The Amateur Amateur: 'Twixt Computer and Rig
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
My Rascal sound card interface looked something like this.
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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.