My latest obsession: AM Stereo

Why, yes, I DO love that AM Stereo light!

Why, yes, I DO love that AM Stereo light!

Anyone who reads my blog (or my Twitter feed, for that matter), knows that I sometimes like to obsess over certain things for a period of time. My latest obsession: AM Stereo.

Now any radio engineer or radio geek whose been around the block for awhile knows what I’m talking about. Those of you who belong to the younger generation… say, my age, are probably looking for an explanation about now.

First, let me give you the back story here. I’m a 90’s kid. I was born in 1990 (never mind that I was conceived in the 80’s but we won’t go there). Ask any 90’s kid about their thoughts on AM and they’ll tell you it’s a bad sounding mono radio signal that old people talk on (you’ve gotta remember, the FM revolution had already taken place by this time). In fact, I remember driving around with my grandpa in Minot, ND around 1997-ish (who at the time was a radio engineer himself) and he had an AM station on (presumably his) that was playing music. And I was blown away you could do that. Every other AM station in Fargo had already become either a news/talk or a sports/talk, so I assumed that’s all that was ever on there. I was 7 or 8 at the time so that was a fairly reasonable assumption. There may have been one music AM in Fargo at the point, but I really don’t remember. And radio has always fascinated me, even at that age… even before I even considered working in radio myself, I was always interested in how the technology worked.

Now, fast forward to about two years ago. I was working for the radio group I work for now, but I wasn’t technically part of the engineering staff at that point. One day I was BS’ing with one of part-time engineers (whose job, coincidentally, I ended up taking when he left a few months later) about our AM station in Fargo, KQWB 1660. And he was telling me it could do AM Stereo but we had it turned off for some reason.

Hang on a second… you can do Stereo on AM?

Yes, yes you can.

To anyone whose been around long enough this is nothing new. In fact, most would say that AM Stereo has come and gone. But again, being a 90’s kid whose perception of AM its a bad sounding mono radio signal that old people talk on, I was blown away that you could actually do stereo on AM.

How does it work? Without being too technical here, your basic AM signal has a carrier (which is at the frequency of the station, which in my case is 1660), and then an upper and lower amplitude modulated (hence the name AM) signal that carries the audio information (If you’re lost already just nod your head and go with it :-) ). Well to get the old non-stereo radios to receive a stereo signal properly, you have to mono it and then send stereo information, just like we do with FM. So on the upper and lower sidebands, we send the L+R information. But unlike FM, we can’t do a stereo subcarrier; they don’t exist on AM. So we phase modulate the carrier with the L-R information 90 degrees out of phase. An AM Stereo radio knows how to decode the phase modulated carrier and gets stereo information out of that. The whole process is a bit more complicated than that (and there are three other ways of doing from which a standard didn’t get decided on until it was too late), but that’s it in a nutshell.

The Story

AM Stereo was so cool at one point, it was bragged about on the station truck!

AM Stereo was so cool at one point, it was bragged about on the station truck! (photo politely stolen from Mark Borchert)

So, how did 1660 end up with the ability to do AM stereo and why wasn’t it turned on? I described this in a blog post made by Paul McLean of Radio World a few weeks ago (which really inspired this post). but here’s what happened:

My station, KQWB, which was on 1550 at the time, added AM stereo when it was the big thing back in the 1980s. In the mid-’90s the station changed studio locations. From their then-new location, they couldn’t get a clear STL (Studio-Transmitter Link) shot to the transmitter. So they installed an equalized phone line to the old studio, and then reused the old STL to the transmitter. The problem, however, is the phone line only supported one channel of audio. But since it was a talk station at the time, it wasn’t a huge deal, and they shut the AM stereo off.

In 2000, KQWB moved to expanded AM band and went to 1660. Part of the deal with doing that was they had to keep AM stereo, so the new 1660 transmitter was ordered with the ability to do AM stereo. But with the station being talk for so many years, the AM Stereo stayed off.

Well, 1660 now plays Classic Country. Oh, and the STL I mentioned? Yeah, we have to turn it off by the end of May. We lose our lease on that old studio building.

In the mean time, another one of my stations, KBVB, went HD a few months ago, as I mentioned in a previous post. Well it just so happens we had room for an HD3, and since we’re running short on time to replace the STL, we’re feeding the AM audio onto HD3, and we ordered an HD receiver for at the 1660 transmitter, and we’re feeding he HD off-air feed right in. So not only have we now replaced the STL, it’s now a stereo feed.

Guess what that means. Yup. We turned the AM Stereo back on.

The Sound

Let me explain why I’m so damn obsessed with AM Stereo. Again, keeping in mind the notion that the 90’s kid impression of AM is a bad sounding mono radio signal that old people talk on, listen to the below audio.

First, here’s an aircheck from 1660 using a Griffin RadioShark. It’s not the best receiver on earth, but it’s certainly on par with most other AM receivers you’ll find in the average car radio.

Now, compare that audio with the same aircheck as recorded off of my Realistic TM-152 AM Stereo receiver.

Quite the difference, eh. In fact, I dare to say it sounds as good as FM! The difference of course is all in the tuner. Even in mono, the Realistic tuner sounds that much better. In fact, here’s one more A/B comparison. This is from another station in the market (who I will leave nameless) that carries the Dave Ramsey show. Here’s a short blurb of that on the two radios. First, the RadioShark.

And now the same blurb recorded on from the Realistic tuner.

Sounds pretty good, huh!

The Takeaways

So what have I learned with all of this? First off, AM Stereo, in my opinion, sounds amazing. It’s a shame the FCC didn’t get the standards thing figured out right away otherwise a lot of stations may have made the conversion. But the fact they didn’t act until 1993 just didn’t do anyone any favors; FM had already taken over.

The second takeaway here is that AM, even not in stereo, CAN sound good! I’m just befuddled that radio manufactures aren’t putting the effort into the AM receivers as they are the FM ones. And the fact of the matter is if AM radio is to be saved (which is a TOTALLY different discussion altogether), the receivers need to sound good. Go back and listen to the RadioShark cuts. That’s how most AM tuners sound… bad. And with a bunch of 90’s kids like me becoming all grown up now (well, “grown up” is up for debate), fixing the new receivers be the only way to get some life back into AM.

One last thing… if you’re wanting to hear more AM Stereo goodness, there is a cure. WION in Ionia, MI broadcasts in AM Stereo. And they’re so proud of it, their online stream carries the off-air AM Stereo feed from a Carver tuner. Check it out, it sounds great.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to back to listening to my station in AM Stereo. Alabama just came on.

– Jake

It’s been far too long…

Holy crap, has it seriously been 5 months since I’ve updated my blog? At least better do an update with what I’ve been up to since my last post.

 

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The STL Relay point on top of the Larsen Building in Downtown Yakima, WA

First off, my job has kept me quite busy. Since my last post I’ve flown out to visit our sister stations in Tri-Cities, WA (Kennewick/Richland/Pasco) and Yakima, WA, the most recent trip just this last week. They have very nice facilities out there and fantastic stations to go along with it. And as much as I hate flying I do enjoy going out there to visit them.

One of the consoles installed this summer!

One of the consoles installed this summer!

In addition to visiting our sister stations, I spent the summer rebuilding all of our studios. We converted our 15 year old analog studios to Axia AOIP (Audio Over Internet Protocol) studios. The studios are now 100% and sound just that much better. Plus we can do some cool routing things with the Axia boards… things that would take me hours to route or move I can have done in a matter of minutes.

The new KLTA/KPFX tower site just outside Sabin, MN

The new KLTA/KPFX tower site just outside Sabin, MN

We also remodeled one of our transmitter sites this summer. We replaced the antenna that burned up last fall at our 98.7 site with a new one that will do 98.7 and 107.9. We also bought a combiner and brought the 107.9 transmitter up to this remodeled site to give 107.9 improved coverage to Fargo. Exciting stuff.

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And if that weren’t enough, we also purchased a new transmitter for our 95.1 site. It’s a solid state Nautel (so no moving parts or tubes to replace) and it does HD, making 95.1 the first commercial station in Fargo-Moorhead to go HD.

In non-work related news, I managed to get WAS (Worked All States) Basic. It finally took great regional propagation on 20m to work a South Dakota station on PSK… the last state I needed. I have also become a co-advisor to the NDSU Amateur Radio Club and have become a trustee to the D-STAR Repeater. Haven’t had much on-air time lately, but with it getting colder outside I’m sure that will change.

Lake Metigoshe, near Bottineau, ND near the Canadian border.

Lake Metigoshe, near Bottineau, ND near the Canadian border.

I also managed to get two trips in the summer. First I made my usual trip to my Grandparent’s cabin up at Lake Metigoshe. And the week after I went with my two rock stations to Moondance Jam near Walker, MN. I didn’t do Lollapalooza this year, but I wouldn’t have had time anyway.

So that’s a quick little update with what I’ve been up to. Let’s hope I can go less than five months before my next update!

WAS Progress: 5 to go!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated, the blog, so thought I would quick do an update on my Worked All States progress.

Last time around, I had 31 states down with 19 more to go. Since then, I have added 14 more to the count. The Iowa and Vermont contacts I mentioned last time around did get confirmed, and I have since made contacts with Maine, my own state of North Dakota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Indiana, South Carolina, Michigan, Indiana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Alabama, and Colorado.

That just leaves me with 5 states: Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Oklahoma and Kansas shouldn’t be too hard to snag, but Minnesota and South Dakota will be pretty difficult due to their close proximity to Fargo.

So the race is on! Conditions on the air have been horrible the last few weeks so I haven’t made all that much progress, but I have recently delved into PSK and RTTY (which I’ll take about in another post soon), and that has helped some.

I will continue to update my WAS progress… and if you’re a ham in OK or KS reading and want to help me get those two states, please let me know!

Antenna Tuning Goodness!

IMG_0045Now that Spring has FINALLY arrived, it’s time for me to get some of my outdoor projects done at home. One of those was doing some major tweaks to my MFJ-1622 antenna. I discovered over the winter that my balcony is not all that accessible when it’s cold out, due to issues with the door, so I was more or less stuck with whatever setting I left my antenna at in the fall. That particular setting did well on 10m and 15m, but not so great on 20m or 40m. So in an effort to avoid that problem again, I decided to find the sweet spot.

I’ve talked about this antenna before, but the MFJ-1622 is a balcony mount antenna with a coil tap that shorts out for “lengths” and the SWR adjusts accordingly. Now in theory, you would move the coil every time you switch bands, and I try to do that as much as possible. But given the winter situation, I need to find a setting that’s tunable on all bands. So I found a warm day a few weeks ago, dug out the MFJ-266 analyzer, and got to work. Continue reading

Worked All States progress

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here, so I thought I would do a quick update on one thing that’s been consuming my time lately: the Worked All States award. The premise of the award is simple: make a contact in all 50 states. And since I’m a relatively new ham, I figured this would be a pretty good piece of wallpaper to start working on.

I decided to start focusing on this the 2nd or 3rd week of January, right before the North America QSO Party. Going in, I already had Mississippi, Florida, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. During the NAQP, I was able to knock out 13 more states, including Alaska. Since then, I’ve been diligently trying to get more states crossed off the list, mainly working the W1AW portable stations. That have helped me knock out 6 more states.

This last weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to participate in the CQ WW WPX contest to help knock out a few more states. In the 48 hours, only made 102 contacts, but I knocked out 3 more states, including Hawaii, with a few more yet to confirm. I also got a lot of great DX stations that weekend… conditions were great, so I was able to add a few more countries to my list.

So, as of right now, I sit at 31 states. I have two more W1AW contacts that should get confirmed next week (Iowa and Vermont), and two other contacts I hope can get confirmed soon (New Jersey and Oklahoma). That would bring the count to 35.

So what do I have left? Well, 15 states of course. The hardest ones being in the midwest close to me. I blame that on the fact I’ve been trying on 10m, 15m, and 20m, which are not great for close by states. This weekend is the Missouri QSO party, so I should be able to get Missouri in the log this weekend.Then the weekend of Easter is both the Michigan QSO party and the North Dakota QSO party (which I will be participating in!), so I should be able to make more progress later on this month.

I will continue to update my progress on my WAS, and hopefully I can start posting a little more on here from now on.

The Great Software Debacle

System RequirementIf you’ve been watching my twitter feed over the last few months, then you maybe have noticed that I have been doing an obscene amount of Windows installs.

It started as an on-going problem with my main tower, where I kept losing my solid state OS drive. After re installing Windows after 3 or 4 crashes, I finally replaced the SSD with a regular Hard Drive at the end of September and haven’t had an issue since. Then last month, my Windows PC that I have at my Ham Radio desk lost a hard drive, warranting a new drive and a Windows re-install. If that weren’t enough, my computer at work puked BOTH hard drives within 10 minutes of each other two weeks ago (I’m attributing this to a SATA bus problem, as the odds of two drives going at once naturally is very slim).

I finally got a replacement computer at work last Monday and spent most of that day at work trying to rebuild my computer to the state at which I once had it. That of course not only means documents (which I had backed up, thank God), but programs as well. Which really brought up a common question that all geeks seem to argue about: What programs should you install with a fresh install of Windows? Since i had to do it again today, I figured this would be a good time to share what I install every time I have a “fresh” computer. Continue reading

2014: Bring it!

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I always try to write a year in review post on the 1st of the year. This one is delayed in part because a lot of things happened this year (and because I finally got rid of my hangover about two hours ago). 2013 was quite the crazy and fun year, with a lot of great things that happened! Continue reading

Repairing Ancient Technology

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If there’s one thing you’ve learned about me, it’s that I like to pick up weird projects. This one isn’t so much weird, as it is… why?

As most of you probably know, radio stations do live broadcasts from area businesses. In the broadcast industry we call these “remotes”. Remotes are done with either some sort of internet device, or with an old-school Remote Pickup Unit. An RPU is essentially a one-way radio that transmits broadcast quality audio in the 150 MHz or 450 MHz range back to the studio. Since they only use 15W-40W of power, they work very much like a ham radio. In most major markets RPU’s are considered “ancient technology”… they’ve already moved away from RPU’s in favor of the other internet devices out there. In smaller markets like mine, RPU’s are commonplace and are still used all the time. Ancient, yes… but they’re still used.

IMG_0132Back at the end of October, I came across a Marti RPT-15 on eBay for a little over $125. It looked in good condition online, but the seller had no way of testing, which I believe scared off all the buyers. Except me, that is. Seeing as it is something I could use, and something that I have the gear to test out, I bought it.

When it arrived I immediately threw it on the bench and tested it out. It outputed the full 15W as it should, and overall the unit was in good condition. The only problem? It was setup for a frequency that my stations are not allowed to use. And unlike most modern two-way radios where you can just put in a frequency, this particular Marti unit uses frequency crystals, which basically means to change the operating frequency, I needed to order new crystals. The larger problem? Finding someone who still makes crystals!

Luckily, International Crystal Manufacturing in Oklahoma City still does, and they were able to make two crystal that would get my Marti to work on two frequencies my stations are authorized to use. They arrived right before Thanksgiving. I popped them in, did a little bit of tweaking, and I was right on frequency.

Now the main question I kept getting… what I am I going to do with this? To be honest, I have no idea. I have the feeling though it could come in handy if we run into a situation where one of our RPUs fails, we could use mine a backup. If nothing else, I got a little electronics tinkering in.

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License Plates

My current amateur radio plates

My current amateur radio plates

License plates have always fascinated me. Not sure why… I’ve always thought it’s been the letters and number combinations (much in the same why I’m fascinated by radio station call signs and highway numbers, but I digress).

I started collecting license plates when I was 8 or so. It started when my parents had dug out a few old plates they had from when they moved before I was born and couple from when I was very little. It was one 1980’s North Dakota plate, two sets of Wisconsin plates from 1988, and two sets of Minnesota plates from 1991 (a set of each are at my parent’s house… somewhere… Lord only knows where!).

Fast forward a year or two later, and a great aunt of mine caught on that I had an interest in license plates. After a family reunion, she mailed me a 1994 Montana plate and a 1988 Virginia plate. It was around that same time I came across a couple of old dealer plates from the Ford dealer in Minot, ND where the late Grandpa Duffy Bechtold worked. Those were stamped 1983 but had a 1984 sticker on it. Shortly after that, like anything a 9 or 10 year old is interested in, my interest in license plates faded for a while. Continue reading