The Amateur Amateur: Name That Sound!

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
and Nancy Hoffman, N0NJ
January 2018

Gary listening to radio
The Yaesu goes "Doo-Dah-Dee"

As humans, our primary sense is that of sight. We have to see things to understand them. We say that we need to "visualize" a concept before we can work with it. It's all about perceiving things with our eyes. No one ever said, "Smelling is believing".

As Amateur Radio operators, however, we eventually develop highly tuned aural senses as well. At some point, hearing becomes as important as seeing.

"Well, duhh!" you are thinking. "That's obvious!"

But I'm not just referring to conversing over the air. It's more than voices from a speaker that have meaning to us. There are a myriad of other sounds to which we've become accustomed. They've crept into our subconscious minds, and we react to them. In most cases, we know precisely what they mean. For example:

Repeater courtesy tone: It's okay for me to talk now.

"DAH-di-DAH" (for you CW folks): My turn to send.

"Again, obvious," you say.

Well, maybe, but only to hams. Nevertheless, I feel we've been conditioned to recognize a great many additional audio clues. For example, if you walk into someone else's shack when he/she is just getting ready to operate, you might be able to identify the radio that he/she has just turned on just by the sounds it makes.

Row of radios
One of them just went "Bleep!"

Beep-beep: Kenwood TM-V71A

Doo-dah-dee (increasing pitch): Yaesu FTM-350

Bee-Bleep! (high, increasing pitch): Icom ID-5100A

Beep: Alinco DR-135T

Bee-beep-Bee-beep "(female voice) Channu Mode One!": Wouxun KG-UDVP1

If you think about it, you can probably identify every piece of equipment in your shack by the sounds it makes during startup, even if it's just a snap, pop, or hum. (It's likely that you can even tell if it's about to die.)

Aficionados of HF have an especially rich repertoire of sounds that they can identify. To those of us who live in the VHF and UHF bands, it all sounds like static. But to the lower band connoisseurs, there is no such thing. There is motor-boating, picket-fencing, and a host of other fine distinctions. They can tell you the difference between man made and natural noise. They very likely can tell you whether the noise you're hearing is emanating from Jupiter or the Sun. They can make out conversations so deeply buried in the static that the rest of us would swear they aren't there at all. I think it's fair to say that Amateur Radio operators working the HF bands were the first people to understand Chaos Theory, even if they didn't realize they were doing so at the time.

My own expertise with the sounds of the HF bands is limited to knowing how to press the Noise Blanking button on my rig. Beyond that, if the SSB voice I'm hearing sounds like a squeaky cartoon character or, conversely, like frog chewing taffy, I'm still unsure which way I'm supposed to turn the dial.

Kenwood and TNC
The Kenwood goes "Beep-Beep!", but the Kantronics TNC doesn't seem to make any sound at all.

And then there are the digital modes. Each has its own distinctive sound. Most of them are kind of pleasant to listen to, even though your brain can't decipher the messages. (Okay, there are two exceptions. Your brain can decipher CW, which is technically a digital mode. And packet definitely does not make a pleasant sound, unless you get your kicks listening to emergency alert tests on TV.)

Digital enthusiasts tend to have one, or perhaps a few favorite modes. They can unerringly identify the mode they want by the sound it makes. If it goes warble-warble-warble instead of blee-blee-blee, then it's not the mode they want and they keep searching. (Those operators who play with all digital modes have lots of money to buy the necessary equipment, and to send their spouses to expensive resorts during contest weekends.)

Probably the most distinctive sounds, though, are the ones we'd rather not hear. They don't invoke happy thoughts. Some are merely irritating, such as:

The phone ringing while you're trying to tune in a rare distant station.

Your dog letting you know that it absolutely has to go outside right now when you're just about to break through a pile-up.

Your child telling you that you're supposed to sign a note his teacher sent home with him, when you were that close to understanding how to program your new radio.

For me, it tends to be the quick bleep-bleep I hear when my rig feels that I've done something that it considers to be bone-headed.

Gary startled
Uh oh, that didn't sound good at all!

All of those sounds, and plenty more, are irritating enough, but there are a number of others that are somewhat more disturbing:

Sudden silence, for example, pretty much always means that something bad has happened.

A normally quiet piece of equipment suddenly developing a loud hum is likely to put a frown on your face.

Even worse is a loud SNAP or POP. That will get your pulse pounding in a hurry, especially if it's followed by the heavy scent of ozone. Your instinct at that point is probably to grab the phone and start dialing 911.

If you are traveling in your car and hear a sudden Whap! your first thought will be that you've lost your antenna. You'll probably be right.

Sounds that emanate from just outside your house can be unnerving as well, especially if strong winds are blowing. A Thunk! against the side of your house might not mean much to you, but the same sound coming from the roof will likely get your heart racing. A groaning sound, followed by a splintering sound will immediately send your spouse to the phone to call your insurance agent. (You, on the other hand, will log on to the Internet to see what bargains are available for replacement antennas.)

Ice storms are especially worrisome. A Snap! Thunk! on the roof doubtless means that your six-element Yagi is now a five-element Yagi.

A freight train sound? Well, head to the basement and wait for the tornado to pass. You can spend the time planning your new, expanded shack for when you rebuild the house.

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