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

September 2021

The Amateur Amateur: The Sweet Screech of Success

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

Signalink sound card interface
Signalink sound card interface

I frequently don't get thing 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......

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 as Monk or Professor 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 www.winlink.org/tags/vara 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?)

DRA-50 and TM-V71A
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 (see A 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 hah!

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 station.

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 help.

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
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.

I hadn't.

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!)

Antennas on standoff
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 fine.

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! Screech-screech-warble-warble-squawk!

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 other. 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 now.

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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