The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. –Ancient Chinese proverb
This is a list of tips and resources for CW learning, put together for the Marin Amateur Radio Society, by Rich, AG6QR (firstname.lastname@example.org). Note that all opinions are Rich’s alone and nothing has been endorsed by or should be construed to represent the opinion of any organization.
Classes are only being held on an informal basis and irregular schedule at this time. When held, they are normally at around 9:00am to 11:00 on Sunday mornings, at the Marin Amateur Radio Society’s clubhouse, 27 Shell Road, Mill Valley. For detailed directions, see the club’s website at w6sg.net.
Bring your paddle and keyer/oscillator, or whatever you use to practice CW, and we will practice with you at whatever level you need. Often, practice consists of having simulated QSOs over audio, where we send as though we were sending over the air, but occasionally stop and discuss issues as appropriate.
If you don’t yet have a key or paddle, talk to us first, so you can get suggestions on how to get a good value for your money. Don’t feel you need to buy something before you come to class.
Much of the work of learning CW will involve practice drills, in order to build up reflexes of recognizing letters automatically, without counting dahs and dits, and without pondering each individual character consciously. If you listen to the HF bands, or even the CW id on FM repeaters, you’ll notice that most on-air code happens at 12-25 wpm, so our goal is to learn to copy proficiently at a speed somewhere within this range. Your brain cannot count individual dits and dahs at anything like a 20 wpm speed. But your brain CAN learn to recognize letter sounds at that speed, if it’s recognizing each letter as a unit of sound.
The method we will use to learn CW is called the “Koch Method”. A description and motivation is here.
That article is a short, well-written “must read”. It explains why we want to start with a small set of letters at full speed, and then add letters until the entire alphabet is conquered, versus learning everything slowly, and trying to build up speed. To go fast, we need to build automatic reflexes, and the Koch method does this from the start.
We’ll start by learning two characters, at full speed, maybe with a little bit of additional space between characters. After we know two characters with better than 90% accuracy, we will add another character into the mix. This will temporarily reduce our accuracy, until the new character is firmly learned. When we have a better than 90% accuracy rate with three characters, we will add another new character, and continue the process until the entire alphabet, along with the digits, are learned, all at reasonably high speed.
Most of the rote drill will be done at home, on a computer. This will allow you to schedule your practice sessions flexibly, according to your own timetable, and the computer will be able to tailor the practice sessions to exactly your skill level, increasing the difficulty just as you are ready for it. We’ll do some receive drilling during class time, but we intend to keep a lot of the class time for doing the things that the computer can’t do so effectively, such as encouragement, practice in sending, critique of your “fist” (your style of sending), practice QSOs off the air using audio oscillators, learning procedural techniques, getting our hands on various types of keys and paddles, etc.
Try to set aside at least 15 to 30 minutes each and every day for practice. Short sessions, held consistently every day, will work better than occasional marathon sessions. If you can do a session each morning and another each evening, so much the better.
How long will it take? This is not a race, so there’s no shame in taking things slowly, but the more you can stick to consistent daily practice, the quicker you will see results. Koch himself got a group of hand-picked students to master 12 WPM code in a mere 13.5 hours. That’s incredibly optimistic for most of us, I suspect. Initially, figure on several months of relatively low-intensity, but relatively consistent training. As you progress through the alphabet, you will get a better feel for how long it’s going to take you to do it. One thing is certain: if you stick to it, you CAN learn the code. There are only 26 letter to learn, plus 10 digits and a few other symbols. With the Koch method, learning at full speed, you always know how many more letters you have to make it through before you reach the finish line.
Some recommended ways of doing CW drills on your computer:
- http://lcwo.net/ Learn CW Online. This works based on a web browser. No installation is needed. It works on Windows and Mac, and maybe other platforms. It requires a reasonably fast Internet connection. If you use this as your primary method of practice, it’s strongly suggested to create an account on their site. That’s free, and doesn’t require a lot of private information disclosure. Creating an account makes it easy to chart your progress through the lessons, and allows the software to resume right where you left off, after a break in practice sessions.
- http://www.g4fon.net/ Follow the link and click on “Koch CW Trainer Version 9”. This is downloadable software that supports Windows only. Once installed, it does not require an Internet connection.
- http://www.justlearnmorsecode.com/. This is another downloadable Koch method trainer for Windows. Like G4FON, you install it once, and thereafter, you don’t need an Internet connection.
- IZ2UUF Morse Koch CW app for Android smartphones. I have no experience with this app, but it may be of interest for those who want to do CW practice while away from a computer. It gets good reviews.
All of the above are free, but most (maybe all?) accept donations. You’re encouraged to try any and all that are of interest, and donate as you see fit. They all can be used effectively, so it’s likely that the most important reason for choosing one over the other is what kind of computer you want to use. One other thing to consider: if you prefer to copy code onto a keyboard instead of writing it down, note that lcwo and justlearnmorsecode have the ability to capture your copy from the keyboard and grade you against what was sent, pointing out your errors and figuring your scores automatically. G4FON lacks this ability. This would be irrelevant if you’re copying onto paper — you’d have to score yourself manually with any of the programs if copying onto paper.
You can adjust the settings to speed them up or slow them down. You are strongly urged to keep the element spacing so that each letter is at around 20 wpm, so that you hear the letter as a single cohesive unit, rather than counting dits and dahs. Your goal is to be able to recognize the letters as they’re sent on the air at 15-20 wpm; it’s not terribly helpful to listen to them much slower. If your brain needs a bit of extra time to process things, you may consider adding a little extra space between the letters (this is known as “Farnsworth spacing”, where each letter is sent fast, but space is inserted between letters to slow the pace down), but even this should be restrained somewhat. Since our goal is to build up the brain reflexes to recognize letters at full speed, the Koch method theory says it’s better to start by learning how to copy a few letters by high speed reflex than a lot of letters by slow ponderous thought.
If you copy code on paper, use lower case cursive letters, as these are the fastest to write. You don’t necessarily need to dot your i’s or cross your t’s — the paper copy only needs to be readable to you.
If you miss a character, let it go. You may want to draw a line or leave a space to indicate something is missing, but if you stop and think about the missed character to get it right, you’ll probably find that three more characters have passed you by as you were figuring out the troublesome one.
Similarly, resist the temptation to read your copy while letters are still coming in over the air. As much as possible, you want to keep your brain free to hear the next letter, write it down, and be ready to listen for the next letter immediately.
As you build up your set of characters, it’s good to listen to real code being sent, and it may be more interesting to listen to real English text. Even before you can fully copy it, it can be interesting to listen to for inspiration, and try to see if you can recognize occasional letters here and there, and certain combinations that you’ll often hear, like “CQ” “73”, “5NN”, and others. There are a few ways of doing this.
- If you have an HF rig, tune to the low ends of 40m and 80m at night, or 40m and 20m during the day. Most anytime, you should be able to hear some code around 7020 to 7040, but it will seem to be flying by. As a general rule (with plenty of exceptions), the fastest code is found at the lowest end of the band, and it slows down as you go up, but eventually you’ll run into various digital modes. For slow code, 40 or 50 kHz up from the bottom of the band may be your best bet in general.Here are some frequencies where slower CW is often heard. These aren’t official, and aren’t published as part of any band plan, so use them only as an unofficial starting point. Tune around.1.850
7.055 +/- 5kHz
7.115 +/- 10kHz
- If you don’t yet have an HF rig, or if you haven’t had a chance to get an antenna set up, you can listen to the HF bands over the web using websdr.org. This is a website that gives access to numerous software defined receivers at various places around the globe. The receivers typically cover a single amateur band, though some cover a much wider range of frequencies. You can tune up and down the bands and listen, as though you had your own receiver with its own set of controls. This requires java, and installation instructions are on the web pages. You’ll need a reasonably fast internet connection.Websdr is a way to hear real amateur radio transmissions on the HF bands, live, with the associated static, fading, and noise. It’s the next best thing to having a real HF receiver.
- W1AW has practice sessions, at various speeds. It’s good to listen to these over the air, to experience realistic static and fading. But you can also listen to them over the web, which gives you the freedom to listen at any time without being tied to their schedule. The online practice files, along with the related text files so you can check what you copied, are at http://www.arrl.org/code-practice-files. The schedule for receiving them on the air is at http://www.arrl.org/w1aw-operating-schedule
- There is a Northern California Traffic Net (NCN) at 9:00pm California time every night at 3.533 MHz (plus or minus a bit, if existing QSOs are already operating on that frequency). This is conducted at a slow speed. It gives you a chance to hear multiple operators using directed net protocol.
- The North American QRP CW Club (NAQCC) holds a variety of QRS (slow speed) CW nets. A list is here: http://www.naqcc.info/cw_nets.html. Here in Northern California, the easiest ones to catch would probably be the PNW80 net on Thursdays at 7:00pm, or the PNW40 net on Mondays at 8:00pm. That page linked above gives some procedural guidelines as well as the schedule and frequency list.
- The computer drill programs listed above have ways of converting text files into .mp3 audio files, which you can play on your computer or on a portable mp3 player. You can use anything you like for text files, but one good resource is the Project Gutenberg archive of public domain literature, at http://www.gutenberg.org. Poetry often makes good practice material, as it tends to be grouped into relatively short, digestible stanzas, with some repetition due to the rhyming. Using audio files on a portable mp3 player while you’re away from the computer is one way to build up “head copy” skills, that is, the ability to copy CW in your head, without writing it down, and without using a keyboard.
- In a curious mix of old and new technology, CNN breaking news is available in Morse code at various speeds here: http://cw.dimebank.com:8080
- Our local club has been conducting on-air practice sessions at 7:00pm local time Thursdays. We normally meet around around 7122 or so. We may occasionally use the 2 meter repeater on 146.7MHz to discuss things, as needed.
There is more to CW operating than just knowing how to send and receive the alphabet and digits. There is a collection of symbols, abbreviations, procedures and protocols that are used on the air, which you must learn in order to be an effective CW operator.
Here’s a writeup of the process of making a CW QSO for the beginner: http://www.naqcc.info/cw_qsos.html. That writeup is on the NAQCC (North American QRP CW Club) website. That site has a lot of other helpful information on getting started with CW. Browse around!
There is a classic article from 1956, called Your Novice Accent and What To Do About It., presented in its original form here: http://users.ohiohills.com/gordon/novacnt.html. It presents some of the common mistakes rookies of the time made, and it’s a good general tutorial on the subtleties of conducting a QSO properly. Some of the details have changed over time, but much of the content still rings true. An updated version of the article is presented here: http://www.kb6nu.com/your-novice-accent/, reflecting more current situation and practices.
Some common Q-codes are listed here: http://www.qsl.net/w5www/qcode.html. That list is from a 1965 ARRL publication, with some codes that have fallen into obscurity. The most common current codes are noted by a red astrisk.
A good writeup of the CW Traffic net protocol is here: http://www.qsl.net/n5lf/cw-nts.html. The traffic nets use a directed protocol that is a little bit different from what’s used in a standard two-way QSO. This guide will help decipher what you hear on our local NCN (Northern California) slow net every night at 9pm on 3.533 MHz. The traffic nets use a special group of Q-signals, the QN signals. Astute readers might figure out that QN signals all begin with the letters “QN”. The QN signals, along with some documentation of the Radiogram protocol, are listed here http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Public%2520Service/fsd218.pdf
One practice that may help you as you’re learning is to have a few cards in front of you, with the most common things you’ll want to say printed on them, to reduce the stress and pressure of composing a transmission on the fly.
You will need some way of sending code. There are many devices that can be used to send CW. The following link points to an overview of the basic types of CW sending devices. Keys, bugs, paddles.