AA5AU Contest Notes – 2013 CQ WPX RTTY Contest

The CQ WPX RTTY Contest is one of my favorite contests of the year. Unfortunately it comes at a bad time. There’s always something pending for that weekend and this year was no exception. Mardi Gras was in full swing here in New Orleans and the XYL wanted us to catch a parade Saturday night. I decided to do a casual high power single band 20 meter effort, mainly because I was having rotor problems on one of the towers. Despite it working trouble-free on the bench for two weeks, it didn’t work right when I reinstalled it on a different tower. Consequently, the rotor problem further delayed the installation of the 40 meter loop dipole on the 2-element SteppIR. The low band problems I experienced in the Roundup had not been corrected. I chose 20 meters because the solar flux index (SFI) was forecast to be around 108-110. I felt 20M would be the best band. I knew (or thought I knew) I wouldn’t be able to put in a full-effort so I was fine settling for single band 20M High Power for the weekend. It’s not often I run high power in RTTY contests so running the amp would hopefully allow for an easier, laid back, contest for me.

A Change in Plans

A week before the contest, I decided to use the WPX RTTY Contest to evaluate the new 2Tone decoder by David Wicks, G3YYD. I had heard a lot of good things from experienced RTTY contesters about 2Tone. I heard it was better than MMTTY. I was skeptical and needed to see it for myself. I had the perfect platform for testing – a casual effort in a major contest.

2Tone only works with N1MM Logger. In order to run 2Tone I was going to have to learn N1MM Logger. I had never used N1MM Logger before so I had some work ahead of me. I downloaded and installed the latest versions of N1MM Logger and 2Tone along with the associated documentation. I then decided to read the entire N1MM Logger documentation file. The good news is that the documentation is excellent and well-written; the bad news is that it’s very long and extensive. By skipping the sections that detail each radio and contest supported, I was able to complete reading most of the documentation by Thursday evening before the contest practice session. While I was reading I was setting up the program and testing things like radio control and FSK with MMTTY in the Digital Interface (DI) and getting 2Tone active in a receive-only window. I got this going rather quickly and was able to concentrate more on other things like setting up my messages and getting familiar with the command structure. Since many of the ALT and CTRL key commands are different than WriteLog, I made a cheat sheet on a post-it note and placed it on my monitor in front of me.

For testing 2Tone vs. MMTTY, I set up two MMTTY windows and two 2Tone windows in N1MM Logger. I set my Digital Interface (DI1) with MMTTY using the Fluttered (FIR) profile which is what I normally use with WriteLog. MMTTY had to be used in the main DI1 window because I use FSK. 2Tone has no provisions to directly key FSK (it can key pseudo FSK using a homebrew circuit which I didn’t have). This worked out well because I wanted to use the MMTTY FFT and XY scope tuning displays since that is what I normally use. My first receive-only window (DI1-RX1) would be 2Tone in the Normal mode. Both of these decoders (DI1 and DI1-RX1) would share the left channel of my Encore USB soundcard. In the second receive-only window (DI1-RX2) I set up a second instance of 2Tone using the Fluttered signal option. I then set up a 3rd receive-only window (DI1-RX3) with a second instance of MMTTY using the AA6YQ profile since I have been using that with success in WriteLog. Something I didn’t know at the time was that the AA6YQ profile, which is mainly used for weak signal decoding, uses a lot of CPU. During the contest I noticed my CPU usage was above 90%. Had I known this, I wouldn’t have used the AA6YQ profile in the second MMTTY window. Both DI1-RX2 and DI1-RX3 were set to use the right channel of the Encore. I know I didn’t need to use both channels but did anyway. With N1MM Logger, you can have 4 receive-only windows along with the main DI window. So you can run up to 5 decoders on a single radio with a single channel on one soundcard. That’s pretty amazing actually. I didn’t feel I needed a 5th window and I was running short of space on my 20″ LCD monitor.

Jumping Right In

With very little activity in the 0200Z practice session Thursday evening I really didn’t get a feel for what I was doing. So any real testing would come during the contest. When the contest started the following evening, I started running on 14081 kHz. My natural instinct when running is to hit the Insert key when a callsign highlights in the RTTY screen. The Insert key in N1MM Logger is similar to WriteLog but there may be distinct differences which I may not fully understand yet. When I hit Insert I expected the call of the station whose callsign was highlighted in the DI1 window (MMTTY) to be sent with my exchange. That didn’t happen. Instead, some variation of that call was sent and rarely was it the correct variation. I didn’t understand why this was happening. When a call highlighted in the main DI1 screen I would look in the grab window to find 2 or 3 variations of that same callsign even though I didn’t see any of those callsigns variations highlighted in the main RTTY screen. The correct callsign, the one that was highlighted in the RTTY screen because it was in the MASTER.DTA file, was usually not the one on top in the grab window. Since there were several stations calling me, I decided to just click on callsigns with the mouse and hit the F2 key to send my exchange. This would have to do until things slowed down and I could search the docs, which I had open on my laptop for quick reference. I ran 14081 kHz for one hour then took a break for dinner. I had 79 contacts which is not bad for me on a single radio. (After the contest, I learned that the grab window is populated not only by the main Digital Interface (DI) window but also by each receive-only window associated with that DI window. So all these variations of the callsigns were coming from all four RTTY windows. I wish had known that from the start!)

Trying A Few New Things

When I came back from dinner, the band was still active but it was slow enough where I could operate and search the documentation at the same time to find out why I was getting the strange behavior of all these busted calls in the grab window. Unfortunately I couldn’t figure it out but I wasn’t too stressed about it. With the way I had my screen set up, it was difficult to look at all the decode windows, so I spent some time resizing and rearranging the windows so I could do better side-by-side comparisons. I also decided to try a few new things like LOGTHENGRAB and the ESM (Enter Sends Message) mode. I wasn’t too comfortable with either of them because of the problem with the grab window so I set up a message to use like I do in WriteLog when more than one callsign highlights in the RTTY window and I want to work each station in succession. This message is basically TU NOW W1ABC 599 002 002 W1ABC and I call it my NEXT message. Instead of doing fancy call stacking or call grabbing, I simply log the current QSO, click the next call in one of the RTTY screens and send the NEXT message. I have been doing it this way for many years. It’s very fast and easy for me and allows me to not have to deal with a call stack or grab window. Those features are nice, but are they really necessary?

Settling In

In the first few hours of operating, even though I was preoccupied with getting a handle on N1MM Logger, it was obvious that 2Tone was outperforming MMTTY although it wasn’t by a lot. Where I noticed it most was on weak signals or in the presence of QRM from nearby stations. But MMTTY was holding its own most of the time since the majority of the stations I worked were in North America with moderate to strong signals. Even the Japanese stations had good signals and the South Americans were strong. At 0430Z I decided to QRT and go to bed. I had worked all day and was tired. The plan was to get up around 0700Z (1 AM local) to see if the band was open to EU at their sunrise. It’s a rare opening, but sometimes it can be fruitful. So I went to bed.

When I got back to the radio just past 0700Z, there were only two EU signals on the band – UW1M and UW2M, but both were very strong and easy to work. This was promising so I tuned the band and other signals started coming up. Soon there were a few EU signals that were printing well in the main MMTTY window and two 2Tone windows. The AA6YQ profile with MMTTY in DI1-RX3 didn’t seem to be doing very well at all and was basically worthless. This was interesting because I’ve been using it with WriteLog with success. Even though some of the signals were a little weak, they weren’t hard to decode because it was the middle of the night with no noise and the band was not crowded. 2Tone again copied better most of the time, but MMTTY in the main DI window was doing OK. 2Tone was only slightly better. I only worked 45 stations from 0717-0944Z. It became obvious that the band would just not open fully to Europe as I had hoped. This is not unusual since this path is not always there. I was lucky to get what I did so I went back to bed.

I slept a few hours and ended getting back to the radio at 1252Z, just past my sunsrise, and the band was chocked full of EU, East Coast USA and Canadian stations. Again, 2Tone was out-copying the main MMTTY window but it didn’t seem like a major difference. But I was beginning to see a pattern. I spent a lot of time comparing the print in all the windows. I noticed that anything that got missed by MMTTY was decoded by 2Tone but not the other way around. It was the combination of the two 2Tone windows together that was complimentary to each other and having MMTTY in there was just for, at times, confirming what I was seeing in the 2Tone windows. 2Tone was definitely better overall to this point.

Found a New Feature

I used a combination of running and S&P using packet spots on the band map that morning and when running and getting no answers, I was re-reading the documentation when I came across something I had read previously but it didn’t take the first time. I discovered in the digital configuration that I could enable the program to automatically turn AFC off and reset MMTTY to the Ham default of 2125 Hz Mark whenever I left my run frequency and to turn AFC back on automatically when I returned to my run frequency. Man, that was the coolest thing! So from my run frequency I started chasing packet spots on the band map, then returning to my run frequency as fast as I could in fear of losing it. Each time, AFC would turn off, then back on automatically. This was saving time and I didn’t have to worry about forgetting to turn AFC off when jumping off my run frequency to work a new multiplier. I was having so much fun with this newly found feature that I forgot, for a short while, that I was testing 2Tone vs. MMTTY.

What I Was Waiting For

Finally in the late morning around 1700Z or 1100 local time, when the sun had set over Europe, their signals faded. Normally this is when I lose Europe except for those running directional antennas and/or high power. I just don’t work the weak ones because I can’t copy them. This is just the way it usually is for me except in rare cases when the SFI is much higher than it was this weekend. This time, though, it was different. Running 500 watts to my 3 element SteppIR, I was getting a slew of European stations calling me well past their sunset and most of the signals were extremely weak. This is when 2Tone completely took over game. This is what I had been waiting to see. Here were signals I could barely tell were there, and some I actually truly didn’t know were there at times, and they were printing out well on one or both of the 2Tone decode screens with nothing but garble on the MMTTY screens. Some of the print was actually near-perfect in the 2Tone windows. Other signals took hits but printed well enough in both 2Tone screens that I could get the right callsign and tell what the serial number was without asking for a repeat. This was the proof that 2Tone really does out-perform MMTTY under weak signal conditions – by a lot. Seeing this reminded me, in a way, of when I first compared MMTTY to a PK232 side-by-side. But this was different. This was the soundcard decoder we’ve been in love with for the past 12 or 13 years getting its ass kicked by the new kid on the block. I was loving it, yet hating it because 2Tone doesn’t work with WriteLog.

I stopped chasing packet spots and called CQ vigorously; hoping for weak signals. I was actually disappointed when a USA station called in and purposely waited before coming back to the stronger signals, hoping to see if there was a weak station still calling. This same exact thing happened again on Sunday at the same time, past sunset in Europe and the exact same thing happened – 2Tone was the only decoder that could copy the very weak EU signals. The only time 2Tone failed to decode was when the signal was just too weak or if two or more weak stations were calling at the same time. During the entire contest I recall only two times I couldn’t make a contact because the signal was too weak and I was actually aware someone was calling. I can usually tell when more than one station is calling, so in the presence of more than one signal, I would just sit and wait until one of them called again and got decoded. The Europeans aren’t shy about calling you if you don’t come back to anyone and I was glad for it. It was a lot of fun watching 2Tone decode these ultra-weak signals. I was greatly impressed. But after 3 hours of doing this on Saturday afternoon, I started getting tired and remembered the commitment I had made to the XYL to go out Saturday night. So at 2000Z, I shut it down and took a nap.

Another Change in the Plans

I must have been pretty tired because I didn’t wake up until 0000Z. This was 6 PM local time and the XYL was cooking dinner? “Honey, aren’t we going out tonight?” Reply: “No, I don’t feel like going out tonight”. Holy crap! I just wasted four prime-rate hours! I really didn’t mind.

By now, I had a pretty good rhythm going with N1MM Logger so I was able to spend more time looking at the various RTTY windows. On Sunday, while playing with the AA6YQ-MMTTY window, I accidentally closed it. When I did, I noticed my CPU usage dropped to under 40%. I reopened the window and CPU usage went back to 90%. I changed profiles in that window and the usage dropped below 40% again. The AA6YQ profile was hogging my CPU but it had no affect on the performance of N1MM Logger. That was huge. Now I know why WriteLog occasionally chokes when running the AA6YQ profile in a cloned window. I normally don’t monitor my CPU usage so I was really glad I did this time. Note to self – don’t run the AA6YQ profile with MMTTY anymore on my very old Pentium 4 processor.

By paying more attention to the RTTY windows, I was able to make observations which clearly showed 2Tone was the superior decoder when compared to MMTTY and not just on weak signals. Once, a Pactor station started up on my Run frequency. It wasn’t real strong but strong enough to knock out any copy from the MMTTY windows yet 2Tone kept churning out the print from most callers. It was incredible to see because earlier I had concluded that MMTTY and 2Tone were about the same when two equally strong RTTY signals were calling at once – neither did well in that situation, which can be expected. The other area where 2Tone was better than MMTTY was on signals that encountered a deep fade. On occasion, I would hear a “swoosh” sound and take a hit in the MMTTY windows. This “swoosh” is a deep rapid fade of the signal. 2Tone pretended those rapid deep fades didn’t exist and kept on printing. Another big eye-opener for me.

N1MM Logger performed very well. On two occasions, once overnight the first night and the other one overnight the second night (I got another all-night opening to EU and it was better and kept going all morning until the sun set in Europe), I got a message that an error had occurred and it asked me if I wanted to report it to the N1MM team. The first time I chose “no” and the program went right back to working again. The second time it happened, I clicked “yes” and all of a sudden my browser opened to the N1MM website, but I was right in the middle of a contact, so I closed the browser and the error message and the program kept right on working. I don’t know what caused these errors but I was very happy the program didn’t crash.

Final Comments

My final conclusion is that 2Tone was better than MMTTY nearly all the time on 20 meters that weekend. The only time MMTTY was as good was when it was perfect or near-perfect and that did happen quite a bit. MMTTY has always been good. That is why it’s the most popular decoder used in the world today. But when it comes to very weak signals, deep fades and the in the presence of QRM from nearby signals, 2Tone is superior. These are the conditions where we all look for improvement and MMTTY just can’t always give that to us, but 2Tone can. So take my word for it; 2Tone is better than MMTTY. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it.

My first impression of N1MM Logger is that it is an excellent, feature-rich, program; maybe too feature-rich for me. With N1MM Logger I really had to pay attention to what I was doing all the time. Is N1MM Logger for me? I don’t think so; at least not yet. I did enjoy my experience. Unfortunately N1MM Logger does not fully support SO2R on multiple PCs, which is what I do. In order to use N1MM Logger SO2R RTTY, I would have to change to SO2R on one PC and I’m not willing to go there yet and maybe not at all other than to test it, which I plan to do. My use of two PCs goes way back before there were any contesting programs, before Windows and even DOS, before a lot of things. It goes back to when I used a Heathkit H-89 computer using a homebrew program under the CP/M operating to run RTTY using a homebrew terminal unit (TU) and I hand logged contacts. When my Dad upgraded to a DOS machine, he gave me his H-89. I used one H-89 to contest with and the other one to log on by typing into a log created with a text editor. This was the start of my two-computer operating. This two-computer combination evolved when WF1B came into existence and I eventually started SO2R RTTY using a pair of Tandy PCs running DOS. I dedicated each radio to certain bands and merged the logs after the contest. When WriteLog came out, SO2R RTTY on two Windows PCs over a network was the ultimate setup for me because of my previous two-computer experiences. So until N1MM Logger can give me SO2R on multiple PCs, I’ll be sticking with WriteLog for the time being.

73, Don AA5AU

Complete SH5 Log Analysis Report for this contest.

3830 Report
Call: AA5AU
Operator(s): AA5AU
Station: AA5AU

Class: SOSB20 HP
Operating Time (hrs): 29.5

 Band  QSOs
   20: 1096
Total: 1096  Prefixes = 599  Total Score = 1,232,742

Club: Louisiana Contest Club
Icom IC-756 PRO III with Ameritron AL-80B amplifier at 500 watts output

3 element SteppIR @ 45'
2 element SteppIR @ 35' fixed at 315 degrees