a crude but effective RCA to PL-259 cable.
Now by this time it was already dark, and the instructions do not recommend trying to optimize reception after sunset. I still wanted to see what this antenna could do though, so fired up the Perseus and I went about putting the new antenna through its paces. Some of my initial tests were kind of disappointing, like my inability to null out the nearby KASI on 1430 (the same station I tested the Pixel Loop out on last year). On other frequencies though, I could hear a different station with each direction I chose, which is pretty cool.
Later on in the evening, I saw a post about Magic Lantern International, a Euro pirate, relaying a show on 6205 kHz. While my copy on them wasn’t very strong, they were strong enough for me to identify the music being played and catch a ‘Laser Hot Hits’ (the station they were relaying) ID. Just out of curiosity, I fired up the Elad through my secondary long wire to see how it compared. The Elad and the long wire didn’t catch a trace of them. The SAL-20, pointed to the Northeast, had a listenable copy, while the 75′ long wire couldn’t even catch a whiff.
While this antenna is still a work in progress, this beast shows an awful lot of progress. I not only heard VL8A and VL8K this morning, I also heard a very loud and listenable signal from North Korea as well. Even better than that though, I saw some faint traces of carriers from Asian mediumwave transmitters. That’s not much to go on, but it’s more than I’ve seen from any foreign mediumwave signal before.
All in all, this is shaping up to be a fantastic DXing season.