This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing the that series here on my blog.
This may seem like a rant, but I don’t mean it that way. My hope is to stimulate thought and discussion.
When I was getting into amateur radio, my elmer (one who teaches, guides, advises) taught me to give accurate and honest signal reports to the stations I work (make contact with). He said this was a time honored tradition and that most hams (amateur radio operators) would want to know if their signal quality wasn’t the best so they could strive to improve it. It made sense to me. For the most part on the HF (high frequency: good for long distance communication) bands, strangers still today give each other honest signal quality evaluations.
But what about on VHF and repeaters, where we are often communicating among friends and it is more or less local in nature? I have observed that many of us, myself included, seem hesitant to be honest with each other. Why is that? Are we so afraid of upsetting someone that we hide the truth from them? Is that really doing them a favor? For that matter, are we being a good friend to them?
Consider the case where someone buys a new radio, gets on the air to try it out and see how it is working. In reality the audio is distorted, harsh and fatiguing to listen to. Some words are even hard to understand. Yet everyone tells him/her the new radio sounds good. Why? If I just bought a new radio I would want to hear honest reports, even nit-picky ones. Most new radios purchased through reputable dealers can be returned if they aren’t right. I would certainly want to know so that I could return a defective radio (or microphone or whatever). Yet I have heard this scenario play out more than once, with seasoned hams giving the not-entirely-accurate reports. What is happening to us?
Low audio seems to be reaching epidemic proportions on VHF/UHF FM, at least in this area. As a repeater owner, this subject is of prime interest to me. There are two schools of thought on how to set up audio handling on a repeater. I have always believed a repeater should faithfully reproduce the signal it hears, not changing the quality in any way. For one thing, this makes it possible for hams to give each other honest signal evaluations when talking through a repeater. Were the repeater to change the signal in some way, signal quality reports would become less meaningful and prone to errors. Can this be one reason people often refrain from being critical of audio? Since some repeaters do change the audio significantly, it may be that people have become wary of judging user audio when it has been repeated. For almost twenty years I have set up my repeaters to faithfully reproduce user audio (what comes in goes out unchanged). I believe this is one reason I have received so much positive feedback on how natural they sound. The problem with this approach is that so many radios on the amateur market today have low transmit audio, often exacerbated by other factors such as talking too far away from the microphone. At least 20% of users on local repeaters have audio that is low enough to be a serious problem. Probably no more than 60% have audio that would be considered in the “good practice” range for narrow-band FM. One shouldn’t have to turn the volume up on a receiver to hear those with weak audio and then be blasted by those whose audio is in the normal range. If there is any noise to contend with, low audio makes it that much harder to be heard through it.
The other school of thought is that repeaters should process user audio. In its usual implementation, this can significantly boost low user audio while clipping or limiting more robust user audio. Boosting low audio can help in some situations. If noise is a factor on the receiving user side of the communications circuit, a repeater that boosts low audio can certainly enhance communication reliability. If noise is a factor at the repeater receive site, the boost won’t help. The flip side is that signals with robust audio must be limited in some way. This is most often implemented by taking advantage of built-in audio clipping or compression in the repeater transmitter. Unfortunately this “colors” the audio of users with normal (read: communications industry standard) audio, making them sound less natural, somewhat harsh, and even muffled in some cases. Virtually all user radios have already clipped or compressed audio in the transmitter. If the repeater does the same, the audio has now been processed twice. The result can be less than pleasant. I have been thinking about this a lot and have experimented with it to some degree on my newest repeater. It does help those with low audio, but it hurts those who had good audio to start with. To be honest, I’m having trouble with the concept of hurting those with good sounding radios in order to help those with not-so-good ones. Is this fair? Is it good practice?
What if we all gave truly honest signal evaluations to those we talk to on the air? What if we let them know when their audio is low or distorted, and encourage them to find out why? Perhaps they just need to hold the microphone differently. Perhaps they are using an aftermarket microphone that isn’t a good pairing with their radio. Or perhaps it is the radio itself, in which case it may or may not have an internal adjustment to compensate for the problem. I will wager that the majority of those in my local area whose VHF or UHF FM audio is chronically low don’t even realize it – because it hasn’t been brought to their attention. Sometimes we try to soft peddle the truth, as in “Your audio is a little low but I can understand you.” While that may be accurate, I suggest it falls a bit short of good amateur operating practice. This may leave the other operator feeling as though it’s nothing to be concerned about, when in reality his/her audio could be low enough to cause real problems under different circumstances. Perhaps this would be better: “Your audio is low. I can understand you, but it could cause copy to be difficult or impossible in some situations. I would encourage you to look into it.” If it is a new ham or one who might not have the resources to investigate, perhaps add an offer to assist with it. This may be a bit more verbose, but it conveys a message that the signal is not what it should be and encourages them to strive for improvement.
I am taking a long, hard look at the way I give reports and whether I am doing my fellow hams any favors in this respect. I encourage others to give this some thought.