Category Archives: Tutorials

Guest Post: Recording Music on Shortwave Part 2 – Weak signal recovery

An example of an AirSpy SDR# software screen.

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, TomL, who shares the following guest post:


Recording Music on Shortwave Part 2 – Weak signal recovery

by TomL

The QRM noise cloud surrounding my condominium motivated my first foray into noise reduction software to find a little relief (Please refer to Part 1 posted here) using SDR recordings.  I was able to use the freeware software Audacity to reduce some of that type of noise to tolerable levels on strong broadcasts.  But what about non-condo noise, like out in the field??

NHK Japan

I took my trusty Loop On Ground antenna to the usual county park Forest Preserve which is relatively low in RF noise.  I did some usual recording on 25 meters and poked around for something being captured by SDR Console.  On 11910 kHz is NHK broadcasting daily from Koga, Japan.  It is hearable at this location but is always an S7 or weaker signal despite its 300 KW of power no doubt due to being beamed away from the Midwest USA.

I recorded it using the SDR Console 10kHz bandwidth filter and created a separate noise recording from a nearby empty frequency.  Here is the 2 minute portion of a Japanese music teacher. No noise reduction was applied:

I opened the noise and broadcast recordings in Audacity to see what I could do.  Part 1 of my previously mentioned post details how I apply the Noise file.  A big downside of using any kind of noise reduction software is that it is ridiculously easy to destroy the desirable characteristics of the original recording.  Applying too much noise reduction, especially in the presence of constant, spiky lightning noises, will create both digital artifacts as well as very dull sounding results.  So I used the Effect – Noise Reduction (NR) feature very carefully.

In this example, I used the Effect – Amplify feature on the one minute noise file.  I applied just +1dB of Amplify to the whole file.  Then I highlighted a 10 second section I thought was representative of the general background noise and chose Edit – Copy.  Then, I opened the broadcast file, Pasted the 10 seconds of noise to the END of the file and highlighted just the 10 seconds of noise. Then I chose Effect – Noise Reduction – Get Noise Profile button.  Amplifying the noise file by +1db does not sound like much but it seems to help according to my tests.  Anymore than this and the Noise Profile would not recognize the noise without destroying the music.

I used the NR feature three times in succession using the following (NoiseReduction/Sensitivity/FrequencySmoothing) settings:  Pass1 (3dB/0.79/1), Pass2 (2dB/1.28/1), Pass3 (1dB/2.05/0).  Part of what I listened for was choosing the Residue circle and Preview button for any music or dialog that was being filtered out.  If I heard something that came from the desired part of the recording in Residue, I knew that I hit the limit concerning the combination of Noise reduction and Sensitivity settings to engage.  I used those Residue & Preview buttons over and over again with different settings to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of anything wanted.  I also used the higher Noise reduction with lower Sensitivity to try to get rid of any momentary spiky type noise that is often associated with SWLing.

I messed around with a lot of test outputs of differing dB and Sensitivities and a lot seemed to depend on the strength of the broadcast signal compared to the noise.  If the broadcast was weak, I could push the dB and Sensitivities a little harder.  I also noted that with strong signal broadcasts, I could NOT use more than 1 dB of Noise reduction beyond a Sensitivity of about 0.85 without causing damage to the musical fidelity.  This was a pretty low level of nuanced manipulation.  Because of these minor level Audacity software settings, it dawned on me that it is very helpful to already be using a low-noise antenna design.

If the Sensitivity numbers look familiar, that is because I tried basing the series of Sensitivity on Fibonacci numbers 0.618 and 0.786.  Don’t ask me why these type of numbers, they just ended up sounding better to me.  I also needed a structured approach compared to just using random numbers!  Probably any other similarly spaced Sensitivity numbers would work just fine, too.

Now if you really want to go crazy with this, add Pseudo Stereo to your favorite version of this file (also detailed in Part 1) and playback the file using VLC Media Player.  That software has a couple of interesting features such as an Equalizer and a Stereo Widener.  You may or may not like using these features but sometimes it helps with intelligibility of the voice and/or music [VLC will also let you right-click a folder of music and choose to play all it finds there without having to import each MP3 file into a special “Library” of music tracks where they bombard you with advertisements].

You can also turn on Windows Sonic for Headphones if you are using the Windows operating system.  However, this can sometimes be too much audio manipulation for my tastes!

Here is the resulting NHK noise-reduced file with 9ms of delay with High & Low Filters:

Radio Thailand

Five days later I was out in the field again.  This time I found Radio Thailand on 11920 kHz finishing up a Thai broadcast.  It was a weaker S5 signal than the NHK example, so it would be a good test.

When I got home, I recorded the broadcast file at a Bandwidth filter of 8 kHz and using Slow AGC and the extra Noise file at 12kHz using Fast AGC.  In a previous test I had noticed a very slight improvement in sound quality in the way noise seems to get out of the way quicker compared to Slow AGC (which is usually how I listen to shortwave broadcasters).  I now try to remember to record the Noise file with Fast AGC.

Here is the original without any noise reduction:

This time the Noise file using Amplify +1dB did not help and I used it as-is for the 10 second Noise Profile.  I then tried multiple passes of NR at higher and higher Sensitivities and ended up with these settings the best: Pass1 (1dB/0.79/0), Pass2 (1dB/1.27/0), Pass3 (1dB/2.05/0), Pass4 (1dB/3.33/0).

As a comparison, I tried recording only with SDR Console’s noise reduction NR1 set to 3dB and got this.  I hear more noise and less of the music coming through:

Now for more crazy Pseudo Stereo to finish up the Audacity 4Pass version (nice Interval Signal of Buddhist bells ringing and station ID at the very end):

Summary

I do not understand why applying 3 or 4 separate 1dB Sensitivities of noise reduction is superior to just one Pass at 3dB Sensitivity (in Audacity) or the one 3dB noise reduction (in SDR Console).  My guess is that doing 1 dB at different Sensitivities shaves off some spiky noise a little at a time, somehow allowing for more of the musical notes to poke through the noise cloud.  Who knows but I can hear a difference in subtle musical notes and sharpness of voice and instruments.  Probably the Fast AGC helps too.

Music is a Universal Language that we can share even when we don’t understand a word they are saying. And there is more music on the air than I thought.  Some of these recordings sound surprisingly pleasing after noise reduction. The fake stereo is pumped through a CCrane FM Transmitter to a few radios in the home, or I can use the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro headphones.

Enjoying the Music!

TomL

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More Tecsun S-8800 hidden features/adjustments

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dan Robinson, who has recently been in touch with Anna at Anon-Co and discovered a few Tecsun S-8800 hidden features we haven’t mentioned in the past.

Anna notes:

There are some hidden features for this model that are worth mentioning, and are available on all S-8800 radios, also the pre-2021 ones.

Backlight setting

In power-off mode, press and hold [ 2 ] on the remote until the display shows “ON” or “Off”, this to change the backlight setting to always-on or auto-off. In the auto-off setting the backlight turns on after pressing a button or using a tuning knob, and turns off automatically after a few seconds.

DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction

In the AM band (LW, MW, SW), first press and hold [ 4 ] on the remote to activate the possibility of this feature. The display will show “ON” or “Off”. Make sure that it is turned on. Subsequently, press and hold [ 6 ] on the remote until the display shows “ON” (DNR activated) or “OFF” (DNR deactivated).

FM De-emphasis Time Constant

While receiving FM broadcasts, long press [ 5 ] on the remote to adjust the de-emphasis setting to 50?s or 75?s.

Adjusting the signal indicator sensitivity:

1. Enter FM, LW, MW or SW band

2. Select a weak station.

3. Press [ 7 ] on the remote for about 0.5 seconds.

4. Rotate the main tuning knob immediately to adjust the bars of the signal indicator.

5. Press any button for confirmation or auto save after 2 seconds.

While making the adjustment in step 4, the value in the top-right corner of the screen changes. The factory default value is supposedly around “6” for FM and SW: 6, and around 16 for MW. The adjustment range is -99 – 99.

Add Seconds to the Clock

With the device turned off, press and hold [ 8 ] on the remote to add seconds to the clock. Press and hold [ 8 ] again to hide the seconds from the clock.

Adjust the FM soft muting threshold

While in FM, press and hold [ 9 ] on the remote for about 2 seconds until the current level (probably around level 5) appears in the main display area. Then adjust it by rotating the tuning knob and then press [ 9 ] again to confirm the setting.

Many thanks to Dan and Anna for sharing these tips!

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TomL’s guide to making and optimizing shortwave radio SDR music recordings

An example of an AirSpy SDR# software screen.

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, TomL, who shares the following guest post:


Recording Music on Shortwave

by TomL

I recently became curious about the seasonal music updates posted by Alan Roe.  It is a nicely detailed list of musical offerings to be heard.  Kudos to Alan who has spent the time and effort to make it much easier to see at a glance what might be on the airwaves in an easy to read tabular format.  I do not know of any other listing specifically for shortwave music in any publication or web site.  I especially like the way it lists everything in UTC time since I might want to look for certain time slots to record.  For some listings, I would need to go outdoors away from noise to listen to certain broadcasts.  Current web page is here:  https://swling.com/blog/resources/alan-roes-guide-to-music-on-shortwave/ .

As a side note, I have also found a lot of music embedded in the middle of broadcasts that are unannounced, unattributed, and not part of a regular feature program.  That can be a treasure trove of local music you might not be able to find anywhere on the internet.  It can be worth recording a spectrum of frequencies using the capabilities of the SDR and then quickly combing through the broadcasts at two-minute intervals (most songs are three minutes or longer).  In maybe ten minutes, I will have at least identified all of the listenable music that may or may not be worth saving to a separate file.

Whether at home or outdoors, I have wanted to try to record shortwave broadcasts of music using my AirSpy HF+ but never getting around to it until now.  There is a certain learning curve to dealing with music compared to just a news summary or editorial.  I found myself wishing I could improve the fidelity of what I was hearing.  From static crashes, bad power line noise, fading signals, and adjacent channel interference, it can be quite difficult to get the full appreciation from the musical impact.

I am starting to monitor the stronger shortwave stations like WRMI, Radio Romania International, Radio Nacional do Amazonia, etc.  These type of stations can be received in a strong enough manner to get good quality recordings (at least according to shortwave listening experience).  I am also finding that I appreciate much more than before the effort that these broadcasters put into creating content/commentary to go along with the music and little pieces of background info about the music or the artist.  I have also noticed how exact some broadcasters are in timing the music into the limited time slots.  For instance, Radio Romania International tries to offer one Contemporary piece of music exactly at 14 minutes, Traditional music exactly at 30 minutes, and a Folk tune exactly at 52 minutes into the program (whether in English, French, or Spanish), with nice fade-outs if the music goes too long.

One thing I ran into was to bother checking my hearing range.  If someone has impaired hearing, it does not make much sense to create files that have a lot of sound out of one’s hearing range.  I found this YouTube video (among a bunch of others) and listened to the frequency sweep using my Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro headphones (audiophile/studio type headphones).   My hearing is approximately from 29 Hz through 14400 Hz.  Of course, the extremes fall off drastically, and as with most people, my hearing is most sensitive in the 2000 through 6000 Hz range.

Recording Workflow

Let’s assume that you already know how to record IQ files using your SDR software and can play them back (In the example below, I recorded the whole 49 meter band outputting a series of 1GB WAV files).  Then, when playing back to record to individual files, I have to choose the filters and noise reduction I want.  This gets subjective.  If I do not want to keep huge numbers of Terabytes of WAV files over time, I will want to record to individual WAV files and then delete the much larger spectrum recording.  You might tell me to just record to MP3 or WMA files because there is that option in the SDR software.  We will get into that as we go along.  For the time being,  I do not want to keep buying Terabytes of hard drives to hold onto the original spectrum recordings.

After lots of trial and error, I came up with this workflow:

  1. Record the meter band spectrum of interest using the SDR software.
  2. Record individual snippets of each broadcast in that spectrum to new individual WAV files.  This includes not lopping-off any announcer notes about the music I want to retain.  I also have to choose the bandwidth filter and any noise reduction options in the software.  Because I am not keeping Terabytes of info, this is a permanent decision.
  3. Take an individual recording and apply more processing to it.
  4. Convert the processed  recording to any number of final output formats for further consumption and/or sharing.
  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 to take care of all the individual WAV files.

Step 4 allows me to create whatever file format I might need it to be: WAV, MP3, WMA, or even use it as background sound to a video if I so choose.  There are also different ways to create some of these files with different quality settings depending on what is needed.  I have chosen to listen to the individual WAV files for personal consumption but there may come a time to create high quality MP3 files and transfer those to a portable player I can take anywhere (or share with anyone).

The example below is a snippet from the latest Radio Northern Europe International broadcast on WRMI.  WRMI has some decent equipment and I like how clean and wide is the bandwidth of many of the music programs.  This is captured on the AirSpy HF+ using SDR Console V.3 with a user-defined 12kHz filter (11kHz also seemed somewhat similar sounding).

If you click on the ellipses, you can Copy an existing filter, type in a new title and change the bandwidth.  I also played around with the different Windowing types and found that I like the Blackman-Harris (7) type best for music and the Hann type for smooth speech rendering (the Kaiser-Bessel types can also have more “punch” for voice recordings).  Click OK TWICE to save the changes.

I also use Slow AGC and the SAM (Sync with both sidebands) to reduce the chance of distortion as the signal fades.  I found that trying to use only one sideband while in Sync mode would make the reception open to loss of Sync with the musical notes warbling and varying all over the place!

Noise Reduction

The SDR Console software has a number of noise reduction choices.   I tried NR1 through 4 and found the smoothest response to music to be NR1 with no more than 3 dB reduction.  More than this seemed to muffle the musical notes, especially acoustic instruments and higher pitched voices. Part of the problem has to do with trying to preserve the crispness of the articulation of the sound and combating shortwave noise at the same time.  At this time, I have chosen NOT to use any NR mode.  More about noise reduction below.

Generic MP3 sounds really bland to my ears, so creating higher quality files will be important to me.  I have been using Audacity which can apply processing and special effects to WAV files and export to any number of file formats.  WAV files are a wonderful thing.  It is a “lossless” file format which means that every single “bit” of computer input is captured and preserved in the file depending on the resolution of the recording device.  This allows one to create any number of those “lossy” output formats or even another WAV file with special effects added.  You can get it here:

https://www.audacityteam.org

One special effect is listed as “Noise Reduction”.  I literally stumbled upon it while reading something else about Audacity (manual link).  Here is how I use it for a shortwave broadcast.  Open the original spectrum recording (in this example the 49m band).  Tune about 25kHz away from the broadcast that was just recorded.  Remember, my hearing extends at least to 14.4k plus there is still the pesky issue of sideband splatter of bandwidth filters.  The old time ceramic and mechanical filters use to spec something called “skirt selectivity” -60db or more down from the center frequency.  This is still an issue with DSP filters even though they SAY they are measured down to -140dB; I can still hear a raspy sideband splatter from strong stations!

Find the same time frame that you recorded the broadcast and make sure it is the same bandwidth filter, AGC, and any noise reduction used.  Now record one minute of empty noise to a WAV file.  Fortunately on 5850 kHz, WRMI has no adjacent interference.

Now in Audacity, open the noise sample and listen for a 5 to 10 second space to copy that is relatively uniform in noise.  We don’t want much beyond that and we don’t really want noise spikes.  The object is to reduce background noise. In this case, I chose Start 39 seconds and End 44 seconds.  Choose Edit – Copy (or CTRL-C).

Choose File Open and find the broadcast WAV file in question.  Now click on the end-of-file arrow or manually type in the Audio Position (in this example 1 minute 15 seconds).  Now Paste (or CTRL-V) the 5 seconds of noise to the end of the broadcast file.  Now, while the pasted noise is still highlighted, go immediately to Effect – Noise Reduction and choose the button Get Noise Profile.  It will blink quickly to read the highlighted 5 seconds of noise and disappear.

Now select all with CTRL-A and the whole file is selected.  Go immediately to Effect – Noise Reduction and choose the parameters in “Step 2”.  Through some trial and error, I found 3db reduction has a noticeable effect without compromising the music.  I have used up to 5 db for some music recorded with narrower bandwidths.  Higher levels of noise reduction seemed to create an artificial flatness that was disturbing to me.  I also use a Sensitivity of 0.50 and Frequency smoothing of 0.  You can choose the Preview button while the Residue circle is checked to actually hear the noise being eliminated.  Press OK in order to process the noise reduction.  You should now see the waveform change slightly as the noise is filtered.  In a nutshell, I find this to be a better noise reduction than using 3db of NR1 in the SDR Console software.  Don’t forget to snip off those 5 seconds of noise before saving the file.

Pseudo Stereo

The SDR Console software has an Option for Pseudo Stereo (for playback only) and it can be useful for Amateur Radio receiving, especially in noisy band conditions when one is straining to hear the other person’s call sign and location.  There is a way in Audacity to add a fake kind of stereo effect to mono audio files.  I found a useful YouTube video that explained it very clearly.

I  do everything listed there except for the Reverb effect.  I find that too fake for my tastes.

I found the added 10ms of Delay on the right channel to be a little too much, so I use 9ms.

My High Pass filter settings are 80 Hz and 24dB/octave.  This is based partly on my hearing preferences as well as established industry standards.  There was a lot of science and audio engineering that went into creating the THX home theater crossover standard.  There is also science that says that anything below 200 Hz is omnidirectional.  The suggested 48dB/octave is too steep in my opinion.

My Low Pass filter settings are more squishy.  The YouTube video suggests 8000 Hz and 6dB/octave.  I feel that is too gentle a rolloff into the upper midrange.  I use 9000 Hz at 12dB/octave for very strong, high quality shortwave broadcasters like WRMI. For more constrained quality broadcasts, like due to limited bandwidth (Cuban broadcasters) or adjacent channel interference, I will decrease down to 8000 or 7000 Hz but still use a 12dB/octave rolloff.  This is subjective but it also means I am making a conscious decision to add that processing to the recording for future listening.

MP3 Quality

Typical MP3 files are a Constant Bit Rate of 128k.  Some interviews and voice-only podcasts are only 64k.  This is adequate but for recording detail in the music I prefer higher quality settings.  Frankly, with these days of 4G cell phone service and Unlimited Data minutes on cell phone plans, there is NO good reason to limit MP3 files to just adequate quality levels.  The typical MP3 file sounds limited in frequency range (muffled sounding) to me and very lacking in dynamic range (narrow amplitude).  This would include limits on stereo files which are about twice the file size of mono files.

I have tried creating WMA files and I actually like the quality a little better than high quality MP3 files.  The WMA files seem slightly more “airy” and defined to my ears.  But it is a proprietary format from Microsoft and not all web sites or devices will easily play them.  They are also a fixed standard and one cannot easily change the quality settings if forced to use a lower quality rendering.

There are many web sites talking about MP3 files, but I found this blog post helpful in summarizing in one paragraph the higher quality settings for a nice MP3 recording using VBR-ABR mode.

https://technical-tips.com/blog/software/mp3-encoding-right–1334

One Minute Samples

So finally for my examples.  Since most web sites still prefer MP3 files, I have created these using that  blog post’s suggestions.  Typically this is Min bitrate=32, Max bitrate=224, VBR quality=9, and Quality=High (Q=2).  Let’s see if you can hear the differences.  It would be much easier to hear if we were listening to WAV files, but those are way too big to post on this web site!  The software I used is Xmedia Recode and I find it easy to use.

https://www.majorgeeks.com/files/details/xmedia_recode.html


Example 1: No noise reduction in SDR Console, no further processing


Example 2: 3dB of NR1 in SDR Console, no further processing


Example 3: No noise reduction in SDR Console, Audacity Noise Reduction of 3dB


Example 4: No noise reduction in SDR Console, Audacity Noise Reduction applied 3 times (3db,0.33+2db,0.50+1db,0.80)


Example 5: No noise reduction in SDR Console, Audacity Noise Reduction applied 3 times (3db,0.33+2db,0.50+1db,0.80), Pseudo Stereo added


I would love to hear comments since I am new to recording music on shortwave and any further tips/tricks would be fun to learn.  Enjoy the music!

TomL

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Guest Post: Indoor Noise and Ferrites, Part1

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, TomL, who shares the following guest post:


Indoor Noise and Ferrites, Part 1

by TomL

My magnet wire loop antenna on the porch reminded me to revisit aspects about my noisy Condo that I still needed to understand.  Some RF noise I could control if I could find the right kind of information that is understandable to a non-engineer like me.  There is a lot written about the general problem of noise and radio listening, for instance this ARRL article with web links to research – www.arrl.org/radio-frequency-interference-rfi, but I needed to get more specific about my particular environment.

I had tried some common clamp-on TDK ferrites I had obtained from eBay a long time ago but they only seemed to work a little bit.  I have since found out these are probably the ones which are widely used on home stereo system connections used to reduce noise on those systems.  There must be a better way.

The more I researched topics, like a portable “Loop on Ground” antenna, or, using RF chokes on the magnet wire loop, it dawned on my feeble, misguided brain that I was wrongly thinking about how to use ferrite material.  For one thing, the material used to suppress RF noise is made with a certain “mix” of elements, like Manganese-Zinc, that electrically “resists” a specified frequency range.  Fair-Rite has a useful Material Data Sheets web page which lists the Types of ferrite material.  For dealing with noise (at the Source causing the problem), I needed to use the right kind of “Suppression” materials and proper placement.  So, it (partly) made sense why the TDK snap-on ferrites might not fully work to reduce certain noise coming from my computer screens, LED lights, USB devices, and cheap Chinese-made power adapters.

A very good  paper is by Jim Brown (K9YC) of Audio Systems Group entitled, “Understanding How Ferrites Can Prevent and Eliminate RF Interference to Audio Systems [PDF]”.  There is a longer paper speaking directly to Amateur Radio folks, but the Audio version is simpler and it uses some of the same  graphs and ideas.  I was drawn to the very detailed Impedance measurements of many different “Types” of ferrite material used for different noise mitigation.  I remember the traumatic pain of my college experience trying mightily to understand the Van Vlack Materials Science text book to no avail.  But Jim’s paper reminded me of the importance of using the correct type of ferrite material and in an optimal way that reacts favorably in the target frequency range to solve a particular noise problem.  So, what are my problem areas?

Shortwave Noise

Loop antennas have been what I have experimented with the most.  They do not pick up as much man-made noise (QRM) and they have a space saving footprint.  Fortunately, there is a wooden porch where these things have been tried.  I had successfully built a broadband amplified “ferrite sleeve loop” (FSL) in the past.  It was useful for a while but it fell into disrepair and also the Condo building has steadily increased in noise output.  The amplifier was just amplifying the noise after a while.  I also tried phasing two antennas but found the ever increasing noise cloud was coming from all directions and I could not null it out.  I even tried a “mini-whip” from eBay but that just produced a wall of noise.

I recently tested AirSpy’s YouLoop written about before, and the results were good.  However, it seemed obvious to me that it was too small as a passive loop to capture shortwave signals strongly enough without resorting to another amplifier attached at the antenna and would not improve the signal/noise ratio.  My current solution is a unamplified stealth magnet wire loop about 32 feet in circumference.  In that article, I mention things like common mode RF chokes at both ends of the antenna connection, horizontal polarization, and basically accepting that only the stronger shortwave signals will be received in a predictable manner.  I think for now, this is about all I can do for shortwave and mediumwave noise, as far as my own Condo-generated noise. Neighborhood noise is a different topic.

VHF Noise

I then started to isolate which devices caused which kind of noise when listening to my outside amplified antennas for FM/VHF and UHF-TV transmissions.  Many consumer Power adapters make a lot of noise from VLF up into UHF ranges.  One thing I did right was to try a 10 pack of these little miracle “Wall Wart” toroids from Palomar Engineers.  One by one, I put one of these small toroids (19mm inside diameter) on my home AC adapters as shown in the pictures, and the noises started disappearing.  It does not explicitly say, but I believe it is Type 75 material which suppresses the noise generating AC adapter (at very low frequencies) when wrapped 8 – 12 times.

Most egregious of these was my CCrane FM2 transmitter.  A strangled warbling sound kept emanating from the monitor closest to my laptop. Installing ferrites on the laptop and back of the monitor were not working.  I moved the FM Transmitter and noticed a reduction in noise.  So, I put one of these little toroids on the power input of the device and the noise disappeared.  Apparently, it was picking up noise from the monitor (as well as its own power adapter) and rebroadcasting it to all my other radios!  The strangled warbler is no more, I choked it (HaHa, sick bird joke).

While looking for the monitor noise, I put the eBay TDK ferrites on all the USB ports and HDMI ports.  This has helped greatly on VHF and confirms my suspicion that these cheap TDK ferrites are indeed a common type of ferrite material.  Some informative graphs can be seen in Jim Brown’s Audio paper mentioned before.  One example might be Figure 22, which shows the #61 Series Resistance which peaks around 100 MHz when using a toroid with three “Turns”.  More confused, I could not find a definition of a “Turn”.  Eventually, in his longer paper to Amateur Radio operators, he defines it, “…is one more than the number of turns external to the cores”.  Somewhere else he describes using many single snap-on ferrites being electrically equal to just one toroidal ferrite with multiple Turns.  And interestingly, more Turns shifts the peak impedance substantially lower in frequency.  So, using the graphs he supplies, one can target a noisy frequency range to try to suppress.

I then put 6 of the TDK ferrites on the VHF input to the AirSpy HF+.  Some FM grunge was reduced and was thankful for that.  The rest of the background noise truly seems to be coming from the outside picked up by the amplified antenna.

Also, I juggled a couple of the amplifiers around and now have separate VHF/FM and UHF/TV amplifiers which cleaned up the FM reception a little bit more – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkDsy95et2w .

UHF TV Quality

On a whim, I put the balance of the TDK ferrites on the FM/TV splitter input cable, 10 in all.  The FM reception did not improve but the Over The Air UHF TV reception Quality improved noticeably.  My weakest TV station now has a stable Signal level and the Quality is pegged at 100%.  This is a nice surprise since it means that now all local TV stations on UHF will come in cleanly without dropouts and I can view all digital subchannels.  I was even able to rescan and added two more low-power stations never seen before. ?

LED lights

I have common LED lights hanging over a number of fish tanks and some grow lights over an indoor plant box and can hear this noise on upper shortwave and higher radio bands.  In a future article, I will explore RF noise from lights as its own special topic. For instance, why do some LED lights generate RFI and how to know before buying (I am using BR30 spot bulbs from name brands)?  Also, there is a new kind of LED “filament” light out now that uses much smaller LED’s on both sides of an aluminum strip, greatly reducing electromagnetic noise output (or do they??).  More questions than answers.

I will explore creating my own customized AC power cord attached to the AC power strips of the LED lights.  I will need to test this for safety and efficacy, so I will want to take some time to do this right.  The hope is that, using Jim’s info, I will be able to create a broad spectrum RFI suppression AC power cord and cost less than $30 each cord.  We’ll see.

Finally, I will look at “stacked” toroids using different mixes of ferrite Types, creating a custom RF suppression better than using just one Type of ferrite material, using AC cords as the main examples. For instance, the best set of graphs in Jim’s paper, in my opinion, are Figures 21 and 24 compared to each other.  Something I did not know before is that one can not only use multiple turns on a single toroid to get a lower, peaked frequency response, but also stack multiple toroids of the same Type to get a smoother frequency response.  Then on top of this, combine that set with other Types to create a customized frequency response curve.

Radios are quieter now.  Those pesky grow lights are still a problem as well as the upstairs neighbor’s lights which seem to be on a timer, making FM reception noisy again after 5pm!

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Guest Post: Using Carrier Sleuth to Find the Fine Details of DX

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Nick Hall-Patch, for sharing the following guest post:


Using Carrier Sleuth to Find the Fine Details of DX

by Nick Hall-Patch

Introduction 

Medium wave DXers are not all technical experts, but most of us understand that the amplitude modulated signals that we listen to are defined by a strong carrier frequency, surrounded on either side by a band of mirror image sideband frequencies, containing the audio information in the broadcast.

Most DXers’ traditional  experience of carriers has been in using the BFO of a receiver, using USB or LSB mode, and hearing the  decreasing audio tone approaching “zero beat” of the receiver’s internal carrier compared with the DX’s carrier frequency as one tuned past it.  This was often used as a way of detecting that a signal was on the channel, but otherwise wasn’t strong enough to deliver audio.  Subaudible heterodynes,  regular pulsations imposed on the received audio from a DX station, could indicate that there was a second station hiding there, with a slightly different carrier frequency,  And, complex pulsations, or even outright low-pitched tones could indicate three or more stations potentially available on a single channel.

With the advent of software defined radio (SDR) within the last 10 years or so, the DXer has also been able to see a graphical representation of the frequency spectrum of the carrier and its associated sidebands.  (Figure 1)  Note that the carrier usually remains stable in amplitude and frequency, unless there are variations introduced by propagation, but that the sidebands are extremely variable.

Figure 1

Figure 2

In addition, by looking at a finer resolution of the SDR’s waterfall display, one might see additional carriers on a channel that are producing heterodynes (audible or sub-audible) in the received audio (Figure 2).  Generally speaking, a DX signal with a stronger carrier will be more likely to produce readable audio, although there are exceptions to that rule.

Initially, DXers wanted to discover the exact frequency of their DX, accurate to the nearest Hertz.  Although only a small group of enthusiasts were interested, they have produced a number of IRCA Reprints (https://www.ircaonline.org and click the “Free IRCA Reprints” button) over the years under the topic of “precision frequency measurement” (e.g. T-005, T-027, T-031, T-079, T-090) describing their use of some reasonably sophisticated equipment for the day, such as frequency counters.

So, why would this information be at all important?  In effect, the knowledge of the exact frequency of a carrier was used to provide a fingerprint for a specific radio station.    Usually, this detail was used by DXers who were trying to track down new DX, and wanted to determine whether a noisy signal was actually something that had been heard before, so would not waste any more time with it.  The process of finding this exact frequency has since been made much easier by being able to view the carrier graphically in SDR software, assuming that the SDR has been calibrated before being used to listen to and record the DX.   Playing back the recorded files will also contain the details of the exact frequency observed at the time of recording.  And, because the exact frequency of DX has become much easier to determine using SDRs, more and more DXers seem to be using this technique.

At present, Jaguar software for Perseus is the one being used by many to determine frequency resolution down to 0.1Hz, both in receiving and in playback.   But, if you have recorded SDR files from hardware other than Perseus, it is possible to get that resolution also, using software called Carrier Sleuth, from Black Cat Systems, available for both Mac and Windows, at a cost of US$20.

This software will presently take as input, sets of RF I/Q files generated by SpectraVue, SdrDx, Perseus (which includes files recorded by Jaguar), Studio One / SDRUno, Elad, SDR Console, and HDSDR.  It then outputs a single file with a .fft extension, that provides the user with a set of waterfalls, similar to those displayed by SDR programs.  The user decides ahead of time which frequency or set of frequencies (including all 9kHz or all 10kHz channels) will be output, and these will be displayed as individual waterfalls. one for each chosen frequency.  These waterfalls can be stepped through from low frequency to high frequency, or chosen individually from a drop down menu.

Let’s start by looking at a couple of output waterfalls and work out what can be done with them, then step back to find out how to generate them, and what other data is available from them.  Finally, we’ll do a quick comparison with two other programs that can produce similar output, and discuss the limitations in all three programs.

Example outputs from Carrier Sleuth

An example showing the original intent of Carrier Sleuth, determining precise carrier frequencies, is shown in Figure 3, a waterfall from 1287kHz on the morning of 28 November 2020.  At 1524UT, a woman mentions “HBC” and “Hokkaido” in the original recording, so, it’s JOHR, Sapporo.   Although there are a number of vertical lines representing carriers in this graphic, only one has a strong coloration, indicating at least 25dB more strength than any other carrier at the time of the ID, and about 50dB more than the background level.     The absolute values of time, signal strength, and carrier frequency precise to 0.1Hz, can be found by mousing over the desired point in the waterfall and then reading the numbers in the upper right corner of the display, (encircled in Figure 3).  In this case, the receiver’s reference oscillator had been locked to an accurate 10MHz clock, disciplined by GPS, so the frequency indicated in the software is not just precise, but should also be accurate.   Similar accuracy could be obtainable by the traditional method of calibrating the SDR to WWV on 10 or 15MHz.

Carrier Sleuth indicates 1287.0002kHz, within 0.1Hz of that observed by a contributor to the MWoffsets list about 7 weeks earlier (https://www.mwlist.org/mwoffset.php?khz=1287). If you look closely, there is a slight wobble on the frequency, but the display is precise enough that it can indicate that, despite the wobble, JOHR does not wander away from that frequency of 1287.0002kHz.

Figure 3

But let’s face it, tracking carriers to such accuracy is a specialist interest (though admittedly, the medium wave DXing hobby is full of specialist interests, and this one is becoming more mainstream, at least among Jaguar users).  However, if I played back a file from another morning, and found a strong carrier on a slightly different frequency from 1287.0002kHz, it might be an indication that some new Chinese DX was turning up, and that the recorded files would be worth a closer listen at that particular time.

Figure 4

In fact, I’ve found Carrier Sleuth to be useful in digging out long haul DX after it’s been recorded, as both trans-Arctic and trans-Pacific DX at my location in western Canada can be spotty at the best of times.  This means spotty as in a “zero to zero in 60 seconds” sort of spotty, because a signal can literally fade up 10 or 15dB to a readable level in 20 seconds, perhaps with identifiable material, then disappear just as quickly.   My best example so far this season was on 1593kHz, early in the UTC day of 16 November 2020, when a Romanian station on that channel paid a brief visit to my receiver in western Canada.  An initial inkling of that showed up in a Carrier Sleuth waterfall, a blotch of dark red at 0358UT, and indicated by the yellow arrow in Figure 4; that caused me to go back to the recorded SDR files that had generated these traces.

The dark blotch indicates a 10dB rise and fall in signal strength including about 60 seconds of rough audio, which turned out to be the choral version of the Romanian national anthem (RCluj1593.wav).  That one carrier and another one both started up at 0350UT, the listed sign-on time for Radio Cluj, which does indeed begin the broadcast day with that choral anthem.   Which one of the Radio Cluj transmitters was heard is still an open question, due to the lack of carrier sleuths (computerized or otherwise) on the ground in Romania,  but the more powerful one listed is a mere 15kw, so I will take either.

Finally, for those who have interest in radio propagation, the Carrier Sleuth displays can reveal some odd anomalies, for example, Figure 5 which displays both Radio Taiwan International (near 1557.000kHz on 28 November, but varies from day to day), and CNR2 (1557.004kHz)  carriers as local sunrise at 1542UT approached in Victoria, BC.

Figure 5

The diffuseness of the carriers is striking, as is their tendency to shift higher in frequency at local sunrise.  This doesn’t seem to be some strangeness in the original SDR recording, as there appear to be unaffected weak carriers on the channel.  For comparison, Figure 3 shows the same recorded time and date, but on 1287kHz, and JOHR’s carrier is pretty stable, but there are others on that channel that show the shift higher in frequency around local sunrise.  As one goes lower in frequency, these shifts became smaller and less common on each 9kHz channel, and disappear below about 1000kHz.    On later mornings, however, the shifts could be found right down to the bottom of the MW band.  Certainly, these observations are food for further thought.

Many of the parameters in Carrier Sleuth are adjustable by the user, for example, the sliders at the top of the screen can allow adjustment of the color palette to be more revealing of differences in signal strength.   The passband shown is also easily changed, and in fact, setting  the passband width to 400Hz, instead of my usual 50Hz , and creating another run of the program on 1557kHz, shows very clearly the sidebands of the “the Rumbler”, a possible jammer on the channel  (Figure 6).  Incidentally, a lot of the traces around 1557.000kHz in Figure 5 may well be part of “the Rumbler” signal as well, as filtering of the audio doesn’t seem to improve readability on the channel.

Although the examples here are taken from DXing overseas signals from western Canada, there is no reason why similar techniques may  not be applied to domestic DXing, particularly during the daytime, when signals can be weak, but can fade up unpredictable for brief periods.

Figure 6

How to create these waterfall displays in Carrier Sleuth?

So, how can you get these displays for yourself?  A “try before you buy” version of the program is available at http://blackcatsystems.com/software/medium_wave_carrier_display_app.html  and both the website and the program itself contain a quite detailed set of instructions.    However, the 25 cent tour can be summarized this way:

You start with a group of supported SDR data files, previously recorded, and use “Open I/Q data files” in the File drop down menu. Figure 7 shows the window that will open to allow you to choose any number of the files from your stored SDR files, by clicking the Add Files button  circled in red.  Then choose one of the options inside the green circle in Figure 7.  They are explained in more detail in the help write up; note that the “Custom Channel” can be specified to considerably more precision than just integer kHz values, e.g. 1205.952     The rest of the settings you will probably adapt to your needs as you gain experience.   Finally, set an output file name using the Set Output File button, and hit the “Process” button at the bottom of the window. There are a couple of colored bars in the upper right hand corner of the display that indicate progress, along with number of seconds left, although these are not always visible.

Figure 7

The generation of these waterfalls takes time.   A computer with a faster CPU and more memory will speed things up.  There is, however, an important limitation of the program.  It is specified for 32-bit systems, and although it will run with no problem on 64-bit systems, individual input I/Q files are therefore restricted to 2GB or less.   Many SDR users now choose to create larger files than this, and Carrier Sleuth will not handle them.  Another possible limitation can occur when processing 32M FFTs, which are useful for delivering very fine frequency resolution of the carriers displayed.   The program really requires in excess of 4GB of memory to handle the computation needed to deliver this fine a scale.  Unfortunately, both the 2GB file size limitation and insufficient memory limitation deliver generic error messages, followed by program termination, which leaves the inexperienced user none the wiser about the true problem.

This might be a good place for a word about FFT size and Resolution Bandwidth (RBW).  The FFT is a mathematical computation that takes as its input the samples of digital data that an SDR generates (or those samples that  have been saved in recorded files), and generates a set of “bins”, which are individual numbers representing signal strength at a defined number of consecutive frequencies spaced across the full bandwidth being monitored by the SDR. You could think of these bins as a series of tiny consecutive RF filters, spread across the band, each delivering its own signal strength.   As we are trying to look at fine scale differences in frequency when using a program like Carrier Sleuth, it is important that these little “RF filters”, or bins, each have a very narrow bandwidth.  This value is called “Resolution Band Width” (RBW), and preferably should be a fraction of a Hertz to get displays such as those shown in Figures 3 through 5.

The “FFT Length” is the number of bins that the FFT display contains, and is equal to the number of I/Q samples (either from the SDR or recorded file) that are used for the input to its computation.  The relationship between FFT Length, the bandwidth of the SDR or of the original recorded I/Q file, and the RBW is fairly simple:

Because the MW DXer is usually looking at data with 1MHz or more bandwidth, this equation tells us that to get a smaller than 1Hz RBW, we will need to have an FFT length of well over  one million bins, so it would be wise to use an FFT length at least 8M(illion).   If you are looking at a recorded file that is from an SDR using a lower bandwidth, then a lower FFT length will do the job to get a smaller RBW.

A downside of using a long FFT length is that the time resolution of the FFT becomes poorer, resulting in a display in Carrier Sleuth that will appear to be compressed from top to bottom compared with what was seen when recording the SDR file, and with correspondingly less response to fast changes in signal strength.   However, using a 16M FFT Length on a recording of the MW band results in a time resolution of about 12 seconds, so it should not be a deal breaker for most.

Producing signal strength plots 

A further specialist activity for some DXers is recording signal strength on specific channels, and then displaying the progress of signal strength versus time, often to indicate when openings have occurred in the past  (say, at transmitter sunset),  and perhaps allowing one to predict such openings in the future.    But, the world has come a long way from the noting down of S-meter readings at regular time intervals, both in deriving signal strength and in plotting the results.  Read on for an example.

Figure 8

Carrier Sleuth recently added the capability of creating files containing signal strength versus time for specified frequencies, and, depending on the size of RBW, to deliver that signal strength as observed in a passband as narrow as 0.05Hz, or as wide as 10Hz.   The program extracts the signal strength information from one of the FFT files that it has already generated from a selection of SDR I/Q files.   In Figure 5, two stations’ signals, from Radio Taiwan International, and from CNR2, were featured in the display.   With roughly 4Hz difference between the two signals, it is easily possible with Carrier Sleuth to derive signal strength from each one, specifying a bandwidth of, say 1.2Hz, to account for the propagation induced drifts and smearing of the carriers, not to mention any drift in either the receiver or transmitter.

The program creates a .csv file (text with comma delimiters) of signal strength versus time for all the frequencies chosen from an individual FFT file, but does not plot them.  There are several programs that can create plots from CSV files   For example, an Excel plot generated from Figure 5 is in Figure 8, showing peaks in those signals that occurred both before and after local sunrise at 15:42UTC.   Note that the user is not restricted to the signals found on just one of the waterfalls that are found in the FFT file, but can pick and choose dozens of signals found anywhere in those waterfalls.    (Note also that one can choose locations on any waterfall where there is no signal trace, in order to provide a “background level versus time” in the finished plots, if desired)

The process used to generate this CSV file involves searching through the FFT waterfalls for signal traces that are likely candidates for adding to such a file.   On the first candidate found, the user right clicks the mouse on the trace, at the exact frequency desired; this will bring up an editable window.   The window will show the chosen frequency as well as any subsequent ones that will be chosen, then the overall selection is saved to a text file after editing, so that the user can move on to generating the CSV file.

That file is created by going to the File drop down menu, and choosing “Generate CSV File”, where the text file produced earlier can be chosen.  Once that file is selected, the CSV file is immediately generated, and can then be manipulated separately as the user chooses.

Are there comparable programs?

Displaying waterfalls in SDR programs playing back their own files is nothing new, though not that many can do it at as fine a scale as Carrier Sleuth does, and most programs are not optimized to handle such a variety of input I/Q files.

One that does read a fair number of different kinds of SDR files is the SDR Console program; this includes Data File Analyser (64-bit only) which also can display carrier tracks to a high resolution, so let’s take a quick look at what Analyser does.  If you are familiar with SDR Console, and are reasonably experienced with the way it handles your SDR or plays back files from your favored SDR software, then these online instructions https://www.sdr-radio.com/analyser will help you get started with Analyser

This program will input a group of SDR files, then display an equivalent to a single one of the waterfalls output by Carrier Sleuth, displaying the carrier traces in reverse order, with time running from bottom to top of the display. Figure 9 shows the equivalent of Carrier Sleuth’s display of the 1287kHz carrier traces shown in Figure 3.    Analyser has a convenient sliding cross hair arrangement (shown in the yellow oval) to reveal time and frequency at any point in the display, but the actual signal power available at that point must be derived from the rough RGB scale along the left hand border. Analyser is apparently capable of about 0.02Hz resolution when reading from full bandwidth medium wave SDR files, but the default is to display exact frequency only to the nearest Hertz. The “Crosshairs” ribbon item has a drop down of “High-Resolution”  which displays to the nearest milliHertz however, though that will be limited by the actual RBW of the generated display.   The graphic display can be saved as a project after the initial generation of the signal traces, which allows the user to return to the display without having to generate it all over again, equivalent to opening one of Carrier Sleuth’s FFT files.

A useful facility in Analyser is the ability to click “Start” in the Playback segment of the ribbon above an Analyser display, then mouse over and click on a signal trace; this action will play back the audio for that channel in SDR Console, at that point in time.

It is possible to generate a signal strength plot of signal strength versus time for any individual frequency in the waterfall display, and to save that plot as a CSV file (“Signal History”).   But, the signal strength is that found only in a +/- 0.5Hz passband around the chosen frequency, with no other possibilities.  If you want to generate a plot for another frequency on the same waterfall, then you will need to run the process again, and if you want a plot for another frequency in the SDR files, then you need to generate another waterfall, which, depending on your computer’s capability, could take some time.   On an i3 CPU-based netbook with 4GB of memory, it took 30 minutes to produce one frequency’s worth of traces from data files scanning three hours.  On the same machine, Carrier Sleuth could deliver all 9kHz channels in 1hr20min from the 3 hours of files.  However, it also took 1hr20min to play back just one channel in Carrier Sleuth, which is not so efficient. (further note:   Nils Schiffhauer has developed a technique to speed up Data Analyser processing, by first using Console’s Data File Editor on full bandwidth MW recorded files; details will likely appear at https://dk8ok.org)

To conclude then, SDR Console’s Analyser will produce a display of a single channel faster than Carrier Sleuth will, and will play back the audio associated with that channel, while also having the capability to plot and record signal strength for a single given frequency within that display, but only on 64-bit computers.  It can also handle SDR files larger than 2GB in size, and will run more quickly if a NVIDIA graphics card has been installed.   Analyser is also strict about sequence of files.  If there is the slightest gap between one file finishing, and the next file starting in time sequence, it regards that as a new set, that will need to be processed separately.

Where Carrier Sleuth is more useful is that once an FFT file has been generated, it is easy to quickly check multiple channels for interesting openings during the recorded time period. It can also provide very precise frequencies of carriers, and is able to generate a file of signal strengths versus time from multiple frequencies, including those frequencies that are separated by barely more than the RBW.  For the MW band, that can be near 0.1Hz, often beyond the capability of transmitters to be that stable.  See Figure 10, which shows signal strength traces from JOCB and HLQH both on 558kHz, and separated in frequency by 0.1Hz.    At 1324UTC, JOCR dominates with men in Japanese, and at 1356UTC, the familiar woman in Korean dominates, indicating HLQH.

Figure 9

Figure 10

Incidentally, another program that seems to offer a similar functionality to Carrier Sleuth and SDR Console’s Analyser is, of course, Jaguar, which has made a point of displaying 0.1Hz readout resolution when using the Perseus SDR, and in playing back Perseus files, but…only Perseus.  There is a capability called Hi-Res in Jaguar Pro that can be applied when playing back files; this also displays fine scale traces of frequency versus the passage of time.  Steve VE6WZ, sent the example shown in Figure 11, zeroing in on his logging of DZAR-1026.  As with Analyser, clicking on a certain point in the display plays back the audio at that time, but it is unclear at this point whether the display can be saved, or whether it is generated only for one individual channel, and then is lost.

Figure 11

+   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +

Availability

Carrier Sleuth  http://blackcatsystems.com/software/medium_wave_carrier_display_app.html

Analyser (SDR Console)   https://www.sdr-radio.com/download

Jaguar   http://jaguars.kapsi.fi/download/ (these are the Lite versions; to unlock the Pro version, purchase is needed)

(this article first appeared in International Radio Club of America’s DX Monitor)


Many thanks, Nick. This is amazing. What a brilliant tool to find nuances of a DX signal. I can’t help but marvel at the applications we enthusiasts have available today. Thank you for sharing!

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How to Build a Simple Linear-Loaded Dipole for Low-Noise Shortwave Radio Listening

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor and RX antenna guru, Grayhat, for another excellent guest post focusing on compact, low-profile urban antennas:


A linear loaded dipole for the SWL

by Grayhat

What follows is the description of an antenna which may allow to obtain good performances even in limited space, the antenna which I’m about to describe is a “linearl loaded dipole”(LLD) which some call the “cobra” antenna due to the “snaking” of its wires
The arms of the antenna are built using 3-conductors wire (which may be flat or round) and the 3 conductors are connected this way:

That is, connected “in series”, this means that, the electrical length of the antenna will be three times its physical one; this does NOT mean that the antenna will perform like a single wire of the same (total) length, yet it allows to “virtually” make it longer, which in turn gives it good performance even with relatively short sizes. Plus, the distributed inductance/capacitance between the wires not only gives it a number of “sub” resonance points, but also helps keeping the noise down (in my experience below the noise you’d expect from a regular dipole).  At the same time it offers better performances than what one may expect from a “coil loaded” dipole. Plus, building it is easy and cheap and the antenna will fit into even (relatively) limited spaces (a balcony, a small yard and so on…).

Interested–? If so, read on and let me start by showing my (short – 9mt total) LLD installed on a balcony:

Here it is in all its “glory”–well, not exactly–I fiddled with it lately since I’m considering some mods so the tape isn’t correctly stuck and it has been raised and lowered quite some times, but in any case that’s it.

Bill of Materials

Here’s what you’ll need to build it (the links are just indicative, you may pick different stuff or buy it locally or elsewhere).

  • Some length of 3-conductors electrical wire which will fit your available space (pick it a bit longer to stay on the safe side), it may be flat or round, in my case I used the round type since it was easily available and cheap: https://amzn.to/3g2eZX3
  • A NooElec V2 9:1 BalUn–or, if you prefer you may try winding your own and trying other ratios. I tested some homebuilt 1:1, 1:4 and 1:6 and found that the tiny and cheap NooElec was the best fitting one): https://amzn.to/3fNnvce
  • A small weatherproof box to host the BalUn: https://amzn.to/33vjZy3
  • A center support which may be bought or built. In the latter case, a piece of PCV pipe with some holes to hold the wires should suffice. In my case I picked this one (can’t find it on amazon.com outside of Italy): https://www.amazon.it/gp/product/B07NKCYT5Z
  • A pair of SMA to BNC adapters: https://amzn.to/37krHwj
  • A run of RG-58 coax with BNC connectors: https://amzn.to/2JckHcR

Plus some additional bits and pieces like some rope to hang the antenna, some nylon cable ties, a bit of insulated wire, duct tape and some tools. Notice that the above list can be shortened if you already have some of the needed stuff and this, in turn will lower (the already low) cost of the antenna.

Putting the pieces together

Ok, let’s move on to the build phase. The first thing to do will be measuring your available space to find out how much wire we’ll be able to put on the air; in doing so, consider that (as in my case), the antenna could be mounted in “inverted Vee” configuration which will allow to fit the antenna even in limited space.

In any case, after measuring the available space, let’s subtract at least 1m (50cm at each end) to avoid placing the antenna ends too near to the supports. Also, if in “inverted Vee” config, we’ll need to subtract another 50cm to keep the feedpoint (center/box) away from the central support.

Once we’ve measured, we may start by cutting two equal lengths of 3-conductor wire. Next, we’ll remove a bit of the external sleeve to expose the three conductors and then we’ll remove the insulator from the ends of the three exposed wire (and repeat this at the other end of the cable and for both arms).

The resulting ends of each arm should look somewhat like in the example image below

Now we’ll need to connect the wires in series. We’ll pick one of the cables which will be the two arms of our antenna and, assuming we have the same colors as in the above image, we’ll connect the green and white together at one end and the black and green together at the other end. Repeat the same operation for the second arm and the cables will be ready.

Now, to have a reference, let’s assume that the ends of each arm with the black “free” (not connected) wire will go to the center of our dipole.

Leave the two arms alone for a moment, and let’s install the balun inside the waterproof box. To do so, we’ll start by cutting a (small) hole through the single rubber cap found at one side of the box, then insert the cap reversed, so that it will protrude to the inside of the box and not to the outside. Slide the balun SMA connector through the hole so that it will protrude outside the box.

Now use a marker to mark the balun position and remove the balun from the box. Pick a piece of wood/plastic or other insulating material, cut it to size (refer to marking and to balun size) and drill four holes matching the one found on the balun board. Slide four screws through the holes and lock them with nuts, the screws should be long enough to extrude for some mm. Now insert the balun in the screws using the holes present on the balun board and lock it with nuts (be gentle to avoid damaging the balun). At this point, add some “superglue” to the bottom of the support we just built, slide the balun SMA connector through the rubber cap hole we already practiced, and glue the support to the bottom of the waterproof box.  Wait for the glue to dry.

Just to give you a better idea, see the photo above. That’s a photo of the early assembly of my balun. Later on, I rebuilt it as described above (but took no pics!), the image should help you understanding how it’s seated inside the box–by the way in our case it will be locked by the screws to the plastic support we glued to the box.

While waiting for the glue to dry, we may work on the dipole centerpiece.

If you bought one like I did, connecting the arm “black” (see above) wires should be pretty straightforward. If instead you choose to use a PVC pipe you’ll have to drill some holes to pass and lock the wire so that the strain will be supported by the pipe and not by the wire going to the balun box. In either case, connect a pair of short runs of insulated wire to the end (black) wire coming from each end. Those wires should be long enough to reach the balun wire terminal block inside the box.

Assuming the glue dried, it’s time to complete the feedpoint connection.

Bring the two wires coming from the centerpoint inside the waterproof box. Pick one of the wire terminal blocks which came with the balun (the “L” shaped one should be a good choice) and connect the wires to it. Then, slide the block in place until it locks firmly. After doing so, close the box and screw the SMA-BNC adapter onto the SMA connector coming from the balun. Our centerpiece and arms will now be ready, and will be time to put our antenna up!

I’ll skip the instructions about holding the arm ends and the centerpiece up, since I believe it should be pretty straightforward. Just ensure to put the antenna as high as possible and, if you have room make the arms as long as possible. In my case, due to my (self-imposed) limitations, the antenna was installed on a balcony. The arms have a length of about 3.5m each and the feedpoint (in the image above) sits at about 9m off the ground.

The more acute readers probably noticed those “blobs” on the coax, they are snap-on ferrite chokes I added to the coax (there are more of them at the rx end) to help tame common mode noise. I omitted them from the “BoM” since they may be added later on.

Anyhow, now that you have your LLD up it will be time to give it a test! In my case, I decided to start by running an FT8 session to see what the antenna could pick up during 8 hours, and the result, on the 20 meters band, is shown on the following map (click to enlarge):

Later, that same antenna allowed me to pick up signals from the Neumayer station in Antarctica–not bad, I think!

Some final notes

While running my “balcony experiment”, I built and tested several antennas, including a vanilla “randomwire”, a dipole, and a T2FD.

Compared to those, the LLD offers much less noise and better reception on a wide frequency range. By the way, it won’t perform miracles, but it’s serving me well on the LW band, on most ham bands, and even up to the Aircraft bands–indeed, was able to pick up several conversations between aircraft and ground air traffic control.

All I can suggest is that given a linear-loaded dipole is so simple, quite cheap, and may fit many locations, why don’t you give it a spin–?  🙂

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The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable SDR DXing

The following article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable DXing

I admit it: I used to be a bit of an old-fashioned radio curmudgeon. One of those, “I like my radios with knobs and buttons” likely followed by, “…and no other way!”

However, about fifteen years ago, many of my DXing friends started turning to the world of software defined radios (or in common parlance, “SDRs”). I staunchly opposed ever following in their footsteps. One of the reasons I for this––a good one––is that, since I spend the bulk of my day in front of a computer, why would I ever want to use a computer when I’m playing radio?

But then…gradually, I found myself playing around with a few SDRs. And I quickly learned that third-generation SDRs were capable of doing something very impressive (and fun), indeed:  making spectrum recordings.  Using this tool, I found I could record not only the audio of one individual signal, but the audio of entire swathes of radio spectrum.  And even more impressive, I learned that you could later load or “play back” the spectrum recording and tune through the bands as if in real time. Any time you want. Before long, I was hooked: SDRs had become my portal into radio time travel!

I quickly found that I loved many of the other advantages of using an SDR, as well, including visual ones––like the ability to view spectrum. The interactive interface allows one to actually see radio signals across the band in real time. I also found incredible value in waterfall displays, which show signals changing in amplitude and frequency over time. Cool stuff.

I purchased my first dedicated SDR in 2012, a WinRadio Excalibur. It was––and still is––a benchmark receiver, performing circles around my tabletop receivers and general coverage transceivers.

And today, although I own and love a number of legacy radios and still listen to them in the good old-fashioned manner to which I became accustomed, I find I’m now spending the bulk of my time DXing with SDRs.

And then, more recently, two amazing things happened in the world of SDRs. Strong market competition, together with serious innovations, have come into play. Thus, for less than $200 US, you can now purchase an SDR that would have easily cost $1,000 US only ten years ago. And now, in many cases, the $200 SDR of today will outperform the $1,000 SDR of yesteryear. We are, indeed, living in good times.

And now––no more a radio curmudgeon––I’m comfortable with my SDR-user status and time at the computer, and glad I was just curious enough about SDRs to let them into my radio (and computer) world.

Portable SDRs

Since I initially dived into the world of SDRs, I’ve tried to think of a way to take them into the field.

But first, let’s get an obvious question out of the way:

Why would you want to drag an SDR into the field, when a traditional battery-powered radio is so much easier to manage?

After all, you may say, portable and even mobile tabletop receivers require no computer, no hard drive, and are likely more reliable because there are less components to manage or to cause problems for you.

In answer, let’s look at a few scenarios where heading to the field with an SDR system might just make sense.  (Hint: Many of these reasons are rooted in the SDR’s ability to record spectrum).

Good Reason #1:  Your home location is not ideal for playing radio.

Photo by Henry Be

My good friend, London Shortwave, lives in the middle of London, England. He’s an avid radio enthusiast and DXer, but his apartment is almost a perfect storm of radio interference. Listening from his home is challenging, to say the least: he can only use indoor antennas and RFI/QRM simply inundated his local airwaves.

Many years ago, he discovered that the best way to DX was to go to an area that put urban noise and radio interference at a distance.  He found that by visiting large local parks, he could play radio with almost no RFI.

Being a computer guru, he started working on a portable SDR setup so that he could go to a park, set up an antenna, and record radio spectrum while he read a book.  His systems evolved with time, each iteration being more compact less conspicuous that the previous. Later, he could head back home, open the recorded spectrum files, and tune through these “time-shifted” recordings in the comfort of his flat. This allowed London Shortwave to maximize the low-RFI listening experience by reliving the time in the park.

Over the years, he tweaked and adapted his setup, often writing his own code to make small tablets and portable computers purpose-built portable-spectrum-capture devices. If you’re curious, you might like to read about the evolution of his systems on his blog.

Clearly, for London Shortwave, an SDR is the right way to capture spectrum and thus likely the best solution for his DX listening.

Good Reason #2:  Weak-signal workarounds.

Typically radio enthusiasts turn to field operation to work in a lower-noise environment and/or where there are no antenna restrictions, often to log new stations and DX.

SDRs afford the DXer top-shelf tools for digging weak signals out of the muck. SDR applications have advanced tools for tweaking AGC settings, synchronous detectors, filters, noise reduction, and even to tailor audio.

The WinRadio Excalibur application even includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)

On top of that, being able to see a swath of spectrum and waterfall gives one an easier way––a visual way––to pinpoint weak or intermittent signals. This is much harder to do with a legacy radio.

Case in point:  I like listening to pirate radio stations on shortwave. With a spectrum display, I can see when a new station may be tuning up on the band so can position the receiver to listen in from the beginning of the broadcast, and never miss a beat.

Or, in another example, the visual aspect of spectrum display means I can easily locate trans-Atlantic DX on the mediumwave bands by looking for carrier peaks on the spectrum display outside the standard North American 10 kHz spacing. The signals are very easy to spot.

Good Reason #3: DXpeditions both small and large.

Mark Fahey, scanning the bands with his WinRadio Excalibur/Surface Pro 2 combo at our 2015 PARI DXpedition

Whether you’re joining an organized DXpedition or you’re simply enjoying a little vacation DXpedition, SDRs allow you to make the most of your radio time.

Indeed, most of the organized DXpedition these days heavily incorporate the use of SDRs specifically so DXers can record spectrum. Much like example #1 above, doing this allows you to enjoy the noise-free optimal conditions over and over again through spectrum recordings. Most DXpeditioners will have an SDR making recordings while they use another receiver to DX in real time. Later, they take the recording home and dig even more weak signals out of the mix: ones that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Good Reason #4: Sharing the spectrum with like-minded listeners.

Earlier this year, Mark gave me this 8TB hard drive chock-full of spectrum recordings.

One of the joys I’ve discovered  in making field spectrum recordings is sharing them with fellow DXers. Most of the time when I go to shortwave radio gatherings (like the Winter SWL Fest), I take a couple hard drives to exchange with other SDR enthusiasts. My friend, Mark Fahey, and I have exchanged some of our favorite spectrum recordings this way. I give him a hard drive chock-full of terabytes of recordings, and he reciprocates. Back home (or on the train or airplane) I open one of his recordings and, boom! there I am in his shack in Freeman’s Reach, Australia, tuning through Pacific stations that are not easily heard here in North America, maybe even turning up some gems Mark himself may have overlooked…just as he is doing with my recordings from the southeast US.

I’ve also acquired DXpedition spectrum recordings this way. It’s great fun to “be there” through the recordings and to enjoy some of the benefits of being on the DXpedition in times when I couldn’t actually make it there in person. For a DXer with a consuming job, busy family life, or maybe health problems that limit their travel, an SDR recording is the way to go.

Good Reason #5: Family time

Photo by David Straight

I’m a husband and father, and no matter how much I like to play radio when we’re on vacation, my family comes first, and our family activities take priority.

Having a field-portable SDR setup means that I can arrange a “set it and forget it” spectrum capture device. Before we head out the door for a family visit, tour of the area, or a hike, I simply set my SDR to record spectrum, then listen to what I “caught” after I return, or after I’m home from vacation.

This practice has allowed me to enjoy radio as much as I like, without interrupting our family adventures. Can’t beat it!

Past challenges

With all of these benefits, one might wonder why many other DXers  haven’t been using portable SDRs in the field for a while now? That’s a good question.

Power

The WinRadio G31DDC, like many SDRs of the era, has separate data and power ports

In prior years, DXers and listeners might have been reluctant to lug an SDR and its requisite apparatus out with them. After all, it’s only been in the past decade or so that SDRs haven’t required a separate custom power supply; some legacy SDRs either required an odd voltage, or as with my WinRadio Excalibur, have very tight voltage tolerances.

Originally, taking an SDR to the field––especially in places without grid mains power––usually meant you also had to take a pricey pure sine wave inverter as well as a battery with enough capacity to run the SDR for hours on end.

Having spent many months in an off-grid cabin on the east coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, I can confidently say it’s an ideal spot for DXing: I can erect large wire antennas there, it’s on salt water, and there are literally no locally-generated man-man noises to spoil my fun.  Of course, anytime we go to the cottage, I record spectrum, too, as this is truly a honey of a listening spot.

The view from our off-grid cabin on PEI.

The first year I took an SDR to the cabin, I made a newbie mistake:  it never dawned on me until I arrived and began to put it to use that my Goal Zero portable battery pack didn’t have a pure sine wave inverter; rather, I found it had a modified sine wave inverter built into it. The inverter could easily power my SDR, sure, but it also injected incredibly strong, unavoidable broadband noise into the mix. It rendered my whole setup absolutely useless. I gave up on the SDR on that trip.

Both the Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom) use a USB connection for both data transfer and power. Photo by Guy Atkins.

Today, most SDRs actually derive their power from a computer or laptop through a USB cable, one that doubles as a data and power cable. This effectively eliminates the need for a separate power system and inverter.

Of course, your laptop or tablet will need a means of recharging in the field because the attached SDR will drain its battery a little faster. Nowadays it’s possible to find any number of portable power packs/banks and/or DC battery sources to power laptops or tablets, as long as one is cautious that the system doesn’t inject noise. This still requires a little trial and error, but it’s much easier to remedy than having two separate power sources.

Portable computers

Even a Raspberry Pi 3B has enough horsepower to run SDR applications.

An SDR is nothing without a software application to run it. These applications, of course, require some type of computer.

I the past, SDR applications needed some computing horsepower, not necessarily to run the application itself, but to make spectrum recordings.  In addition, they often required extra on-board storage space to make these recordings sufficiently long to be useful.  This almost always meant lugging a full-sized laptop to the field, or else investing in a very pricey tablet with a hefty amount of internal storage to take along.

Today we’re fortunate to have a number of more portable computing devices to run SDR applications in the field: not just laptops or tablets, but mobile phones and even mini computers, like the eminently affordable $46 Raspberry Pi. While you still have to be conscious of your device’s computing horsepower, many small devices are amply equipped to do the job.

Storage

64-128 GB USB flash/thumb drives are affordable, portable storage options.

If you’re making spectrum and audio recordings in the field, you’ll need to store them somehow. Wideband spectrum recordings can use upwards of 2GB of data per minute or two.

Fortunately, even a 64GB USB flash drive can be purchased for as little as $7-10 US. This makes for quick off-loading of spectrum recordings from a device’s internal memory.

My portable SDR setup

It wasn’t until this year that all of the pieces finally came together for me so that I could enjoy a capable (and affordable!) field-portable SDR setup. Two components, in particular, made my setup a reality overnight; here’s what made the difference.

The AirSpy HF+ Discovery

Last year, AirSpy sent me a sample of their new HF+ Discovery SDR to test and evaluate. To be fully transparent, this was at no cost to me.

I set about putting the HF+ Discovery through its paces. Very soon, I reached a conclusion:  the HF+ Discovery is simply one of the best mediumwave and HF SDRs I’ve ever tested. Certainly, it’s the new benchmark for sub-$500 SDRs.

In fact, I was blown away. The diminutive HF+ Discovery even gives some of my other benchmark SDRs a proper run for their money. Performance is DX-grade and uncompromising, sporting impressive dynamic range and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The noise floor is also incredibly low. And I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you can purchase this SDR for just $169 US.

The HF+ Discovery compared in size to a DVD

In terms of portability, it’s in a class of its own. It’s tiny and incredibly lightweight. I evaluate and review SDRs all the time, but I’ve never known one that offers this performance in such a tiny package.

Are there any downsides to the HF+ Discovery? The only one I see––and it’s intentional––is that it has a smaller working bandwidth than many other similar SDRs at 768 kHz (although only recently, Airspy announced a firmware update that will increase bandwidth). Keep in mind, however, that the HF+ series SDRs were designed to prevent overload when in the presence of strong local signals. In fairness, that’s a compromise I’ll happily make.

Indeed, the HF+ Discovery maximum bandwidth isn’t a negative in my estimation unless I’m trying to grab the entire mediumwave band, all at once. For shortwave work, it’s fine because it can typically cover an entire broadcast band, allowing me to make useful spectrum recordings.

The HF+ Discovery is so remarkably tiny, that this little SDR, together with a passive loop antenna, can fit in one small travel pouch. Ideal.

The antennas

My homebrew NCPL antenna

Speaking of antennas, one of the primary reasons I’m evaluating the HF+ Discovery is because it has a very high dynamic range and can take advantage of simple antennas, in the form of passive wideband magnetic loop antennas, to achieve serious DX.

AirSpy president and engineer, Youssef Touil, experimented with several passive loop antenna designs and sizes until he found a few combinations ideally matched with the HF+ Discovery.

My good buddy, Vlado (N3CZ) helped me build such an antenna per Youssef’s specifications. Vlado had a length of Wireman Flexi 4XL that was ideal for this project (thanks, Vlad!). The only tricky part was penetrating the shielding and dielectric core at the bottom of the loop, then tapping into both sides of the center conductor for the balun connections.  Being Vlado, he used several lengths of heat shrink tubing to make a nice, clean, snag-free design. I’ll freely admit that, had I constructed this on my own, it wouldn’t have been nearly as elegant!

Click here for a step-by-step guide to building your own NCPL (Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop Antenna.

Youssef also sent me a (then) prototype Youloop passive loop antenna. It’s incredibly compact, made of high quality SMA-fitted coaxial cables. It can be set up in about 30 seconds and coiled to tuck into a jacket pocket.  The AirSpy-built loop has a lower loss transformer than the one in the homemade loop, which translates into a lower noise figure for the system.

Click here to read my review of the Youloop.

Let’s face it: SDR kit simply doesn’t get more portable than this.

The computer

My Microsoft Surface Go tablet on a hotel bed.

In the past, I used an inexpensive, circa 2013 mini Windows laptop with an internal SSD drive.  Everything worked beautifully, save the fact that it was challenging to power in the field and the internal capacity of the hard drive was so small (16GB less the operating system). In addition, it was a few years old, bought used, so the processor speed was quite slow.

This year, on the way back from the Huntsville Hamfest, I stopped by the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This center has a wide variety of used portable electronics at discount prices. I felt pretty lucky when I discovered a like-new condition Microsoft Surface Go tablet and keyboard with original charger for $190. The catch? The only data port on the tablet is a USB-C. But I grabbed a small USB-C to standard USB 3.0 dongle (for $2!) and took a risk that it would work with the HF+ Discovery.

Fortunately, it did! Score!

While the Surface Go is no powerhouse, it’s fast enough to run any of my SDRs and make spectrum recordings up to 2 MHz in width without stuttering. The only noise it seems to inject into the mix is a little RFI when I touch the trackpad on the attached keyboard.

Power

One of my LiFePo batteries

The HF+ Discovery draws power from the Surface Go tablet via the USB port. With no additional power supply, the Surface Go may only power the HF+ Discovery for perhaps an hour at most. Since I like doing fully off-grid operations and needed to avoid RFI from inverters, I needed a portable power solution.

Fortunately, the Surface Go has a dedicated power port, so I immediately ordered a DC power cable with a standard car lighter plug.

At the Huntsville Hamfest I also purchased a small 12V 4.5 Ah Bioenno LiFePo battery and paired it with a compact Powerpole distribution panel kit I purchased in May at the 2019 Dayton Hamvention.

The LiFePo battery is small, lightweight, and can power the tablet /SDR combo for hours on end. Moreover, I have noticed no extra noise injected when the DC power is applied.

My HF+ Discovery-based portable SDR kit

My portable SDR kit on a hotel balcony.

Now I have this kit, I couldn’t be more pleased with it. When all of the components of my SDR system are assembled, they work harmoniously. The entire ensemble is also incredibly compact:  the loop antennas, SDR, Surface Go tablet, battery, and distribution panel all fit in a very small travel pack, perfect for the grab-and-go DX adventure.

The entire kit: SDR, cables, Youloop antenna, connectors and adapters all fit in my Red Oxx Lil’ Roy pack.

In November, I took the kit to the coast of South Carolina and had a blast doing a little mediumwave DXing from our hotel balcony. We were very fortunate in that I had two excellent spots to hang the homemade loop antenna: on the main balcony, and from the mini balcony off the master bedroom. Both spots yielded excellent results.

What impressed me most was the fact that the SDR# spectrum display and waterfall were absolutely chock-full of signals, and there was very little noise, even in the popular resort area where we were staying. I found that my portable radios struggled with some of the RFI emanating from the hotel, but the HF+ Discovery and passive loop combo did a much better job mitigating noise.

Check out the AM broadcast band on the spectrum display.

But no need to take my word for it.  If you would like to experience it first hand, why not download an actual spectrum recording I made using this setup?

All you’ll need to do is:

  1. Download the 1.7 GB (.wav formatted) spectrum file at this address
  2. Download a copy of SDR# if you don’t already have an SDR application that can read AirSpy spectrum files.
  3. Install SDR#, and run it.
  4. At the top left corner of the SDR# screen, choose “IQ File (.wav)” as the source, then point it to where you downloaded the file.
  5. Press the play button, and experience a little radio time travel!

This particular recording was made on the mediumwave band on November 17, 2019, starting at around 01:55 UTC.

My portable SDR kit capturing spectrum during a hike in Pisgah National Forest.

I’ve also taken this setup to several parks and remote outdoor locations, and truly enjoyed the freedom of taking spectrum recordings back home to dig through the signals.

Conclusion

I finally have a portable SDR system that allows me the flexibility to make spectrum recordings while travelling. The whole setup is compact and can easily be taken in a carry-on bag when flying.

The glory of this is, I can tune through my spectrum recordings in real time and DX when I’m back home, or even on the way back home, in the car, train, or airplane. It’s simply brilliant.

If you don’t already own an SDR, I can highly recommend the AirSpy HF+ Discovery if you’re primarily interested in HF and MW DXing. If you need a wideband SDR, I could also recommend the recently released SDRplay RSPdx, although it’s slightly heavier and larger than the AirSpy.

Thankfully, I am now an SDR enthusiast that can operate in the field, and this radio has had a lot to do with it. I’ll be logging many hours and miles with the AirSpy HF+ Discovery: its incredibly compact footprint, combined with its brilliant performance, is truly a winning combo.

Click here to check out the Airspy HF+ Discovery

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