Monday, July 16, 2012

The SDR Chronicles (#5: Conclusions)


After five weeks of daily use, my conclusion is that the Excalibur Pro, and down-converting SDRs in general, are useful for Utility DXing.


As noted early on, this radio is less like something you listen to, and more like something you use like a tool.  You wield it.  It's not for beginners, unless you want a learning curve.  It's best to learn the radio jargon and the basic DXing mind set the usual ways, thus becoming ready to unleash the power of the Excalibur Pro.

Hams will prefer the Flex, which also has a 100-watt transmitter.  They might also like any of quite a few smaller, cheaper boxes intended for experimenters.  Hams and DXers also have a viable alternative in the Perseus, another experimenter's favorite, though I'm glad my agonizing decision process led to the WiNRADiO.

WiNRADiO provides a programming language, Radio Basic. This will be worth exploring at some point. It is like the old BASIC that most people my age learned to program with, minus the line numbers.  I hated line numbers anyway.  They made it much slower to edit your code.  FORTRAN, a compiled language with a roughly similar syntax, got along for generations just fine without them.

Here are my gripes about the Excalibur Pro:

Gripe #1: The AGC seems dodgy.  The overshoot on CW can get pretty annoying.  Maybe it needs more fiddling with the parameters. These are, thank goodness, mostly brought out to the user, though I give the caution that the wrong settings can turn a basically good radio into a barely listenable radio in seconds.  While I don't expect any digital substitute to sound like a good analog loop such as on my Drake R-4, it would be nice for it to sound like my DSP-based NRD-545.

Gripe #2: While the keyboard shortcuts are user-definable and helpful, it would be nice to have something like Photoshop, where the user can create combinations that do whole new actions not on the default list.

Gripe #3: There aren't enough hours in a day to have fun with the thing.

Here are my likes about the Excalibur Pro:

Like #1: The waterfalls, though not as configurable as I would like, are very good for playing Whack-A-Mole, quickly logging signals on different frequencies when the going gets heavy.  Right before the last CME, during a red-hot 11 meter opening, I logged 54 different Spanish language "freeband" frequencies in under an hour.  One quickly gets used to what different modes look like, spending less time searching through other noises for the pay dirt.  In a similar manner, I've been able to get a good handle on what the Mexican military has been up to for the years since it vanished from ALE.  You'll have to read the column for that one, though.

Like #2: The "spectrum analyzer" window at the bottom can give a very quick overview of HF's condition in a very short time.  The opening mentioned above became evident when this display suddenly lit up at the high end, which is usually just textures made by this QTH's legendary noise floor.  Again, a task that might have taken tens of minutes can be done in about that many seconds.

Like #3: This same window is perfect for finding and displaying the various "funny noises" on HF that everyone has meant to seriously investigate but never quite had the time. It's easy to get a sense of what's really going on in such swept-carrier oddities as The Squiggle, The Frog, and chirp sounders. The latter can be used to get a sense of propagation by where the diagonal lines disappear.  None of this has generated any answers yet, but it helps one ask the right questions.

Like #4: The optional frequency extension to 50 MHz has its uses, such as quickly confirming all CHP's new frequencies without having to tie up the scanner for what is basically grunt work.  It will be fun to see if the fall's low-VHF skip can be DXed in the same manner as HF.


This project was definitely worth the non-trivial financial investment required.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Updated Night of Nights Frequency List

From MRHS:

The Transmitter Department has advised that KFS 17026.0kc may be unavailable for Night of Nights XIII due to an antenna problem. All other KPH, KFS and KSM frequencies are reported operational.

For complete Night of Nights information see our Web site at:

--- Freq List ---


KPH will transmit on 426, 500, 4247.0, 6477.5, 8642.0, 12808.5,
17016.8 and 22477.5.   MF and 22Mc will be on Henry transmitters, rest of KPH HF on 1950s vintage RCA K and L sets.

KPH operators will listen for calls from ships on on 500kc and ITU Channel 3
in all HF bands. The Channel 3 frequencies are 4184.0, 6276.0,  8368.0, 12552.0, 16736.0 and 22280.5kc

Reception reports may be sent to:

Maritime Radio Historical Society
P.O. Box 392
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956



KFS will transmit on 12695.5 and 17026.0 -

KFS 17026.0 may be unavailable due to an antenna problem

12695.5 will be on a 1940s vintage Press Wireless PW-15. 17026.0 will be on a 1990 vintage Henry HF5000D transmitter.

KFS will listen for calls from ships on 500kc and HF Channel 3. 

Reception reports same as KPH



KSM will transmit on 426, 500, 6474, 8438.3 and 12993.

A failure of any of  the RCA transmitters may cause a KSM tx to be diverted to cover KPH.   KSM will listen for calls from ships on 500 and HF Channel  3.

Reception reports same as KPH



WLO will transmit on 2055.5 (tentative), 4343.0, 8658.0, 12992.0 and

WLO will listen for calls from ships on HF Channel 3.

Reception reports may be sent to:

WLO Radio




KLB will transmit on 488, 500 (A1 & A2), 8582.5.

KLB will listen for calls from ships on 500kc and 8368.0.

Reception reports same as WLO


WWII Victory ship SS AMERICAN VICTORY/KKUI will be on the air attempting to contact all the coast stations above.  They'll use the best calling frequency for the prevailing propagation at the time but they usually call KSM on 12552.0.


Amateur station K6KPH will transmit and listen on 3550, 7050
14050 and 21050kc for KPH, KFS and KSM reception reports.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Night of Nights XIII is in 10 Days!

What is Night of Nights XIII?

It is the thirteenth act of defiance since the last commercial Morse code message was (supposedly) sent in the USA. This message was passed at 0001 UTC on July 12, 1999 over most remaining CW transmitters in the US.

Then came silence, until a hardy band of True Believers called the Maritime Radio Historical Society convinced the Point Reyes National Seashore to let them attempt a seemingly impossible task.  This was, believe it or not, to restore the biggest and best commercial maritime flame thrower on the whole West Coast.  Yes, we mean no less than RCA's mighty KPH, the Power House, The House Marconi Built, with its miles of antennas and several large buildings full of equipment, none of which had been scrapped, or even turned off in some cases.

It immediately became a matter of doing The Lord's Work for a lot of radio people, especially on the West Coast.  Sometimes, a man just has to do what a man has to do.

The result was a gathering at the receive building near Inverness, CA, for a celebration of Morse code on the anniversary of its US commercial demise.  I doubt that anyone knew that it would become a semi-religious observance to be awaited eagerly every year.

KPH is now a call sign at Globe's Dixon Supersite used for digital traffic. Each year, on this night alone, Globe grants permission to use the KPH and KFS calls again.  The rest of the year, the majestic facilities on Pt. Reyes are used by KSM, believe it or not a recently licensed commercial CW/RTTY/SITOR station. It is QSX every weekend and whenever a special event gives an opportunity to demonstrate the way radio used to be. Yes, it will take your radiotelegraph traffic, and yes, OBS and AMVERs are free. 

Where do we listen?

Tentative CW frequencies (in kHz) are:

KPH: 426 500 4247 6477.5 8642 12808.5 17016.8 22477.5

KFS: 500 12695.5 17026

KSM: 426 500 6474 8438.3 12993

What do we hear?

The stations will send special messages, plus the usual salutes to maritime ROs who lost their lives in their dedication to safety at sea.  There is also usually a roll call of vanished coastal stations, and a traffic list of the sort once heard regularly on these stations.  If it's like the other years, one of the ships on this list will be RMS Titanic.  As one of the station managers once said, "There is no such thing as a dead message."

Usually, at least one ship actually calls up on one of the QSX frequencies and works KPH or the other stations, using the old commercial procedures. 

Are other stations involved again?

Maybe.  Despite the recent private equity transaction involving ShipCom, Rene has announced his intention to participate. Very tentative CW frequencies (in kHz) are:

WLO (AL): 2055.5 4343 12992 16968.5

KLB (WA): 488 500 8582.5

Do I get to play too?

Always, if you're a ham.  K6KPH will have its usual CW skeds on 4 bands, from the Pt. Reyes site:

K6KPH: 3550 7050 14050 21050

Signal reports of the big transmitters can be passed right to the receive bldg in this manner.

What happens if I show up?

You find the receive building, go inside, and get cake.  You have a great time with some serious radio people.

Doors open at 3:00pm, first transmission at 5:01pm (0001 UTC)

The receive building is a large, impressive, white structure at the end of a road, with the address of 17400 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Point Reyes National Seashore, past the oyster company and G Ranch.

Information: or +1 415-663-8982

Point Reyes is really pretty.  Remote, chilly, and windy, but awfully pretty.  Pop over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, get on a road you've seen in many car commercials, and just keep going until you get there.

In other years, the hard core of the hard core have been able to arrange admission to the transmit building some miles north in Bolinas, which is not for people who get uneasy around electricity.  I do not know if that is the case this year.  The transmitters are, of course, remotely controlled from the receive building, though techs are present for the Night of Nights.  You'll just have to ask the MRHS what the policy is this year.

Do they QSL?

In past years, this has been handled by Denice Stoops, who was the only female telegraph operator at the original KPH, or perhaps at any commercial Morse station in the US.  Tragically, though, she suffered a bad stroke right after realizing her dream of shipping out on a vessel.  She is recovering, and MRHS will tell you where to write her.

Therefore, I do not have the QSL information, but in the past the veries have been on leftover RCA radiogram blanks using a telegrapher's mill.

Why is this night like no other nights?

On all other nights, we plow through the utility bands trying to decode, or at least identify, more funny noises than anyone can imagine.  On this night alone, we listen to the rhythms of dahdidah didahdahdit didididit, and of course the eminently danceable dahdidah dididahdit dididit.  We hear an era of large, flashing, glass bottles and iron men.  We try once again to copy commercial bulletins by ear.  We hoist one (or more) for people who communicate through funny beeps in the air.

We REALLY thank the MRHS for keeping huge loud old KPH alive.