Yet Another Antenna Demo

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.

Be sure to check out Tim’s blog at http://midx.wordpress.com/, and his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5h8mmMqUgjOobqoxOd3wmA.

The Great Antenna Shoot Out of 2014

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:

It doesn't get any simpler than this.
It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

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.

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The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B

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.

You can read more about the loop, and see some of the shaky cell phone demo videos in a previous blog post.

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The SAL on construction day.

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:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/171128979″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Some Final Observations

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 highly recommend this antenna.

Life with the SAL-20

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.

How Do I Decode a Weather Facsimile (WEFAX) Off of my Shortwave?

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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!

The Perseus in mid decode.
The Perseus in mid decode.

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 and the three panes: top, middle, and bottom.
Fldigi software and the three panes: top, middle, and bottom.

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.

An example of what a properly tuned wefax transmission should look like in the tuning pane of fldigi. Note the red box and how its sides are alligned with the red/yellow stripes.
An example of what a properly tuned wefax transmission should look like in the tuning pane of fldigi. Note the red box and how its sides are alligned with the red/yellow stripes.

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??

Time to correct the slant
Time to correct the slant

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.

wefax_20141018_050125_10000_phasing
Hurricane Gonzalo heads towards Bermuda.

The Saga of the Shared Apex Loop Array (SAL-20)

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The finished product.

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.

My make-shift soldering station.
My make-shift soldering station.

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.

20141005_112731
The mast is up, held in place with two ‘shepherd’s hooks’. Note the wires taped to the mast to keep them from getting tangled (again).

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.

A close up of the magnetic coupler.
A close up of the magnetic coupler.

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.

20141005_170637
DX Engineering’s crimping tool for the win!

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.

The 'finished' control box that needs to be cleaned up a little.
The ‘finished’ control box that needs to be cleaned up a little.

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.

Some Surprising Summertime Catches

Summer has never been known as DXing season. While the upper frequencies spring to life, just about everything lower than 8 MHz disappears beneath a cacophony of hiss, pops, and static crashes. Once in a while though, as the loggings from this last week prove, those bands will surprise you.

VL8K (Northern Territories service in Australia), 2485 kHz, July 2nd, 0945 UTC. Wait a minute, VL8K in July? It didn’t make sense to me either, but there they were in the wee hours of July 2nd. Not a great signal by any means, but audible with rock music and a female announcer. I’ve never logged them in July before, let alone less than two weeks after the solstice.

Radio Sonder Grense (South Africa), July 5th, 0520 UTC. RSG is a new one for me, with pop music and commercials in English as well as Afrikaans, including Blue Suede’s Hooked On a Feeling and Rod Stewart’s You’re In My Soul.
Here’s a recording I made with the Elad FDM-SW2.

Radio Uganda, 7195 kHz, July 6th, 2330 UTC. While you can usually hear Uganda (well, at least you can try to hear them) on 4976, they decided to fire up on their former frequency of 7195 kHz on July 6th. Thanks to the tip posted to Glenn Hauser’s DXLD discussion group, I managed to snag this brief recording with the Perseus.

Not a bad log book for July huh? How about you, what have you put in your log book recently? Comment and let me know what you’re hearing.

The SDR I’ve Been Waiting For?

A somewhat crappy photo of the Elad FDm-S2 sitting on my desk at work. There's a  lot of radio inside that tiny box.
A somewhat crappy photo of the Elad FDm-S2 sitting on my desk at work. There’s a lot of radio inside that tiny box.

When I bought my 1st SDR back in May of 2012, the Bonito 1102s, I really expected it to be a revolution in how I listened to the radio. It wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the Bonito is a great little radio, but it didn’t really do it for me. It’s limited spectrum bandwidth and somewhat overly complicated software severely limited it in my mind.*

About a year later, I decided to pick up a Perseus while I was at Dayton. I had a lot pepole tell me this was the best receiver in the world, and that I would find it to be vastly superior to my existing boat anchors. Well, I didn’t. Again, while I think the Perseus is a fine radio, it just didn’t grab me. The software was kind of buggy, mine never seemed to be the super hot performer I was expecting. The whole thing left me wondering if maybe I wasn’t an SDR guy afterall?  Maybe I really am one of those luddites who believe real radios not only glow in the dark, but they have knobs and tuning dials as well.

It is too early to tell whether or not I am still that guy or not,but I can tell you that the Elad FDM-S2 has made me rethink my attitude towards the SDR. I had one of these delivered on Friday, and I can honestly say this is the revolutionary device I was waiting for back in 2012. It seems to hear about as well as anything else in the shack, maybe even better. More importantly, it allows me to ‘see’ more station on the waterfall than I ever could before, which means I’m hearing more. It’s not an exaggeration to say that having this radio in the shack has given me an opportunity to become re-acquainted with the HF spectum in a way I haven’t been since I got my first digital readout receiver. It may not exactly be bandscanning in the traditional sense of the word, but it is very similar. In other words, the FDM-S2 has changed the way I listen to the radio.

A screenshot of the Elad software at work.
A screenshot of the Elad software at work.

One of these days, probably in a month or so, I hope to be able to sit down with all three of these SDRs and give you a thorough head to head comparison of the three. Until then though, I will continue to put the new Elad through its paces. There’s still a lot of learning curve to climb with this radio, and I’m having a lot of fun wading through everything it can do.

*Bonito has recently performed a major update to their software, which in my opinion has added a lot of functionality and eliminated some of the complications. All in all, a very worthy upgrade.

Tales of the Iowa QSO Party

Last year, I entered my first radio contest and participated in the Iowa QSO Party. I worked a lot of stations, had a few good non-contest conversations along the way, and had a pretty good time. I submitted my scores the next day, and found out several months later that I actually won the darn thing!

ImageWho knew right?

Fast forward to this last weekend, when it came time for me to defend my title. Like a prize fighter entering the ring, I sat down in front of my radio Saturday morning ready to defend my status as defending champion. OK, it was a lot less serious than that, but at 9 AM I began repeating my “CQ Iowa QSO Party” mantra, and didn’t let up for about 9 hours.

The way the iowa QSO Party is scored is fairly simple. You basically work every station you can, multiply that by the number of different states and Iowa counties you worked, and add on bonus points for working the WA0DX club station and all the different Boy Scout Jamboree of the Air stations you can (maximum of five).  Jump through these mathematical hoops and you come up with a final score.

Like last year though, I took a rather light hearted approach. Yes i wanted a good score, maybe even a back to back win, but the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. I got to talk to a mobile station in Texas just as he crossed over the border into New Mexico, giving me my first contact with either of those states. A little later, i talked to a mobile station in TN, followed immediately by another mobile in the same state seconds later. It turns out that the driver had handed the mic over to his wife, giving me an additional contact from the same rig. Nice!

As I mentioned earlier, I got bonus points for making contact with ‘Jamboree of the Air” (JOTA) stations, which are stations set up to get Scouts interested in amateur radio. Several times through out the contest, I was asked by these station operators if I would mind talking to a few scouts, and I always welcomed the opportunity. I talked to kids from California, New York, and a couple of other places as well, even after I’d reached my 5 JOTA station limit. Hey, winning the contest is cool, but getting kids interested in radio has a much bigger payoff in my mind.

I worked a few QRP stations, a couple of guys who needed Iowa for their Worked All States award, and even some DX out of Europe on 10 and 15. Two of my more memorable contacts came later on in the day, when I worked an American Airlines air mobile 36,000 feet over Bristol, VA. About an hour later, I worked another DX station, but this one wasn’t out of Europe, it was North Africa, Morocco to be precise. Somehow or another, my crappy longwire and 100 watts managed to get my first ever contact with Morocco during the Iowa QSo party. Go figure.

For the record, I ended up scoring 6855 points, about 1200 less than i did last year. That score is good for third place right now, but stations still have about a month to turn in their loggings. Win lose or draw though, I had a pretty good time. I’m pretty sure I’ll do it all again next year too.

See you on the bands.

Pirate Chasing

ImagePirates. What’s the big deal?

I mean, when I’m in the car, I usually change the station when they start playing hair metal or Fleetwood Mac. Why in the world would I spend so much time and money to try and hear the same stuff in the super low fidelity of a pirate broadcast in upper sideband? I have asked myself that question an awful lot over the last 20 (!!!) years, when I caught my first pirate on an old Hallicrafters SX-73, but it hasn’t stopped me from spending a lot of time in front of my radios trying to squeeze out that last microvolt of signal to get that faint, static plagued station ID.

I guess it comes back to the fact that the forbidden fruit is usually the most delicious. While they may often be playing the same run of the mill classic rock that I can hear anywhere on the FM dial, these people are putting an awful lot on the line to make this broadcast possible. Fines for shortwave pirates can go as high as $20,000, and usually involve a forefiture of any broadcasting equipment. In many cases, that means anything that looks like a radio or a computer. There’s a lot of horror stories of stations having all of their gear trashed by the FCC after getting ‘the knock’. In spite of the possible consequences though, these people still fire up their transmitters on or around 6925 to bring their listeners whatever their hearts desire. And if that means classic rock then so be it.

ImageOf course, there are exceptions. Wolverine Radio is almost always loud throughout North America, and often plays an eccentric mix of music surrounding a theme with top notch fidelity. Dr. Benway, on the other hand, plays stories about his experiences with everything  from extra terrestrials on Undercover Radio. On some nights, if you’re lucky, someone will fire up the transmitter and relay some of the classic horror stories of Alan Maxwell and the Voice of the Illuminati.

Maybe that variety is the real appeal of the pirate band. When almost every song you can think of is available on demand through multiple online services, and commercial radio follows a strict corporate sanctioned play list, pirate radio always keeps you guessing. When it comes right down to it,  you never know what you’ll hear next on the pirate band. Or if you’ll hear anything at all.

Some Getting Started Tips

ImageFor those new to the world of shortwave pirates, start by setting your radio to 6925 upper sideband around 2300 UTC. Pirates can be heard anywhere from about 6920 up to around 6970, but 6925 is a good place to start. There are a few other places where they might pop up, but I’d say 90% of Norrh American activity is centered on those 50 kilohertz of spectrum. I’m not exactly sure why most pirates use upper sideband (I’ve only heard one that used the lower side), but my guess is it has something to do with old surplus military transmitters. These units were upper sideband only, so when they were modified for pirate use, that convention came over to the band as well.  Its the same with ‘pedestrian mobile’ hams. since a lot of their pack radios are milsurp in origin, they use the upper sideband regardless of what band they’re using.

Remember, pirates usually limit their output to around 100 watts, so a good receiver and antenna will be very helpful, but not mandatory. I remember listening to Radio Azteca and Radio Zanax on my Radio Shack portable from a basement apartment, so it can be done. The two most important pieces of gear you’ll need are information and patience. For information, I’d keep a close eye on a couple of the pirate radio websites, namely the HF Underground and the Free Radio Cafe, to see what others are hearing. Thanks to these sites, you can avoid hours upon hours of listening to static filled nothing, which makes then very valuable resources indeed.  HF Underground probably sees more traffic, but both are great resources and well worth supporting. Remember to post your logs to both.

ImageEven with the best of information though, there will be times when you’ll fire up your radio, tune it to the frequency where Ann Hofer Radio is supposed to be and hear… nothing. This is where patience part comes in. Remember, propagation is a funny thing. What isn’t there now may pop up for a few minutes later. Just keep the radio tuned in, wait a little bit, and see what happens. You’d be amazed what a difference a few minutes can make, especially when the location of your receiver or their transmitter is approaching sunset or sunrise. Remember, patience grasshopper. Patience!

While you’re listening, be sure to take notes of what you hear so you can get a QSL card. Back in the stone age, aka the 90s, most pirates used mail drops to receive verification reports. You’d write up a report, drop it off in the mail with a few stamps and a self addressed stamped envelope, and hope and pray you got back a reply in a few weeks. Fortunately things have changed though. Nowadays, most pirates receive verification reports via email, which means you can now write up a report, send it off to the given email address… and still wait three weeks for a reply. Actually, the usual turn around time is a few days, but there have been cases where a verification will show up in my email months after the fact. This instant communication also means that you’ll occasionally get an on air shout out from the broadcaster, which is always very cool. Sometimes they even take requests.

So yeah, chasing pirates is kind of a big deal. From the antics of Spike on board the Red Mercury (Feel free to send us a six pack of that Octoberfest next time you’re in dock by the way) to the musical tribute shows of Rave On Radio, they provide a fun and challenging DX target while sticking it to “The Man” at the same time. May you all sail the seas a few leagues ahead of the FCC for many years to come.

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A slow scan tv capture from Radio Totse, a station reportedly broadcasting from New Zealand.

 

My Favorite Things

It’s been kind of quiet around here the last few weeks. Well, everything except the HF bands, which have been full of static crashes and more hiss than a snake farm. As Ray Wylie Hubbard would say, it just sounds nasty! 

The good news though is that the bands are starting to sound a little bit like fall. The Australian domestic stations are starting to pop up here around sunrise, along with other stations out of Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific in general. In other words, shortwave listening is going to get a whole lot better. Yes, we will lose Radio Kuwait in the afternoon and New Zealand in the evenings, but we’ll be gaining a lot in return. 

This will be my 1st DX season with a few new tools at my disposal, radios, antennas, and other gear that I’ve come to depend on for their performance under adverse conditions. Some are new, others are old to ancient. Whatever their vintage, they’ve become important parts of my DX arsenal, and I’m looking forward to putting them through their paces.

Here’s a rundown of what I’ll be using this fall:

The r390a. One of a couple cold warriors here in the shack, I had this r390a sent off to Rick Mish in Ohio who turned it into an amazingly sensitive radio. For AM broadcasts, this one is hard to beat. About my only complaint with this radio is the lack of a 6 kHz bandwidth. I find 4 to be too narrow, and 8 too wide, so a 6 kHz option would have been nice. 

Sherwood SE-3 Synchronous Detector. I took the plunge and bought one of these a few years back, and it’s been well worth the price. It not only improves the fidelity of stronger, distant stations (like Radio Kuwait, which I am listening to as I write this), it also helps with much weaker stations as well. Its often been the difference between barely audible jumble and extracting intelligible audio.  Its currently hooked up to the r390a, but I should have it switched up so I can use it with one of several radios on demand shortly. 

The Perseus SDR. I am including this one with a little hesitation, but I guess it’s worthy. A lot of seasoned DXers will tell you that the Perseus is the best radio they’ve ever used. I think it needs a little more time in the shack before I’m willing to second that claim, but it is certainly a capable receiver. I use it mostly as a recorder for when I can’t be in front of the radio, and as a sort of pan-adapter. I will often see something pop up on its display and then use one of the other radios to zero in on the signal. 

Palstar r30cc. My current bedside radio. It’s simple, spartan controls can leave me wanting for more sometimes, but it’s got it where it counts. This relatively small radio hears remarkably well, and has enough audio oomph to power an old three way Pioneer speaker. I have a lot of my favorite stations programmed into memory, as well as several DX frequencies, which makes it easy for lazy DXers to check for interesting propagation without having to get out of bed. If I had a second synch detector, this is the radio it would be hooked up to.

Alpha-Delta 4 way switches. I picked up a couple of these in May, and they’ve been a great addition to the shack. Thanks to the two of these units I can now run one of any four radios through one of four antennas without having to unhook a thing. VERY convenient. 

So there you have it, some of my favorite tools in my DX toolbox. There are others, but these are the ones I use the most right now. Keep in mind that this list is subject to change, but these are my ‘go to’ rigs for now. What about you? What are you using? Drop me a line and let me know. Until then, 73s and good DX to you all.