Ham Radio Stuff: Its Alive!

It’s Alive! (Cue evil laughter)

Way back in October we had a nasty thunderstorm roll through here that did some damage here. My much patched and cobbled together OCFD (off center fed dipole) antenna had come down again, my Gap Titan vertical had some minor damage to some of the vertical elements. All of my radio equipment was just fine but the storm did take out my primary computer down in the office/shop/radio shack/mad scientist lab. It’s power supply couldn’t deal with the rapidly fluctuating voltage fluctuations that included brown outs, surges and complete blackouts. We had a dozen or more of those in the space of just a few minutes. It didn’t actually start on fire but it sure did smell funny. And I lost two large capacity external hard drives as well. Fortunately all that data was backed up.

That computer was already giving some odd errors that seemed to indicate that the SSD was having problems and that the main memory might be going bad, so I already had a new replacement computer set up on the other workbench ready to go. I set up the new computer, started replacing all of the software that had been installed on the old one, got two new 10 TB external hard drives to replace the ones that had been lost, copied all my data back to those from the RAID array on the iMac up in the main office, recovered all of my photos from “the cloud” where they are backed up (they’re also backed up to two small, portable 1TB hard drives that are only connected to the system for backups. I don’t want to risk losing thousands of photos so I have a triple backup system, the cloud, plus two separate external hard drives. That may be paranoid but I know one person who lost all of her family photos and videos, all of the images of her kids, her late parents, everything. Ever since that happened to her I’ve been paranoid about backing up everything.).

Then I looked at my radio gear and, well, dear lord, what a mess. Everything was hooked up in haphazard fashion, cables were running everywhere, most of them unlabeled, it was almost impossible to reach the physical controls of the transceiver or anything else. I decided all of it needed to be torn down and set up to make it neater and easier to work with. So I took everything apart, cleared off the space on the bench where I was going to set it all back up and…

Well, thanks to procrastination, sheer laziness, and getting involved in other things for a time, it’s only just now, months later, that I have everything back up. A week ago we had some really nice weather with temps up around 60 so I spent the entire day outside fiddling with antennas. I got the vertical straightened out, mostly. I took down what was left of my old OCFD antenna and spent a large part of the afternoon climbing about 20 feet up two different trees to anchor the end points of the new OCFD (A Buckmaster that I picked up somewhere.) Then was up the ladder at the end of the garage to hang the massive balun that’s used to feed the antenna. That’s up at the peak of the garage roof. Good thing MrsGF wasn’t around that day or she’d have freaked seeing me up those trees and that ladder…

To make a long story a bit less long, here’s what the new setup looks like.

The wiring has been straightened out, I can actually reach all of the controls I need to reach. I finally have space to put my iambic paddle, that’s the chrome thing in front of the speaker with the red paddle like things on it. It’s used for sending morse code (CW). I have the Palstar tuner sitting up on an old monitor stand bolted to the bench, the amplifier is perched on a stand above the transceiver where I can reach it easily. Everything is now arranged so I can operate everything easily.

Then there was the software… These days it seems computers are everywhere and amateur radio is no different. A lot of what we do in amateur radio is now intimately linked to computers of one type or another.

The most important bit of software for me is Ham Radio Deluxe. Yes, I know, once upon a time I was not pleased with HRD and I made that fact known in posts here in the past. There was even a nasty scandal involving a one or more persons in customer support that I will not get into. That’s all changed. In the last few years HRD has worked very, very hard to fix the problems with the software and to improve customer support and HRD has become my primary piece of software not only for running the transceiver but also for logging contacts and operating in digital modes like PSK.

Downloading, installing and setting up HRD only took a few minutes. But then there was the question of the log of the contacts I’d made in the past. I lost the contact log I’d been keeping in HRD when the computer blew and, of course, I had neglected to make a backup. QRZ to the rescue. I’d had HRD set up to send all of my contact information to my log on QRZ.com. Downloading my log from QRZ and importing it into HRD only took a few minutes.

Getting some of the other software working was considerably more difficult but eventually I got all that working as well and I was back on the air.

I still have one issue I need to deal with and that’s Logbook of the World, LOTW. That’s the ARRL’s system of confirming contacts with other amateur radio operators. I log all of my contacts to QRZ.COM, eQSL, and LOTW. Those are ways of confirming to other amateur radio operators that a contact has actually been made. Personally I don’t care if I get a confirmation or not. But some people do because they’re trying to get certificates for specific achievements like having made contacts in all 50 states, or for various contests and things like that, and those contacts are confirmed by some service like LOTW or EQSL. One of the neat things HRD does is it will automatically upload contacts I make to all three services without me having to mess around with it. EQSL and QRZ both work just fine, but LOTW is a different story. It just doesn’t work and the error messages I’ve been getting don’t tell me exactly what the problem is. Until I can figure that out logging to LOTW is not going to be used. And since I don’t use it personally and don’t really like it in the first place, getting it working is going to be a low priority item.

Anyway, the system is back up and running and working. I even made a couple of contacts in North Carolina as soon as I had the antennas finished.

Amateur Radio Stuff: It’s Alive!

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.34 AM
That spike you see there is the 990 sending a PSK31 signal on 10 meters. It’s working! OMG it’s actually working! Finally! 

The saga of me trying to get operating in digital modes on HF following tearing down my station so I could move in new furniture continues and hopefully it has reached a satisfactory conclusion. But only after a very frustration couple of hours.

I few days ago I commented about the frustrating time I was having trying to get back on the air after putting my radio equipment back together. I primarily use digital modes on HF, usually PSK. And even though everything was set up exactly the same, it wasn’t working. I finally got it working, but only by triggering the transmitter using VOX. This was not ideal, but it did work.

Well, this morning I was going to fire up the equipment and play amateur radio for a while and, well, VOX didn’t work either all of a sudden. And for no apparent reason.


I checked all of the cables. I opened up the RigBlaster and checked for loose wires or bad solder joints and found nothing wrong there. I reloaded drivers, reset all of the settings, tried both Fldigi and Ham Radio Deluxe. Receive worked just fine. The software could control the transceiver just fine. It would even kick the transceiver into transmit mode. But no actual signal was being transmitted. I checked sound levels on the inputs and outputs, checked COM ports and PTT settings… Nothing was working.

After over an hour of this, I was ready to give up. I went through all of the settings one last time, double checked everything, switched the RigBlaster to COM for PTT, clicked the button to do a CQ and…

It worked? It worked??? WTF?

What did I do? How did I fix it? I have absolutely no idea!

Seriously. As far as I can tell all of the settings are exactly the same now as when they were when it wasn’t working. Same drivers, same sound levels, same everything. Only now it works… I must have changed something, but I have no idea what. The infuriating thing is that I must have spent at least four hours over several days trying to figure this out and I still don’t know what was wrong.

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 8.56.44 AMOkay, now let’s talk about Ham Radio Deluxe.

Now if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve used HRD in the past and did not have a very good opinion of it. It is an extremely ambitious piece of software that tries to do just about everything and anything an amateur radio operator could want in a program. And I had some “issues” as they say. Some of them were pretty serious.

I’m pleased to report that issues I had in the past seem to have been fixed. Customer support seems to be very good. I had a minor issue not long after I bought it, put in a trouble ticket, and got a response back that fixed the problem in just a few hours.

I’m going to keep using it and we’ll see what happens.

Catching up. Changes. Ham Radio Deluxe Yet Again

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I put anything up here at Grouchy Farmer. Things have been busy and I fear this blog has been a low priority item.

I probably shouldn’t have called this blog Grouchy Farmer because I fear there isn’t going to be much farm related stuff going up here. Mostly this is going to be about amateur radio from now on. People change, priorities change… The farm’s been sold. It was a purely economic decision. We got the proverbial ‘offer we couldn’t refuse’, and decided to get out while the price was high, and we’ve had no regrets.

Amateur radio, on the other hand, has been going hot and heavy over here. I got a new antenna up, and another is going to be set up as soon as the weather gets warmer. A 35 foot free standing tower is going to be going up this spring. For better or worse, I’m getting more and more involved in ARES and SkyWarn, and I’ve become the primary net control operator for both ARES and SkyWarn operations. More or less by default because no one else wants to do the job. Everyone else would rather be out in the field. Can’t really blame them, of course. Who wants to be stuck in a stuffy emergency communications center in the courthouse basement or in our communications trailer when you could be out in the field actually doing stuff?

I’ve also become the primary HF operator, also by default. Turns out there are only two people in the entire county organization who have a general class license or higher, me and Tom, and Tom got out of HF years ago, sold all of his HF gear and concentrates entirely on VHF and UHF. I’m the only one in the group who has HF gear any more.

But onwards! First, Ham Radio Deluxe…

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Well, here we go again. I’m giving HRD another chance. I was so frustrated with the last version I had that I deleted it from the computer, didn’t bother to renew my license and just forgot about it entirely, switching to the always reliable Fldigi.

I must be a glutton for punishment, because I’m trying again. I’m currently testing the latest release, 6.2.72. I also have a brand new laptop with way more horsepower, more memory, more everything, and Win 8.1, and I’m hoping that the new version, along with all new hardware, will finally make what should have been an amazing program, actually work.

Early results have been mixed, to say the least. It does seem more stable than the last version I was using. It hasn’t done anything to my 990, at least. The last version did — well, things. At least three times HRD screwed up my TS-990 so badly I ended up having to do a factory reset of the transceiver to get it working right. At least that hasn’t happened.

The program does a lot of really fun stuff. But it still has a major problem; it crashes. Usually at least once a session Rig Control just shuts down. Windows pops up with a ‘this program has stopped working’ message. That’s all. No errors, no warning, nothing. It just stops. Digital Master does the same, but not as frequently. It was especially irritating when I was trying to work a South Africa station this morning with PSK31 and DM just went away. No warning, no error message, nothing.

I really don’t know what to think any more. I love the access to the spotting networks, love the rig control system, like Digital Master… But it doesn’t do me a heck of a lot of good if it just — stops. I’ll do some more investigation. Maybe I’ll try hooking everything up to the TS-2000 and see if the same problems crop up with that transceiver.

Amplifier Issues  — I’ve got a new off center fed dipole up in the backyard that can handle the output of my amps, so I’m finally able to play with those down on HF. I’ve got two, both Ameritrons. One is the big, massive tube type monster that puts out enough heat to keep the shack warm even in a blizzard, and the other is a sleek, svelte, 1,200 watt solid state unit. As soon as I got the solid state amp the boat anchor, with much grunting (the bloody thing weighs around 100 lbs), it got shoved under the desk and the 1200 took it’s place. All was working well, until I noticed my signal strength on receive was going down and down and down… threw the amp into bypass mode, turned the transceiver power down to 5 watts and briefly keyed the mic and to make a long story short all my meters were telling me I didn’t have an antenna connected to the rig. Oops…

A half hour later I’d narrowed it down. I’m about 95% sure it’s the antenna connector on the amp, and I think I know what happened. I’m using 3 or 4 foot long LMR-400 jumpers to connect the amp and tuner and transceiver together. Certainly major overkill. But I got a 500 foot spool of the stuff sitting in the corner and I was darned if I was going to spend perfectly good money on buying cable when I already got that and all I have to do is whack a hunk off, put some connectors on it, and go.

The problem is LMR-400 is really, really stiff. It’s about as flexible as soft copper water pipe. Not a big deal if you’re really careful and pre-bend it before you connect it. Well I wanted to move the amp. What I should have done was disconnect the LMR, move the amp, bend the LMR into the right position and then reconnect it. I didn’t. I just moved the amp, putting a great deal of strain on the connector, and something popped, probably a solder joint inside the connector. So first chance I get I’m going to have to take out the five zillion (approx) screws holding the cover on the thing and see what’s going on.

I haven’t been in any great hurry to fix it because I rarely use the amplifiers. On HF I mostly run PSK31 and other digital modes, and almost never operate at more than 75 watts. About the only thing I want the amps for is getting on the ARES state wide nets down on 75 meters. And I’m hoping that with the new dipole replacing the old Comet vertical, I should be able to cover those even when running just 200 watts.

Enough… First I don’t write anything for months, then I try to cram too much into a single post… Pacing… Need to learn pacing…


Ham Radio Deluxe Redeux

I simply couldn’t give up on HRD and I think I finally got it working! Maybe. Kind of.

I was having all kinds of issues with the thing. I did all the upgrades, upgraded the operating system on the 990, checked all the connections, settings, everything. I followed all of the advice on various forums I found on the internet.

Finally I disregarded everything I was reading on the Internet and just did what seemed to make sense to me, and lo and behold, I got the bloody thing working at last. I even solved the PTT problems I was having with the digital modes.

So I finally had all of the controls working properly. Decided to take it for test run. I turned the transmitter down to 5 watts and tried a test transmission in PSK31 while checking the tone and frequency on a different receiver. It was putting out a nice, pure tone, spot on the right frequency.

So I stopped the test CQ I was doing, and as soon as it went back into receive, I heard a reply to my CQ. From France. So even with that dopey multi-band vertical antenna, putting out only 5 watts, I was hitting France. Not bad at all.

So HRD is working, and it’s stayed working for about a week now. And I am content.

Good Bye Ham Radio Deluxe

I’ve finally given up on HRD (Ham Radio Deluxe). Version 6.0 gave me nothing but grief when I was attempting to use it with the TS-990S. HRD 6 sort of, almost, kind of worked with the 990. The rig control part of the program would stop working for no apparent reason from time to time, it occasionally did bizarre things, like somehow change the maximum transmission power to 25 watts for no reason I was ever able to figure out. I couldn’t get it to trigger transmit via the COM ports no matter what I tried, and had to resort to using VOX. Even worse, I couldn’t make contacts with it in the digital modes, which is what I wanted it for in the first place. I’d call CQ until I was blue in the face, and nothing. I didn’t even show up on the PSK spotting network. According to the dials I was putting out a nice, clean signal. I fired up another receiver and hung my iPad on it with a PSK program running and it had no trouble reading what was coming out of the 990. Nothing. No contacts. No spotting reports.

Switch to Fldigi and guess what? My call sign started to immediately pop up on the spotting network.

Fast forward to now. I upgraded HRD to version 6.1. This version directly supports the TS-990. It’s supposed to have more bells and whistles and work better.

No, it doesn’t. First, rig control is abysmally slow and unresponsive. After clicking on a frequency, you sit there and wait for two, four, eight seconds before it finally gets around to actually changing the frequency. There are similar delays when switching between windows, such as jumping from rig control to the logger to the digital software.

Still, there are so many goodies buried in that program that I kept trying to use it.

I checked my output, it was putting out a nice PSK31 signal, or so it seemed. The response I got? Nothing. Zip. Not even showing up on the spotting network.

Switched over to Fldigi, and the very first CQ I did popped up on the spotting network.

So what the heck is going on? I have no idea. I give up. I have dozens of hours into trying to get this bloody program working properly. It seems to be working, it’s putting out a PSK signal. But I get zilch results. I switch to Fldigi, and I start getting contacts and showing up on the spotting networks. 

So I’m saying good bye to Ham Radio Deluxe, at least in it’s current incarnation. I’ve wasted entirely too much time on this when the alternative, Fldigi, works just fine and dandy.