Learning Morse Code and CW

Wait a minute! Isn’t Morse Code the same as CW?

No, actually. CW, which stands for "continuous wave," is a term often used for Morse Code communication, but CW also includes to the entire realm of how to communicate on the air within the band limits where Morse Code is used. Normally, you first learn Morse Code and then you learn how to use it on the radio: in other words, you learn CW. In the case of PreppComm Morse transceivers, you can pretty much skip the first step, because our Morse Transceivers take care of the code for you. 

Understanding the difference between Morse Code and CW is critical for a happy user. When we use the term "Morse Made Easy!™”, some people get the wrong idea. They think they can buy an MMX, and tune in a station, which "of course" is transmitting plain, easy to understand English, and read it. They can push a button and talk to them. Just like they push a button on a VHF/UHF handheld to talk to someone that they hear on the local repeater.

This is because they don’t realize that PreppComm has solved the Morse Code problem for them, but they still need to learn how to use the transceiver, especially a keyboard-controlled digital transceiver, and they have to learn CW — how Morse is used and what the practices are for communicating with Morse Code.

So what do we mean by "Morse Made Easy™”?

Normally, to learn Morse Code, a person listens to code for hours, and practices with a key for hours. And we mean hours and hours, just to get to 5 WPM (words per minute). A lot of traffic in the bands is much faster — an average speed could be as high as 25-35 WPM. Getting to that speed takes months, even years, of hard practice. This is partially why some hams don’t like PreppComm — they had to sweat out that process and they don’t want other hams getting an easy street.

So when we say "Morse Made Easy!™”, we mean this: forget all of that time, sweat and effort! You get Morse at any speed delivered to you in text form, and send back with a keyboard!

Morse Made Easy!™

The key to our product success is a decoder that works considerably better than other decoders on the market. The reason for this is that it can operate in significant noise levels. Of course there are some types of noise that this may not apply to, but most noise we have seen here at the factory has not been a problem.

This ability to decode in noise is accomplished with a careful mix of analog and digital signal processing. The result of this combination can be quite amazing at times. Several of our customers have reported this, and we of course have seen it as well: you are tuned to a CW stream, and it is decoding along just fine. Then the signal starts fading, but the noise does not. It fades below the noise floor — you can’t hear it at all. But the CW IN LED is still blinking away, and characters are appearing on the screen! The signal fades back in, and everything continues as if nothing happened. It always blows my mind when I see that.

Because we can decode very well even in noise, and of course we can encode — encoding is a very simple problem -- we can communicate via Morse Code without having to learn it — thus making the Morse part easy.

But that was not enough for us! We added in a type-ahead buffer (2 lines, 56 characters per line) and a typing speed control so the transmitter speed is limited to your comfortable typing speed. We devised a test to capture your typing speed, and also learned how to compute an accurate limit from the information gathered, taking into consideration the difference between taking a test and having a QSO. This reduces stress, and eliminated or dramatically reduced the issue of starving the transmitter. 

Starving the transmitter occurs when the transmitter is transmitting faster than the user is typing. The result is the time between letters within words and between words that does not conform to the spacing defined for Morse Code transmissions. This can result in difficulty for the person at the other end: they are receiving only single characters, and they have to figure out where words start and end.

In addition, a starved transmitter means the type-ahead buffer is virtually always empty, thus eliminating its advantage to you as you are typing a message, and preventing you from correcting typos before they are transmitted.

In fact, one of the advantages of starting an ANSWER with a short station ID is to give you time to start typing while the transmitter is busy doing the station ID. This allows you to get ahead of the transmitter right from the start, and with the correct speed setting, stay ahead. The result is a very comfortable QSO!

Learning Morse Code

So why are we talking about learning the code, if the machine does it for you automatically? Good question. Some people don't want to learn Morse Code, but others do. The DMX/MMX technology happens to be the best learning machine for Morse Code!

For learning how to decode, how about a process where you just use the MMX or DMX, and suddenly you discover you can decode without it? Enter Cognitive Association!

When you are listening and watching the screen to see what the other station is sending, you are not working to learn the code. You are doing a QSO, or "watching" a code stream as it comes in, usually at the same time as you hear it. But your brain is doing something amazing! It hears the tones, and it sees the letters pop up on the screen. And it associates those two things, without your effort or knowledge. Well, OK, now you know... :) After a while, typically a few months of using our system, letters will pop into your mind before they appear on the screen! Yes, we get this feedback from customers, so we know it actually happens.

So actually, you will learn to hear the code even if you are not interested! But sending is a separate matter.

For learning to key or send the code using a key rather than a keyboard, the DMX/MMX series also provides the best "intelligent "key practice oscillator" around! The decoder is pretty flexible, and can respond to a fairly wide range of bad keying. But not as bad as the human brain can decode. This is why computerized decoders can never do as well as a well-trained human. The human knows the English language, and a good bit of the dictionary. So bad sending can be adjusted for with this information. It is no fun, but can be done. The computer does not know that (yet).Maybe we will have Morse AI in the future, but don’t hold your breath.

Anyway, the decoder is good, but it also had good limits on what it will accept as "good code." We enabled the decoder to operate from the KEY IN jack when in receive mode for the purpose of key training. You will have to use an external keyer to convert paddles into pure Morse, or you can use a straight key. The decoder decode whatever you decide to send with a key when in receive mode. It is a good idea to disconnect the antenna so you don’t get any blips from the receiver along with your keying, which of course will mess up the process.

The same rules apply here for tuning in a new code stream: press the space bar to start the decode process, start keying. The status line will read "Collecting Data..." for a short while.

Once sufficient data has been received, the decoder will process the collected data to determine speed and "hand" parameters, and then proceed to decode what is has collected so far. It then switches into realtime mode using a "tracking" algorithm. The display will change, showing DECODING AT XX WPM, where XX is your speed. You will see how well you are doing by how close the displayed text is to what you thought you were sending! Pay close attention to the spacing, because that is important. Running words together is as bad as starving the transmitter!

Since the decoder is more limited than a human ear, if you can get the decoder to correctly decode your keying, you have a very, very good chance of being understood by another human ham out there!

Introduction to CW

Learning CW is another story. We do not say "CW Made Easy" because there is a lot to learn about CW. When I first got the DMX-40 decoder working in the lab, I tuned to a strong station, pressed the space bar to initiate a new code stream, and watched in horror as complete gibberish appeared on the screen.

“Yikes! The decoder does not work!” That is the thought that went through my mind. I connected up the logic analyzer, and recorded a few minutes of data, and sat down and laboriously scrolled through the data, which showed the signal and various stages of the decoder data pathway all the way to the CW IN LED signal and the decoded character being transmitted to the display. Guess what I found? Absolutely NOT what I expected. I found that the decoder worked PERFECTLY! What?

This was a surprise, because I was not a CW person before I invented the DMX-40, I had and still have no idea what streams of CW like this are for, what the data is, who is sending it, etc. However, if a customer buys a DMX-40 or an MMX, and expects to tune into an English stream, they are going to have the same reaction as I did, but no way to validate that the decoder is working. The automatic reaction will be like mine was: the decoder is broken!

There is another issue with CW, and that is the longer an operator has been a code operator, the more abbreviations they have learned and use. There are enough abbreviations available in general use, and some used that are not in general use, that make reading a transmission from some operators hard to read.

Of course other aspects of CW include things like band allocations for CW, how calls are made, how QSO’s work, and different operator methodologies. These are operational aspects of using CW, and before your first QSO, it can be intimidating. We reduce the intimidation with our DMX and MMX products by providing computer automation for call and answer functions, including automatic capture of the other station’s call sign, and doing the back and forth station ID for a basic QSO. 

We also provide for more advanced operators by including a powerful micro programming system to expand the function of the automation, such as starting and ending transmissions without a station ID and much more.

Learning CW is a requirement to use Morse Code on amateur radio. Learning Morse Code is a prerequisite, and that is handled by our encode/decode system for you.

Learning CW

It should be clear now that solving the problem of Morse Code knowledge and experience is only a prerequisite, and the starting point for operating on CW. The rest of the journey to great QSO’s and DX is learning to operate on the bands. Learning the ropes, so to speak.

The only way we know of how to do this is to just do it. You will fumble and mess up at first, but that is part of the learning process. Here is a suggested approach:

  1. Before trying to transmit, spend some time "listening" to what others are doing by tuning in their signal (don't forget to restart the decoder for each new stream). This should give you some understanding. Make sure you have viewed the 8 video series on the PreppComm YouTube channel. It is only about 30 minutes of video, but you will learn some very important information not found in the manual.
  2. The easiest way to start is to find an empty spot on the band segment allocated for CW, when you can hear other stations elsewhere on the band (that tells you the band is "open" vs. being dead).  Use the CALL function at a speed at or below your typing speed, and call for two to three call cycles, listen to see if you get a response for at least 10-15 seconds, and if not, keep repeating CALL until you do. Use longer CALL sequences if necessary.  Remember, you are hoping that a station somewhere in the area your signal is reaching happens to tune past your call, and wants to talk. This can take some time. To your advantage, the answering stations will be tuned to your transmitter frequency -- no need to worry about upper or lower sideband issues. Do that until you have a good handle on having a QSO.
  3. When a station answers you, they will be tuned fairly close to your frequency, but you may need a slight adjustment. Note the transceiver automatically goes into RIT mode, and you can make small adjustments to the receiver frequency for best decoding without changing your transmitter frequency.
  4. Simply press ANS after the other station finishes responding to your call. Make sure his call sign is displayed in the CCS button. As soon as you press ANS, start typing your response. You can stay ahead of the transmitter, and think about your response. Don't forget to use the tilde key (~) to send your INFO to the other station. Press ANS again when you are finished typing. Going back and forth like this will make for a very easy experience for a QSO.
  5. Put in the "starter set" of micro-programs suggested on our PreppComm YouTube video 8:


    This starter set allows you to use the CALL and ANS buttons from function keys, start and stop transmitting without a station ID, and generating a brief transmission comprising a station ID. The instant transmit and end transmit function is very useful, as some hams will ask you a question, and break ([BK] on the screen), or simply stop transmitting, waiting for an answer. You don't want to do a station ID here, so the instant transmit is a useful tool in this or similar situations.
  6. Practice using these four micro programs, along with the INFO micro program.
  7. When you feel comfortable operating by CALL, the next step is to learn to be more careful tuning in a station that you want to call. Make sure you are approximately in the center of the decoding "range" of the decoder bandwidth. This means that the range of frequencies that the decoder works extends about the same amount both higher and lower in frequency. This can be found by stepping up an down in frequency, and counting, and finding the center that way. Once you have done that, you need to determine if you are receiving on the correct sideband. Follow the instructions in the manual for checking (Appendix VIII, the Tuning Rule).
  8. Listen and watch for the end of their QSO, and then make sure their call sign is in the CCS button. If not, press it to clear it, press it again to enter the correct call sign. Now, press CALL to make a "directed call" to the station of interest.
  9. If they respond to you, then you have a two-way conversation, and happy QSO!
  10. Another way to get a QSO is to look for someone else calling CQ. You still have to follow the same tuning process and the Tuning Rule as above. The station’s call sign should automatically be loaded. Once they finish calling, press the ANS button (or function key that presses the ANS key) twice in succession. This will activate the Answer Validate function, which is a very brief transmission - essentially a station ID. The reason for this is that you do not know if there is a two-way channel between your station and the other calling station. After the Answer Validate finishes, listen to see if they call you back. If they are still calling CQ, or are responding to someone else, that means they probably did not hear you (your signal was weaker than the other station answering), You can wait around and try the next time they call CQ, or look around. If there was no response at all, they either decided to call it a day, or didn’t hear you.

Operating at low power on CW takes patience. You are competing with much stronger signals from stations with better antennas, more power, and potentially better atmospheric conditions between themselves and the station of interest. Of course if you have your MMX or DMX connected to a more powerful rig, that should help. However, on a good day, you can still try calling for a while and not get a response. It happens. It is life on ham radio! Part of the learning process is learning patience! I call CQ on my IC 7300 many times and don’t get a response! And that is with 100 watts!


In this article, we have described in detail the difference between CW and Morse Code. Morse Code is a prerequisite to learning CW. PreppComm solves the prerequisite, and helps with learning CW with a number of useful features built into the transceiver, such as the CALL and ANS buttons, the INFO program, micro programming, and more. But to expect it to happen instantly will be met with disappointment.

We also described a process we thing will make learning to operate on CW a little easier to get into, and explained why the same features that make Mores easy also make learning Morse easy.

There’s just one more thing!

Digital Morse? What Is It and Why Is It Better?

Digital Morse is two computers communicating over the air using precise Morse Code at a precise, known speed. Morse Code was the first digital system, but since digital technology did not appear until much later, it was delivered via analog means. Digital is now here. There are many very complex digital systems out there that are very popular, and also very good. So why bother with an "outdated" and "obsolete" code system?

Believe it or not, properly done Digital Morse is nearly as good as the best internet-time controlled digital modes - but without the internet synchronization requirement. What if the internet is not available (you are on a mountain top, or in a national park in the back woods, or there is a major disaster in your area which takes down the internet? The really nice, but very fancy system that requires very accurate clock synchronization cannot be used. Note that using the same type of synchronization can also create Super Digital Morse, but we digress...

Morse is easy to generate, easy to decode (well, OK, not so easy with noise). But we have mostly solved the noise problem, and with Digital Morse, that problem gets much more subdued. Try using CTX mode between two DMX or MMX transceivers: you will find a noticeable  improvement in communications reliability than with HCW mode. PreppComm supports both modes of communication.

The problem with CTX mode is the issue of typing speed and the type-ahead buffer, because CTX is at a fixed speed of 30 WPM, faster than most people can type, and there is no speed control based on your typing speed. We have a fix for that in the works. Moving forward, PreppComm will be improving Digital Morse as well as adding in some basic digital modes such as PSK31, etc. Stay tuned!

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