(Not so) Big Easy DX
Roughly two to three times a year, I make a trip back home to New Orleans, Louisiana. It is the city where I first started my journey in AM DX and it is the city that no matter the miles between it and I, it continues to live in me every day.
This year my wife, Megan, and I packed up for a trip down for Mardi Gras (her first!). Being that it was February, and being that I knew I had a balcony for our hotel room that overlooked the French Quarter streets (and since we were not flying this time) I brought with me my DX laptop, my W6LVP loop and RSPdx SDR to do some IQ recordings from New Orleans. This way, I could once again DX the AM band from my home city, while not missing a second of the Mardi Gras revelry.
So, our first night (Thursday night), I set up a schedule to record at the top of every hour from 3pm CST to 11am CST the next morning, starting at :55 minutes past through to :10 minutes past. A solid 15 minute window to grab whatever IDs I could.
My initial testing that first afternoon was a little underwhelming. The noise levels were through the roof and the AM signals - when they were there - were mostly of the local variety (as in, New Orleans metro).
Undaunted, I hit 'start' on my SDR Console scheduler and sauntered off into a muggy February Louisiana Thursday night for some Cajun music and a stiff drink or.....well.....several.
Friday morning, when I went to check on the status of my recordings, I was shocked to see that it recorded a solid FIVE HOUR session starting that first hour and then ceased any further activity once the hard drive became full.
Perplexed, I deleted the files, reviewed my schedule settings once more and chalked it up to a fluke. My laptop did have a habit of freezing up sometimes. Maybe, I thought, that happened here and day two would be much more successful. I once again left our cozy hotel room optimistic that Saturday morning would reveal a bounty of recordings for my waiting review.
Not so much.
It did the same thing once again. Recorded a HUGE file that first hour, and then nothing.
This time, nothing. No recordings. Not a five-hour, not even five minutes. It is as if I...oh crap....forgot to turn the SCHEDULER BACK ON.
This time I took a more careful look at my recording settings in SDR Console. There, winking me in the face was the culprit. I hadn't set the recordings for a fifteen minute length.....rather a FIVE HOUR and FIFTEEN minute length. I chalked it up to being road weary from the previous two days of driving, corrected my mistake and ventured off for more Mardi Gras parades, Cajun music and - you guessed it - some more stiff concoctions from the local barkeeps.
Sunday morning, a bit weary from a late night and a bit sluggish as a result of the handy work of those friendly bartenders, I once again sat in front of my laptop ready to see what awaited me.
Astonished, I found another five hour recording and then, nothing.
I checked my settings once again. Everything checked out, there was no reason I shouldn't have 20 fifteen-minute recordings of piping hot Louisiana DX.
Now I am starting to become concerned. Is something wrong with my laptop? Is this "DXpedition" jinxed? Am I doomed to add no further loggings from my home city into logbook?
Let's try this again.
Monday morning had to be the day, right? Wrong. This time, nothing. No recordings. Not a five-hour, not even five minutes. It is as if I...oh crap....forgot to turn the SCHEDULER BACK ON.
I will grant you that a large portion of my technical difficulties were of the operator error sort. Very true. Should I have set my recordings up before I even left Charleston? You betcha. Should I have set up a test of those settings the night before we arrived in New Orleans while sitting in a dingy beach motel in Pensacola? Absolutely. Did I do any of that? Nope.
For that sin, I was now paying for it with a dwindling window to capture any DX at all. We were packing up Wednesday morning to begin our long drive back to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Monday night would prove to essentially be my final chance. If I couldn't get this to work, it would be time to throw hands in the air.
Tuesday morning, moment of truth. Will I have my first NOLA AM logs for my logbook since 1993, or will it be "better luck next time?"
Mercifully, there they were. Hourly recordings from every hour, on the hour from 3pm through 11am Tuesday morning. A quick scan revealed the same high noise levels I encountered during my initial testing on Thursday but, there were signals there. And not just locals, but some weak ones in between the local channels, too!
Relieved, I set up for one final night of recording Tuesday night. While we watched Bourbon Street fill to capacity, I was hoping my hard drive was doing the same. I double and triple checked every setting, every button, every facet of the process to ensure I could walk away with two days, at least.
The ghost of DX misfortune struck again, however. No recordings Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. My SDR software was as quiet as the now empty French Quarter streets. Alas, I would only have one day, 20 top-of-hour IDs to gleam whatever DX I could from the noise-filled recordings.
I am still in review of those recordings and will post full logs once I have completed, along with aircheck recordings of all local New Orleans station IDs to provide aid for others to use in their own hometown pursuit of a Big Easy bounty.
Some lessons learned from this first attempt at hotel SDR recordings of the AM band:
Set your recordings up a couple of days before you even leave your house. Give yourself at least a day to test those settings before you ever leave to ensure your recordings work correctly.
Make sure you have adequate hard drive space. This includes both your laptop and any external storage media you may be bringing with you (flash drives, external hard drives, cloud-based storage, etc.)
Plan for noise. Hotels are filled with numerous RF-producing problems for your DX. Look into ways you can reduce noise such as onboard (software) and external (hardware) noise filtration/phasing systems, ferrite chokes, and different antenna options.
Have some options when it comes to antennas. I had my W6LVP loop and a tripod. If that hadn't been able to fit or work, I would have been dead in the water. A mini-whip such as the PA0RDT is an option many traveling DXers have reported success with hanging from a balcony. You may even want to explore options such as the Ferrite Sleeve Loop antennas popularized by DXers such as Gary DeBock from his travels. Although, you would need to alter the design a bit to allow for broadband usage on SDR recordings across the AM band.
I will lick my wounds a bit on this one, learning from my mistakes and increasing my preparedness (and hopefully my success rate) with the next trip.
What are some tips and tricks from your own portable/traveling DX adventures? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form below and I may just share them in a future post!
73 and Best of DX!
Loyd - W4LVH