Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Handiham World for 15 October 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Under Pat's Hat

Under Pat's Hat - WA0TDA wearing two straw hats.

What's under Pat's hat today? How about: Sound off!

No, this isn't what you think it is -- it's not an editorial of some kind where I am sounding off about some contentious ham radio issue. It is about sound, specifically computer sound. Let me elaborate.

One of the things computer manufacturers and operating system designers have decided to do for us, the hapless users, is to provide us with all sorts of ways our computer systems can let us know that things are happening. I happen to run Windows Vista, but it could be some other operating system and most of the things that I say in this article will still apply. Virtually every computer made these days, unless it is for some highly specific esoteric use, has a built-in sound system. Software engineers have decided that it would be wonderful to use this sound system as a notification whenever the computer completes a specific task, such as receiving an e-mail message. In the Windows operating system "sound schemes" are a built-in feature but can be customized by the user. If, for example, I wanted the computer to make a pleasant chiming sound whenever an e-mail message came in, I could choose that feature in the sound scheme settings and henceforth every time a message came in, the chime would sound. On my computer, since I can see the screen and do not have to use screen reading software, there is also a visual notification in the system tray when an e-mail message comes in. It's a tiny little envelope. Aw, how cute!

If I want a custom sound, I can either find it somewhere on the Internet or even record my own wave file. I simply open the sound schemes settings and browse to the file I have created, which could be music or spoken word or even a synthesized sound. After that, the sound would signal me whenever the computer did whatever event triggered it.

Now, here's the thing with sound schemes. Turn them off. No, seriously, I mean it.

Unless you really have a need for your computer to signal you with specific sounds, you may find that having your computer make all of these audible signals is more trouble than it's worth. One of the things that I do with my computer is to record audio. If I am recording an audio lecture, the last thing I need is for an e-mail message to come in and have the computer alert me with a sound that interferes with my recording session. But wait, folks... that's not all! Suppose you are an amateur radio operator, using your sound card for some amateur radio purpose, such as EchoLink audio. You are talking with another station and an e-mail arrives at your computer. Ding-ding. You've got Mail. And now the other station to whom you're talking and anyone else connected to that EchoLink node also knows that you have mail. Even worse, if your computer is set to play a musical passage when the e-mail arrives, you would be transmitting music in violation of FCC rules.

Some amateur radio operators have solved this problem by having dedicated ham shack computers that only operate digital modes or EchoLink or do signal processing or what ever it is that needs to be done in the ham shack without interference from other computer duties, such as receiving e-mail. Most of us, however, ask our computers to multitask. The same computer will be used for creating documents, printing the family photos, sending and receiving e-mail, listening to streaming Internet radio, viewing online video, playing music, and yes, ham radio applications. It has become easier than ever to get confused by these multiple applications and send out unwanted audio on the air. What to do?

If you can't set up a dedicated ham shack application computer, it is possible to still tame your sound system and keep unwanted audio off the airwaves. Here are three basics that will save you some aggravation and embarrassment:

1. Go into the Windows control panel, locate the sound schemes, and select the "no sounds" option. Your computer will still be able to produce sound if you want to play a CD in it, listen to a streaming radio station, or listen to an MP3 file. The only thing that happens when you turn off the sounds in the sound scheme settings is that you won't get audible alerts when something happens, such as an e-mail message delivery. This will help you to keep these unexpected noises out of your EchoLink transmissions.

2. Consider purchasing a USB microphone headset. These handy devices can be used to bypass the sound card altogether, and you can set up EchoLink to prefer the USB headset over the sound card, keeping those other unwanted sounds completely confined to the sound card. This can be especially useful when the computer is used by a number of different family members for different purposes.

3. When it is time to operate EchoLink or digital modes with your computer, shut down other applications that may also call for the use of the sound card. That way, you will avoid conflicts and keep unwanted audio off the air.

How does it work? Well, it works great for me in my ham shack, where I have a dedicated ham radio computer that can run an EchoLink node at the same time that I am using a USB headset to communicate via Skype and the Handiham remote base station. If I wanted to, I could also watch a television program on the same computer, since the TV sound is hardware-specific to the PCI TV receiver card. Good grief! How much sound do I need? I guess the correct answer to that question is “just about as much as I need to get the job done", because I could be conceivably using all three of those sound systems on a single computer with no interference between any of them if my EchoLink node were running and at the same time I was checked into an HF net using the remote base while at the same time watching the television feed of the National Weather Service radar. Don't laugh; it could happen!

For your Handiham World, I'm...

Pat Tice