The Amateur Amateur

Welcome to the home of The Amateur Amateur

The Amateur Amateur is a column about my experiences in ham radio. Since I have little technical expertise and not much knowledge of electronics, I make a lot of mistakes. I consider myself to be just an amateur amateur radio operator, but I keep pressing on and trying new things. This column details my triumphs - and foibles - and I try not to take myself too seriously. Whether you are an experienced ham or new to the hobby, I hope you find these chronicles of my efforts to be entertaining.

Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

May 2022

The Amateur Amateur: 'Twixt Computer and Rig

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

My Rascal sound card interface looked something like this.

There are so many cool things you can do via Amateur Radio if you interface it with a computer. A long time ago I had fun with PSK31and I really had a ball with Slow Scan Television. I'm not sure, but I think I used a Rascal sound card interface in those early days. (I'm compulsive, so I'm sure I wrote it down somewhere. I'm not going to check, however, because I don't want to disturb the Dust Monster sleeping atop my old log books.)

But as I got more involved with ARES® (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) it was time to use my rig for more practical matters. I set aside the sound card interface (yeah, I'm pretty sure it was a Rascal) and replaced it with a Kantronics TNC (Terminal Node Controller).

I don't specifically remember the Rascal being difficult to connect. The computer side was probably a 15-pin serial port, and the transceiver side were most likely the microphone and speaker jacks. There weren't any knobs or such on the Rascal itself, and there was nothing inside of it to tweak. Plug and play, as they say.

But once the digital modes got more complicated... Oh boy.

Nothing was as easy as it had been before. I was moving into packet territory. More options. Separate software for each different mode. And the TNC wanted to connect to all new places on the computer and transceiver.

And, oh no! The TNC had knobs to adjust and a massive set of instructions that needed to be loaded. And there were different instructions for each mode.

Getting it all set up was hell.

So, I did what any intelligent ham radio operator would do under the circumstances.

I called another ham and asked for help.

That eventually worked. It took a number of calls, follow-up emails, tests, and more calls. But finally everything started clicking and humming as it was supposed to.

You know what happened next, of course.

I became the guy whom people called for help.

I didn't really know what I was doing, but that didn't seem to matter. As long as everyone's configuration started clicking and humming they were happy.

At some point I got into APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). I wound up with two Kantronics TNCs, one running my APRS base station at home and the other doing various other packet functions. APRS itself is packet, but requires configuring the TNC differently. It was easier just to buy a second unit.

The only place where I had perpetual problems was the APRS base station that I set up at the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center. It would work just fine until I walked out the door. I wouldn't discover that it had died until after I'd made the 40 minute drive home.

Needless to say, the EOC's APRS station was down most of the time.

And then I discovered the Byonics TinyTraks.

Signalink and KPC3+
Signalink sitting atop a Kantronics TNC

These were miniscule TNCs designed primarily for portable and mobile use. Oh, I loved those little gizmos. They were a little tricky to program, but at least the instruction set was small and easy to understand. I placed one in my vehicle (still there, still working), and then attempted to use them to replace the Kantronics TNCs at home and at the EOC.

That didn't work out so well.

The one at home turned into a charcoal briquette after a nearby lightning strike, and I improperly plugged in the one at the EOC and blew out the computer's USB ports.

I did, however, get one working at home in the long run. It's been handling my base APRS operation for years now.

Ah, but everything changes.

Along came Winlink. And though it used packet on the 2 meter band, it did not play well with TNCs. (Winlink is a system for sending email, reports, and numerous other things over the air. I've covered it in detail in earlier columns.) So, I had to start replacing some TNCs with...., are you ready?

Sound card interfaces.

Right back where I started.

This time, however, my old Rascal just wasn't up to the task. It didn't have enough flexibility. The ham packet world had become more complex, and I needed a sound card interface that could handle a variety of different connections. Computers had, for the most part, moved on from the old DB-15 serial ports to newer USB ports. But transceivers... well, that was a different story. Some were still accessed via the microphone and speakers jacks. Others had new data jacks. But there was no universal standard for what the data jack did. So I needed a sound card interface that could handle numerous different configurations.

I wound up getting a Signalink.

Let me tell you right now that the Signalink, nor any other brand of sound card interface, is a magic fits-all device. There are dozens of Signalinks. They all look identical. What is different is a plug-in module inside that decides what signal goes where. So, if you had your Signalink connected to an Alinco DR-135 and you wanted to use a Kenwood TM-V71A instead, you needed to get a whole new Signalink.

Or, alternatively, you could just buy a new plug-in module and swap out the old one.

And, of course, you'd also need a different set of cables to connect to your transceiver. That's pretty much a given these days.

The Signalink comes with a two knobs on the front panel, but in my experience they don't do much. I just set them at the default values and left them alone.

The next generation of sound card interfaces

The serious fiddling around takes place on the computer.

I have never been happy with Microsoft Windows. Almost everything I want to do on my computer requires that I learn how to tinker with Windows's inner workings, something I am loathe to do. If I do manage to find instructions somewhere, they are always out of date (Microsoft is constantly changes things). In the case of getting a sound card interface properly configured, it's a matter of (1) finding where Windows has decided to put it, and (2) messing with Windows's sound settings.

It is so easy to break something. In fact, even if you don't, Windows will probably break it on its own.

But, being compulsive (or insane) I eventually got there. And since I like to tinker, I wound up with several Signalink boxes, a lot of plug-in modules, and a squiggly mess of cables.

And then came VARA.

I won't even try to explain VARA. It was a new addition to Winlink that was (1) not packet, and (2) carried signals a lot farther.

So, of course, I had to try it.

As you might have guessed, I wound up getting all new sound card interfaces.

And the whole cycle started all over again.

Glitches in the System
A series of cartoons about what really happens when your radio breaks down

Earlier columns and other stories

Non-ham-related stories

Also vist
Stan Horzepa's "Surfin'"
Eric Guth's "QSO Today'"

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