Wind, Antennas, and a First Portable Session

This week I had two radio firsts: trying to put together a halfway decent antenna, and a first portable operating session.

I started by putting together a center insulator a dipole antenna. There are many possible designs online, but I ended up making one with materials I’m familiar with. It’s made of a 1″ PVC cross, four PVC caps, three 1/4″ eye-bolts, some nylon lock-nuts, and panel-mount BNC connector. The whole went together in about half an hour. The PVC connections were surprisingly tight as a press-fit, but they and the eye-bolts are secured with lock-tite and sealed with hot-snot just in case. The BNC connector is soldered internally to a couple pieces of hookup wire, which you can see poking out the sides of the cross. The antenna wires themselves are simply tied to the eye-bolts and wire-nutted to the hookup wire.

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The dipole center-support. This picture was taken after the fact, hence the pre-cut Nylon cord wrapped around it. You can see the two copper hookup wires poking out either end.

The dipole center, a 200′ spool of nylon wire, some “stakes” for securing the antenna to the ground (really, 8″ pegboard hooks, on sale at Menards!), some zip-ties, and a couple of rice-filled socks as counterweight all fit handily into this small plastic case I had lying around:

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I live only about a mile from Lake Michigan and the beautiful lakefront park space that runs along the East side of Chicago. I figured with the sunny-but-chilly weather we’ve been having this week, the lakeshore on a weekday afternoon would be pleasant to work in and not too packed with people.

I couldn’t find a suitable table or bench close enough to trees to set up under, but then I spotted the convenient height of the sea-wall between the outer lakefront trail and the lake itself. I couldn’t have been any closer to the lake without getting my socks wet!

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The operating position. There’s a little ledge just on the other side of this wall that was perfect for standing on.

I strung up a portable, homemade 40m dipole (wires cut in advance) as high as I could could into one of the nearby trees – I only got the center maybe 20 feet in the air, but that’s still better than the 8′ the random wire in my home office is. The ends are tied off to stakes near the ground. This made the setup more of an inverted-V than a true-dipole.

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One of the antenna-wires staked off to the ground. You can see the black coax sloping from the tree to the operating position.

The antenna is fed from ~60′ of RG-58, running into a ZM-2 Tuner for matching, and then via a short RG-58 jumped into the Virgin Receiver. I also brought along the ardiuno-controlled, Si5351-VFO I’ve been working on to allow for the ability to change frequencies, as detailed in my last post. If I’m going to spend the time setting up practically in a lake, I thought it would be nice to actually scan the whole band. Since the VFO rig is still on a breadboard, I was quite spread-out over my little stony operating station.

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Visible here: the coil of coax coming from the antenna; the Virgin Receiver, open to allow the VFO to interconnect; the breadboard with the Si5351 VFO on it; two separate 12V SLA batteries; some nice comfy headphones; and the large red cable-coiler I used to store the dipole wires (a bit overkill).

So now, the moment of truth – I hooked up the batteries, connected the receiver and VFO, did a quick by-ear tune on the ZM-2. I’ve never done something like this before – would it actually be better than my office random-wire? Was it all just a jaunt in the park? In short, would it work?

LIKE HECK IT WORKED!

Especially up in the SSB portion of the band, there were some stations that might as well have been on the other end of a phone call. (This, by the way, confirms that the Virgin can receive SSB and AM as well as CW.) In no particular order, I heard:

  • N8KKR, KA9ZXN and others on the Hams for Christ net on 7.263 (330p Central, Monday-Sat). Not my personal bag, but they seemed a very pleasant bunch.
  • W9DCQ and W4LWW having a nice QSO, between the two of them and some other operators I couldn’t quite copy.
  • KG9O and KK4FZI having a friendly chat.
  • Some other snippets of stations.

The listed stations alone include QTHs in Evergreen Park IL, Columbus OH, Middleton WI, Franklin TN, Grassy Creek NC, and Marion IN. None of them terribly far away in radio terms (the Tennessee locations is farthest at ~500 miles), but a great confirmation that the antenna was clear and working. With a height above the ground of less than 1/4 wavelength, the ideal dipole should have a high takeoff angle and be fairly omnidirectional, and that seems plausible based on results.

In sadder news, I seem to have broken some part of the WSPR functionality of my VFO in consolidating that functionality from two separate programs into one. 1W into the antenna and several repetitions netted be exactly zero receptions, either into this antenna or my office random wire. So it’s back into the code I go. While I’m at it, it would really be worth packaging up the little VFO into its own enclosure – having all those wires flapping about is a bit worrisome for transport!

All in all, a tremendously successful, if very chilly, day by the lake. Now that I know what I’m doing, I suspect it would be able to have the station set up and listening in about 10 minutes, and about the same for tear down. With the days getting warmer all the time, I’m sure I’ll be out there again soon.

Hear you on the air!

73

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Giving the Virgin Some Mobility

As wonderful as it was to ‘complete’ the Virgin Receiver and have a set of ears to start listening on, more and more I find myself wishing for the ability to change frequency and explore the 40m band a bit. To that end, I’ve been experimenting with hooking my Si5351-Based VFO directly to the Virgin as an easy way of giving it the ability to QSY.

(The VFO, as it happens, has a few more features nowadays, including being able to act as  WSPR beacon and having an auto-CQ mode. The code, as always, is on Github.)

Here’s the receiver as built:

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Jason NT7S dropped a hint in one of his older blog posts that the Ne602 likes to see about 300 mV p-p when being driven externally, and that a 10dB pad could be used to bring the Si5351 down to this level. To that end, I put together a quick Pi-attenuator consisting of one 120-Ohm and two 150-ohm resistors.

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A tiny 10dB pi-attenuator.

The attenuator plugs directly into the receiver where the crystal X1 usually sits, in a little 1×3 piece of female header. The output of the 10dB pad plugs into the side of the header that’s connected directly to pin 6 on the NE602; the ground on the attenuator plugs into the other side of the header, and is therefore connector to ground on the receiver.

The longer red and white wires you can see attached to the pad connect to ground and the CLK0 output of the Si5351. Here’s the current setup, spread out on the bench.

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It’s already quite successful! I can scan up and down the 40m band and pick out CW signals pretty well. SSB signals are faint and pretty un-hearable. Unfortunately, for some reason, my receiver has also turned into an AM radio:

I think some kind of high-pass filter is in order here. There’s always been a bit of AM bleedthrough with this receiver, but given that the AM stations are attenuated by the RF Pot on the receiver, it seems like most of this signal is coming in through the antenna and not, say, bleeding into the audio amp.

Hear you (all around the band) on the air!

73

 

“The Virgin” – A DC 40M Receiver

My first HF receiver project is complete.

It’s not fancy. It’s rock-bound with no ability to QSY. It only has a single RF gain control up front. It’s direct conversion, so it hears all signals on both sides of its frequency. It’s bodged together and probably not super durable.But it’s my own, made from scratch, and I couldn’t be more happy. So without further ado, here’s the finished product:

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The Virgin Receiver – safe for use, if not safe for work.
I received this (scandalous!) container in a White Elephant gift exchange at a holiday party this Christmas, and I immediately thought it would make a good home for a radio. It seems a fitting case for the receiver that’s taking my homebrewing virginity.

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The Virgin DC Receiver. Two IC’s and a power regulator. One knob. No fuss.
The circuit is nothing particularly new: it’s based, as I’ve said before, on the work of Dave Richards AA7EE, some fine projects from GQRP, and a very useful document from Bill KV2AWC. The unit is a direct-conversion receiver based around the ubiquitous NE602/NE612  mixer/oscillator IC and an LM386 audio amplifier circuit. Gain is controlled solely by the RF gain pot in the front-end. I find this provides more than enough gain control. There’s also a position for a jumper to boost the audio output from the LM386, but with the amount of RF noise in my apartment, this proves more detrimental than helpful. I may turn that jumper into a switch if experimentation shows its use.

The only filtering present is the handful of passives that sit between the NE602 and the LM386, filtering the audio a bit between converting to baseband and the audio amplification stage. A little experimentation showed that the present passives only seem to round off higher audio frequencies, say about 6 khz. They’re not really meant to enhance selectivity, but just to reduce noise introduced by signals further away from zero beat.

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A naked view of the inside of the receiver. Avert your eyes, children!
I found some nice panel-mount BNC connectors at our local Fry’s electronics, and fitted some Anderson Powerpole pigtails as a power input. (Pro-tip: if you use Powerpoles regularly, as I do in my theatre job, get yourself a ratcheting crimper. Less than $40, will change your life.) There’s a 1/8″ jack attached to one side and the RF gain control is mounted up front. The whole thing weighs maybe half a pound.

Signals come in clear and hot on this thing! With minimal audio filtering and just a basic front end filter, it’s pretty wide open, but that’s kind of the point – at this point, I’ll take sensitivity over selectivity. Particularly up in the QRS part of the spectrum, I’d rather be able to hear the one guy who’s within 3kHz of my crystal than lose him. Remember, this thing is rockbound, so changing frequencies means swapping in new crystals.

The receiver has gone through several revisions and adjustments in the past couple months. See the original post, changes to the front end, and some power problems for those adventures.

While I’ll probably never really be ‘done’ with this receiver – with tinkering projects, are we ever really done? – it feels great to have it packaged up, in a case, and usable. It’s freeing to have something complete enough to show off.

Hear you on the air!

73