Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Complete DXer



Odds are that, if you're reading this, you're probably familiar with two other jewels from the ARRL bookstore: Solid State Design For The Radio Amateur and Emperical Methods of RF Design.  An equally important (and still available!) publication is Bob Locher's The Complete DXer.  In a nutshell, TCD is to operating as SSDRA and EMRFD are to homebrewing - essential reading, and a bargain at $19.95.

So, what got me on this topic?  Well, dialing around during this pandemic, it's obvious that some of you could use a little elmering. Since we're not supposed to be around each other, I can't come over and teach you what was taught to me, but reading OM Bob's book can! Read it, learn it, live it and you'll come to love it.

If you can't, for whatever reason, read TCD, I'll let you in on a little secret:  There's an old adage that goes "Can't work 'em if you can't hear 'em".  Most assume that refers to using a decent antenna or well designed receiver, but there's a non-hardware component as well: You can't hear 'em while you're transmitting. 

Here's an exercise: Next time you hear a pile-up, listen to it critically.  Who's he working? Why? Is he following a pattern, eg: listening a bit up or down with every QSO? Is he giving instructions?  Once you develop that sort of awareness, then you'll know where to call and when to do it.  Practice that, and not as many of us old QRP guys will be cracking the pile before you get your turn, certainly before the lids calling "Who's the DX?" get theirs.


Enough of the lecture.  Go get the book and start working to become a better operator.


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Social Isolation and the Icom 735

N8NM/p, Lakeland, Florida
I'm not to proud to admit that my homebrew rigs sometimes don't travel well, so when my wife and I were planning this extended trip to Florida, I thought it'd be fun to reacquaint myself with an old friend: Icom's IC-735.  So, I pulled it down from the shelf where it's sat for years, and stuffed it under the back seat for the 1300 mile ride, never giving thought to whether it'd work when we got here.  

That's trust, and I wasn't disappointed.  Other than the meter's backlight being dead, the old rig still works as well as it did when it came over from Japan during the Reagan Administration.  Better, actually, thanks to some nice International Radio crystal filters that I installed years ago.

I was a part-time tech in a local ham radio store, they still had such a thing in the mid-'80s when the '735 came out, and I remember thinking that, with all that's crammed into that box, I'm gonna hate working on them.  We sold tons of them, and almost none made it to the bench for anything other than having options installed.  At nearly $800, they were out of my reach until the next new thing came out and they started showing-up second-hand.  So, it was probably about 1990-1991 before I could get one of my own.  I sold that one a few years later, regretted it, and probably bought this one somewhere around 2000ish.  I know I had it shortly after 2001, because it was unfortunately damaged by a hasty repackaging job performed by a member of a new branch of government called the TSA.  Luckily, the damage was cosmetic - the bottom panel was caved in - and the electronics were unharmed.

In the mid 2000s, I added a second IC-735 to the fleet and equipped both with the aforementioned aftermarket filters and tweaked them so they'd go down below 5W (the minimum was 10 from the factory).  Using them as a portable SO2R contest station and with wire dipoles, I won the QRP class in quite a few state QSO parties, including in-state wins in Michigan and Tennessee.  I beat the poor things like rented mules, and only managed to break one once when I blew some switching diodes out on the bandpass filters by accidentally getting my cables mixed and transmitting directly into it.  

I suppose that makes the rig Idiot Resistant rather than Idiot Proof.  Fortunately, 1N4148s are pennies and the repair took maybe an hour, and I haven't done that again.

So, here I am, enjoying my first winter someplace where the air doesn't hurt, and along comes this pesky virus from far away.  It looks like I may be here a while, but that's OK - the weather's nice and, as someone who spends his time building ham radios in his basement, I'm well adapted to social isolation.

I've got my '735 and soldering iron set-up out in the lanai, the sun is out and the weather is warm.  I think I'm gonna be OK.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Homebrew Stereo for the Shack


There are times when it's nice to listen to a little music while working at the bench.  For years, I've used a number of different vintage radios for this purpose, but few of them had the modern FM band and none were stereo.  So, I did what any other geek would do and built my own!

A battered old Eico HFT-90 that I had stashed in the attic over my garage provided the vortex that sucked me down this hole.  I don't remember how I came to own this thing, but I've been lugging it around for probably 30 years and it was finally time to do something with it.

It was in pretty rough shape, but it didn't offer up any real fight in my efforts to revive it; the only problem with the electronics were the filter caps were long shot and the controls were dirty.  Cosmetically, though, while the chassis was fine, the cabinet was rusty, so it was a total strip and respray.

But, you might wonder, isn't the HFT-90 monaural?  Yes, but that's easily rectified in any number of ways.  I would have liked to build a tube-based converter, but as a concession to practicality, went solid state using a discontinued device from 40 some years ago, the LM1310.  I was already familiar with that chip, my first job in electronics was working on consumer audio equipment and that chip was everywhere.

The MPX converter is the box above the tuner.  I built it from scrap sheet metal and sprayed it with left-over paint from the tuner.  The circuit is straight from the datasheet, works perfectly and only requires a handful of parts.  The large red lamp is the pilot detect light; the jeweled lens came from the junk pile and it's lit by a clear LED. 

As for the amplifier, I wanted to use tubes for some odd reason, and what better tube for something like this than the dirt-common 6AQ5?  And what better to drive it than a 12AX7?  And what better to use for a chassis than an inverted cake pan?  Honestly, I can't think of anything!

Again, the circuit is plucked straight from the datasheets.  It's the same one found in gazillions of TVs produced in the 50s into the 70s, and is perfectly adequate for this project.  No oxygen-free cables or gold plated binding posts here.  Actually, I did make one modification - I increased the cathode resistors to 1K because the power transformer from my junk-box is a little undersized.  Speaking of transformers, the outputs came from Antique Electronic Supply and I think they were made by Hammond.  They represent the only money spent for parts, about $35.

The speakers are also homebrew using 8" drivers from Parts Express.  The cabinets are built from 3/4" MDF and are sized based on the specs of the drivers at about .75 cubic feet.  I wrapped them in maple veneer because I've never seen maple speakers before.

So, how's it work?  For its intended purpose, filling a 12x14' room with sound, it works perfectly.  With maybe two watts per channel, it's not going to rattle the widows, but for kicking back sipping some Tullamore Dew while listening to Miles Davis, it's good enough.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Mic Amp/Limiter for uBitx

The past few months have been very busy for me, but I somehow managed to knock-out a Version 5 uBitx.  Pretty incredible little rig, congratulations, Farhan!

As it comes, the uBitx is set-up to use a condenser microphone, but it doesn't quite have enough gain to be used with my beloved Astatic 10D.  Not wanting to have yet another microphone on the desk, I adapted the mic amplifier circuit that I used in the SR-16 for the uBitx. 
The circuit is based around the common LM-324 quad op-amp and will work equally well with pin-compatible chips like the TL-074 or TL-084.  The circuit is installed between the dynamic mic and the input to the uBitx, where the mic bias voltage provides the VCC for the op-amp.  I installed it in the rig, though it could just as well be installed in the base of the microphone, provided space exists. 

The circuit itself is pretty straightforward: The first stage is a typical inverting amplifier with about 20 dB of gain.  This feeds the limiter stage, which clips any positive or negative signal peaks exceeding about .7V.  The limiter is also inverting, so the signal at its output is in-phase with the input signal from the microphone (not that this is important...) 

The limiter is followed by a low-pass filter to remove any high-frequency artifacts created in the limiter.  The "knee" of the filter is around 3KHz. This is followed by a buffer stage to provide a low-impedance output to drive the rig. Resistors R4 and R5 form the voltage divider used to provide virtual ground (1/2 VCC) for the first two stages. 

The output of the buffer probably looks odd, what with the two caps and all.  What I'm doing there is creating the equivalent of a 2.35uF non-polarized cap.  This is probably unnecessary; thinking about it,  C9 could be eliminated completely because the DC voltage at pin 14 will always be lower than the uBitx's mic bias voltage.  But, lets ignore that for now.  The DC bias voltage is routed, through R10 to capacitors C2 and C3, which remove any AC from the DC before applying it to the LM324.  Resistors R4 and R5 form the voltage divider used to provide virtual ground (1/2 VCC) for the amplifier/limiter stages, the filter and buffer are "self biased" to 1/2 VCC by the output of the limiter. 

I optimized the gain to suit my 10D/D104 mics, and as such, really have to eat the microphone before it sounds nasty.  This is born out by the reports of "excellent audio" from the 40m SDR police, so I'm satisified with its performance.  If, however, it doesn't provide an appropriate amount of gain for a different mic, that can be adjusted by changing the value of R3 as the gain is determined by the formula AV = R3/R2.  The reason I say to adjust R3 instead of R2 is because R2 pretty much determines the input impedance of the circuit, so you want to keep it around 500-1K.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Homebrew WAS

Could this be the first FT8 WAS earned using only QRPish (10 Watts) scratch-built homebrew gear?  If not, it's got to be a very small club.
I'm not much into paper chasing, but see the appeal of it and would love to see the ARRL (and other amateur radio organizations) recognize our accomplishments in the realm of homebrewing much the same as they do contest results and DXCC stats. 

After several years and moderate success as a DXer and contester, I was totally burned-out until I added the homebrew dimension.  How many more of us are out there?  Certainly, I can't be the only one.

ARRL, CQ, etc.; Are you listening?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Trans-Oceanic Project

If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance that you've got a soft spot for Commander MacDonald's baby: The Zenith Trans-Oceanic.  I certainly do: When I was about eight years old, my family took holiday at a cabin on Hubbard Lake in rural Northern Michigan.  At that time, there were no TV stations covering that portion of the state, but the cabin came equipped with a glorious model G500 Trans-Oceanic, and the sounds that came from it made enough of an impression on my pre-adolescent psyche that I became obsessed by all things electronic.  Eventually, this hobby became a career in radio from which I recently retired after close to 40 years.  Soft spot indeed.

Earlier this month, while on vacation in Florida with my wife and friends, I came across this very neglected model G500 at an antique festival.  The picture above really doesn't do it justice - this thing was totally trashed; the famed "Black Stag" covering was torn in several places and appeared to have been gnawed on by mice, as had some of the wiring.  The hinges for the rear panel had rusted completely through, the cover being held in place only by the rusted spring clips.  And the smell... Trans-Oceanics have a unique, friendly aroma, but this was a different fragrance: Mildew, rotted wood and mouse pee. 

But, the set appeared complete, including the coveted 1L6 converter tube, and the seller was willing to deal, so we agreed on a very low price (a fraction of what the airline charged me to check it as baggage) and the derelict became mine.

Things didn't get any better when I returned home and got the set on the bench and found that someone who should not be allowed anywhere near a soldering iron had attempted to repair the radio.  The underside was covered in soot; the power-supply section had lost its magic smoke in a big way.  My heart sank thinking about the rather delicate 1.5v tube filaments.  Had they also been damaged?    If so, my equity in this set would be in the red.


Fortunately, when I measured across the filament string, I got a nice, low resistance.  Holy crap, had the tubes survived?  I had to know!  So, I started undoing the previous work to see what all was wrong.  

My theory is that someone attacked the set based on "internet knowledge" that says selenium rectifiers are ticking time bombs, but without the understanding of what the rectifier does or how to replace it.  Equipped with this lack of knowledge, they bypassed the selenium with a silicon diode.  That probably went OK, but things went awry when they got to the filter capacitors... I'm not sure exactly what went wrong, but it's obvious that something was dead-shorted to ground at the input to the "candohm" resistor, vaporizing the diode and dropping resistor but not damaging anything else.  So, while it must've gone up in a glorious shower of sparks and smoke, the carnage was surprisingly minor.

Ironically, the selenium rectifier checked good, so the carnage was totally unnecessary.

Carnage removed.

New parts, including 1N4007 diode, mounted to added terminal strip.
Once the damage had been, um, rectified, the rest of the electrical restoration was uneventful.  The electrolytic and "Bumble Bee" capacitors were all replaced, as was the 3V4 audio tube, and the set roared to life.  Success!

But, cosmetically, the radio was a mess, and the only way to deal with it was going to be to strip it of it's upholstery, repair the damage, and recover it with new Tolex.  I wasn't looking forward to this part; I've seen reupholstered TOs before and you could immediately tell that they weren't original by the grain of the Tolex.  So, I scoured the web until I found a pattern that, at least in the photos, looked passable, so I ordered a couple of yards of "Black Bronco" from Parts Express.  When it arrived (in a very large box!), I was stunned - it was nearly a perfect match!

Thus, I set about the task at hand, photo-documenting every flap and fold of the old material as I removed it, and using each piece as a pattern from which the new pieces were cut.  Then, each piece was reinstalled exactly as the original had been by the factory.  Well, all but one - I goofed.  Still, it looks OK so I may leave it.

In addition to replacing the fabric, I polished and relacquered all the brass bits and installed a replacement dial lens (from Mark Palmquist - Excellent!), gave the set a final alignment and buttoned it all up.  


 Was it worth the effort?  Not economically, but I can't put a price on the rewarding feeling I got from bringing this beauty back from the brink. 

I'm still as enamored by these radios as I was back in 1970, they really are fantastic pieces of radio history.  It's unfortunate that so many international broadcasters have abandoned shortwave, but there's still a lot to tune in and nothing better to do it with than a Zenith Trans-Oceanic.

For anyone interested in learning about these sets, I highly recommend Bryant and Cones' book The Zenith Trans-Oceanic: The Royalty of Radios  from Schiffer Publishing.  It may be out of print, I don't know, but used copies are readily available through Amazon.  But please, don't be like the previous owner and attempt to service your TO without understanding what you're doing!


Monday, October 29, 2018

Philco 42-327T: Closure

It's been a couple of busy months, but the old Philco is done.  Once I repaired the damage I inflicted on it by foolishly lifting the cabinet by one of the grille bars, everything went together rather smoothly and it turned out quite nice.

I don't think I mentioned the chassis in any of my earlier posts, but it's rehab was relatively uneventful, mainly because nobody'd tried to fix it before I got my meat hooks on it.  So, it was simply a matter of replacing the electrolytic and paper caps, cleaning and lubricating the controls and tube sockets, and a final touch-up on the alignment.  The only thing that put up any sort of fight was the pushbutton presets, but that was just because they were full of crud and took some extra cleaning before they worked reliably and noise-free.

Performance wise, it's competent but not spectacular, as one would expect from a mid-low end radio.  The internal loop antenna works OK for the local stations, but it really comes alive when connected to an outdoor wire antenna, particularly on the shortwave bands. 

So, was it worth the effort?  Probably not from the financial perspective, though I don't have but maybe $50 invested in the thing and shouldn't have much trouble breaking even.  From the standpoint of personal entertainment, though, it was more than worth it.  Breathing life into a radio that's been neglected and dormant for decades is almost as much fun as building one from scratch!