Rubbishing the RigBlaster

The West Mountain Radio RigBlaster has always seemed to me to be evidence that most ham radio enthusiasts have more money than sense. Why spend all that when you could easily manage using a couple of cables?

Even if you wanted switching and level controls like you get with a RigBlaster, a sound card interface is not exactly rocket science to build, nor should it be expensive to manufacture. It’s hard to see how the cost is justified, given that the RigBlaster doesn’t contain an actual sound card.

You would think that someone forking over $200 or more for an interface would expect it to contain a sound card so as to preserve the one in the computer for normal use. But no! West Mountain Radio actually try to make a virtue out of this lack. Under the heading “Why RIGblasters don’t have built in sound chips” they state:

We designed RIGblasters to leave your computer’s sound fully functional as it was before. Plugging in any external audio device with Windows automatically disables the computers built in sound system. There is a work around’s to restore your computer’s normal function but this leaves most of the Amateur Radio sound card programs non functional. Re-configuring the few programs that can be re-configured is a chore that is not necessary with any present RIGblaster.

We do not use sound chip VOX circuits either; as any sound generated by a computer will go out over the air whether you want it to or not. We don’t want illegal transmissions of Windows melodies or “You have mail”!

Since every Amateur Radio sound card program, without exception, has provision for positive PTT control via a RS232 serial port we provide a software controlled PTT circuit in every RIGblaster, via USB, instead unpredictable VOX PTT operation.

Also the majority of Amateur Radio sound card programs work perfectly with any sound card! The only programs that require anything special are those written for transmit speech processing or digital audio over HF, and those only require a standard full duplex sound card, which is what most computers have anyway. Using transmit speech processing and digital audio is only possible with one interface on the market: the RIGblaster Pro!

What utter nonsense! The first paragraph is completely untrue, while the risk of unwanted announcements being broadcast if you use VOX is only present if you use the computer’s one and only sound card which the RigBlaster’s lack of one encourages you to do. An interface with its own sound card that you could dedicate to radio use would eliminate the risk entirely.

Whilst PTT control using a serial port is technically better than audio derived VOX, the fact that the majority of digital modes work quite happily with VOX combined with the fact that most computers don’t have serial ports make the VOX based solution by far the most convenient. And convenience is presumably what you are paying for.

What’s more, the lack of VOX forced many people who used RigBlasters to use TWO serial ports, one for the CAT control and one for the PTT, because the RTS and DTR lines, though unused by the CAT interface, were inaccessible to the RigBlaster.

At the other extreme, there are several ham websites that state that the quality of the built-in sound cards in computers is so poor that they cannot be used to operate digital modes satisfactorily. The only answer is to buy another plug-in board or use a SignalLink external sound card. I have never used a SignalLink, but the quality of all the low-cost USB sound cards I have tried has been demonstrably too poor to work with most digital modes. I have never had a problem using the built-in sound hardware, usually based on a Realtek chip. Another example of the nonsense talked about sound cards. The only problem is, each computer contains only one, which isn’t enough if you want to interface two or more radios or retain the ability to hear the sound from online video and audio.

Modern sound cards are getting very expensive due to the fact that they must perform as home cinema systems with surround sound, special effects and so on. There is a real need for more reasonably priced ham radio dedicated interfaces that include plain and simple sound cards. Currently the only products that I know of that do this are the SignalLink and the RigExpert interfaces. It’s time the RigBlaster started living up to its name and becoming a complete radio to computer interface instead of an expensive fancy alternative to a couple of home made cables.

Julian Moss, G4ILO, is a regular contributor to and writes from Cumbria, England. Contact him at [email protected].

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