Posts Tagged ‘CW Morse’

Head Copying CW

There's more to using Morse Code than Learning Morse Code

It's been about 18 months since I started learning Morse Code in order to use it for making CW contacts in amateur radio.  Learning the code allows you to recognize the letters, numbers and punctuation but it's akin to when you learned your "letters" when you were a child.  Knowing the alphabet is just the first step to "reading".  So it is with learning Morse Code.  

When I started making contacts using CW it was fairly formulaic. I even had my QSOs written out with regard to what I was planning to send and what I expected to hear during each exchange. 

But then my copy and sending speed increased beyond 17-19 words per minute and I could no longer type or write down what I copied fast enough to comprehend and I began to head copy.

Head Copying

Head copying is when you stop transcribing what you hear and listen to it as you would a conversation and only take notes on salient points.  This was a big step for me and it has been a difficult transition.  

Using Morse Code to communicate at speeds faster than it can be written straddles the weird place between hearing and reading.  We learn morse code by its sound but at slower speeds, say below 30wpm what we are "hearing" is letters, not words so we are having to buffer those letters in our head to spell words.  When we "listen" to someone speak we are not hearing them speak letters but complete words, when we "read" our brains are not looking at individual letters but at complete words.  When we hear Morse code at 20-25 wpm we are hearing very slowly pronounced words and it is a new skill that has to be learned.

This skill is necessary for ragchewing.  A ragchew is a long QSO between two amateur radio operators. This is generally what amateur radio operators are doing on the radio when they're not contesting, ...

How to practice for a ragchew

So after you learn the code, how do you learn to use it in a conversation?  

I struggled with copying ragchew QSOs at 20+ words per minute for most the spring and early summer of 2016.  Just listening to QSOs alone wasn't cutting it for me.  During my lunch time at work I began regularly using my CW training application on my phone to send the top 500 words at 25wpm and it has been a big help to me.  

I had to learn the skill of not just recognizing letters but holding what I was hearing in my brain long enough to turn it into a word and just as importantly not to get hung up on a word that I couldn't immediately recognize but let it go and pay attention to the next.  To me, this has been a bigger learning curve than recognizing the alphabet and numbers at speed.

In addition to learning to buffer the letters until they form a word I must also keep the slowly accumulating set of words in my head until it forms a sentence or makes sense as to what is being communicated.  
THIS IS COMMUNICATION with Morse Code and it is different than anything else we are familiar with so treat it as learning a new skill.

Now if all you are trying to do with CW is contests, you don't need this skill.  You just need to be able to copy a call and whatever designators are sent after it for the contest rules (state abbreviation or a contest number or grid square) and get it copied into your logging program.  But if you want to communicate at speeds above 20wpm you will need this new skill.

Next steps

After you've practiced with machine sent top 100 or top 500 words you'll still need time copying actual QSOs because more often than not, most operators you will communicate with have lousy spacing and run their words together or use so many abbreviations that you'll have to learn to hear the abbreviations as new words.  When I work an operator who runs things together I'll first try to really exaggerate my word spacing during my exchange to give them a hint and if that doesn't work I ask them put more space between their words.  Some will comply, but some folks just don't seem to know how to leave space so I'll catch what I can, politely respond to what I could understand and then move on.

So if you're getting discouraged when you reach a wall of comprehension, try the steps above and with time I think you'll find your comprehension during a ragchew improving and it will take you to a new place in the hobby.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations... and put extra space between your words!

Richard AA4OO

Update 11/7/2016:

KA8BMA pointed me to a nice reference created by W0XI for the top 100 "Ham Words" used in QSOs... check it out most common ham words

You have two ears but only one mouth

Listen more than you send

In honor of Mothers Day this weekend here in the U.S. we recall what our wise Mothers told us... 
Listen more than you talk because God gave you two ears but only one mouth
Learning CW is more about learning to copy what you hear than sending.  So listen, listen, listen.

Listening to on air CW QSOs using your own HF radio... 

Of course the best CW copy practice comes while listening to stations using your own HF radio and having on-air QSOs. So make the most of your opportunities to listen to live QSOs from your home station.

Find conversations that are at different speeds for your practice copy.  In my experience, when I only practice copying higher speed CW for a time, my ability to recognize slower CW gets rusty so practice copying all speeds.  I was worked by a station some months back when I was sending at only 13wpm who came back on the second exchange and replied that I was too slow to copy and he quit the QSO.  I don't want to be like that.  

Along with copying QRS stations, practice copying stations that are well above your comfortable copy speed in order to stretch yourself. You will likely miss much of the conversation but your ability to start recognizing common words and abbreviations will increase. Another side effect I find is that when I listen to a 25wpm (well above my present copy speed) exchange between two operators who have equally strong signals, I'll usually copy one station better than the other.  I try to figure out why that's the case.  Something about that operator's style is easier to copy and when I discern why that is, I try to emulate it.

I want to be able to copy all speeds of CW; both to encourage new QRS operators and ragchew with the QRQ old-timers.

On Air Practice

Listen to on air CW QSOs using remote radios

When you don't have hands-on access to an HF radio or when propagation is poor at your QTH web SDR stations are great resources for CW copy practice. 

Web SDR stations are accessible from and allow you to listen to CW anytime you have access to the internet.   Web SDR stations are available from around the world, potentially from countries you haven't been able to regularly hear from your QTH.  So it allows you to hear different sending styles from around the world.

Web SDR station

Listen to machine generated CW

When live CW is unavailable you still have machine generated CW as an option.  Practice copy of machine generated CW is a pale comparison to actual CW QSOs but it has it's uses and it's always available.  The Morse Trainer App for Android devices offers most features standard in other learning applications plus a built-in list of randomized top English words and an e-book reader.

Morse Trainer app for Android

Sights and sounds

This following video demonstrates the copy methods above.

So listen more than you send and your CW copy, as well as your interpersonal skills, will improve with practice at listening.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations


Get your news the old fashioned way

Morse News

I'm always looking for ways to improve my CW copy skills.  When I'm away from the radio and have some spare time I use a program called Morse News.

Morse News interface displaying a "Top 100 words" feed scrolling at the bottom

It's an application that pulls RSS feeds and translates them to Morse.  It has useful configuration options and even allows different "sounders" to be used. 
For instance: you can listen to Morse the way railroad and Civil War telegraphers heard it via the clacking Telegraph sounder, or the early 20th century spark gap transmitters.

The application is free but only runs on Windows computers.  I'd love to see something like this for my phone.
As with all software downloads from an untrusted source use your own best judgement whether to install this software and protect yourself from malware.  I haven't detected any malware from my install but that doesn't mean it's not there.
Here's the link:

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations


Richard, AA4OO

BLT+ Balanced line tuner at Excalibur

Another portable test of the BLT+ tuner

KX3 operating on internal battery.  What a fantastic portable rig.

I took the BLT+ balanced line tuner out to the Excalibur antenna site to try it out on the doublet antenna that we put up last Saturday.  This was the first test of that antenna (40m and 80m using a common feedpoint).

I didn't have much time today and after the first QSO it started to rain so I packed up and left before getting as much documented as I would have liked.  I apologize for not recording the actual tuning process and the subsequent QSO.

BLT+ connected to open wire line (under the gloves) going to ta 40m Doublet at 65ft
I had the KX3 operating using its internal batteries and outputting 2w. I was running 2 watts because that is the most efficient PA mode for the KX3.

I used the BLT+ to tune the 40m/80m doublet.  Balanced line antennas perform better with a tuner designed for balanced line and this was a good test for both the tuner and the new antenna. 

Portable shack, courtesy of three plastic chairs

I quickly matched the doublet using the BLT+ using the lowest impedance setting which is also the most efficient.  I was glad to see that the BLT SWR LED indicator is bright enough to be seen in direct sunlight.  I was wondering about that but you can definitely tell when it dims even in direct sunlight.


After quickly tuning up I sent my call two times and was promptly answered.  The other station was running a Flex 6500 into a KPA500 and a OCF Windom at 50 feet. 

He reported me as 559, while he was a 599.  He was running a new KPA500 amp at 500w so we were a bit mismatched on power.  

Interestingly the difference in 2w and 500w exactly matches the 4 S-Unit difference in our reports if you do the math (each increase in an S-unit requires quadruple the power). 

AA4OO sitting back and listening to the QSO

Paul AA4XX kindly snapped some pictures while I was listening to the other operator.  This is the Excalibur antenna site but the shack is outside the photo. 

The Doublet's feed line has not been brought to the shack yet so I was just sitting under the antenna.  The open feed line is running along the ground for a bit which certainly didn't help the signal but we haven't installed the posts to carry the feed line over to the shack and I was too lazy to move the chairs far enough away to keep the feed line in the air.

In the foreground is some saw-grass common on the NC coast.  I'm not sure why it's growing this far inland.

Portable shack at the Excalibur antenna site... The Doublet is 65 feet above my head
Waiting my turn in the QSO... holding the Palm Single Paddle.  BLT+ tuner in the chair to the right


Here is a brief video showing how the BLT+ is connected to the Doublet...


The little BLT+ performed great with both balanced line antennas I've tried.  It is easy to use and allows me to use my KX3 with balanced feed line antennas now.  I encourage you to build the kit from Pacific Antenna / .

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

The N3ZN Iambic CW Paddle

Behold… mechanical beauty

N3ZN ZN-QRP Iambic Paddle (sporting my new call sign)

I re-entered the amateur radio hobby in the summer of 2015 after a bit of a hiatus.  To get my General license in 1996 a Morse code proficiency test was required.  At that time I had purchased a cheap MFJ practice key and a used version of the ubiquitous Bencher BY-1 paddle.  My Bencher was in reasonable shape but I just never became comfortable with it.  It always felt a bit imprecise to me and I wasn’t happy with the width and size of its paddles.

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Watt and a Wire… in the Attic

You can't always get what you want, but you try sometimes...

Recently I've dialed my normal 5 watts down to 1watt (one watt, singular) for all my contacts.  To throw some water on the fire I've decided to use my attic antenna which weaves all around my metal ductwork and electrical wiring.   Mostly this was to prove a point to myself but it may be enlightening to deed restricted hams that they can use a qrp radio and an attic antenna successfully.

Key lineup... Palm Single (paddle), Vibroplex Bug (circa 1970s), Kent Hand key

It only seems pointless until you try

Calling CQ with 1w QRPp into a poor attic antenna isn't as pointless as it would seem.  I didn't have to wait long when calling CQ before I got an answer most of the time.  

Now am I going to bust a pileup with 1 watt ?  Possibly not but I think that my assumptions about both how much power I need and how big an antenna I need are usually out of proportion with reality.

1 mighty watt

My assumptions are often incorrect

I made QSOs on 30m, 20m, 17m and 10m this morning all at 1 watt.  The solar conditions report was not really fantastic, especially for 10m.  Yet 1 watt through the attic antenna bagged the only DX I heard on 10m.  I had a couple of other multiple exchange contacts on 20m, 17m and one good old fashioned 25 minute long ragchew on 30m where I received a 599 report for my one watt from Bob (NR8M) in Ohio.  Admittedly, Bob was booming in and we had good propagation to each other.


The recording below was number 4 or 5 this morning.  I wanted to post this one because I was working another QRP station in Arkansas (K5EDM) and we did NOT have great propagation to each other.  He was running 5w while I was running 1w so it was QRP to QRPp.  In the video you can see that I'm using some of the KX3's tricks to pull the signal up because there was a lot of QSB and noise (note the GEOMAGNETIC FIELD UNSETTLED in the solar report).  

I had the volume maxed and was using the RF gain control mostly.  I eventually had to turn on the preamp which really washed me in noise but I dropped the RF gain more and eventually switched in the APF (audio peaking filter) which performed magic on this contact.  Often I find that APF doesn't help but this time it made a big difference.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard N4PBQ

The need for speed in CW

CW QSO speed statistics... 

As I continue on my Morse Code Journey I have been using a desktop application called Morse News to work on my code comprehension of natural language sentences for ragchew training. I set the program to send at speeds higher than I can copy to stretch me.  Presently I have it set at 26wpm character speed and 23wpm Code speed.  I can usually figure out what the news story is talking about but I miss a lot of the specifics.

I was a kid in the 1970s when Speed Racer was a popular cartoon

The need for speed

Currently I'm OK working up to 20wpm qsos as long as the other station has good spacing.  Sometimes I lose the thread or the specifics in a ragchew at 20wpm and I just ask them PSE AGN? 

In sprints I can copy a callsign sent at 25wpm to 30wpm if I hear it a few times but that's no good for real contests where you need to catch that call sent at 30-40wpm sent the first time.  My friend AA4XX has asked me to help him in multi-op contests but I know he is sending around 30wpm and I just can't hang there at this stage in my Morse Code journey.

Statistics show 25wpm is the magic number

So it got me to wondering what was the actual "average" qso speed.  I downloaded days of raw data from Reverse Beacon Network.  RBN collects the call sign, the SNR and the SPEED.  The raw files contained between 40 to 50 thousand CW CQ calls logged each day after I filtered out other modes.

The average speed from RBN CW logs worked out to exactly 25wpm.  The standard deviation was 5.34wpm which would mean most of the time you would expect to work stations between 20wpm and 30wpm.  That seems reasonable and matches what I seem to hear on air.  These numbers are from the CQ calls themselves and are only measuring character spacing speed so the code spacing is likely a bit lower in most cases and for ragchews is likely averaging 2 to 5 wpm lower than the actual sent character speed.  Since I am not much interested in serious contesting at this stage in my hobby going over 30wpm isn't on my radar.  

So based on those calculated CW speed statistics from RBN data if I can reach the point where I am comfortable in a 25wpm ragchew I should be content (for a while)

That's all for now.

So lower your power and raise your speed.... err expectations

Richard, N4PBQ

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