Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, TomL, who shares the following guest post. Click here to check out all of the posts in this Audio Plugin series:
Audio Plugins For Radios, Part 3 – VST Technical Setup
Processing legacy audio still has a place in an increasingly digital world for the time being. The first article on this topic was strictly using the speaker jack output from an old Kenwood transceiver using a simple Behringer UCA-202 RCA-to-USB converter. However, my main receive radio is the SDR based AirSpy HF+. Either type of radio should work with the apps discussed below as long as the audio gets to your Windows computer unmolested. There are VST apps for Mac and Linux, too.
VST apps: VST3/VST2/DLL files
Also mentioned was how to install VST Host and the VST apps run inside it. A simple reminder is that VST Host does not really install. It just resides in any one Directory/Folder you want and you create a shortcut to run VSTHOST.EXE. All the .XML files and profiles will be stored there.
I like tinkering with many apps but you may prefer things a lot simpler. I use 64-bit versions when possible, like VST3 and x64 DLL files. Because of the myriad settings involved, I will just list the apps in order of processing with brief comments. The second icon on the top of each app opens up its control panel and the bottom left icon will Bypass the app as if it is not in the audio chain. The top-left icon Links to the Preceding app in the audio chain. Most controls inside the apps let you double-click on that control to reset to a default.
The general functional order of these apps is:
Limiting/Compressing volume – dealing with shortwave signal volume spikes plus judiciously squeezing high & low volumes for a more even sound.
High Pass & Low Pass Filters – limit the frequency range apps will need to work on.
De-noising – the biggest challenge in shortwave is to reduce static and local noise without damaging the wanted audio.
EQ adjustments – frequency tweaks.
De-essing – getting rid of screechy “sss”, “shhh”, and “squeak” noises as well as fading distortion, perhaps the second hardest thing to do.
Then a final Drive/Gain control to feed into the Windows mixer.
Special Effects apps, like adding stereo, or reverb, etc.
I would suggest not to spend any money until you get to use apps from each of these broad categories to understand how they work. It is very easy to destroy the audio with a couple of offending settings. If you need help with understanding how plugins work, there are plenty of YouTube videos available. One channel I like is “In The Mix” from a Scottish music production engineer, Michael Wynne (over 1 million subs!). He gives simple to understand instruction videos (especially EQ and Compressors), among other topics.
Welcome to the world of Audio Production. Here are some plugins (most are FREE!):
Reaper ReaComp – A Compressor which I am using to limit volume spikes in the <300 Hz range.
Kotelnikov – A great dynamic Compressor that helps compress volume peaks in both Peak and RMS (average) levels. Useful for highly variable signals and highly recommended.
Reaper ReaFir – A dynamic processor, the Subtract feature is a special “negative EQ” which only reduces specified frequency “Points”. It is also used as a brick filter for low & high frequency limits.
Klevgrand Brusfri Denoiser – In Swedish, “brusfri” means “noise free”, and is a Denoiser app that functions similarly to Audacity’s Noise Reduction feature but works in real time. I move to a blank frequency on the same shortwave band, have Brusfri “Learn” for about 5 seconds, and it starts working.
Bertom Denoiser Pro – A good Denoiser app but on noisy shortwave it can have digital artifacts that get very loud. I use it sparingly immediately after Brusfri.
Bitsonic Sound Recovery – This app beings midrange more forward and can brighten up dull audio. However, it can lead to increased sibilances, accentuated fading distortion, and “boxy” sounding voices.
TDR Nova – A clean sounding parametric EQ; my settings are a work-in-progress for best settings. I am experimenting with having the Wideband setting do most of the work with a slight expansion of the audio coming from the SDR. Also used as a better Gain control for Bitsonic.
Modern Exciter – Set to MIN for shortwave, this app can enhance the extreme low and extreme high frequencies without increasing noise.
LOADES – A DeEsser from Analog Obsession, controls sibilance and squeaks (beware of wonky controls!).
Klevgrand Brusfri Denoiser & Bertom Denoiser Pro run a second time. More Denoising is needed after the processing done by Bitsound, TDR Nova, and Modern Exciter.
Klevgrand FreeAmp – A simple Drive and Gain control that was free when I purchased Brusfri. It makes sure audio is driven correctly into Voicemeeter AUX Input.
Voxengo Stereo Touch – Allows adding “stereo” to a mono signal. Various Presets are available, from narrow (Voice or Guitar) to wide soundspaces (Stage, Surround, and Wide). Very interesting!
Here are three VST Host processed .MP3 files from an IQ recording of Radio Amazonia using 5.3 kHz & 7kHz filters in SDR Console 3.2 (Noise Reduction 4 was used but only 1dB Reduction). The third one is using the Stereo Touch app using just the lowest setting (Voice). I like it! 🙂 :
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, TomL, who shares the following guest post. Click here to check out all of the posts in this Audio Plugin series:
Audio Plugins For Radios, Part 2 – SDR Recording
I started investigating using the old Kenwood transceiver to send audio to my laptop and process the receive audio using VST Host for a number of functions: Noise reduction, Equalization, reduce Sibilances and fading distortion, increase presence of vocals without sounding boxy, etc. It was a qualified success depending on what VST apps I used, in what order they were used, and what settings each of them were set to. In this episode of ongoing discovery, I will attempt to show how easy it is to OVER-process the shortwave broadcast audio plus comparisons to my regular Audacity post-recording treatment.
I noticed for the first time that the SDR creates a somewhat compressed file which can be seen when comparing the Waveforms of SDR vs. VST Host output files. This means that the unprocessed SDR file will always appear to sound louder because of this compression. This loss of Dynamic Range makes it harder to do the comparison. Therefore, the Audacity-only examples below are reduced 3dB or 5dB to maintain apparent loudness.
Example 1: KBS Weekend Playlist – S6-S9 signal, somewhat severe fading and moderate polar flutter.
SDR Console 3.2 using my usual NR4 set to 2dB Reduction, 30% Smoothing, and 3dB Rescale plus a Blackman-Harris-7, 5.3 kHz filter.
AUDACITY file is using my usual Audacity noise reduction:
VST version 2: Used my first set of VST apps. Sounds harsh with hash-noise and overdriven:
VST version 3: Used way too much bass, too much grunge, attenuated highs, still overdriven:
VST version 4: Using a different order to the Denoiser apps, added in Modern Exciter app, cut back on some bass but still too much, and overly forward sounding midrange:
VST version 5: My current Baseline setup. Adjusted the Denoiser apps, less extreme bass & treble, adjusted the De-Esser app, set the midrange to be less forward with just a single setting:
To my ears, Audacity processing is nice but as discovered before, sounds compressed and does not reduce some of the other problems inherent in shortwave signal fading and loss of musicality. It sounds utilitarian. Also, the noise is a bit more gnarly.
Versions 2-5 go through iterations of listening to the exact same segment over and over (and over) and trying different VST apps and settings. I think my comments are mostly accurate next to each version. However, you may think differently and perhaps prefer the sound of one of the other versions?
Example 2: Encore Classical Music, WRMI (fading S9 signal) – Audacity vs. Version 5 VST settings. VST is quieter and sounds less harsh than the Audacity version. A generally more smooth sound.
Example 3: RCI in Russian, S7-S9 with moderate polar flutter – 7kHz filter in SDR Console but VST Host is using BritPre, an analog preamp using a 6 kHz low pass filter to try to reduce DSP filter “ringing”. It shows some interesting possibilities.
Example 4: RCI in Russian – Music from the same broadcast and VST Host setup in Example 3. The screeching flute is under more control and strings more defined in the VST version.
I like the results of the audio processing that eventually ended up with “version 5” (plus the possibilities at 7kHz, too). It is not Earth-shattering but is an incremental improvement in my opinion (there is always room for improvement). I can use it in a simple Workflow anytime I want to record something off of the SDR. Also, I had already been using Voicemeeter Pro, a software audio mixer. It is setup with different profiles to do SDR, Ham, FM Broadcast, and now, VST Host audio routing. This process took a long time but seems satisfactory to use as a Baseline setup, which then can be tweaked slightly depending on various types of audio coming from the SDR. These changes in VST Host can be stored as their own unique profiles for audio processing.
However, a word of warning! Messing with Windows audio Sound settings and mixer software is potentially a confusing process and one can easily end up with a spaghetti-pile of conflicting connections, no audio output, doubled echo output, distortion, way too loud, way too soft, etc. If you start this experimentation, make sure to write down your current Windows Sound settings, both the Playback and the Recording settings for each item listed.
Having an SDR radio + Voicemeeter + VST Host is a very flexible setup. I can now safely say that the only thing I need Audacity for is to Normalize the peak audio to the -1 dB broadcast standard volume, which is a HUGE time saver. The SDR Console IQ files can be scheduled and processed from there at a later time. Also, the use of Voicemeeter Pro allows me to switch when to use VST Host anytime I feel like it, and Voicemeeter Pro comes with its own (manually engaged) Recorder.
Part 3 of this series will discuss Technical details for my setup. Your setup may need different settings or you may find a better way than I did. This will take some dedicated time.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to create these waterfall displays in Carrier Sleuth?
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.
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.
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 Figure5, 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.
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.
Last month we covered Part One of our three-part primer on software-defined radios (SDRs). While last month’s Part One focused on the nomenclature and components of a functioning SDR system, Part Two will take a look at some affordable SDR station options that will propel you into the world of SDRs for less than $200 US. We’ll cover Part Three in November, and we’ll dive a little deeper into the rabbit hole and cover higher-end SDRs and ham radio transceivers with embedded SDRs.
SDRs are affordable
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this part of our primer, it’s that SDRs are truly affordable. For less than the price of a typical full-featured shortwave portable, you can own an SDR that covers almost all of the listening spectrum, and that does so with excellent performance characteristics.
We’re lucky to live in a time of phenomenal radio innovation. When I first jumped into the world of SDRs, the least expensive SDR that covered any of the bands below 20 MHz was about $500. That was only a few years ago, in 2010 or so.
Yet in the past three years, affordable SDRs have become the dominant radio product on the market. And these modestly-priced products have made the barrier of entry into the SDR world crumble overnight.
Today, even a $100 SDR has more features, more frequency range, and more functionality than a $1000 SDR from just a decade ago. Times have changed dramatically; indeed, the pace of innovation in this craft is simply amazing.
Before we begin looking at some choice sub-$200 SDRs, I’d just like to direct your attention to the first part of our SDR Primer (click here to read). Specifically, I’d like you to note one element I discussed in that article: the vital importance identifying your goals as an SDR owner. In other words, how do you plan to use your SDR? If you’re only seeking an SDR to listen to local ham radio repeaters, track cubesat satellites, or gather ADS-B information from aircraft, a $25 SDR will more than suffice. If you wish to use the SDR as a transceiver panadapter, or you wish to chase weak signal DX on the HF bands, then I’d suggest you invest a bit more.
I’d also like to remind you, as I noted in the previous article, that this primer will be limited in the SDRs I highlight. The reason for this is simple: there now exists a vast ocean of SDRs on the market (just search eBay for “SDR” and you’ll quickly see what I mean) so all models simply can’t be included in this introductory foray. I’ll be focusing here on several SDRs that cover the HF spectrum and above. I’ll also focus on SDRs with which I have personal experience, and which I consider to be “enthusiast” grade among a healthy community of users. Of course, this part of the primer will only include HF-capable receivers that cost a total of $200 or less.
Let’s take a look at what’s on the market in order of price, starting with the most affordable.
$10-$25: The RTL-SDR dongle
No doubt, many of you reading this primer have purchased an RTL-SDR dongle. Over the years, I’ve owned three or four of them and have even purchased them for friends. These dongles originally appeared on the market many years ago as mass-produced DVB-T TV tuner dongles based on the RTL2832U chipset. Very soon, users discovered that with just a little hacking, the dongle was capable of much, much more than its original intended purpose.
The dongle resembles a USB memory stick. On one end, you’ll find a standard USB connector. On the other, you’ll find an antenna port, typically SMA, to which one connects an antenna. Although it goes without saying, here’s a friendly reminder: make sure you’re choosing an antenna to match the frequency range you’re exploring!
I’ve seen this older model of RTL-SDR being sold for $9 at Hamvention.
Early RTL-SDR dongles couldn’t cover the HF bands or lower, but many models can now cover a gapless 500 kHz all the way to 1.75 GHz.
So, what can you do with an RTL-SDR dongle? In short, quite a lot! Here are a few of this simple device’s many applications and uses in our hobby. It can:
become a police radio scanner
monitor aircraft and ATC communications
track aircraft with ADS-B decoding and read ACARS short messages
scan trunking radio conversations.
decode unencrypted digital voice transmissions such as P25/DMR/D-STAR.
track maritime boat positions like a radar with AIS decoding.
And, of course, you can listen to any signals between 500 kHz up to 1.75 GHz––essentially, most of the radio listening landscape.
Is $25 still a little high for your budget? RTL-SDR dongles can be found for as low as $10 US, shipped, on eBay. While the cheapest of these dongles may suffice for some radio applications, I’m partial to the dongle produced by RTL-SDR.com, since they’re built in a tough metal enclosure, have thermal pad cooling, as well as extra ESD protection. Amazon has an RTL-SDR.com dongle starter package with antenna options for about $26. That’s, what, the price of three hamburgers? Two orders of fish and chips? And worth it.
Many third-party SDR applications support the RTL-SDR dongle, but my favorite is SDR# (click here to download).
So, the major pros of this little SDR are 1) obviously, the price; 2) many, many uses; and 3) the fact that it’s the most popular SDR on the market, with a massive online user base.
What about negatives? Well, to be frank––aside from the dongle’s budget-busting versatility––the fact is that “you pay for what you get.” You’re investing just $10-$27 in this receiver, so don’t expect exceptional performance especially on anything lower than 50 MHz. On HF, for example, the RTL-SDR could easily overload unless you employ external filtering.
Indeed, I’ve never used the RTL-SDR for HF DXing, but I currently have three dongles in service 24/7: two as ADS-B receivers, and one as a receiver for the LiveATC network. And these work hard. Indeed, It’s a workhorse of a device!
I suggest you grab an RTL-SDR and use it as an accessible step into the world of SDRs, and as an affordable single-purpose tool to unlock the RF spectrum!
When you invest a modest $99 US (or $120 shipped), and purchase the RSP1A, you take a major step forward in the SDR world.
UK-based SDRplay is an SDR designer and manufacturer that focuses on enthusiast-grade, budget wideband SDRs. SDRplay designs and manufactures all of their SDRs in the United Kingdom, and over the past few years, they’ve developed a robust user community, extensive documentation, and, in my humble opinion, some of the best tutorial videos on the market.
SDRuno windows can be arranged a number of ways on your monitor.
Although the RSP series SDRs are supported by most third-party SDR applications, SDRplay has their own app: SDRuno. Moreover, SDRuno is a full-featured, customizable application that takes advantages of all of this SDR’s performance potential and features. I should mention that installing the RSP1A and SDRuno is a pure plug-and-play experience: just download and install the application, plug in the RSP1A to your computer, wait for the USB driver to automatically install, then start SDRuno. Simplicity itself.
While the RSP1A is SDRplay’s entry-level wideband SDR, it nonetheless plays like a pro receiver and truly pushes the envelope of performance-for-price, and for other SDR manufacturers, sets the bar quite high. The RSP1A is a wideband receiver that covers from 1 kHz all the way to 2 GHz; equally pleasing the longwave DXer, HF hound, tropo-scatter hunter, and even radio astronomer. This affordable SDR really covers the spectrum, quite literally. Not only does the RSP1A cover a vast frequency range, but its working bandwidth can be an impressive 10 MHz wide and via SDRuno, the RSP1A will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum. All this for $99? Seriously? I assure you, yes.
Think of the RSP1A as the sporty-but-affordable compact car of the SDR world. It delivers performance well above its comparatively modest price, and is fun to operate. In terms of DX, it gets you from point A to point B very comfortably, and is a capable receiver which will help you work even weak signals––and very reasonably!
If you’re looking to explore the world of SDRs, would like a capable receiver with great LW/MW/HF reception to do it with, but also want to keep your budget in check, you simply can’t go wrong with the RSP1A.
Many years ago when I ventured into the world of SDRs, one of the only affordable SDRs which covered the HF bands was the FUNcube Dongle Pro+.
The Funcube Dongle Pro+, which resembles the RTL-SDR “stick” type dongle, was originally designed as a ground receiver for the FUNcube Satellite (cubesat) project initially made possible by AMSAT-UK and the Radio Communications Foundation (RCF). The original Funcube dongle did not cover any frequencies below 64 MHz, but the Funcube Dongle Pro+ added coverage from 150 kHz to 1.9 GHz with a gap between 240 MHz and 420 MHz.
In full disclosure, I’ve never owned a FUNcube Dongle Pro+, but I have used them on several occasions. I believe you would find that it is prone to overloading if you use a longwire antenna that’s not isolated from the dongle. In other words, during such use it seems to be subject to internally-generated noise. In my experience, the Pro+ worked best when hooked up to an external antenna fed by a proper coaxial cable.
To be clear, with the advent of SDRplay and AirSpy SDRs, the FUNcube Dongle Pro+ is no longer the budget SDR I would most readily recommend.
Still, the Pro+ is a very compact dongle that has a great history, and around 2012 really pushed the performance-for-price envelope. It still has many dedicated fans. No doubt, this product has had a huge influence on all of the sub $200 SDRs currently on the market, thus we owe it a debt of gratitude.
In 2016, after the remarkable success of the original RSP, SDRplay introduced the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro SDRs. The RSP2 is housed in an RF-shielded robust plastic case and the RSP2 Pro is enclosed in a rugged black painted steel case. In terms of receivers and features, the RSP2 and RSP2 Pro are otherwise identical
The RSP2 and RSP2 Pro provide excellent performance, three software-selectable antenna inputs, and clocking features, all of which lend it to amateur radio, industrial, scientific, and educational applications; it is a sweet SDR for $169 or $199 (Pro version). I know of no other SDRs with this set of features at this price point.
The RSP2 series has the same frequency coverage as the RSP1A. Of course, to most of us, the big upgrade from the SDRplay RSP1A is the RSP2’s multiple antenna ports: 2 x 50-Ohms and one High-Z port for lower frequencies.
The SDRplay RSP2 with plastic enclosure.
As with all of SDRplay’s SDRs, their own application, SDRuno, will support up to 16 individual receivers in any 10 MHz slice of spectrum.
Bottom line? Since the RSP2 has multiple antenna ports––and two antenna options for HF frequencies and below–the RSP2 is my choice sub-$200 SDR to use as a transceiver panadapter. (Spoiler alert: you’ll also want to check out our summary of the recently released $279 RSPduo from SDRplay in this review or in Part 3 of our primer before pulling the trigger on the purchase of an RSP2 or, especially, an RSP2 Pro!)
Sometimes big surprises come in small packages. That pretty much sums up the imminently pocketable AirSpy HF+ SDR.
The HF+ has the footprint of a typical business card, and is about as thick as a smartphone. Despite this, it’s a heavy little receiver––no doubt due to its metal alloy case/enclosure.
AirSpy’s HF+ was introduced late 2017. Don’t be surprised by its footprint which is similar to a standard business card to its left, this SDR is performance-packed!
Not to dwell on its size, but other than my RTL-SDR dongle, it’s by far the smallest SDR I’ve ever tested. Yet it sports two SMA antenna inputs: one for HF, one for VHF.
The HF port is labeled as “H” and the VHF port as “V”
When I first put it on the air, my expectations were low. But I quickly discovered that the HF+ belies its size, and is truly one of the hottest sub $500 receivers on the market! Its HF performance is nothing short of phenomenal.
The HF+ is not a wideband receiver like the FunCube Dongle Pro+ or RSP series by SDRplay. Rather, the HF+ covers between 9 kHz to 31 MHz and from 60 to 260 MHz only; while this is a relatively small portion of the spectrum when compared with its competitors, this was a strategic choice by AirSpy. As AirSpy’s president, Youssef Touil, told me,“The main purpose of the HF+ is [to have] the best possible performance on HF at an affordable price.”
Mission accomplished. Like other SDRs, the HF+ uses high dynamic range ADCs and front-ends but enhances the receiver’s frequency agility by using high-performance passive mixers with a robust polyphase harmonic rejection structure. The HF+ was designed for a high dynamic range, thus it is the best sub-$200 I’ve tested for strong signal handling capability on the HF bands.
You can very easily experiment and customize the HF+ as well; easy access to the R3 position on the circuit board allows you to make one of several published modifications. “During the early phases of the design,” Yousef explains, “R3 was a placeholder for a 0 ohms resistor that allows experimenters to customize the input impedance.” He goes on to provide in-depth clarification about these mods:
A 300 pF capacitor will naturally filter the LW/MW bands for better performance in the HAM bands
A 10µH inductor would allow the use of electrically short antennas (E-Field probes) for MW and LW
A short (or high value capacitor) would get you the nominal 50 ohms impedance over the entire band, but then it’s the responsibility of the user to make sure his antenna has the right gain at the right band
A custom filter can also be inserted between the SMA and the tuner block if so desired.”
Since the introduction of the HF+, it has been my recommended sub-$200 receiver for HF enthusiasts. If you want to explore frequencies higher than 260 MHz, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Also, note that longwave reception is not the HF+’s strong suit––although modifications to R3 and future firmware upgrades might help with this! Additionally, the HF+’s working bandwidth is 660 kHz; quite narrow, when compared with the RSP series, which can be widened to 10 MHz.
AirSpy also designed the free application SDR# to take full advantage of their receivers’ features and performance.
If you haven’t gathered this already, it’s simply a brilliant time to be a budget-minded radio enthusiast. Only a few years ago, there were few, if any, enthusiast-grade sub-$200 SDR options on the market. Now there are quite a number, and their performance characteristics are likely to impress even the hardest-core weak-signal DXer.
Still, some hams and SW listeners reading this article will no doubt live in a tougher RF environment where built-in hardware filters are requisite to prevent your receiver from overloading. Or perhaps you desire truly uncompromising benchmark performance from your SDR. If either is the case, you may need to invest a little more of your radio funds in an SDR to get exactly what you want…and that’s exactly where I’ll take you November in the final Part Three of this SDR primer series. Stay tuned!
Stay tuned for more in Part Three (November).I’ll add links here after publication.
SDR Primer Part 1: Introduction to SDRs and SDR applications
I author a radio blog known as the SWLing Post; as a result, I receive radio-related queries from my readers on a daily basis. Among the most common questions are these:
“So, what is an SDR, exactly? Are these better than regular radios?”
“I think I’d like to buy an SDR. Which one do you recommend?”
Great questions, both! But, before I address them, I must let the reader know that they are also “loaded” questions: simple enough to ask, but quite nuanced when it comes to the answers.
No worries, though; the following three-part primer sets out to address these questions (and many more) as thoroughly as possible. This first part of the primer will focus on the basic components of an SDR system. In part two, next month, we’ll look at affordable SDRs: those costing less than $200 US. In part three, we’ll take a look at pricier models and even include a few transceivers that are based on embedded SDRs.
But before we begin, let’s start with the most basic question: What is a Software Defined Radio (SDR), exactly?
Not your grandpa’s radio
Here’s how Wikipedia defines SDR:
“Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been traditionally implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system.”
Whereas your grandpa’s radio was all hardware––in the form of filters, mixers, amplifiers, and the like––SDRs are a mix of hardware andsoftware. With the exception of tabletop transceivers and receivers with embedded software and systems (which we’ll discuss in part three of our investigation), SDRs typically take on a “black box” appearance: in other words, the radio looks like a simple piece of hardware with a minimum of an antenna port, a data port and many times there’s also some sort of LED or light to let you know when the unit is in operation. On some models of SDRs, there is a separate power port, additional antenna connections, power switch, and possibly some other features; however, “black box” SDRs often look like a nondescript piece of portable computer hardware––something like an external portable hard drive.
Why would you want an SDR?
Many of us have made it through life thus far without an SDR…so, why in the world should we want the use of one? Below, I’ll list some of the most appealing reasons:
The Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom). Photo by Guy Atkins.
By and large, SDRs are quite a value when compared to legacy all-hardware radios. For example, I wouldn’t hesitate to pit my SDRs––such as the $500 Elad FDM-S2 or $900 WinRadio Excalibur––against legacy receivers that cost two to three times their price. Indeed, my $200 AirSpy HF+ SDR will give many DX-grade ham radio general coverage receivers a real run for their money. They’re that good.
SDR applications have a spectrum display which gives you a real-time view of a broad swath of the radio dial. Whereas you can tune to and listen to one frequency at a time with legacy receivers, SDRs allow you to view, say, the entire 31 meter band. With the spectrum display, you can see when signals come on or go off the air without actually being tuned in to them. You can tell what signal might be causing interference because you can see the outline of its carrier. Spectrum displays are truly a window––a visual representation––of what’s on the radio. Using legacy receivers now often makes me feel like I’m cruising the bands with blinders on. After becoming accustomed to having a spectrum display, there’s simply no way I’d want to be without at least one SDR in my shack.
I like how clean the user interface is for this SDR application (SDRuno) window that controls the SDR’s frequency, mode, filters and notch.
SDRs usually afford access to a dizzying array of customizable filters, gain controls, noise blankers, digital signal processing (DSP), audio controls, and more. Being able to customize the SDR’s performance and listening experience is simply unsurpassed. In fact, it’s almost a curse for SDR reviewers like me––comparing two SDRs is problematic because each can be altered so much that identifying the best performance characteristics of one or the other becomes a real challenge. In other words, comparing SDRs is almost like comparing apples to oranges: even using a different application can enhance and thus alter the performance characteristics of an SDR.
Multiple virtual receivers
SDR Console makes managing multiple virtual receivers a breeze.
Whereas most legacy tabletop receivers allow you to switch between two VFOs (VFO A and B) some modern SDR applications allow for multiple independent virtual receivers––in essence, multiple sub-receivers. On my WinRadio Excalibur, for example, I can run three fully-functional and independent virtual receivers within a 2 MHz span. On receiver 1, I might be recording a shortwave broadcaster on 7490 kHz. On receiver 2, I might be recording a different broadcaster on 6100 kHz, and following a 40 meter ham radio net on 7200 kHz in the lower sideband.
SDR applications, more often than not, have functionality for making audio recordings of what you receive. Some, like the WinRadio Excalibur and SDR Console, actually allow for multiple simultaneous recordings on all of their virtual receivers.
SDR Console recording dialog box
Most SDR applications also allow you to make spectrum recordings, that is, to record not just one individual broadcast from one radio station at a time, but to record an entire broadcast band, all at once. Each recording can easily contain dozens of stations broadcasting simultaneously. Later, you open the recording and play it back through the SDR application. Recordings can be tuned and listened to as if they were live. Indeed, to the SDR application, there is no difference in using an antenna or using a recorded spectrum file; the tuning experience to the listener is also identical.
So imagine that propagation is stellar one evening, or there’s a global pirate radio event just when you’re going to be away from home: simply trigger a spectrum recording and do a little radio time travel tuning later. It’s that easy.
Both SDR applications and SDR firmware are upgradable from most manufacturers. In fact, I’ve found that the most affordable SDRs tend to have the most frequent upgrades and updates. Updates can have a positive impact on an SDR’s performance, can add new features, such as the ability to expand the frequency range or more filters or embed time stamps in the spectrum waterfall. It could be pretty much anything and that’s what’s so brilliant. As a user you can make requests; your SDR’s developers might, if they like the idea, be able to implement it.
So, what’s not to love?
Looking at all of these advantages of SDRs over legacy radios, it sounds like SDRs should truly suit everyone. But the reality is, they don’t. For some radio enthusiasts, SDRs do have some unfortunate disadvantages:
First, if you’re primarily a Mac OS or Linux user, and/or prefer one of these platforms, you’ll find you have much less selection in terms of SDRs and applications. While there are a few good applications for each, there are many more SDR applications for PCs operating Windows. Until I moved into the world of SDRs, in fact, I was a Mac OS user outside of work. At the time, there were only one or two SDR applications that ran on the Mac OS––and neither was particularly good. I considered purchasing a copy of Windows for my MacBook, but decided to invest in a tower PC, instead.
Second, one of the great things about legacy radios is that with just a radio, a power source, and an antenna, you’re good to go; travel, field operations, and DXpeditions are quite simple and straightforward. SDRs, on the other hand, require a computer of some sort; when traveling, this is typically a laptop. I’ve spent several summers in an off-grid cabin in Prince Edward Island, Canada. My spot is superb for catching DX, and there’s no RF interference, so I love making spectrum recordings I can listen to later. Problem is, powering so many devices while off-grid is an art. Normally, my laptop can run off of battery power for hours, but when the laptop also provides power to an SDR and portable hard drive, it drains the battery two to three times faster.
The ELAD FDM-DUOr (receiver).
With this said, keep in mind that there are fully functional tabletop radios (like the Elad FDM-DUO and FDM-DUOr) that are actually SDRs, providing an easy way to bypass this concern.
Finally, there are simply some people who do not care to mix PCs and radio. I’ve a friend who’s a programmer, and when he comes home to play radio and relax, the last thing he wants to do is turn on a computer. I get it––as a former programmer, I used to feel that way myself. But the world of SDRs lured me in…and now I’m a convert.
Scope of this primer series
The world of SDRs is the fastest growing, most dynamic aspect of the radio world. Because of this, I simply can’t include all SDRs currently on the market in this primer. Let’s face it: there are just too many, and it is beyond the scope of this article to try to cover them all. Instead, I’ve curated my list, by no means comprehensive, to include a selection of the most popular and widely-used models.
I’ll be focusing on SDR receivers unless otherwise noted. In Part Three, I’ll call out some popular SDR transceivers. Additionally, I’ll bring my attention to bear on the “black box” variety of SDRs.
This primer is long overdue on my part, so I’ll provide answers to the most frequent questions I receive. But though this primer is in three parts, it barely scratches the surface of the vast world of SDRs.
Thus far we’ve defined an SDR and discussed its advantages and disadvantages.
Now, let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need to build a station around an SDR.
Assembling an SDR station
Guy Atkins’ laptop running HDSDR software in his SUV; the receiver is an Elad FDM-S2. (Photo: Guy Atkins)
In truth, most of you reading this primer will already have everything you need to build a listening post around an SDR. Understanding the components of the system in advance, however, will put you in a better position to get on the air quickly with an SDR that suits your needs best. Let’s discuss this component by component.
By virtue of reading this primer now being displayed on your screen, unless you’ve printed it out, I’m guessing you have access to a computer of some sort.
SDRs are really quite flexible in terms of computer requirements. SDRs are compatible with:
A desktop PC running the Windows operating system
A laptop PC running the Windows operating system
A desktop Apple computer running MacOS and/or Windows
A laptop Apple computer running MacOS and/or Windows
A tablet or smartphone computer running Android or Windows
A Raspberry Pi/Beaglebone (or similar budget computer) running a Linux distribution
If SDRs are compatible with so many computer operating systems and configurations, then why would you worry about which ones to choose?
As I mentioned earlier most, but not all, of the SDR applications on the market are only compatible with the Windows operating system. If you want the most out-of-the-box, plug-and-play SDR options, then you should plan to use a Windows PC. If you’re a MacOS user, fear not. Modern Apple computers can support Windows—you simply purchase a copy of Windows and set your system to boot as a Windows machine (assuming you have the storage space for a dual boot).
Secondly, processing speed is certainly a factor: the faster, the better. While you can use an Android/Windows tablet or a Raspberry Pi to run an SDR, they often don’t have features like multiple virtual receivers, wideband spectrum recording capabilities, and large fluid waterfall displays due to the simple lack of processing power. My guess is that by 2023, however, tablets and budget computers will have ample processing power to handle most, if not all, SDR functions.
Finally, if you plan to make spectrum recordings, especially wideband ones (2 MHz, plus), you need both a snappy processor and a high-capacity hard drive with a decent write speed. This is the reason I now have a desktop PC at home for spectrum recordings: I can use a very affordable SATA drive as a storage device, and the write speed is always more than adequate. My OS and SDR applications run on an SSD (solid state drive) which is very fast. All of my recordings are saved to internal and external 4TB+ hard drives. Happily, I’ve never had a hiccup with this system.
An SDR application
SDRuno has an attractive user interface comprised of multiple adjustable windows.
Wait a minute…am I suggesting you choose an SDR application before you choose an SDR? Why, yes, I am! You cannot use an SDR without an SDR application, but, with only a few exceptions, you certainly can use an SDR application without an SDR attached.
Unlike a legacy hardware radio, you can essentially test drive an SDR by downloading an application (almost always free) and then downloading a test spectrum file. Most SDR manufacturers will have all of this on their download page. Simply install the application, open the spectrum file, et voila! You’re now test driving the SDR. Your experience will be identical to the person who originally made the spectrum recording.
The WinRadio Excalibur application also includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)
I always suggest test driving an application prior to purchasing an SDR.
While all SDR applications have their own unique layout and menu structure, almost all have the same components, as follows:
a spectrum display, which gives you real-time information about all of the signals within the SDR’s frequency range;
a waterfall display, which is a graphical representation of the signals amplitude or strength across the SDR’s frequency range displayed over time;
filter controls, which help you adjust both audio and signal widths;
mode selections, which allow you to change between modes such as AM, SSB, FM, and digital;
a signal meter, which is typically calibrated and resembles a traditional receiver’s “S” meter;
a frequency display for the active frequency;
VFOs/virtual receivers, which may have real estate allocated on the display;
a clock, which displays the time, possibly as both UTC and local time (note that many SDR apps also embed time code in waterfall display);
memories, where you can store a near-infinite number of frequencies (and some SDR applications allow you to import full-frequency databases); as well as
other controls, such as squelch, gain, noise blanker, DSP, notch,etc.
After you’ve become comfortable with one SDR application, moving to another can be a little disorienting at first, but the learning curve is fairly short simply because most have the same components.
Types of SDR applications
SDR applications usually fit one of three categories: proprietary app, free third-party apps, paid third-party apps, and web browser based apps. (Assume each application runs on Windows unless otherwise noted.) Let’s take a look at each.
Proprietary SDR applications
Proprietary apps are those that are designed by the SDR manufacturer and provide native plug-and-play support for the SDR you choose. Proprietary apps give priority support to their own SDR, but some are compatible with other SDRs––or can, at least, read spectrum recordings from other SDRs. Most popular SDRs have a proprietary application. Here are examples of a few proprietary apps:
WinRadio App for the WinRadio/Radixon line of SDRs
Perseus Software Package for the Microtelecom Perseus
Free third party applications are incredibly popular and some even offer performance and feature advantages over proprietary applications. Third party apps tend not to be associated with any one particular manufacturer––SDR# being a noted exception––and tend to support multiple SDRs. I’m a firm believer in supporting these SDR developers with an appropriate donation if you enjoy using their applications.
HDSDR is a very popular application that supports multiple SDRs and spectrum file formats. The layout is simple and operation straightforward.
SDR Console is a very powerful and popular application. Like HDSDR, it supports multiple popular SDRs. It is my SDR application of choice for making audio and spectrum recordings.
SDR# runs AirSpy SDRs natively, but also supports a number of other receivers including the venerable RTL-SDR dongle.
SDR Touch is a popular SDR application for Android devices (Android)
iSDR is one of the only SDR applications currently available for iOS devices. Its functionality is somewhat limited. There are other SDR applications in the works, but at the moment these are in development stages only. (iOS)
Paid third-party apps
Paid third-party apps represent a tiny fraction of the SDR applications available on the market. Indeed, at time of posting, the only one I know about that’s currently on the market is Studio 1, which has been the choice for those looking for an alternative application to the Microtelecom Perseus Software Package.
Web browser-based SDR applications
The KiwiSDR browser-based application
This is, perhaps, one of the newest forms of SDR applications. While a number of SDR applications (like SDR#, SDR Console and the Perseus Software package) allow for remote control of the SDR via the Internet, there are actually few applications that are purely web browser-based. At the time of this writing, the only one with which I’m familiar is the KiwiSDR application, which allows both the SDR owner and (if set up to do so) anyone else in the world to operate the SDR as if they are at the SDR’s location. In fact, the KiwiSDR only has a web browser-based application, there is no downloadable application. It will allow up to four simultaneous users, and the experience of using a KiwiSDR locally or globally is nearly identical. If you would like to use a KiwiSDR, simply visit http://SDR.hu or https://sdr.hu/map and choose a remote location.
In Parts Two and Three of this primer, we’ll take a closer look at some of the SDRs currently on the market; prices range anywhere from $15 to $6,000. As you can imagine from such a price range, these are not all created equally.
But first, ask yourself what your goal is with your SDR. Do you want to monitor ham radio traffic? How about aviation communications? Follow pirate radio? Listen to a range of broadcasters? Pursue radio astronomy? Is your dream to set up a remote receiver?
Whatever your flavor of radio, you’ll want to keep some of these needs in mind as you explore the SDR options available to you.
Be honest with yourself: how much are you willing to spend on an SDR? While entry-level SDRs can be found for anywhere from $15-50 US, a big leap in performance happens around the $100 mark. If you’re looking for benchmark performance, you may need to appropriate $500 or more. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that SDRs are only as good as the antennas you hook up to them. Set aside some of your budget to purchase––or build––an antenna.
As mentioned above, not all SDRs are compatible with anything beyond the OEM/proprietary application. If you have a choice third-party application in mind, make sure the SDR you choose is compatible with it.
If you want an SDR that covers everything from VLF/longwave up to the microwave frequencies, then you’ll need to seek a wideband SDR. Each SDR manufacturer lists the frequency ranges in their specifications sheet. It’s typically one of the top items listed. Modern wideband SDRs can be pretty phenomenal, but if you never plan to listen to anything above 30 or 50 MHz, for example, then I would advise investing in an SDR that puts an emphasis on HF performance. Check both specifications and user reviews that specifically address performance on the frequencies where you plan to spend the bulk of your time.
Recording and processing bandwidth
The new SDRplay RSPduo can display up to 10MHz visible bandwidth (single tuner mode) or 2 slices of 2MHz spectrum (dual tuner mode)
If you plan to make either audio or spectrum recordings, or if you plan to monitor multiple virtual receivers, pay careful attention to an SDR’s maximum recording and processing bandwidth. This bandwidth figure is essentially your active window on the spectrum being monitored. Your active virtual receiver frequencies will have to fall within this window, if you’re making simultaneous recordings. In addition, this figure will determine the maximum bandwidth of spectrum recordings. Some budget SDRs are limited to a small window––say 96 kHz or less––while others, like the Elad FDM-S3, can widen enough to include the entire FM broadcast band, roughly 20 MHz!
AirSpy’s HF+ was introduced late 2017. Don’t be surprised by its footprint which is similar to a standard business card to its left–this SDR packs serious performance!
If you plan to take your SDR to the field or travel with it, you’ll probably want to choose one that doesn’t require an external power supply. Most late-model SDRs use the USB data cable to power the unit. This means you won’t need to lug an additional power plug/adapter or battery. Still, many professional grade SDRs require an external power supply.
If you plan to make spectrum recordings, determine whether you have many options to set the unit’s processing bandwidth. Some SDR applications have robust recording functionality that allows for both spectrum and audio recordings, including advanced scheduling. Some applications don’t even have audio recording or spectrum recording capabilities. Test drive the application in advance to check out their recording functionality. Of course, if recording is your main interest, you’ll also want to set aside some of your budget for digital storage.
Know your goal!
If your goals are somewhat modest––perhaps your budget is quite low, you simply want to familiarize yourself with SDR operation prior to making a bigger purchase, or you only want to build an ADS-B receiver––then you might be able to get by with a $25 SDR dongle. If you plan to use your SDR as a transceiver panadapter during contesting, then you’ll want to invest in a unit that can handle RF-dense environments.
Identify exactly what you’d like out of your SDR, and do your research in advance. Note, too, that many popular SDR models have excellent online forums where you can pitch specific questions about them.
Scoping out the world of SDRs
Three benchmark receivers in one corner of my radio table: The Airspy HF+ (top), Elad FDM-S2 (middle) and WinRadio Excalibur (bottom).
Now that we have a basic grasp on what SDRs are, what components are needed, and what we should research in advance, we’ll look next at some of the SDR options available to us. In Part Two, we’ll look at budget SDRs; those under $200 US in price. In Part Three, we’ll survey higher-end SDR packages.
Once you are up and running – please go to http://www.sdrspace.com/Version-3 and view your listing – if there is a yellow triangle, then you are not accessible outside your own firewall – attention is needed! Just because you can access it on your own LAN doesn’t mean it’s accessible via the internet!!! This is the most common area to have problems – double check your router’s port forwarding settings are correct (default port 50101 TCP).
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