K1RA @ W3LPL
CQ WW SSB 2001
For the non-amateur (ham) radio enthusiast, or non-“contester” these following sights and sounds will give you a glimpse into a facet of the hobby known as “contesting”. A contest in this particular case in which to win, involves exchanging and acknowledging station information, with the most number of people, in the world’s most distant zones and countries, all in 48 hours, all via radio waves.
What is it?
Amateur radio offers individuals a means to experiment with an assigned set of radio frequencies measured in mega hertz [MHz], or bands measured in Meters [m], across a wide range of the electromagnetic invisible and visible spectrum. Use of these frequency bands for communicating and exchanging information is encouraged and in many times assists the radio operators in preparing for emergency or disaster situations. Communication is most often via voice, using modes such as AM, FM, SSB (Single Sideband), or CW (morse code), as well as numerous other digital and computer modes.
Throughout the year, the hobby offers scheduled competitions, or “contests”. Contests amongst the users range across the spectrum of bands and modes. Objectives and scoring are widely based upon unique interactions, exchanges, or contacts (QSO’s) tallied over a period of a number of hours. Other scoring methods include a multiplier factor, often represented by total world countries, continents, zones, or latitude / longitude grids contacted. Contest categories are well defined and center around numbers of transmitters or transmitter power level.
Winners are ultimately determined by committee whose job is to review and compare the submitted records, or logs of exchanges. Results are officially written up and posted within weeks to months, awards, certificates, nothing monetary, will be awarded to the top winners and placers.
Individuals and groups construct, test, tune and prime radio stations for a marathon use. Groups compete against groups, individuals against individuals, though all play on the same field, the radio frequency spectrum, where both the man-made and sun noise make listening for the distant ones a great challenge.
What’s up with the sun?
During different times of the day, month, year and more importantly the 11 year solar cycle, the sun can adversely affect the radio bands dedicated for ham use. Below one can see a view of the sun in some of its most active, as well as quiet times. The graph numerically shows the latest solar cycle and that 2001 is near to the sun’s peak activity when many sunspots are formed.
The sun’s activity in some ways controls the reflective and absorbing properties of the earth’s upper ionosphere. This in turn controls the ionosphere’s ability to reflect radio waves over long distances around the earth. This long distance is commonly known as DX. Fantastic events or “openings” can occur on certain bands allowing individuals to talk over great distances (DX QSO), where more often than not, that exact communication is not always feasible. There is a certain sense of excitement when one experiences this type of phenomena, especially during a contest weekend, when communicating with numerous other individuals is the goal. During the height of the solar cycle, the radio bands can be dark and silent and within minutes come to life, only to fade once again, due to solar storms. Where exchanges are measured in seconds and band scores can range in the thousands of QSO’s, those lucky enough to sustain a high pace of attracting, finding and communicating with new and unique individuals, during these DX band openings, will most likely win the contest in the end.
What’s happening here?
In this particular case, this “contesting” experience centers around a portion of a multi-operator group operating the 10 meter band station (far right in the picture below) owned by Frank, W3LPL. His complete station, consisting of twelve radios, is located in the basement of his house in Maryland, near Baltimore and can also be seen in the picture at the top of this article.
The contest we entered was the CQ World Wide SSB DX competition and as this contest’s name implies, it involves entrants from all over the world. The contest periods runs a continuous 2 days and begins on our local Friday night and ends Sunday night, here on the east coast of the U.S. Most all contests revolve around Greenwich Mean Time, so the official contest period was 2001 Oct 27 00:00 until Oct 28 23:59 GMT. Also as the contest name states, it is using voice (SSB) and it is oriented around talking with individuals at great (DX) distances. Hams are allowed to use six bands of frequencies and are required to exchange their call signs, signal report and world zone number.
Frequencies, bands, spectrum?
Hams bands are numbered according to their length in meters, and for this contest the six ham bands we used ranged from longest at 160 meters to the shortest at 10 meters. These are in what’s known as the HF spectrum.
During most days on average years, 160, 80 and 40 meters are good for DX communications during dusk hours, while 15 and 10 meters allow for good DX during the daylight hours. The middle band, 20 meters, can allow for DX communication almost 24 hours a day.
As the ham bands are indicated in meters, so are there respective antenna lengths, sizes. The antenna farm, of Frank/W3LPL, consists of hundreds of meters of wire comprising quad and long wire beverage antennas, as well as rotatable aluminum beams, or yagis. The rotatable antennas sit along or atop one of the six 200 foot towers on the property, while the many wire beverage antennas extend hundreds of meters across open fields, standing no more than
several meters above the ground. During the contest at W3LPL, these beverage antennas offer each of Frank’s unique 6 band/stations (160, 80, 40, 20, 15, 10) the ability to effectively run two radios simultaneously, one in transmit using the yagis and the other in receive using the beverage, long wires. Hence you see twelve radio stations in the picture above. Below is a picture of a portion of the W3LPL antenna farm.
Winning a contest
Accumulating points to a winning score in this contest involves a trade off between keeping a continuous stream of individuals calling you and searching for new individuals in new countries or zones, across all six ham bands. Within this contest the world is broken down into 40 zones,
and there are usually somewhere near 200 available, “workable” countries over the period of the weekend, which act as the multipliers. Countries are designated by call sign prefixes, or the first 1-3 letters or numbers in the call sign.
10 Meter Contest Operators
The remainder of this presentation centers around the voices of the 3 operators (L->R) Zvi/4X6FR, Greg/NK3R and the editor and digital MP3, 10 meter spinning DJ, Andy/K1RA 🙂
As well you will hear the voices of other radio operators heard from around the world. Graphs and diagrams are presented below to show our activity as well as world wide radio propagation over the period of the contest weekend.
10 Meter Station
The 10 meter band station at W3LPL consists of two Yaseu FT-1000MP’s (black boxes left and right) and a shared 3-1000Z home brew single band amplifier (upper right) at 1500 watts,
This station uses 4 sets of 10 meter yagis, a pair of vertically stack yagis fixed on Europe, a yagi fixed south and two rotatables yagis, one at 70 feet, the other at 200 feet and an assortment of long wire beverages.
Each station at W3LPL follows a similar physical layout and operation functionality. Mainly there is a left and right radio, one for searching and one for running, attracting new QSO’s. Antenna switching and rotation is done using switches and controls seen in the center of the operating table. The amplifier switching contains a lockout mechanism such that only one radio can transmit at any one time, which prevents human error and ensures we abide by the contest rules which state that only one radio signal may be transmitted per band at any one instance.
Tracking the exchanges
The band operators log and track their exchanges through the use of a contest logging program. This tallies QSO, zone and country multipliers and shows us a running, real-time score throughout the contest. It tracks duplicate contacts and informs us what call signs, countries and zones we are missing on any given band.
This computer program, known as CT, is used to allow interaction and messaging of other radio positions and operators of the W3LPL multi-operator group. Features such as setting schedules and moving QSOs to other bands for extra points is also available.
The following is a graph showing the number of people we spoke with per hour. The time along the bottom axis is in hours UTC/GMT. 11 hours GMT is roughly our local sunrise and 23 hours GMT our local sunset. Note not many QSO’s were made 03-10 hours GMT, once the sun had set. Our highest activity hour was attained Saturday morning approximately 1 hour after sunrise at rate 180/hr and slowly fell throughout the day until it fell to zero several hours after sunset.
You can likewise see a somewhat similar, but much smaller activity peak and fall starting Sunday morning about 3 hours after sunrise. This late start was largely in part to a geomagnetic, or auroral disturbance brought on by a solar flare emitted from the sun.
The following picture is an animated NOAA image of the earth’s geomagnetic field in the northern hemisphere which shows the impact of a solar event on our earth. Note this animation is 2+ megabytes and may take some time to download.
Images were captured every 15 minutes during the 48 hour contest. Watch for time 2001 October 28 07:00 UTC and onward for a burst in the field, caused by the solar flare, which in turn caused a degradation in radio communications, and most likely a fantastic show of the northern lights.
This secondary map shows a history of the radios maximum usable frequency (MUF) for the weekend. Images were captured in one hour increments. This map indicates progression of radio propagation in relation to the highest usable radio frequency, which in turn shows the areas in the world of best opportunity to converse with. Note this animation is also 2+ megabytes.
This image also shows what areas of the earth are in daylight and darkness, as well as the “grey-line”. Recall certain radio frequencies are more readily usable at different times of the day. The grey-line indicates areas which may encounter heightened propagation amongst the radio operators who are located within this region at any given. This line follows the daybreak, dusk line as the earth rotates about the sun.
Where’s the contest audio?
As well as the visual aids above showing how radio frequency conditions varied along with activity, below are means for listening to radio contacts and conditions for the period of the weekend. Radio exchanges during the contest weekend and the voices of the 2600+ men and women we spoke too in over 175 countries around the world were digitally captured using MP3 technology. Radio conditions and individual exchanges from the 10 meter band station can be heard below using hot links and search capabilities. For the non-ham or non-contester the routine and exchanges you will hear go something like this – Example:
US: CQ contest CQ contest this is W3LPL Whiskey Three Lima Papa Lima
Them: W3LPL this is G0AVB Golf Zero Alpha Victor Bravo
US: G0AVB you are 59 05
Them: Roger you are 59 14
US: Thanks, Good Luck CQ contest W3LPL
The exchange consists of both local and remote call signs, a two digit signal report, followed by a two digit zone number. Note the use of the phonetic alphabet. When radio conditions are poor, or solar noise is high and hearing distant stations is difficult, using phonetics often helps in the communications process.
Requirements for contest sound
From here on in to fully experience this site you must have a working sound card.
Listen to Contest Audio
The following mechanisms will allow you to jump to any given point in the 34 active hours of the 48 hour contest. During the time when the band was “dead” the recorder was disabled, as seen in the rate sheet above. Note that audio was recorded in 1 minute chunks and that our recorders clock was not exactly in sync with our logging computers clock, therefore you may have to listen to 1-2 minutes of audio before hearing the desired QSO. Also, we were unable to record our local (monitor) audio for the first 4 hours of the contest. Use the hot links and search capabilities below to experience the sounds of the 10 meter station and operators. Note that the following recordings are in stereo. The audio from both the left and right radios were recorded simultaneously. The left radio can be heard in the left channel and right in the right channel. Be sure you have your audio mixer, volume control open that offers a L/R fader. This will allow you to more easily listen to one radio or the other.
Contest Audio Highlights
Let’s make you familiar with our 10 meter operator’s voices:
To listen to the two 10 meter station operators working in parallel click here and hear Andy/K1RA (left channel) and Frank/W3LPL (right channel) slowly searching and working the first few Europeans heard Saturday morning around daybreak. At this point they are sharing the same antenna.
To listen to a better example of the two station opertors work together click here and hear Greg/NK3R CQs (right channel) and Andy/K1RA (left channel) searching for new contacts and countries. At this point Andy uses the beverage for receiving, while Greg uses the yagis for transmitting. This allows Andy to essentially still copy signals while Greg transmits and speaks. This is unlike the example above where Andy and Frank must wait for the other to finish transmitting / talking before they can hear anything. Listen closely to the left channel and observe how stations can still be heard while Greg transmits.
For some more active, exciting operating periods:
Listen to part of our highest activity hour Saturday morning click here.
Listen to radio stations from Europe Sunday morning click here.
Listen to an opening to Asia Saturday evening click here.
Listen to a DX QSO with our only zone 34 in Sudan (left channel) click here.
Search for a particular call sign, country prefix or zone. If necessary, use the zone map and country prefix list noted above to assist in your search. Enter a call sign, call prefix or world zone number (01-40) below and then hit the corresponding “Submit” button to begin listening to a particular radio contact. Understand that our recorder was not exactly synchronized with the computer clock in our logging computer, and therefore you may have to listen 1-2 minutes before hearing the desired call.
The approximate score for the entire W3LPL station was 2615 QSO’s and 178 DX countries and all 40 zones. Though we most likely exceeded W3LPL’s all-time record high score for the 10 meter band for his location, this 10 meter band score was not the highest in the U.S. for this years contest. Stations to the north and west outperformed us by 100-200 more QSOs, though our country and zone total were comparable or exceeded others. My personal observations lead me to think that we were unable to get a good rate going into Asia early, when the contest began. Also, most likely, the aurora played some part in preventing us from contacting more people over the north pole into regions on the other side of the world early and mid Sunday.
If your having a hard time discerning the noise coming from your speakers, pay attention to the Left/Right fader control on your audio card mixer, that will be needed to allow you to listen to a specific radio position, by default you will hear both radios, one in each ear/speaker.
MP3 recording details
The MP3 recorder was built using a Pentium II 266MHz laptop with a built in 16 bit sound card. The software used was WinAMP by Nullsoft and an optional MP3 disk recording plugin, also available through Nullsoft. I wrote a simple PERL script to generate sequential filenames based on day, hour, minute and pass them to WinAMP’s recorder mechanism. MP3 format was chosen over Real Audio, QuickTime, Windows Media formats because of the availability of free and public domain encoding tools and no cost server options. This project is delivered off an Dell server and open source software including Linux (server OS), Apache (web server), PERL and PHP languages.
73 – AndyZ – K1RA