The Amateur Amateur: The Sweet Screech of Success
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Signalink sound card interface
I frequently don't get things right the first time I try them. And when
it comes to Amateur Radio digital modes, I have to say that I rarely
get things right the first time. That's par for the course, so I
don't get upset.
Unless I can't get it right at all.
Now, that annoys me. I find it intolerable.
I'm obsessive about such things. I
don't really have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, certainly not like
fictional TV characters such
T, but I have been known to straighten up rows of pencils or roll
up my toothpaste tube so that I can get all of the toothpaste out. Let's
just say that when it comes to certain tried-and-true things that
work for other people but repeatedly fail for me, I just cannot admit defeat.
I suspect that somewhere in my DNA there is a quirky little gene that
wakes up on such occasions. I call it the “Why didn't that
work!?” gene, because
when I find myself saying that phrase, that's when it seems to
manifest itself. If I attempt to do something that I know
is possible but fails over and over for me, the
gene gets very upset. I mean really
upset. It won't allow me to give up. Even if I try to give
up (about 20 attempts is usually my limit) that gene will nag me and nag me and
say, “Yes, you tried 20
times and failed, but did you try this?”
So I try that. And it usually fails as well.
The gene is merciless. It will simply not
let me go. I have to keep trying and trying.
And in all likelihood, I will succeed. It's
not brilliance on my part. It's just that if I keep trying different
things, the laws of probability say that I will eventually stumble
across the right solution.
Anyway, my most recent why-can't-I-get-this-to-work
task was to get Winlink VARA FM working. (See
for an explanation of VARA FM.)
(A quick review here for those of you who skipped the link above and
have no idea what I'm talking about. Winlink is a digital method of
sending email via Amateur Radio. On VHF and UHF it is usually sent
in packet mode. VARA FM is a completely different mode and uses sound
card interfaces instead of terminal node controllers. Got it?)
Masters Communications DRA-50 and Kenwood TM-V71A
I spent fifteen months playing with it before I finally succeeded in
getting VARA FM to work for me.
(See what I mean about being obsessive?) Last year I chronicled all
the problems I was having up to that point
VARA Difficult Problem).
Now I will tell you what has
happened since then.
First, I should mention that I already had a functioning Winlink RMS (Remote
Mail Server) that used packet. But only Ron, KD0SML, was able to
reach it. (I've mentioned in many columns that propagation-wise, I am
in a very crummy location. Ron was the only person close enough to me
to successfully make a connection.) When other Winlink users in the
St. Louis area started trying VARA FM, they sang its praises.
Connections with more remote stations! Faster transfer rates! Hoo
Well, if I was ever going to have more than one client for my RMS, I was
going to have to switch from packet to VARA FM.
I set up my equipment, actually did follow the instructions, and tried
to connect with Neil, KD7UHR, who had the VARA FM RMS nearest to me.
Practically every other VARA FM user in St. Louis could connect to Neil's
As usual, my first attempt failed.
So did all of my subsequent attempts.
This is a fairly common occurrence for me when I link multiple
devices together, especially if they are a
transceiver, an interface, and a computer. If a sound card
interface is involved, I really have problems. Which of
the three devices is failing? It's difficult to tell. All
three have settings that can be adjusted, and there is no single
series of setting that works for everyone.
Connecting to Neil's station was my holy grail. If I could do that, I
would be well on my way to getting my own VARA FM RMS up and running. And I
must thank Neil for his patience and encouragement. He was a great
During my first round of experiments (already described in the earlier
column) I had almost
managed to connect to Neil's RMS. But no matter what I did I could
never translate almost to definitely.
During my second round I decided to start changing devices.
The most obvious thing was to try a higher antenna. That did not help.
VARA FM screenshot
I tried a different transceiver, three
different transceivers, in fact. No luck there, which was depressing,
as I had to keep purchasing different internal chips and transceiver
cables for my Signalink sound card interface.
I next tried using a different computer. For a while I actually thought
that was going to work, but ultimately it didn't. Another almost
but not quite.
All during these experiments I kept searching for and reading articles
about VARA FM. There had been precious few of these during my first attempts
last year, but there were a lot more of them now. One thing that
jumped out at me was that Signalink wasn't my only option for a sound
card interface. Neil, in fact, used a Masters Communications DRA-50.
Aha! I thought. I'd tried different radios, different antennas, and
different computers. But I'd always used a Signalink (though
admittedly, more than one). So I ordered a DRA-50. And when it
arrived, I was sure that I had solved my VARA FM problem.
I was stunned.
Later, when that nagging little gene started bugging me again, I decided to
see if it was simply a matter of distance. I had now accumulated
enough equipment to set up two completely independent
VARA FM stations. I could set them up practically on top of each
other. Surely that would work! And if it did, I would have to start
thinking about better
coax, a higher antenna... (shudder!)
With VARA FM I no longer need to use my highest antenna
It took a while to get everything set up. It takes a lot of fiddling to
get the settings right. The computers especially like to change the
sound card settings when you're not looking. But I got everything put
together and configured, and spread out so that the stations
didn't overload each other.
And it still didn't work!
I played with this configuration for a while, occasionally changing a
radio or an antenna, but I still couldn't get either station to talk
to the other.
After a few days of idly sending signals back and forth I did notice that
one of my two VARA FM stations was receiving
better than the other. I pondered that for a while, then wondered if
perhaps they were
making a connection, but the handshaking
stage was failing. I did some more swapping, re-cabling, and
shuffling of equipment and eventually determined that my main computer
was the failure point.
It could send VARA FM signals, but for some reason failed to receive
them. My laptop and all of the other equipment seemed to work just
I compared the settings on the two computers and found them to be
exactly the same. Then, just for the heck of it, I turned the audio gain
way up on my main computer. I tried to make another connection.....
Screech! Squawk! Warble-warble-cheep-chirp!
The previously blank displays on my computers suddenly filled up with
colored dots and bars, the SEND and ACK indicators played
tag, and the text windows filled with techno-gibberish indicating a
good transfer of data. I checked and confirmed that my Winlink test
message actually had made it from one computer to the
I tried sending a message the other direction and that also worked. I
had solved my VARA FM problem!
I have since cleaned up my RMS, improved it so that it can handle both
packet and VARA FM, and confirmed that more Winlink users in the area are
now able to connect to it.
Oh, the sweet screech of success!!
My nagging little why-didn't-it-work gene can go back to sleep
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman