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By Del Schier, K1UHF

The Ins and Outs of a

Sound Card
The speaker icon in the bottom right corner of your computer screen signifies
more than you might think. Its sound card and the computer software written
for it have opened the door to a host of new digital modes in Amateur Radio.

computer used for signal process- link a transceiver to the Internet or even to works great; if they are both speaking
ing and decoding in a ham station equalize and process microphone audio. PSK31, things work even better. If one
is capable of using nearly 100 dif- Youll appreciate that the computer in your computer and its radio system are, how-
ferent Amateur Radio sound card programs ham station can be of far more use than ever, listening and expecting packet and
with over 20 distinctly different modes of just keeping your log! If you dont have a the other is transmitting on AMTOR,
communication. Not only are the traditional computer, one can usually be found for as things dont work at all. Just think of the
modes like CW and RTTY possible, but little as $100 at a local hamfest. Youll also different modes that computers speak as
almost every digital mode is open to op- need a sound card interface, but thats easy communications languages. The informa-
eration, as well. Its even possible to use to build or inexpensive to buy. Most of the tion is processed digitally inside the com-
a digital voice keyer that is built into most software is inexpensive or free, written for puter, but the sound that is coming in
contest logging programs and thus save the Amateur Radio community by talented and going out is analog audio. The sound
your voice in the next contest. State-of- and dedicated hams. card uses a digital to analog converter
the-art experiments with modes like The concept of a computer with sound (DAC) and an analog to digital converter
high definition SSTV and digital voice being able to communicate through a radio (ADC) to convert and encode the audio for
communication are now possible. Video is foreign to many amateurs. It is actually digital processing and, ultimately, to trans-
communication using a new HDSSTV ex- as simple as talking into a microphone and mit and receive audio to and from the
perimental mode can be accomplished with listening to your radio. The computer lis- transceiver.
total clarity at signal levels that make con- tens and talksthats its input and out-
ventional SSTV pictures unrecognizable. put. We may try to communicate with Making It Work
another amateur in English, but if that I will discuss the basics of connecting
The Possibilities amateur is speaking another language, we a sound card but, for the most part, Ill ex-
Amazing examples of what can be done might have a problem. If both computers plain sound card operation and point out
with new digital modes include the com- are speaking RTTY, the communication some pitfalls to be avoided in setup and
munications software developed by Joe

the-art communication software that offers

several modes of operation. JT44 mode is
designed specifically for extreme weak sig-
nal communication and it will reliably copy
signals that are so weak that they are to-
tally inaudible (barely above the receiver
noise floor). This program makes 2 meter
moonbounce (EME) contacts possible us-
ing only a single small antenna with a rela-
tively low power output (for EME contacts)
of only 100 W. Another WSJT mode,
FSK441, will copy a full set of call signs
with a meteor ping reflection just 0.1 sec-
ond long, coming close to making 24/7
VHF meteor scatter communication prac-
tical. Pretty amazing stuff...and who knows
whats on the horizon?
A sound card opens the door to using
all of this software. It can also be used to
Figure 1A typical sound card signal flow diagram. The card consists of many circuit
Notes appear on page 36. blocks, each requiring level adjustments from virtual control panels.
October 2003 33
operation. Since most radio communica-
tion software is written for the Windows
operating system, this article assumes that
system is being used. Connection descrip-
tions should also apply, however, to a Mac
or a Linux system. A good understanding
of your sound card will make it easier for
you to get on the air with it. Even if you
have properly interfaced a radio to your
computer, that system might not work at
all if your sound card is not set up prop-
erly. Interfacing the sound card to the out-
side world is not where most hams run into
troublethe problems are usually with the
software and the sound card settings. Many
of us have spent many frustrating hours
checking exterior connections while the Figure 2The playback control panel in Windows. It serves as a transmit control panel.
solution to a problem was only a mouse
click away.
Actually, you dont really need a sound complex sound card is not neededa mod- your radio. Although the MIC INPUT jack
card interface to get on the air and give it ern, though inexpensive PCI sound card can be used, it will have much more gain
a try. A little known secret is that you can will work very well and a simple one will than you need and you may find adjust-
put your radios microphone in front of a be easier to connect and operate. Older, ment quite critical. The MIC INPUT jack
computer speaker and your computers mi- ISA bus cards will work with most Ama- will work better, however, if your sound
crophone in front of your radios speaker teur Radio programs but might have lim- card has an advanced option to select a
to make contacts using sound card soft- ited dynamic range and slower processing. 20 dB attenuator. You should not need
ware. Transmit and receive audio is then If you are interested in learning more ground isolation for receive audio as it is
acoustically coupled from microphone to about sound cards theres a very good at a high level and is normally not suscep-
speaker and vice versa. Of course, if you white paper on the subject written by Jim tible to ground loops. You may also be able
do this, youll need a quiet room, youll Barber, N7CXI, of Silicon Pixels. 2 The to choose from several outputs that appear
have to operate with voice control (VOX) paper is entitled ChromaSOUND Tech- on the radio. Your radio may have
or manual transmit control (PTT) and nical Supplement and can be found at SPEAKER , HEADPHONE , LINE OUT ,
youll have to watch your levels. I do en- It RECORD, PHONE PATCH and DATA OUT-
courage you to try this method; its an easy has specific information about sound card PUT jacks available. These may be fixed
way to make your first contact and to start differences. output or variable output (using the radios
receiving a new mode, although from a Even the simplest of sound cards can volume control). Be careful with radios
practical standpoint, it leaves a lot to be be complicated. They can have as few as DATA OUTPUT jackit may not work on
desired. two external connections but there may all modes and may not have the proper FM
If you realize what is going on here, the be as many as twelve or more. At the rear de-emphasis requirement.
concept of connecting a sound card is of your computer you may find LINE IN, For the transmit connection, you will
simple. Sound comes out of your radio and MIC IN, LINE OUT, SPEAKER OUT, PCM have a choice of the computers HEAD-
into your computer to be processed, or OUT , PCM IN , JOYSTICK , FIREWIRE , PHONE OUTPUT , LINE OUTPUT ,
decoded, in the receive path. Processed S/PDIF , REAR CHANNELS or SUR- SPEAKER OUTPUT or a combination of
sound comes out of your computer and ROUND jacks, just to name a few. Con- these. The SPEAKER OUTPUT is usually
goes into your radio to be modulated and nections appear not only on the outside, the best choice as it will drive almost any-
transmitted. The input to the sound card is but inside, as well. The main internal con- thing you hook to it. The SPEAKER OUT-
the receive (audio) signal and the output is nection is to the ISA or PCI bus and this PUT has a very low source impedance
the transmitted (audio) signal. If you is by edge connection to the board. There making it less susceptible to load current
understand this, you are ready to operate. may also be CD audio, telephone, and RF. Any one of these outputs will usu-
Most of the work is done (inside the com- daughterboard and PC speaker connec- ally work fine, provided you do not load
puter) with the incredible software avail- tions inside and on the board, as well. down a line or headphone output by using
able to us. The first thing to do is to identify which very low impedance speakers or headphones
connection is which, at least at the card to monitor computer-transmitted audio.
The Hardware edge bracket, outside the board. The jacks The transmit audio connection must
Sound cards come in lots of flavors are usually poorly marked with nonstand- have full ground isolation through your
8 bit, 16 bit, 32 bit, wave table synthesis, ard international symbols or color codes. interface, especially if it drives the MIC IN-
ISA, PCI, gold, 128, surround sound and I mark the jacks clearly with a permanent PUT of the radio. [This usually means a
so on. I refer to a sound card, but a com- marker. It seems that the faint cryptic line-coupling transformer of 1:1 ratio and
puter can, instead, use sound processing markings are always hidden in the dark, 600 impedance. RadioShack 3 part no.
chips on the motherboard. That is usually behind my computer and it really helps to 273-1374 will work.Ed.] Again, DATA
the case with laptops. There are some new identify them clearly. INPUT jacks may not work the way you
external sound adapters that function as a Depending on your computer, you may expect.
sound card but are connected externally be able to choose your receive audio con- Never use the digital input or output of
through a USB port. If your computer has nection from either MIC INPUT or LINE your sound card. Even though you may
sound it will have at least a headphone, INPUT. Anything else you find is not an wish to operate a digital mode, it will not
microphone or speaker jack. If so, you can audio input. If you do have a choice, use work. You must use an analog audio con-
use it with your radio to communicate. A the LINE INPUT for the receive audio from nection, not a digital one. These jacks may
34 October 2003
be labeled PCM AUDIO and they have a
digital data stream coming out of them, but
its not audio. Currently manufactured ra-
dios require analog audio.
Setting Levels
Setting the sound card levels correctly
is an area in which you may run into dif-
ficulty. Sound cards are much more com-
plex than you might think; most sound
cards have more than 35 separate adjust-
ments supported by two major virtual con-
trol panels. No two computers are alike,
and there are always several different
ways to get the same results. To make
matters worse, once you adjust your sound
card dont expect it to stay adjusted. Run-
ning other programs and rebooting your
computer may reset your sound card pa-
rameters. You may find that you have to
readjust your card the next time you need
to use it for communications. Figure 3The recording control panel in Windows. This functions as a receive control
Sound card control is accessed through
several virtual control panels. The sound
card may also be controlled automatically
through the software programs that you
use. Take a look at Figure 1 and youll see
there are many analog and digital signal
paths in a typical sound card.
Youll see that there are no less than
seven inputs to the Record Source Selec-
tor and eight inputs to the Output Mixer.
Each one of these has on/off, volume
(gain), and balance (left/right gain) adjust-
ments on the virtual control panels. Our job
is to identify which ones you are connected
to and make those connections work.
When you single-click (left) the
speaker icon in the bottom right corner of
your computer screen you get one simple
up/down slider with a mute switch. If you
double-click that same icon, however, you
get a large control panel for playback as
shown in Figure 2.
Your control panel may be different.
Instead of saying Volume Control at the Figure 5Another custom control
top left corner it may say Playback or it panel for setting receive levels.
may have Select instead of Mute boxes Figure 4A customized control Again, these are good starting
at the bottom. Each section has a label in- panel for setting transmit levels. point adjustments.
This is a good starting point.
dicating the control for a single mono or
stereo signal path: Volume Control, Wave,
MIDI, CD Player, etc. The word Balance that ing the sound card modes. I dont know An example would be microphone equal-
appears to be part of a section label is not; why the folks who wrote Windows hid it ization or speech processing.
it is just a label for the left/right slider so well but heres how to find it: double Depending on your sound card there
directly beneath it. This is the playback, click the speaker icon, then Options, may be buttons for Advanced settings.
output or monitor control panel or, as hams Properties, Recording and finally, Here you can find advanced settings for
would call it, the transmit control panel. OK. Surpriseanother control panel tone control, microphone gain, recording
This panels only function is to adjust what appears! The Recording Control panel monitoring, etc. Be careful with the record-
comes out of your sound card. The only is used to turn on and adjust the input sig- ing monitor settings as they can cause an
exception would be if you had an older nals from both analog (audio) and digital internal or external feedback loop.
sound cardthe controls might be ganged inputs and to feed those input signals to Both of these control panels may be
with the recording control panels; they the software for processing. This functions customized to show only the controls that
then could not be adjusted independently. as a receive control panel. It does not nor- you need for your station. Go to Options,
Figure 3 shows a typical Recording mally control transmit unless you are trans- then Properties and select the appropri-
control panel. This panel is carefully hid- mitting an audio signal that is being fed ate check boxes under the Show the fol-
den in Windows and I bet you didnt know from your radio, through your computer lowing volume controls box. By doing this
it was there unless you are already operat- and software, and processed in real time. you will end up with simple control panels
October 2003 35
customized for operating your station, as
shown in Figure 4 and Figure 5.
Figure 4 is all you need to set your
transmit level. And, assuming you are us-
ing your sound cards line input for the
receive function, then Figure 5 is all you
need for that, as well. Note that the sliders
are up, the balance is centered; and the
inputs and outputs are unmuted. I can guar- Figure 6An example of daisy-chained transmit level controls. Note that the controls
antee that something wont work if you are in series and the resultant output is affected by each of the prior control settings.
have any one of these sliders all the way
down or that input muted. Again, your control for normal voice operation. Nor- Start, then Settings, and Control
sound card may be different, but if it says mal microphone settings will work with Panel. Look at the listings under Con-
Select instead of Mute you have to a sound card; you should not change them. trol Panel and choose Sound and Audio
check the box instead of unchecking it. I Do not turn down the RF drive/power and Devices Properties. Select the Volume
suppose the folks at Microsoft wanted to expect the sound card audio to drive your tab. You should see a check box entitled,
see if we were on our toes. Take another radio. Leave the RF drive set to maximum Place volume icon in the taskbar. Check
look at Figure 1 and see if you can figure or full power. For most sound card oper- it. While youre at it, you should select,
out which sliders on the control panels ating modes turn your speech compres- under the Sounds tab, the box titled
(Figures 2 and 3) correspond to which sor off, although a few modes, especially Sound scheme, then No Sounds. That
function. pure FSK, may work better with the will eliminate annoying beeps, clicks and
speech compressor on. Read the help files melodies from being transmitted. Sound
Daisy-Chained Transmit Level and documentation that came with the card control panels may also be available
Controls software. from the menus within most radio soft-
The concept of daisy-chaining may be After your computer and your radio are ware. Again, there are usually several
unclear to many operators, so heres an- set, you should adjust your sound card in- ways to get the same result.
other diagram, Figure 6. All of these ad- terface audio level to drive the transmitter While this discussion has centered on
justments must be set to complement one to 50 percent power output or less. There adjusting your sound card using the
another. If any level is too high or too low are two reasons for doing thisto elimi- Windows control panels, you should also
it will affect how the succeeding level re- nate production of a wide and distorted sig- read any help files and/or manuals that
acts and the resultant output level will be nal and to prevent overheating of the come with the radio software you want to
improper. transmitters power amplifier. Less than full use. Those authors probably spent almost
Looking at the left of the drawing power output ensures that you wont over- as much time writing that documentation
(Figure 6), some programs will allow you drive the transmitter, cause distortion and as they did coding the program. The help
to set the digital output level of the soft- overtax the amplifier. Most digital mode files and manuals will usually contain the
ware itself, independent of the sound card. duty cycles are continuous and full power answers to most of your questions.
Some programs will even allow you to set operation for an extended time can overheat Amateur Radio is a technical hobby
individual modes or tones with respect to the transmitter. According to K1JT, the and computers are a part of it. They are
others. Generally you can ignore this, but WSJT software modes contain only single wonderful tools that can be coupled with
it is best to read the software documenta- tones at any instant and cannot easily pro- marvelous communication software. To-
tion that comes with your program to find duce intermodulation distortion (IMD), al- gether, they can manage signal process-
out more. though IMD is possible with other digital ing and facilitate communication modes
The next controls (to the right in Fig- modes if drive levels are excessive. that were never dreamed possible 20 years
ure 6), Wave and Master, set the sound Most sound card modes, even CW and ago. Put your computer on the air! Make
card output via the Playback control RTTY, require that your radio be in USB. it work for you and take part in the amaz-
panel, Figures 2 and 4. Start with an arbi- For FM operation with packet, SSTV or ing synergy of the digital world and
trary setting for both of these at 1/3 to 2/3 Internet linking, you will usually not be Amateur Radio.
of the way up. Dont forget to select or able to determine the exact modulation Notes
unmute them. Put the software you are level. Set your transmit audio for correct 1
using into the transmit mode and you FM deviation using proper test equipment 2
Silicon Pixels, PO Box 579, 681 Wenas View
should be able to hear the transmit tones or simply monitor your signal with an- Dr, Selah, WA 98942; tel 509-961-3780;
coming from your computer speakers, if other receiver to compare your modula-
you have speakers connected. If your tion level to that of other stations. For 4 See also S. Ford, VoIP
speakers are too loud turn them down with Internet linking, all users connected via and Amateur Radio, QST, Feb 2003, pp 44-47.
the actual (hardware) speaker volume the Web will have to be correct as far as
knob. Do not set the sound card output level is concerned. EchoLink by K1RFD 4
Del Schier, K1UHF, was first licensed in 1961
too lowthat could result in too little has a test server, 9999, that echoes back
and holds an Amateur Extra class license. Del
audio to transmit. If your computer speak- audio so that modulation levels can be set operates from the top of West Mountain in
ers or headphones are not adjustable you correctly. Ridgefield, Connecticut and is active on all
may have to disconnect them. bands, from 1.8 MHz to 10 GHz, including
A properly designed sound card inter- Finally
2 meter EME. He says his favorite band is
face will have a level adjustment to match Now that you know everything you 10 GHz. The designer of the RIGblaster and
any computer to any radio. That adjust- need to know about using your sound card RIGrunner products, he works at West Moun-
ment is typically set last, after setting the for communications, proper operation tain Radio. He also enjoys flying R/C electric
computer and radio levels, as youll see should be simple. Butwhat if you dont and glider models. You can contact him at 126
later. have a speaker icon in the lower right cor- Old West Mountain Rd, Ridgefield, CT 06877
Adjust your radios microphone gain ner of your computer screen? Go to or at
36 October 2003