Tuesday, May 5, 2020

My Tips for Learning Morse Code


I thought that while I learn morse code, I’d document along the way what I’m doing, issues that I’ve had, observations, and any tips to others feeling the pain of the CW learning dance.  By the way, morse code and “CW” are used interchangeably by hams.  CW stands for “continuous wave”.  I won’t get into what exactly that means here, just be aware.  Also, I'll be updating this article with any new tips that I learn and add to the links to resources at the bottom as I come across them.

Note: The wine cork paddles pictured to the right were my first.  I used them to make my first ever CW contact from a mountain top to N0OI.  The paddles were a gift from K6ARK, my SOTA sensei, aka SOTA Yoda. (click pictures for larger)


If you are here for the tips, just scroll down to the "Tips" section and skip my poetic blather.

One more note.  I'm not an expert.  I'm a beginner at about 10wpm trying to get better.

Initially I assumed I would NEVER learn morse code when I got into this hobby.  It’s a dead art and why would anyone do that.  Later, I wanted to learn morse code as a part of my Summits On The Air (SOTA) activity for a few reasons stated below: 
  1. The reason why other SOTA operators use CW is weight.  This is a hiking activity after all, and weight is a huge deal if you are going to climb mountains.  If you use CW, you can carry a little 5 watt radio and get into Europe when conditions are right.  I started with a 5w rig and then was running a high power radio that required a larger battery.  I really wanted to drop some pounds and go back to a smaller radio.  Many SOTA operators don’t even carry a mic, just CW paddles.

    As a reward for my efforts, I picked up a used KX2 and absolutely love it.  It’s perfect for CW in my opinion.  By doing this I did drop about 5 pounds in radio and battery and a few more because I can use a lighter antenna, dropping 9 lbs in all. 

  2. Because I really like contacting other hams that are on summits (called summit-to-summit) and I found that a lot of them only use CW (see above).  I do a little chasing from home CW to practice.  I don’t know why I like doing summit-to-summit so much.  I guess its because I know there is a guy out there doing the same thing as me, having similar experiences and difficulties (like freezing his butt off in the snow).

  3. Running lower power means you may not be able to get out as far but by using CW, you can go a LOT farther.  This is because the signal to noise ratio is a mega better than using voice on side-band. 

  4. I’ve been told that CW is a lot of fun.  As I was learning I really questioned that but as I actually start to get it, they are right.  I postulate that it is partly a result of being able to reap some reward from the gruelling and frustrating learning curve.  As I write this, being able to get a call sign on the first go is pretty rewarding, even if they are using big spaces :)

Signing up for CW Academy.

I’ve learned a lot of stuff on my own in the past either by reading books or now using BLOGS and YouTube.  This is a difficult thing to do so I signed up for CW Academy.

The instructor, who is a volunteer, uses video conferences on the PC twice a week to hold class.  The biggest thing this class did for me was that it forced me to do my homework every night.  It’s like learning another language.  In addition, when the class completed, the habit stuck.  At times, the class provided a group therapy session for me.  Seeing others struggle with the same issues I had helped me stick with it (I still think I’m brain damaged though). 

Lastly, the instructor is there to answer questions and lead you through some of the nuances of the CW world, like the structure of a conversation, Q codes and other abbreviations.  A big shout out and a thank you to Tim W7EEE, my instructor.

Using the web-based LCWO.net tool
     Was having problems at lesson 3 and for when coming back, separating K and W.  One of the cool things about this app is that you can create a custom group of letters and practice just those.  I of course chose these two letters and then did nothing but that to burn it into my brain.

     Their lessons build up from two letters and then add one at a time.  I just don’t know why order the letters they add the way they do.

     I do a lesson until I can really get good at it before I move on.  They suggest moving on when you hit 90% but I just don’t think that’s going to work for me.

     As I progressed, I used text training, callsign training, text converter, etc.  Read my tip below for more on this

Other things I did in support of my training

I put together the QRP KD1JV Dual Lever (Iambic) Combo CW Trainer.  In fact, this is the first soldering I’ve done in a very long time.  It was easy to assemble and you can probably find a ham assembling one on YouTube.  Soldering was easy, the most difficult part was trying to maneuver the tiny nuts and screws into place on the paddles.  Once completed, it worked like a charm.  You can use the integrated paddles or plug in your own.  I practiced on the plane on the way to and from China when I went on vacation so I wouldn’t get too far behind in class.  You can also buy a small trainer from HRO or just use the monitor mode on your radio with the transmit turned off.

I ordered a Morserino-32 kit from a guy in Austria.  This was a touch more difficult than the build from the QRP guys but it’s awesome.  I highly recommend you get your hands on one of these.  In CW keyer mode it provides great feedback on your ability to key.  If you screw up for example and pound out 4 dots instead of 3 for “S”, you get an H on the display.  This immediate feedback is helpful when you are learning, especially when you screw up and just don’t know what the ..-. you are doing.  After a while, I added an inexpensive paddle that I plugged into it because, at times, I wanted a little more tactile feedback.  I like the touch paddles but they can be a tad twitchy, not what I wanted when I’m trying to be successful.

The hardest part of CW is learning to copy (decode from morse to text).  If you know what is coming, it’s super easy.  For example, a word that has a “q” in it will probably be followed by a “u”.  If you guess the word that’s coming it all just makes sense.  But not knowing any of this is hard to get good at because you need to recognize and be ready before the operator starts the next letter.  When you get good (not sure when that will be for me) you’ll be able to hear entire words. 

Beginners can hear some words right away, like “CQ” and “73” because you hear these words all the time in every QSO.  For SOTA, you’ll also hear things that are sent often, like “CQ SOTA” without really having to decode it.  Another is “TU”.  The advantage and less scary thing about learning CW for SOTA is that the exchanges are pretty quick.  Not much rag chewing going on.  It’s similar to contesting but not as stressful or rapid fire.  All a chaser typically does is wait their turn, send their call, and if they hear their call come back, respond with a “UR <signal report like 5NN>  TU  73”.  The chaser waits for a signal report and an “E  E” and sends back an “E E”.  This is very informal.  I will hear chasers be a tad more formal and send “<you callsign>  DE  <their callsign>  Tu  73” and maybe some other stuff when they sign off. 

The one thing that I was good at right away was sending.  This is muscle memory and quickly gets burned into the brain.  Sometimes, when I couldn’t figure out what a set of dits/dahs were, I’d imagine using the keyer and figure it out.  This is common for most CW learners I spoke to.

Once I got good enough I started to do some minor SOTA chasing of other operators from a mountain top.  My SOTA sensei convinced me by explaining that all I need to do is listen for when It’s my turn (the previous exchange finished), send my callsign, listen for it to come back correctly.  If I’m on a mountain top, I just send “S2S” and that gets me to the top of the pileup.  I know my own callsign really well because I practice it a lot calling “CQ N1CLC”.  Once the operator acknowledges you, just send “UR 5NN”, which is a signal report “599”.  This indicates that you can hear him clearly (5), the signal strength is 9 out of 9, and the quality of his code is 9 out of 9.  A lot of hams just send 599 whether it’s true or not for expediency.  In SOTA a lot of operators just want to move on to the next guy so it’s a really safe environment.  I get really hosed though if the operator started asking me anything or sending me anything more than a “TU  73  EE” (EE just ends the call).  I will say that doing this really helps in that it motivated me to continue.  I could use CW while I was learning.  Lastly, you’ll need to send your summit.  It’s not hard, just give it a practice before you start calling S2S. 
 
What I couldn’t do is “spot myself”.  That would mean that I’d be running the show and have to decode all the callsigns that come piling in on me.  More on that later.  My first contact was N0OI and we setup the CW exchange via SSB when I was on a mountain one day.  He told me to drop down to CW and try it.  Boom, I had my first contact.  Thanks Scott. 

Did a lot of text practice with LCWO.net (LCWO).  This missed the numbers which I really needed for doing SOTA or anything where people are calling you.  I then started using the “Callsign Training” in LCWO.net.  This really helped me improve but what I was stumbling on is that the callsigns are worldwide so almost anything goes.  This is great but when the conditions suck you aren’t going to get all of this oddball shit.  Remember, I need to have some success to keep me going AND I wanted to start using CW in the real world. 

I decided to put in all callsigns that I hear all the time from my past QSOs into the text conversion tool and practicing those. (See Tip #4 below) This lowers the scope of stuff coming at me.  It’s not only more fun but I now understand why some of my pals struggle less.  It’s because the call is familiar.  If I hear “W0M” I can bet the last two are going to be “NA” (Gary W0MNA is the most prolific chaser on the air).  If I hear “W0” a call or two later, it probably means Gary’s XYL, Martha W0ERI, is chasing me too.  See tip #4 below in the “Tips” section for more on this.

Observations

     I would have a brain freeze once I got behind trying to copy code.  Mostly, I just drop the group with a single letter and wait for the next word.  This may be because I’m a bit anal, want to win and continue to think about that character that I missed as several more go by. I hear this is normal.  (go figure).

     Sometimes magic would happen and I really would start hearing the  musicality of the letters and just fly through the word group.... And then it was gone.

     After switching over to CWops Morse Code Trainer when I was getting ready to go through CW Academy, I found that listening (copy) and then entering the same practice letters or words via morse on my keyer (keying) helped my brain learn CW.  Said another way, listen, decode, send it back.

     One of the things that I learned is to understand what helps me learn and most importantly, what causes me to give up vs. keep going. Giving up and walking away before spending any real time at the computer is bad.

     To improve, I need to push myself.  If I’m good at 6 wpm, I should bump it up to 7 or 8.

     I learned that I have to have a certain amount of success or I just toss my headphone and walk off.  I was told to keep my sessions short but if is causing me to not practice long enough, I’m not going to learn.  Sure, I need to push myself, but if my success rate drops below a certain point, I get too frustrated.  This is just me and it’s hard to find the right balance. 

    
Building on the two points above, the most important thing I learned is repetition is the word of the day in this game.  I was never good at learning languages and this may be why.  It’s more important to keep hearing the letters (or whole words if you can) a zillion times and cement it into the brain.  The core objective is to get to a point of instant recognition, so that you are writing the letters or words down without even thinking about it.  I’ve been spending a lot of time using LCWO just decoding.

My hypothesis is that this is more important than we think.  Until the activity becomes automatic, we have to have 100% dedicated focus.  This is super hard to maintain for very long.  The mind is always wondering, wanting to take a little break during our normal activity, even activity that we are really good at, like me writing right now.  While I write this, my mind is jumping to wondering what the weather is like for example.  It does this while it waits for my fingers to finish a word (I type at about 60 wpm).  So... If you can get to the automatic recognition, you can keep at it longer because you don’t have to focus 100%, 100% of the time.


     I’m very goal oriented so this was in my favor.  Staying with this is the hard part, but wanting to be able to do this from a mountain top kept me motivated.  Also, once I get past a certain level of investment it becomes harder to abandon.

     I found early on that I could send the phone book, but my copy speed sucked.  I hear this is very typical among hams in the learning mode.  I think it has to do with muscle memory combined with the audio.

     When I started trying to copy on the radio, versus the computer it was like starting over.  That quickly went away.

     Call sign practice is very important if you want to activate via SOTA.  Read my tip below on how to do this.

Here were / are some of my frustrations

I’m going to run through some of my frustrations so that when you have them, you’ll know that you aren’t the only one struggling, although I think I’m really brain damaged. :)

  1. Learning morse is hard and frustrating... but ... keep going
  2. I couldn’t understand what the instructor sent me but I could send the phone book.
  3. Copy is frustrating but I'm starting to get it.
  4. Getting copy speed up to a crawling speed of 8 wpm, uggg.
    Getting copy speed increase is what CW operators are still complaining about after years of practice. 
  5. When I practiced copy on actual radio (not web site) I had a WTF moment!  It felt like starting over.  I found that quickly went away.
  6. I’ll have days when I can’t send one word without screwing up.
  7. Today “OK, I’ve got this”... next day... “No I don’t”.
  8. Why am I doing this again? 

Tips

I’m new at CW / morse code so I really question whether you should take any tips from me but I’ll give it a shot.  Many of the tips I got from guys trying to help me and I actually come up with a few on my own (if you can believe it).

  1. If you want to learn CW, become a SOTA chaser.  It’s fun, the exchange is really easy, and there is very little rag chewing.  A lot of us up there are beginners and we feel your pain.  Just send a “?” and we’ll slow down and send again with bigger spacing.

  2. Send “QRS” to get people to slow down. That’s the proper way to get people to slow down.  If you didn’t understand, just send “?”.  Do that a couple of times and the operator on the other end gets it and slows down.   We need you to get points so we’ll be patient.  There’s no reason you can’t send a QRS at the beginning or “I NEED BIG SPACES”.
    Send fast, they will respond fast.  Send with big spaces, they instantly slow down (most of the time).

  3. If you are a SOTA activator like me, put “BIG SPACES PLS” in your spot on the SotaWatch.  The first time I did this, all of my callers put huge spaces in their call signs.  That was so cool and I really appreciate how patient other operators have been with me.

  4. To improve your callsign copy speed, take a bunch of callsigns that you get all the time from your log and put them in the text conversion tool on LCWO and practice with those. 

    I took the call-signs from a fellow SOTA operator and my own past calls from sotadata and put them in this spreadsheet (feel free to use it).  You'll see that they are duplicated in two columns, separated by a column so they have a space between them, and if needed, separated by a row between each.  Paste that into the conversion tool.  Doing this causes the app to give you the call sign twice giving you two chances. Having an extra row between the calls gives you just a bit more time between calls.  Initially, I had to hear them both to get it right, but eventually started getting them on the first try.  Also, hearing familiar calls is a lot more fun and as it turns out, give you a better chance of success on the mountain.  For me, the best way to improve my copy speed is to hear it a zillion times.  This also helped with my instant recognition of W, so creating my own callsign pool that has more W callsigns helped.  The other HUGE bonus of doing this is that you’ll most likely hear them again when you do it for real.

  5. As you go along, observe how you learn, what works, what causes you to quit early.  For example, if you are like me, you need some success or you get frustrated and quit.   If you ramp up the speed on whatever tool you are using too high and you are getting frustrated, just drop the speed back down.  What I found out is that repetition is just a bit more important than pushing yourself.  Getting frustrated means you’ll most likely rip the headphones off and head for the tequila bottle.

  6. I agree with CW Ops and others that you shouldn’t practice for a long time in the beginning.  Use short practice sessions.  I’ve been practicing for 9 months  and I limit myself to 30 minutes.

  7. If you miss a letter, just let it go.  Obsess for even a moment and you are really hosed.  A lot of times, just getting a partial copy of CW allows you to figure it out.  Similar to “yo cn stll fure it out wen some lttrs r misin”.

  8. Have your wife hide the tequila or wine until you have put in your time at homework.

  9. Send your CQ with spaces between each letter.  If you send your call with spaces between the letters, it communicates to others you are a beginner.  You will get good at calling CQ or you might program it into your radio.  Sending an awesome and fast CQ may feel people into thinking you are an expert.  I add spaces and in my stored CQ on my home rig I put a space between each letter of my call.  I now use it to chase when the other operator needs it.

  10. Be patient and know that it’s going to be hard to be patient.  You can only push so hard.  I have a feeling that learning CW might be easier for musicians or people that easily learn other languages. 

  11. Use the farnsworth method, which I think is the most popular approach.  This method urges you to set your key rate at 20 wpm but use big spacing between letters.  You speed up by shortening the spaces between letters.  It totally makes sense because what you want to do is learn the musicality or note that a letter makes, not the dits and dahs.  Using this method, that note doesn’t change, just the speed between notes.  I cheated a bit and set mine to 18 when I was learning.  It gave me just a tiny edge.  I know you aren’t supposed to get in the habit of counting, but dude, you need every edge you can get.  I don’t feel the bit of counting held me back either.

  12. Use it, get on the radio and try.   Talking on the radio was easy for me, I had no fright, since I’ve been playing with radios since I was a kid and did a lot of flying, talking to controllers on the radio.  CW is scary for me in the beginning.  It could have been that when flying, you have to have your shit tight to get what you want.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or frustrate the other ham. But the radio is a bit different than the computer since the tone and speed isn’t perfect and you have to contend with QRM.  This is where trying to do a little chasing of SOTA operators comes in handy.  Just try going to http://sotawatch.org/ and look for a contact that is running CW on a band you can transmit on.  Then, listen in to how things work and give it a shot.  The good news is that if someone cusses you out for something, you won’t understand them anyway (nobody does that by the way).  While you are doing that, look for me, N1CLC, I’d love to hear from you.

  13. Ask for help, ideas, tips.  I haven’t met a ham yet that wasn’t willing to either give me a tip, encourage me, or slow down for me, so ask around, play around and have fun.

  14. Practice in the morning, it’s a hell of a lot harder to learn when you are tired and forget it after you’ve been drinking (you’ll need a drink afterward though).

  15. Don’t forget to practice keying.  When you are doing copy practice on something like LCWO, at the end of the sentence or set of callsigns, practice keying that.  Doing this will help cement it in the brain and you’ve gotta be able to send too.

  16. Practice every day.  I’m actually amazed that I kept to that.  It started with the CW class.  If I didn’t do my homework every day, I knew I’d get behind and be lost, something I really didn’t want to do.  This built the habit for me.

  17. Relax.  I just added this one.  I found that there are days that I can’t send my own call sign nor copy very well.  What I discovered was I was too tense to process the inbound and couldn’t send either.  I get excited and or stressed when calling CQ, trying to work the pileup, or just send well to the guy calling me.  Stopping, taking a breath, and then sending changes everything.  I am amazed how much this helps me.  If you notice yourself being tense, try it. 

  18. Create an “Alert” and RBN will create a  SOTA “spot” for you (if you do SOTA).  I didn’t realize this till later but if you have an alert posted on sotawatch, and you start sending CQ within a reasonable window of your planned arrival time, the system will see you in the RBN network and create a spot for you on sotawach.  This is a super cool bonus.  I’ve been on summits with no network access, satellite or ability to use an HT and couldn’t get spotted. 

As of May, 2020, I'm am starting to have a lot of fun doing SOTA with my 2 lb, 5 watt rig (antenna included) using CW.  I’m still learning and can copy at a solid 10 wpm if I don’t get flustered.  If I can carry on at 10 or 15 wpm I’ll be happy with that.  I doubt that I’ll ever get into contesting.  I’m just at the point where I can copy call signs fast enough to run the pileup on the summit.   I still get lost on a long QSO at times.  It’s all about refocus and hang in there.

If you are learning CW, I hope something in this writeup has helped you, and in some small way, eased your suffering as you learn to understand and speak digital.  Next up, I’ll see if I can decode FT8 by ear. :)

Finally, I’d like to thank my support crew Adam K6ARK, Tim W7EEE, Dan KI6KU, N0OI (my first CW contact), the SOTA Slack group, and all the guys that slowed down for me and encouraged me when I was on the mountain or at home.

Reference:

     CWops Morse Code Trainer  - Used by CW Academy
     SOTA CW Basics
     Learn CW Online - More features.  I started out using this and still use it.
     QRP KD1JV Dual Lever (Iambic) Combo CW Trainer - Easy build and works fine. 
     Morserino-32 - This is very cool and I think it helped because you get good solid feedback just on the CW pieces.  Then it has a lot of other practice modes

TU & 73,
N1CLC
Christian Claborne
Aka chris claborne
--...  ...--
.  .


1 comment:

  1. Christian, good post here. I too am learning CW and feel your pain. Too bad there isn't some type of plugin like Neo has in the Matrix for learning KuFu..."I know CW". I'm up to around 7 to 8 WPM and that's about it. I'm currently a member of Long Island CW Club and they have drop in classes that are really great. No pressure. Some days I can probably run 10 WPM. Some days I struggle at 2 WPM. All your tips are good. I didn't know about the auto spot for the Reverse Beacon. Keep the videos coming. I really enjoy them. Kyle - AA0Z

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