Friday, 30 March 2018

WSJT-X Configurations, EME settings and some more thoughts

After my last post a few issues emerge relating to my contact with UA3TPW. Since then I have made contact with two other stations via EME (often referred to as "moonbounce"). I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject but the arrangements seem worthy of explanation.
I did use WSJT-X for these contacts. I know that many amateurs still use WSJT9, which is an older version of the software designed in the days when most people used PTT signals or "digiVOX" to turn their radio to transmit.

Due to the slightly odd set-up of the Icom IC-7100 I prefer to use either WSJT-X or MSHV for controlling the rig via CAT controls. There is a way round it to allow WSJT9 to be used and I explained it on this blog years ago. However, there is no advantage to using PTT instead of CAT with the 7100 and several disadvantages. So if you need to know about that you can scroll through all the early postings on this site because I do not have the energy to do it. Let's just say that the posting immediately after that one explains that it is all too much effort and I immediately started to use CAT instead. WSJT-X just suits me better.

WSJT-X can do almost everything WSJT9 can do. The only exception I can find to that is the reporting style used by serious EME operators when they send reports to each other. WSJT-X does not show "width" or "DF" in the reporting line, though width is listed in the astronomical data. Instead of "DF" you find "Freq" in the report line. All this info does feature in the MSHV reporting line so that might be a way to go if you feel you need it there. This does not matter much to me and I find the dB signal to noise figure quite sufficient.

From previous postings and comments it is clear that most people recommend that you should read the WSJT-X Users Guide found via the WSJT home page listed in the "Other interesting sites" column on the right here. Also, W7GJ's notes specifically for WSJT-X in the second part of his guide can be found here:-

When it comes to setting up WSJT-X for JT65B EME work I found it necessary to add a separate WSJT-X configuration for it. For me, using multiple WSJT-X configurations is a lot more useful than the various commentators suggest. They seem to think that different configurations help if multiple operators use a computer linked to a radio. For me, I have multiple different settings for each mode, and I use several modes on each radio. Almost as many multiple settings as I have multiple personalities. Just one operator though (probably).

So how does this configuration thing work?
WSJT-X Configuration menu for the Icom IC-7100 at GM4FVM
This shows four configurations (if you can see it, sorry about the dire photo but I cannot make a good screenshot of a drop-down menu).

When you download WSJT-X you get one default configuration. If you only use one mode, say FT8, then that is probably all you need. But I have found it very helpful to have separate configurations for FT8 and MSK144. This allows me to tweak these differently (e.g. different watchdog times) for two modes used under very different propagation conditions.

Yes, you could keep the different settings in your head and change them as you changed mode, and bully for you if you can do it. I am "A Bear of Very Little Brain" so it helps me to have the settings automatically changed as I change mode. The previous frequency used for the mode also returns as I change configuration - very handy in a hurry.

For 144MHz I also set up a JT65 configuration, which now has JT65B configured for beacon work. When I started using WSJT-X for EME I used that configuation, but I soon realised that the EME settings are very different from the beacon ones. So I added another one specifically for EME. To do this I selected the JT65 configuation and "cloned" and renamed it. There was no need to revert to the default - by cloning the JT65 config I retained all the JT65B settings and could work from there. Any changes I later made to the EME settings did not mess up the beacon ones which were on a different configuration.

I have other different configurations on the other instances of WSJT-X I have to control multiple radios simultaneously. If, unlike me, you have more than one rig and you use them with WSJT-X one at a time, you can use one instance of WSJT-X and set up different configurations for each radio. So you might have one for "IC-7100 2m MSK144" and another for "TS590 6m FT8". In that case changing between the configurations could change band, frequency within the band, the audio sources, the COM port and settings, and all the other settings too. You could toggle between the two radios using the different configurations, and WSJT-X would follow the changes.

MSHV does not have anything similar.

It "only" took me a very long time to remember to change configurations every time when I would otherwise change mode. I still get it wrong occasionally.
When it actually comes to the JT65B settings I did generally follow W7GJ's advice but tailored the specific number settings to suit my own computer's performance. If you have a very capable computer you can probably go the whole hog and set everything to maximum.

Everybody knows the exacting standard I set for my computer. For the geeky-minded of you I can explain that the technical target was £80.00. On eBay and it came in at £79.00 (postage included). That was for the basics and I added a faster processor which I had left from a previous incident which had reduced a nice motherboard to toast. Having said that I was driven by price, it is fast enough to allow me to set everything in WSJT-X quite high.
WSJT-X running in the EME configuration at GM4FVM
This shows my WSJT-X screen after running for a while and these settings have filled the decode lists with lots of reports of a birdy on around 964hz. With the specific EME settings I was using I found a lot of garbage and even false reports (sometimes complete with callsigns).

When I started listening with Deep Search activated I was inundated with false decodes. I really should have taken time to pare down the list in my CALL3.txt file or install a better one. When I activated both Deep Search and Averaging more funny things start happening and I felt that I was in danger of losing my control of the situation. Callsigns appeared from QSOs which I had finished, and from stations I knew were not active. I had to remember that I was the one in charge and I kept an eye on the details such as frequency and dB S/N. The false ones were easy to spot and ignore. All that Deep Search was doing was to make suggestions, it was up to me to interpret those suggestions.

At times I have turned off Deep Search and/or Averaging. It is interesting. JT65B still works though you lose some possibilities. Given my lower power I reckon I could get away with looking for stronger signals at the receiver, and then Deep Search is handy but not absolutely necessary in every case.

Note too that in general listening I had set FTol to 1000. Even doing that, and with Deep Search and Averaging turned on, my old second hand PC could comfortably decode anything I needed well before the end of the one minute receiving time. Once I had found a station I lowered the F Tol to 500. I only set it so high to avoid missing someone while I listened.

F Tol=1000 worked too - I found a station operating 1kHz lower than where I was listening (UR3EE) which was easily decoded. The resulting contact showed that it is possible to stumble across stations on EME without recourse to chat rooms or other sites to find out who is there.

That is as far as I have got with customising my "EME" configuration in WSJT-X so far. It is still early days.
I also spent a day listening and trying to work out how I could copy EME signals with my modest non-elevating antenna. I could copy one strong station when the Moon had gone well beyond 12 degrees of elevation. This gives me hope. However, it was a gradual tail-off as elevation increased and not the multi-lobed pattern I had been expecting.

I also spotted a French station who was fairly strong who said that in 3 minutes he would lose the Moon as he did not have elevation on his antenna. Sure enough, after 3 minutes he faded and vanished.

After that I looked at the H-plane polar radiation diagram for my 7 element DK7ZB antenna. This showed the major lobe with a gradual tail off to >-20dB at 50 degrees. There was one smaller lobe at 60 (-13dB) degrees and the next (-17dB) at 95 degrees. This is certainly what I felt I was finding in practice. However this is a free space diagram, and I have real-life factors such as other antennas, nearby buildings and ground gain to consider.

"More research necessary".
My intention with EME is to use the experience to improve my station and skills. The idea is that all this will help with meteor scatter, tropo, aurora and Sporadic E.

It certainly has altered my 2m DX table for the past few weeks
DX list on 2m at GM4FVM 22 to 28 March 2018
At the same time, 50MHz meteor scatter has been very good, and I also worked Jurek, SP9HWY, on 70MHz meteor scatter.

With meteor scatter on the way up again and a 50MHz Sporadic E opening already in the bag during March it looks a bit like the long VHF Winter is coming to an end.

What am I talking about? VHF Winter coming to an end? Outside there is snow predicted here during the next week.

The thing about radio (or at least radio my way) is that conditions decide, not the calendar or the clock. And certainly not me. I only get to decide when to turn on the radios.

Turning on the radio and expecting to find a station to contact is not part of my world. If you want that try 20 metres.




Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Moonbounce - another milestone passed!

Warning: This blog post looks to be shamelessly self-congratulatory.

My first Earth-Moon-Earth contact at last!
144MHz EME QSOs on 27 March 2018 on dxMaps
After doing my usual drill of watching the moon charts and the chat boards, in particular this one:-

... and tuning to every likely frequency, I finally heard a good strong station - Dimtrij, UA3TPW.

He was busy with somebody else so I posted on the cluster that I was hearing him (though I doubt that doing that made much difference). Then I sat and waited for about 10 minutes until the chat indicated that the other station had given up.

I cranked up the Gemini 2 linear to full output and called UA3TPW. Much to my surprise he came back with my callsign and OOO, indicating that he was ready for my confirmation. So I sent the shortcut "RO" in the approved manner to indicate that I had received his signal and to send my own confirmation. To my surprise back came the shortcut RRR, so that was that. Technically, QSO complete.

I got a bit excited at this point and I sent RO one more time and got RRR again. Then I sent both callsigns and 73, intending to make certain that the whole thing was not a mistake and he hadn't been working someone else down the street. It looked genuine enough as the frequency was the same but you do know about my paranoia. But sure enough he returned with both callsigns and 73.
WSJT-X reception at GM4FVM. The repetition of UA3TPW's previous message is an artifact
To be even more certain I went over to the chat site to find that he had acknowledged the QSO there too!
Extract from JT65 EME chat site
Thanks Dimtrij!

To say that I am amazed about that contact would be a fairly major understatement. I did call a station the day before but it came to nothing as I had rather expected. As a complete rookie at this I thought it would take some time to get right.

The surface distance to UA3TPW is 2561km, though the route the radio signals took is more or less twice the GM4FVM-Moon-GM4FVM distance (approx 2 x 369600 = 739200km on 27 March 2018). Give or take a few km for the Moon to Russia distance of course.

I had read in the books that modest stations like mine, with a single horizontal yagi and conventional gear running less than the full legal power can indeed work via Earth-Moon-Earth. I just imagined that this possibility did not apply to me.

By some odd co-incidence David GM4JJJ was looking at the same station and produced this screenshot of the whole thing:-
GM4JJJ's screenshot.
I do realise that this is not such a dramatic thing; after all lots of people use Earth-Moon-Earth communication. I also know that the steady improvement I have been making to my 144 MHz station would bring it about some time. However, I am still rather amazed by it actually happening.

Thanks to both Bri, G0MJI and David GM4JJJ. They have both been very helpful during this process and they had a lot to do with this first EME contact. It certainly would not have been possible without Joe Taylor and the WSJT-X team - not with my CW anyway. On the hardware side I have the improved lots of things in the station. The main thing that broke to logjam, in my opinion, was my new SPID rotator. If you cannot point your antenna accurately at the Moon you haven't a hope.

GM4JJJ also sent me this link to W7GJ's hints for working EME with JT65. I found it very useful and I brought my EME configuration of WSJT-X into line with it before having the first QSO:-

More details on the various station improvements here will follow once they are complete.

This is not quite a "Volga Boatman" moment. It was a bit too technical and it had been in the "vague planning" stage for weeks. However, it reminds me of 5 February 1975 and my first VHF QSO which was with G8IMU. This was across south London, maybe 20km. I can assure you that at the time I was not thinking of Earth-Moon-Earth.

Anyone out there thinking about trying Earth-Moon-Earth? I would encourage them to give it a go, but it does get a bit overwhelming when it actually works for the first time.




Thursday, 22 March 2018

It's been a funny old day ...

Ronnie Barker, in the classic BBC Comedy Series "Open All Hours", set in the improbable location of a general store in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, used to muse on the day that had just been as he gathered in the unsold tat from his street-side sales pitch. "It's been a funny old day" he often said as he put up the closed sign and locked the door after a long day.

It has been a bit odd here too. A long day too.

Usually at this stage of the year, late March, I begin fretting about when Sporadic E might start. And as we have just passed the Equinox, daylight saving time begins next weekend as we move to "British Summer Time". The local frogs have been whipped into a frenzy in the GM4FVM garden pond as they gorge their sexual appetites and release a cacophony of croaking and splashing. Can Spring, and Sporadic E, be far behind?

Es has a habit of keeping me waiting well into Spring.

But this morning Spring burst forth on 6 metres (red for Es, blue for Meteor Scatter):-
6m Es (in red) on 22 March 2018 on dxMaps (click to enlarge on any images)
Well, I did not actually claim this as Es, but it seems it was. Certainly that was confirmed by an Es opening on 10m.
10m Es at GM4FVM recorded at WSPRnet 19 February to 22 March 2018

Apart from the spell on 2 March when I did not hear anyone but they heard me, this was the first Es opening on 10m at GM4FVM since 19 February, over a month. However, it is not unusual to get through March without any significant Es  opening.

It counts as a funny old day for other reasons and not just Es in March. After all that 50MHz excitement (!) I went out at 10:30 to start stage 2 of my improvement programme for my 2m set-up. In the midst of that I decided to combine stage 2 with stage 3 and try to get both done in one day. Eventually I got so cold that my fingers stopped working so I came in for lunch at 16:00. Once I had 2m running again I managed to work the following stations on 2m FT8.
2m stations worked at GM4FVM by tropo 16:00 to 18:00 on 22 March 2018
This may not look very dramatic compared with the 6m Es map above, but it is very significant for me. F6APE was a new 144MHz square for me, IN97, and in fact one of only a handful of French stations I have worked on 2m from here.

I was someone who had lost faith in the 2 metre band. I had managed to convince myself that I could not do well on 2m from here due to the geography. That QSO with F6APE was a 950km contact by tropospheric propagation, on a flat band. You could tell that this was not a good day for tropo as the barometric pressure was low and falling, I was frozen outside working on the antenna, and the wind was gusting to 60km/h. What could I do if conditions were good?

The other contacts were good too. It was nice to hear again from ON4POO, who is in JO20 right on the very edge of the area I cannot reach on tropo due to the hills to the South East of me. I have learned that these hills do not affect the entire compass, but just a segment covering roughly the coast of the Netherlands and inland from there into Western Germany. I was also recorded by PSK Reporter reaching into Denmark.

I think that I judged 2 metres too harshly.

A funny old day. 6m Es in March - unusual though the geomagnetic conditions were disturbed with auroral conditions possible later. 10m Es would have been good enough. However, getting that, and after working on the antennas all day, to come in and work into France on 2m, well, that just makes it all the more unusual.

A pretty good day in my book. In a radio sense, every contact was a surprise and a pleasure. VHF DX, just when you least expect it. Well, that is always when VHF DX arrives.




Friday, 9 March 2018

FT8, Reasons to be Cheerful, and the end of our hobby as we know it.

The snow from Storm Emma has gone - we were only cut off for four days.

Before I get into this, say hello to my new 2m linear

Straight away it is clear that this device breaks the cardinal rule for linears - I have bought a linear which offers no significant power gain over the previous one. Yep, that is true.

I can see no reason to go for more power. 200W has always been fine for me, but running the previous device flat out for years no doubt did it no good at all. This one theoretically does 300W, but it will be more comfortable at 200W. I could have bought the 500W version or even a bigger one than that, but no.

A couple of weeks running barefoot leads me to conclude that a linear amplifier is only useful for my type of work to get people to turn their beams my way. I have managed perfectly well on tropo with 50W if I choose my moments when they are beaming at me. So for meteor scatter, aurora and so forth this will be useful, but for run of the mill contacts I do not need it so much and I DEFINITELY do not need more power.

The money which might otherwise have gone to upgrading to 500W is instead being spent on a mast head pre-amp. I reckon I need to hear them first.

Not conventional amateur thinking, I know, but I would rather have a balanced station than a powerful one.

I'll review this beast once I have had time to evaluate it.
"Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" was a 1979 UK hit record for Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury was a strange figure. He was disabled by polio as a child, and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. His stage presence was enigmatic and almost threatening (he appeared in many films as a "tough guy"). Propped up on sticks or gripping his oversized mike stand he would declare his lyrics to the microphone as if reading poetry to a large crowd. He did not sing so much as rhyme in key, rather like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, but a million times better.

A product of the punk era, Dury was backed by an excellent band of musicians from various parts of the world both musically and geographically so that the music was definitely not punk (or I probably would not have liked it).
Ian Dury in 1978. Wikipedia Common Media.
Reasons to be Cheerful is rather different from his other songs, but then they were all different from everything else. This was no hit factory: the lyrics were crafted to be challenging, often a bit rude or even crude, anti-establishment, and broadly "of the people". Ian's lyrics were never going to get him a knighthood, as banal crooners like Cliff Richard or Elton John did, and anyway he died tragically young. Many of his songs featured collaborations with Chas Jankel, whose musical influences brought jazz and funk elements and made his strange style commercial.

The record is a "list song". Like other successful list songs (e.g. "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel) the trick is to pick your list from diverse and unexpected sources. The result works, but the listener is not sure why, nor what might come next. List songs do not strike you instantly; they take thought to appreciate that the list is not just a collection of random ideas. Yet, the diverse list contains things which it is hard to say are not significant.  So I might not like Wee Willie Harris or (even some of) Buddy Holly, but I cannot deny that they had a part to play and I can be cheerful about that.

The "Reasons to be Cheerful" listed in the song are the usual Dury risqué references, hidden away so that the record was not banned from radio play outright. But there is some great stuff in there - the reference to Scammells shows he knew his classic 18 wheeler lorries. Vincent Motorcycles, Smokey Robinson, Rico (another splendid musician now lost to us), John Coltrane, Bonar Colleano (who remembers him? He was also Robbie McIntosh's father), lots of great stuff, some of it a bit too smutty for this high minded blog.

For a man who did not have an easy life, this is a masterpiece in the art form called looking at the bright side of life. Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 reminds me that no matter what is going on there is always hope.

So I thought about the reasons to be cheerful related to amateur radio. It could be quite a list if we borrow Billy Joel's idea of a timeline. So I tried to see who and what I might put in (the timeline will be sorted later). I suppose some people might have to dive for Wikipedia or Google with this one, but obscurity is part of the game. What about ...

Continuous wave modulation, integrated circuits, DIN plugs, Kenpro rotators, bug keys, panoramic displays, RCA AR88, Lord Rix, bandpass filters, the next new radio from whoever, the sunspot cycle, the 6146, James Van Allen, Tokyo Hy-Power, double balanced mixers, cheap eBay components, Laskeys on Tottenham Court Road, the phase locked loop, Heathkit, Oliver Heaviside, Antex soldering irons, WARC bands, trap dipoles, transceivers, Jagadish Chandra Bose, earth rods, Inoue Communications, 4CX250B, N-types, the KW2000E, field aligned irregularities, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the photon, the 807, lumped components,  the R1155, Shure 444, single side band, meteor showers, Edwin Armstrong ... ?

Hmmm. I will have to make them into a timeline and then make it scan. Then I need a band. Why not get back into bed and forget it?

Well, there are loads of things that have made amateurs cheerful. It is a rich and varied path that has brought amateur radio to this place. I for one am hopeful for the future. There are lots of reasons to be cheerful.

Suddenly, doom is predicted. Apparently we are threatened by ... FT8!

I read, and hear in lots of places, that this new mode is threatening everything. It will, apparently spell the end for us all. Research has shown that from zero in Summer 2017 to now the percentage of QSOs in Club Log using FT8 has risen to 52%. Apparently if this pace continues for another year, well if you take it literally, 110% (!) of our QSOs will be in FT8, which spells the end of SSB. This, it seems, will also spell the end for recruitment into the hobby and we will all die out.

Right so, I am the guy with the reasons to be cheerful. I am not put off by this nonsense. First of all, if people are flocking to FT8 then it must be good. I am old enough to remember old codgers who said that SSB would ruin the hobby and they stuck to AM until they popped their clogs, which was their right. Now it is the new-fangled SSB which is threatened. No doubt the same was said when AM phone threatened CW, and CW threatened spark. "Everybody" says that it is becoming too technical, too easy, needs too much gear and similar things every time this type of change comes up.

If you want to use SSB until you blow your final fuse, then go right ahead. There will always be somebody to work, so why have a problem with FT8?

I can see a statistical blip which was no doubt caused by there being no FT8, which fairly effectively puts zero at one end of the scale, and then later lots of people trying it, which makes the blip. I know one amateur who tried it and does not like it. "Feels too automatic and soul-less" he said. Well good for him for speaking up. He has no need to use it. It is not compulsory. There must be many giving it a try who will then drift back to SSB. Then again, not every QSO is listed on Club Log - I do not put any there for instance. Lots of phone contacts are never logged there. And people chasing awards and DXCCs might be very happy with FT8 and they generate a lot of contacts on Club Log. Club Log is not a reliable source for figures.

Someone said that we should develop a digital mode which allows rag chews, which of course FT8 pretty well frustrates. I think you will find that PSK31 already has been invented, has been used for years, and it is still an option if you want to use it.

If FT8 is successful should we not applaud it, rather than surround it with vague reports of doom?

Do I think a digital world of amateur radio would put off new entrants to the hobby? Not if they were interested in the first place. My national society has been promoting the "social side" of amateur radio, suggesting that like CB it is worth entering just to chat to people around the world. I am not happy about that as I doubt if governments will give up all the valuable spectrum and attend endless international conferences to allow us to gabble at each other. There has to be more to this hobby than a cheap social media experience. There has to be room for both. The problem with the progressive side is that it makes progress, while the waffling side stands still and resists anything new.

The other aspect of that argument is that I happily work the stations of hams who are entirely social operators, if they happen to be in a square or DXCC I want. Of course I do. However, I reckon that purely social operation is in decline. I feel that the hobby will get smaller as it becomes increasingly unattractive to people who just want a natter. Or rather, as it becomes easier to have personal communications without amateur radio, the social entrant will just drop away and leave the technical entrant still interested - sorry to point this out, but it is already happening.

The people who will still want to become radio amateurs will increasingly be in it for the technical electronics or propagation science learning which it provides. FT8 is terrific for both those pursuits. In the old days we attracted radio and television repair people into this hobby, but in case you hadn't noticed those job descriptions do not exist any more. These days you throw a broken-down TV in the bin. I am  not saying that I like that, but that is where we are.

I still find new reasons to be cheerful. Not withstanding FT8, there are still electronics experimenters, computer buffs, people seeking routes into propagation science, developers of new RF devices and circuits, etc., to fill the ranks of our hobby. Filled ranks, but a smaller hobby. The rag-chewers have got Skype. The budding marine radio officers have got ... well, you don't meet many of those people these days. There are many radio users in all walks of life who will want to join our hobby, to learn and to talk to each other on phone modes. But I doubt if there will be many soldering irons brandished, even though the people I hope will join us are perfectly capable of soldering if they need to.

If this becomes an increasingly digital hobby then I think it will be very appealing to people coming from (modern) technical and scientific backgrounds. I have great faith in that cohort of young people - a big reason to be cheerful. But as for fearing the end because there seems to be more efficiency and less waffling around then no, not in my book. Those who seek to push the technical and scientific boundaries will still natter on repeaters and gateways, but it is much more likely to be technical talk than someone I know who only talks about what he has to cook next in his microwave (his microwave produces more RF than anything in his shack).

It does not really matter what I think. If FT8 is popular then so be it. This hobby cannot be confined or ordered about by those afraid of change (not even by me). I look at the blogs and writings of a younger generation of radio amateur and I find lots of reasons to be cheerful to add to my list of what has already cheered us.
Finally, what is it about FT8 that gets everybody so steamed up? After all, it is less sensitive than JT65. And were we all majority SSB users before FT8? Here are the figures from my log from 2016, before we even had FT8. Remember I do not log local FM chats, and the total for that year is 1051 contacts ...

SSB = 372 (35.4%)
CW = 4 (0.4%)
FM = 14 (1.3%)
All machine generated = 661 (62.9%) That is JT65, JT9, JT6M, FSK441 and PSK31 combined.

GM4FVM was already almost 63% digital before FT8. What hope is there for me?
I wish Ian Dury had been a radio amateur. I suspect he would not have been an easy person to deal with.

But his blog would have been great.