Digital Modes 101

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CommoFreq

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Digital Modes 101

(NOTICE: This is mostly used on HF, that being, 30MHz and below. To receive communications from other people, you will need a scanner or a radio which covers 30MHz or below. Otherwise, you can use anything to communicate with your friends and family digitally, as long as it's legal.)





So today I'll be discussing the other part of the radio world that a lot of people aren't even aware of, that being, digital modes. This involves connecting your radio (or scanner) to a computer. Why the hell would you do that? Well, we will get to that in a minute. First, here's what you need to know about this immediately:

  • If you don't have a ham license, it's still okay to receive digital information (but not send any out). For this you would use a scanner.
  • Digital information can travel much farther than voice communications. Beeps and blips seem to cut through static a lot better than the human voice does.
  • You can receive text, faxes, and even imagery.
  • Hooking it all up is ridiculously easy to do. You probably already have what you need.
  • Yes, you can even decode Morse Code, and read what is being sent out.
  • With some simple microphone mods, you can use any radio to both send and receive digital communications.

We will first get this all hooked up, and then I will walk you through the world of digital modes.

Step 1: What You Need / Hooking it Up.
  • a radio or scanner
  • a 3.5mm headphone cable (male on both sides)
  • a computer
  • free software (FLDIGI is my favorite - you can get it here.)
Download and install the software, plug one end of the headphone cable into your scanner or radio external speaker jack, and plug the other end into the microphone jack on your computer. You are in business. It's really that easy.

(For ham operators, it's a little more complicated than that, because we also want to transmit digital information as well. Since most of us are not hams, I will leave this part out for now. If any of you hams who have never used digital modes need help, just message me below and I will explain what you need to do. It's not that bad.)

Step 2: Configuring the Program

Chances are, there's nothing for you to configure. Just dial-in a frequency where digital information is being passed, on your radio or scanner. I'll elaborate on that in a bit as well, and give you a frequency list which should get you rocking.

Dial in a frequency (try 14.070). You should see a "waterfall" like this:


Pictured here are PSK31 signals

Each one of those "strips" is a different conversation. Click on one of them, and the text should pop up in your window so you can read it. Anyhow, if you see this (or something like it), you are good to go. If not, then you need to tell the program to use your computer sound card. If you need help with that, message me below.

What the Hell is This all About?

The thing is, once the SHTF, this is where (and how) you'll find most of the useful information that is being passed over the air. Satellites will likely be knocked right out of the sky, and with them, television, internet, and so on. From that point, you can expect nothing but propaganda on your FM stereo system, not unlike the 1940s. Yeah - "Fireside Chats". We're partying now!

So, I will break down the different digital modes and purposes as easy and basic as I can. Once you really get to playing with this, you'll be able to look at and hear a signal, and know which kind of digital signal it is. Being able to do that makes things easier, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

The Main 4 Digital Modes:

For now, we will start you off on just 3 of the many different modes ("Op Mode", in the upper left-hand corner of FLDIGI):


A satellite weather image, intercepted by radio and FLDIGI.
  • PSK - This is for "beginners", and you will find this mostly on the ham bands. Here you will find conversations taking place. These are usually just boring exchanges of information about where the stations are and which equipment they are using. Bear in mind, they are simply testing their equipment and trying to get as many contacts as they can.

    Some PSK signals will be "fatter" than others. For that, you will need to figure out which PSK they are using. The skinniest (and slowest) ones are PSK31. PSK63 is the next step up. And you might even see PSK125 from time to time, but that's rare. And while your program can handle much more PSK modes than that, you will probably never see it.

    A list of PSK frequencies can be found here: http://www.qsl.net/darn/PSK31.htm
  • RTTY - This is another "beginner" type signal. It's a lot slower than PSK, but, it can travel much longer distances. You will find this to be a pattern throughout all of the digital world. Slower = longer distance. It looks like two strips, and sounds like two tones alternating back and forth. Hint: take a look at the first image in this tutorial. That is what a RTTY signal looks like. The most common is RTTY 45.

  • HF FAX - This is the one that got me hooked. You can download weather maps directly from radio signals. Here is a nice NOAA .pdf with every frequency, world wide: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/marine/rfax.pdf
  • CW - Don't know Morse Code? No problem! Select "CW", and click on the stream of beeping, and the program will translate it into text for you!
Oh, and here's a little tid-bit: If you are a ham operator, there is an HF email service available (called Winlink 2000) which is a separate program. This means that even once internet is wiped out completely, you still have the ability to send emails (or at least, to other people who have the same capability).

Yes, things have changed over the years. Having the ability to operate digitally will really expand your possibilities for information gathering and sharing. Needless to say, the ones who will be the most informed, will be the ones who can communicate the most.

Get a ham license now and train yourself. This tutorial won't be here once the SHTF.
 

Clyde

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Digital Modes 101

(NOTICE: This is mostly used on HF, that being, 30MHz and below. To receive communications from other people, you will need a scanner or a radio which covers 30MHz or below. Otherwise, you can use anything to communicate with your friends and family digitally, as long as it's legal.)





So today I'll be discussing the other part of the radio world that a lot of people aren't even aware of, that being, digital modes. This involves connecting your radio (or scanner) to a computer. Why the hell would you do that? Well, we will get to that in a minute. First, here's what you need to know about this immediately:

  • If you don't have a ham license, it's still okay to receive digital information (but not send any out). For this you would use a scanner.
  • Digital information can travel much farther than voice communications. Beeps and blips seem to cut through static a lot better than the human voice does.
  • You can receive text, faxes, and even imagery.
  • Hooking it all up is ridiculously easy to do. You probably already have what you need.
  • Yes, you can even decode Morse Code, and read what is being sent out.
  • With some simple microphone mods, you can use any radio to both send and receive digital communications.

We will first get this all hooked up, and then I will walk you through the world of digital modes.

Step 1: What You Need / Hooking it Up.
  • a radio or scanner
  • a 3.5mm headphone cable (male on both sides)
  • a computer
  • free software (FLDIGI is my favorite - you can get it here.)
Download and install the software, plug one end of the headphone cable into your scanner or radio external speaker jack, and plug the other end into the microphone jack on your computer. You are in business. It's really that easy.

(For ham operators, it's a little more complicated than that, because we also want to transmit digital information as well. Since most of us are not hams, I will leave this part out for now. If any of you hams who have never used digital modes need help, just message me below and I will explain what you need to do. It's not that bad.)

Step 2: Configuring the Program

Chances are, there's nothing for you to configure. Just dial-in a frequency where digital information is being passed, on your radio or scanner. I'll elaborate on that in a bit as well, and give you a frequency list which should get you rocking.

Dial in a frequency (try 14.070). You should see a "waterfall" like this:


Pictured here are PSK31 signals

Each one of those "strips" is a different conversation. Click on one of them, and the text should pop up in your window so you can read it. Anyhow, if you see this (or something like it), you are good to go. If not, then you need to tell the program to use your computer sound card. If you need help with that, message me below.

What the Hell is This all About?

The thing is, once the SHTF, this is where (and how) you'll find most of the useful information that is being passed over the air. Satellites will likely be knocked right out of the sky, and with them, television, internet, and so on. From that point, you can expect nothing but propaganda on your FM stereo system, not unlike the 1940s. Yeah - "Fireside Chats". We're partying now!

So, I will break down the different digital modes and purposes as easy and basic as I can. Once you really get to playing with this, you'll be able to look at and hear a signal, and know which kind of digital signal it is. Being able to do that makes things easier, but hey, we all have to start somewhere.

The Main 4 Digital Modes:

For now, we will start you off on just 3 of the many different modes ("Op Mode", in the upper left-hand corner of FLDIGI):


A satellite weather image, intercepted by radio and FLDIGI.
  • PSK - This is for "beginners", and you will find this mostly on the ham bands. Here you will find conversations taking place. These are usually just boring exchanges of information about where the stations are and which equipment they are using. Bear in mind, they are simply testing their equipment and trying to get as many contacts as they can.

    Some PSK signals will be "fatter" than others. For that, you will need to figure out which PSK they are using. The skinniest (and slowest) ones are PSK31. PSK63 is the next step up. And you might even see PSK125 from time to time, but that's rare. And while your program can handle much more PSK modes than that, you will probably never see it.

    A list of PSK frequencies can be found here: http://www.qsl.net/darn/PSK31.htm
  • RTTY - This is another "beginner" type signal. It's a lot slower than PSK, but, it can travel much longer distances. You will find this to be a pattern throughout all of the digital world. Slower = longer distance. It looks like two strips, and sounds like two tones alternating back and forth. Hint: take a look at the first image in this tutorial. That is what a RTTY signal looks like. The most common is RTTY 45.

  • HF FAX - This is the one that got me hooked. You can download weather maps directly from radio signals. Here is a nice NOAA .pdf with every frequency, world wide: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/marine/rfax.pdf
  • CW - Don't know Morse Code? No problem! Select "CW", and click on the stream of beeping, and the program will translate it into text for you!
Oh, and here's a little tid-bit: If you are a ham operator, there is an HF email service available (called Winlink 2000) which is a separate program. This means that even once internet is wiped out completely, you still have the ability to send emails (or at least, to other people who have the same capability).

Yes, things have changed over the years. Having the ability to operate digitally will really expand your possibilities for information gathering and sharing. Needless to say, the ones who will be the most informed, will be the ones who can communicate the most.

Get a ham license now and train yourself. This tutorial won't be here once the SHTF.
After reading your post, I think I am going to have to give digital modes another try!
 

Silent Earth

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Digital Modes 101
Get a ham license now and train yourself. This tutorial won't be here once the SHTF.

A great article and very informative thanks, BUT Whilst mastery of Ham gear is wise and prudent it DOES clash head on with Prepper opsec as well

Ham licences are good but folks must understand that your call-sign and name and address appear then on various websites and registers which are available to anyone. This risk to bug Out locations, Preppers Homes etc MUST be given due consideration BEFORE getting a ham licence.

There are alternatives but I'm the first to admit they are not as good but sometimes OPSEC must be more important that the best comms, IE why I always advise people to use indoor antenna or well concealed external antennas at the home or retreat. Some folks including myself choose less capable options but more secure opsec routes such as AM and FM CB, Tweaked FRS and PMR systems EG Using the ubiquitous Baofeng Uv5Rs retuned to put our 4 watts and only operating channels 1 to 20 in the PMR 446 range. YES its a big compromise but it does greatly reduce the risk to OPSEC. I get about 20 miles line of sight with PMR baofengs 4 watt rigs, slightly less on AM CB and often a bit better on FM CB, Sometime Upper side band gets me into much longer ranges, but not hundreds of miles like HAM users get but its a price I am willing to pay not to have mmy details on public registers. To me its as bad as making Americans register their firearms and list where they will be kept.
 

Silent Earth

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Just to clarify I am not saying DONT get a HAM licence, indeed the opposite is true a Ham licence and kit are massive positives for preppers PROVIDING you can satisfy yourself you can insulate yourself from the opsec and persec issues
 

Clyde

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A great article and very informative thanks, BUT Whilst mastery of Ham gear is wise and prudent it DOES clash head on with Prepper opsec as well

Ham licences are good but folks must understand that your call-sign and name and address appear then on various websites and registers which are available to anyone. This risk to bug Out locations, Preppers Homes etc MUST be given due consideration BEFORE getting a ham licence.
Just to clarify I am not saying DONT get a HAM licence, indeed the opposite is true a Ham licence and kit are massive positives for preppers PROVIDING you can satisfy yourself you can insulate yourself from the opsec and persec issues
The way I have taken care of this is by getting a Post Office Box in a completely different city than the one I live in. Here in the US amateur radio operator information comes from the FCC data base. I recommend all amateur radio license holders to do the same in an effort to better protect yourself, if for no other reason than theft. It only takes one schmuck to find out your call sign then look up your address then wait for you to leave your vehicle or your home and snag all of your radio equipment.....
 

eireguy

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You can receive all these freqs with a sdr dongle as well . It's basically a usb you plug into your computer with an attached antenna . I like getting sstv with mine along with the rest of the stuff Clyde posted . Theres also software that you can use to track aircraft & boats . ( Sstv is slow scan tv where you send pictures )
 
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CommoFreq

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Well, the thing is, yeah, once you are licensed, your address is open to the public. You can go to the FCC website, search for the call sign, and sure enough, your name, address, and so on will pop right up. That is absolutely true. And they have this search engine specifically so that hams can verify, on their own, if someone is legal or illegal. Ham is "self-policing" in this respect, because, well, we don't want the ham bands to turn into CB radio. The FCC knows this, so, why should they spend extra money policing it themselves? They have a very, very small fleet of direction-finding vehicles that are just sitting and waiting for a ham operator to report someone. And even then, most of the time, the vehicles stay in the lot. It's easier and cheaper for them to punish the ham operator who filed the report, on the grounds of communicating with an unlicensed individual. (Hams - think about that the next time you want to report someone.)

Now, with all of that in mind, as long as we are still in the "Pre-SHTF" timeline, well, take Clyde's advice. I've moved a dozen or so times since I was licensed, so I'm covered on the OPSEC thing. But, there's also the "Post-SHTF", and in that scenario, things are very different. The FCC hardly cares about the amateur bands as it is. Once everything goes to hell, you can basically make-up your own call sign, tell everyone how illegal you are, and nobody (and I mean nobody) is going to care anymore.

So what it all boils down to, is this - right now, having a license will allow you to transmit and really make sure that your equipment works. You can get confirmation from other hams that they hear you. Without a license, you can still get all of the ham equipment that you need, and hook it up to a dummy load instead of an antenna, and transmit until the radio starts to smoke if that's what you want to do. Once the SHTF, all you have to do is simply remove the dummy load, and plug in an antenna, and you are on the air - legally or illegally, nobody cares.

If a doomsday scenario results in the government targeting its citizens, I will drop my (duly earned) call sign like a toilet seat anyway, because they still have my name. And I would imagine that most hams would do the same.
 

Silent Earth

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One point my British ham users discussed a while back was AFTER TSHTF they are going to have to ensure TALL masts and Antennas are brought down during daylight hours, and mobile stations will be absolute MUSTS to prevent bad people from triangulating your location over a period of day, so for example Not broadcasting from the same location, not broadcasting at the same time and DO broadcast only FAR from your retreat
 

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You guys here make it real hard to stop spending some extra bucks on all of this stuff. [emoji6] But i know somewhere down the line it will def be money well spent, as a very unknowledgable HAM im learning quick, thanks guys you are helping a lot.
 

CommoFreq

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One point my British ham users discussed a while back was AFTER TSHTF they are going to have to ensure TALL masts and Antennas are brought down during daylight hours, and mobile stations will be absolute MUSTS to prevent bad people from triangulating your location over a period of day, so for example Not broadcasting from the same location, not broadcasting at the same time and DO broadcast only FAR from your retreat
I wouldn't worry about "bad people" triangulating on you. Yes, there are some out there that know how to, but most people that can do that (pretty much all of them), are good people anyway.

That kind of advice applies during an enemy military invasion. And at that point, you should definitely stop transmitting altogether. Use your house gutters as a receive antenna.
 

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Currently working on getting my station set up for digital mode. About to order a Signalink to use with my MacBook Pro.
 

SheilaT.

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Well as his thread has been activated again, I'd like to ask a Q. I have a Tecsun PL-600 radio that is my daily listen-to radio. Is it suitable for this tech? I'd really like to give this a go, as comms is my achilles heel. Could you also use a smart phone or tablet?

Also, is there a link to software as the one in OP no longer works.

Thanks!!
 
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Brent S

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Well as his thread has been activated again, I'd like to ask a Q. I have a Tecsun PL-600 radio that is my daily listen-to radio. Is it suitable for this tech? I'd really like to give this a go, as comms is my achilles heel. Could you also use a smart phone or tablet?

Also, is there a link to software as the one in OP no longer works.

Thanks!!
I too just read this thread am am interested to start learning more about it. I'm interested in the gutter idea as an antenna. Wonder if a metal roof would work as well? Anyways, pretty useful info presented, and thanks to commofreq and Clyde for presenting it in plain enough English to be understood.
 

Xicaque

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Well as his thread has been activated again, I'd like to ask a Q. I have a Tecsun PL-600 radio that is my daily listen-to radio. Is it suitable for this tech? I'd really like to give this a go, as comms is my achilles heel. Could you also use a smart phone or tablet?

Also, is there a link to software as the one in OP no longer works.

Thanks!!
I believe the radio you are listing, is a receive only. You need a way to transmit. You could get started with a handheld and a signalink tnc (google signalink). Also, an antenna to get better signal would be needed. I am currently in research mode and plan on ordering a signalink for my ft 857d so I can run it with FLDG on my MacBook Pro. FLDG comes in many flavors for different OSs. Check youTube on it. Good luck.
 

SheilaT.

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Yip, I'm aware my radio is receive only. The OP is what I was referring to, I'm afraid I have little interest in transmitting and I don't want to do the HAM thing. I would like to listen in when time permits though.
 

CommoFreq

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Well as his thread has been activated again, I'd like to ask a Q. I have a Tecsun PL-600 radio that is my daily listen-to radio. Is it suitable for this tech? I'd really like to give this a go, as comms is my achilles heel. Could you also use a smart phone or tablet?

Also, is there a link to software as the one in OP no longer works.

Thanks!!

Absolutely. On the receive side of things, the program doesn't care what you're using. It's just taking in the audio from whatever it is. You can use a ball of aluminum foil attached to a battery - as long as it makes sound, the program can analyze it and decode it. That's any scanner, any radio, anything. All you need is a speaker jack cable that will plug into your computer.

As far as a smartphone or tablet, I don't think there's an Android version of the software. I think it's Windows or Mac only.

Now. Once you decide you want to start transmitting with this, you're opening up a more complicated door.





I too just read this thread am am interested to start learning more about it. I'm interested in the gutter idea as an antenna. Wonder if a metal roof would work as well? Anyways, pretty useful info presented, and thanks to commofreq and Clyde for presenting it in plain enough English to be understood.
I'm sure it would. The question is, "how well would it work". This touches more on antenna theory. Because of how radio waves are formed and how they travel, I would be willing to bet a string of wire would work better. A lot of us come into this thinking "more metal is better", but that's not the case at all. Home Depot has a cheap spool of wire for those electronic pet fences. From the US, I've reached Japan, Germany, and Argentina with that stuff. It hast the Commofreq Seal of Approval.
 

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