An Evening With the Drake SPR-4

IMG_20180508_192729Outdoor listening sessions are nothing new for me. My Facebook feed has several shots of the Drake R8, HQ-145, and even a Racal 6790 sitting on the deck of my old house, an adult beverage nearby, and a strand of speaker wire for an antenna. These listening sessions never provided any exotic DX catches, but they were a lot of fun.

Now that winter has finally surrendered its grip on Central Iowa, my radios have again found themselves outside on the patio for an enjoyable evening of listening under the night time sky. It gives me a chance to get away from my beloved Perseus and my trusty fleet of portables, and get re-acquainted with some old favorites.

Last night, I dug out an old war horse that hadn’t been fired up in a few years: the Drake SPR-4. Now for those who are not familiar with this radio, all I can really say about its operation is that it is a dial turner’s dream come true. Not only is the HF spectrum broken up into crystal controlled segments, there is also a preselector that needs to be adjusted with every turn of the tuning dial. In case you’re still not clear on how it all works, here’s a demo video someone put up on YouTube to give you a better idea.

Don’t let these ‘quirks’ fool you though, this is a real gem of a radio. Drake understood both the benefits and limitations of late 60s solid state technology, and designed a radio to maximize those strengths while minimizing the downsides. The result is a radio that is well regarded in DXing circles to this day. From my experience, I’d say it hears about as well as anything in the shack, and it has that beautiful blue dial to boot.

The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.
The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.

IMG_20180508_192745This particular SPR-4 had a couple of aftermarket modifications performed on it by the original vendor, which give it a couple of nice features that never made it into the stock versions. One of these is a gain control switch that allows it to be turned off when needed. That’s usually not a big deal, but it can mean the difference between hearing a weak signal and never pulling it out of the mud.  The other mod present on this radio is a  BFO injector, which basically allows you to use the USB and LSB settings as a secondary bandwidth filter without the noise of a squealing heterodyne.  Handy indeed!

The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.
The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.

This radio also came with another super handy accessory: a frequency counter. While I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, it can be very helpful, especially if it’s the first time you’ve turned the rig on in over a year. It certainly answered my immediate question of  ‘where in the world am I on the dial?‘ All I had to do was flip it on, take a look, and I was good to go. The display does generate a little bit of noise on the dial though. Normally it’s 100% inaudible, but since my Quantum Loop antenna was sitting right next to it, I never left it on for very long. I have bought an aftermarket VFO for this rig, but I prefer using the crystals.

Because the SPR-4 didn't have enough dials already... The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.
Because the SPR-4 didn’t have enough dials already… The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.

This radio is especially well regarded among mediumwave DXers, and it doesn’t take long to realize why this radio has the reputation that it does. The first thing I picked up was a station with Washington Nationals baseball, WRVA 1140 out of Richmond, VA. Not exactly a difficult catch here, but still a very nice signal. I then moved down the dial to the Cardinals on KMOX St Louis, and managed to just about null them out with the Quantum Loop. I then headed further down the dial to 1030, just on the outskirts of my local clear channel flamethrower WHO Des Moines. Some adjustments to the loop helped to reduce the interference, but it was still pretty “crunchy”. A quick switch over to the lower sideband setting and a little fiddling of the notch filter though quickly revealed WCTS, the 1 kW religious station out of Maplewood, MN. Not the WBZ I was hoping for, but still a good test.

I continued my cruise down the dial, thoroughly enjoying everything about the night. One of the beauties about the AM broadcast band is that no two listening sessions are ever the same. What is coming in like gangbusters tonight may be gone without a trace tomorrow, and vice versa. Tonight was no exception, as I nulled out my beloved Chicago Cubs on 670 and listened as KGHZ and Cuba battled for supremacy on the frequency. Later, I watched a shooting star shoot across the sky as WSM played Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy by the great Lefty Frizzell.

How freaking cool is that, people?

I ended up the night by playing detective on 620 AM. Milwaukee was dominant, but KEXB out of Plano, TX was mixing with a couple of others. WRJZ out of Knoxville, TN was one (they were nice enough to come up just as they gave an ID, something that usually never happens), but I could also hear the hockey game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators. After eliminating a couple of possibilities through internet live streams, I figured out from a commercial mentioning Florida  that it was sports station WDAE out of Tampa. With the mystery solved, it was time to wrap up another great “Propagation on the Patio” session and go to bed.

There are a lot of worse ways to spend an evening than spinning the dials on the Drake SPR-4. While it may not win any beauty contests, or awards for ergonomics, this radio has it where it counts. When I said this radio could hear as well as anything in the shack, I really do mean anything. It’s as good as the R-388, the Perseus, the Elad… you name it. When you can take a quality radio like this outside though, and enjoy it under the night time sky, that’s something very special.  If you get the opportunity, take advantage of these cool late spring nights and do a little listening outside.  It’s well worth the effort.

In fact, I may have another date with the Drake set for tonight.

IMG_20180508_192755

Some Odds and Ends

Some Loggings

The SAL-30 in all its glory.
The SAL-30 in all its glory.

Here’s a few loggings I made this morning between 1030 and 1140 UTC. I apologize for a lack of exact times for each log entry, but I tend to bounce around a lot from frequency to frequency in the mornings. A lack of coffee might have had something to do with it as well.

VL8A and VL8K were both stronger than earlier this week on 2325 and 2485 respectfully, with VL8K coming up to listenable levels.

RRI Makassar was audible on 4750, but with lots of OTH radar interference. Music and an OM announcer.

NBC Bougainville is strong on 3325, with music and OM announcer.

Some audio from Pyongyang Broadcasting on 3320 around local sunrise (1051 UTC)  but it sank back down into the mud pretty quickly

The Solomon Islands on 5020 are weaker than earlier this week at an S6, with interference from R. Rebelde on 5025. I can see a signal on 5006, possibly JG2XA,  but never managed to hear a Morse code ID.

No trace of The Cross on 4755*, and maybe a hint of a carrier from T8WH Palau on 9930. I could see a fairly strong carrier on 4750, but no audio managed to pop out of the noise.

*Since I wrote this, I have learned that PMA The Cross has been off the air since last May’s typhoon. While they have restored power to the FM transmitter, they are not currently operating on shortwave.

Dayton

dayton
Me on the couch, giving the Perseus its first ‘kick the tires’ test. Note the SX-62a on the table that was later used in the pinup photo shoot.

Unfortunately, Dayton wasn’t in the cards for this year, but my friend and I are already making plans to attend next year. I can’t wait to burn myself to a crisp out in the tailgating parking lot, getting lost in the maze that is the Hara Arena, and spending entirely more money than I should. Until then though I’ll just have to sit tight and see what big announcements will be made at this year’s Hamvention. We’ve already seen Elecraft announce the KX2, will any of the big three follow suit?

DX News

While it may not be news to some of you, I just heard about a new DX target out of Australia. The station, known as RadioDX for the time being, should be ready to test on 5045 kHz within the next month and a half. They’ll only be transmitting with a kilowatt of power, so it will be quite the challenge to hear them in North America. Not quite on the level of the now defunct Radio Symban, but close. Keep your ears open.

Contest?

While your ears are busy listening for RadioDX, keep your eyes on hfradioreview. We’ll be having our first ever radio contest in the next few months, so be sure to watch for that. All I will say about it right now is that it involves baseball.

Stay tuned.

Voice of Nigeria in DRM

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.