A guide by London Shortwave
Radio interference is a major problem in big cities when it comes to indoor shortwave reception. One effective solution I have found is to head for the local park and engage in scanning the bands there. However, since my time for making such outdoor trips is limited, I would always feel like I am missing out on a lot of radio action by monitoring a single frequency, which is all you can do with a standard shortwave radio. There are so many signals out there — which one should I go for? This inspired me to put together a lightweight, portable set-up that would let me capture large chunks of the shortwave radio spectrum out in the field, which I could later explore in detail. After two years of experimenting with various Software Defined Radio (SDR) technologies I am pleased to report that I finally have a solution that works well for this purpose.
A good SDR can give the user access to large portions of the radio spectrum via a graphical user interface. The user can then either process a specified part of it in realtime or record the chosen spectrum window in its entirety onto disk and analyse it later with the supplied software. Here is a short video showing the playback of one of such spectrum captures I made in a London park in September 2016. Note the final part where I zoom out to show the entire recorded frequency range (covering two broadcast bands with one ham band in the middle!):
A ham from Thailand HS1LCI talking to another in France at 1747z 07/09/16 (2x6m dipole RX ANT) #OutdoorSpectrumGrab pic.twitter.com/ZaIOa9rZp9
— London Shortwave (@LondonShortwave) 9 September 2016
Below is the list of the components I have used to put together my “portable spectrum capture lab”.
I bought this tablet in July 2014, based on the following criteria: the device had to have a reasonably powerful Intel processor, running the Windows 8 operating system. I believe that there are currently models on the market that are at least as powerful and are substantially cheaper (<$100).
2. On The Go USB Adapter ($15)
3. AirSpy R2 SDR ($169)
Owing to its unique hardware design, the AirSpy SDR can monitor large parts of the radio spectrum (up to 10 MHz in bandwidth) while offering a high dynamic range and robustness to overloading, with almost no mixing/imaging products.
4. SpyVerter HF UpConverter ($49)
This additional device enables AirSpy to cover the shortwave bands (in fact, the entire frequency range between 0 khz and 30 MHz) and must be connected in-line between the AirSpy’s front end and the antenna feed line, as follows:
Below is a small collection of cable accessories to connect the antenna to AirSpy/SpyVerter:
7. BNC Female Coupler ($5)
8. 3m long BNC cable ($15)
Matched dipole antenna
I use a three-terminal matched balun connected two 6 metre copper wires via its antenna terminals as a dipole antenna, and connect it to the SDR via the feed line terminal with the 3m BNC cable listed above. The balun (Wellbrook UMB130) is engineered in a way that prevents the radio noise current from the tablet (usually a significant source of interference) flowing into the receiving part of the antenna.
9. Wellbrook UMB 130 balun ($60)
10. 2 x 6m Copper Wire ($16)
11. Fight Case ($35)
This foam-filled flight case comfortably houses all of the components. The parts 1 to 7 can remain assembled together, reducing the deployment time in the field.
I use this fast MicroSD card as the destination for my outdoor SDR recordings. The high transfer speed is critical – using slower MicroSD cards will result in large portions of the spectrum being dropped from the recordings. 64 Gigabytes can accommodate roughly one hour of spectrum data at 3 MHz bandwidth.
13. FAVI Bluetooth keyboard with trackpad ($37)
Windows tablets suffer from one major drawback: the touchscreen interface is usually inadequate for software that was designed for traditional computers with mice. A portable Bluetooth keyboard with a built-in trackpad solves this problem.
This small gadget turned out to be a very important part of the entire project. The Toshiba tablet has a rather unusual interference quirk that initially caused me hours of frustration. It turns out that significant amounts of radio noise are injected into the SDR when the tablet’s external speakers are active. One way to fix this is to plug a pair of headphones into the tablet’s line out jack, but this forces the listener to be glued to the device. The alternative is to pair the tablet with a Bluetooth audio receiving unit, such as the one listed above. It is worth noting that my other Windows tablet — a Dell Venue 8 — also suffers from this strange artefact.
Total cost: $610
Internal layout of the flight case
You’ll see that I have stacked the SpyVerter enclosure on top of the AirSpy one. As the latter can get very hot, it is essential to leave a sufficiently large gap in the foam for ventilation. It’s also worth leaving a small gap next to the tablet’s power button to prevent Windows from accidentally going into standby mode.
The best software to use with the AirSpy/SpyVerter combination is SDR#. It offers an impressive collection of features that many software packages and conventional radios don’t have, such as advanced noise reduction and synchronous detection with passband tuning. The following adjustments are required to make recording the spectrum a seamless experience:
Install the Baseband Recorder and File Player plugins
Baseband Recorder: this plugin enables efficient recording of very large spectrum (or “baseband”) files. Download and decompress the plugin zip file. Copy the .dll files into the directory with the SDRSharp.exe executable. Open the MagicLine.txt file and copy the first line of text into Plugins.xml file, just before the “</sharpPlugins>” line.
File Player: this plugin enables the playback of recordings made with the Baseband Recorder plugin. Download and decompress the plugin zip file. Copy the .dll files into the directory with the SDRSharp.exe executable. Open the MagicLine.txt file and copy the first line of text into FrontEnds.xml file, just before the “</frontendPlugins>” line.
Configure Baseband Recorder
Open SDRSharp.exe and check that the program reports no errors when it loads.
In the plugin pane on the left, expand the Baseband Recorder tab and click “Configure”. Change the File Format to WAV RF64 and make sure that the File length limit check box is not ticked. Click “Folder select” and choose the MicroSD card as the destination directory for the recordings.
Adjust AirSpy settings
Disclaimer: in this section I describe how I capture the maximum spectrum bandwidth that my tablet’s CPU can handle. It involves operating SDR# in “debug mode” and exposes some internal functionality of AirSpy, which, if used incorrectly, can damage the radio. If you choose to copy my approach, please understand that you are doing so at your own risk and follow my instructions carefully to avoid voiding your AirSpy warranty.
Open SDRSharp.exe.Config file in Notepad. Look for “<add key=”airspy.debug” value=”0″ />” line and change it to value=”1″.
Once the AirSpy and SpyVerter have been connected to the tablet, open SDR# and select AIRSPY in the Source tab. You will see the following configuration dialog.
In the “Sample rate” field, type in “6 MSPS”. For the “Decimation” option, choose “2”. This setting will result in spectrum captures of 3 MHz bandwidth (although only 2.4 MHz of it will be shown on the waterfall display). To capture smaller chunks of the spectrum, increase the decimation value. Make sure the SpyVerter check box is ticked. Do not touch any of the fields or buttons under the “Address Value” line.
Make a short test recording
Press the play button in the top left corner and set the desired frequency.
In the Source tab, select the “Linearity” option. Keep increasing the Gain value by one position at a time until you notice that the radio signals suddenly become “saturated” (the waterfall display becomes full of artefacts and the signal you are listening to gets swamped with noise). Take the Gain value back down by two positions. This will ensure high sensitivity while preventing AirSpy from overloading.
In the Baseband Recorder tab, press “Record”. While recording, do not change the radio frequency and do not move/drag the waterfall portion of the display. Stop the recording after a few minutes.
In the Source tab, change the input to “File Player” in the drop down menu. Click the Settings cogwheel button and select the spectrum recording file from the MicroSD card. A vertical band visualising the timeline of the spectrum capture will appear immediately to the right of the plugin pane. Click on the play button and select a radio signal to demodulate in the spectrum display. Listen to the audio carefully to make sure there are no dropouts or clicks: if so, your tablet and MicroSD card are capable of handing and storing the specified spectrum bandwidth.
Keep an eye on the gain
While making longer spectrum recordings, select a weak radio signal and keep monitoring its audio for signs of overloading. If the overloading does occur, reduce the Gain value further by one or two positions.
Some example spectrum captures
Below are some example videos in which I play back and explore the spectrum recordings I made during the trips to my local park.
Tropical and the 49m bands recorded outdoors on 03/07/16 at 0432 UTC. A good time of the day for listening to Latin America on shortwave.
From today’s outdoor spectrum grab: Zanzibar Broadcasting Corporation at 1630 UTC (1/2) #AirSpy #SpyVerter #SDRSharp pic.twitter.com/HceZ64viqX
— London Shortwave (@LondonShortwave) 6 September 2016
Radyo Pilipinas at 1734 UTC #OutdoorSpectrumGrab #AirSpy #SpyVerter #SDRSharp pic.twitter.com/VZLXgUR6d7
— London Shortwave (@LondonShortwave) 7 September 2016
Shortwave’s dead? Are you kidding me? The 31m band recorded 3 days ago (Tuned station: @radionz) pic.twitter.com/sgkPtY5xz3
— London Shortwave (@LondonShortwave) 4 May 2016
Listening to Radio New Zealand International.
My most impressive catch of 3 years. Hearing R.Aparecida when the sun is up (06h UTC) with only a 12m dipole #AirSpy pic.twitter.com/hpHAfA9hXv
— London Shortwave (@LondonShortwave) 20 September 2016
Radio Aparecida from Brazil, usually a challenging catch in Europe.