Experienced CW Ops - Question on Copying CW

Discussion in 'Working Different Modes' started by K1DNR, Sep 3, 2010.

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  1. K1DNR

    K1DNR Ham Member QRZ Page

    I started with CW as a novice when I was 12. I've just gotten back into ham radio after many years away. I really enjoy CW and I'm pretty comfortable right around 20 wpm.

    My question is this - styles of sending code seem to vary widely. I can copy some operators with ease at 25 wpm, while other operators I have a very hard time.

    Some operators seem to leave almost no space between words, or even letters and it seems to all run together. Or, rather than a 1:3 ratio of dits and dahs, its more like 1:2 or 1:4

    I know some of these operators are old timers and have been using CW almost exclusively for years - but for me, its almost like trying to understand someone with a heavy accent. I try to copy in my head, and just take notes - but without a marked space between words, I get "lost". One guy was a CW operator in WW II. I can't fault his style - its just hard for me to copy it.

    Maybe I know the answer is "practice, practice..." But I'm just wondering what some of you think... I can follow some senders up into the 30wpm range when their code is very even and well spaced.

    I'd like to hear from some old timers and get some tips on improving my ability to copy a wider range of "styles"...


    Charley AE2CS
  2. K7JBQ

    K7JBQ Moderator Volunteer Moderator QRZ Page


    As I suspect you already know, the only possible answer is, "practice, practice, practice."

    Some guys are always going to run everything together and, when you're trying to hear "words" instead of characters, this is always going to be a PITA.

    All you can do is muddle through.

  3. WA4OTD

    WA4OTD Ham Member QRZ Page

    I think there are a lot more people running on words now. There are a lot more abbreviations than 30 years ago also!

    Writing everything down helped me get to where I don't need to write anything down!
  4. KE5FRF

    KE5FRF Ham Member QRZ Page

    I'm not an "old timer", but I'm a "serious" CW guy. I regularly work other ops beyond 25 WPM, so I think I can offer some advice.

    I absolutely know what you mean about spacing. It is critical. The most important spacing is between words...I can handle a little lack of spacing between characters, it is the lack of space between words that kills a QSO.

    Do you head copy? If you say you can copy 25 wpm, then chances are you do. Head copying comes in stages. First, you learn to recognize each character and you head copy by spelling the words out on a "chalkboard" in your mind. The next "step" in learning to head copy is recognizing common letter combinations..."TH, LL, SS, AN, ES, CK, AT" etc..... Eventually, you don't need to copy the characters, or even the combinations...you actually copy the entire word as a whole, just as when you read a sentence, you have the ability to see each word as a whole and not read it letter to letter. For instance, I bet when you read my next WORD <the word WORD> You probably instantly recognized it. In code, short words, common words, pronouns, etc that you hear repetitively will be "instant recognition" for you.

    Then, at some point entire phrases become second nature. "OP HERE IS" as an example. I've heard that so many times, that I'm already anticipating the name by the time he sends "op". And just like the instant recognition of words, at higher speeds coming at you pretty fast, the entire phrase just rolls out at you. I think the really fast QRQ guys who hone the 50, 60 wpm skillset are actually hearing the ENTIRE SENTENCE just as a speed reader does.

    The one problem with this "theory" is that the human mind is like a computer with a parallel and serial port. We can process written text like a parallel port, an entire sentence can be analyzed at a glance, we can almost read something upside down and backwards in this manner.

    But CW is a serial stream of data. We aren't truly "reading" CW in the same manner as we read text. To be able to copy and entire sentence instantly requires the skill of "copying behind"...Where the serial stream gets stored in a que in your mind before it is even understood. I think the 60 wpm guys are letting a sentence come out and "hang there" in their short term memory banks, and then they instantly retrieve the que and clear it for the next string.

    OK, so the point of all this is, when you get to the point that you are head copying words, the spacing within each word, between letters, becomes less critical. Most of us still require the space BETWEEN WORDS, I know I do, but even this becomes less of an issue at higher speeds, because of that copying behind skill. I consider myself to be a 35-40 WPM op. At that speed, your brain manages to seperate the words on its own, because of the context of the QSO.

    If you are having trouble, work on developing that mental que, work on head copying, and clear your mind of all distractions and clutter.

    There will always be fists that you'll be "glad" to end the QSO with. As long as you get the name, qth, and signal report, if you are like me, you will move on to the next one and just log the contact.
  5. K1DNR

    K1DNR Ham Member QRZ Page

    Yes, I'm definitely recognizing smaller words and abbreviations. I do much better copying in my head and taking an occasional note than copying every character - what's funny is that with some of those "accented" styles, I hear it and I know it is familiar but it doesn't "click" the same way it does with someone sending more evenly, or better spaced code. I used to write everything down. I find now I hear the letters much faster than I can write them - I have a great deal of trouble writing things down when it gets to 25wpm. I've been working with the G4FON program, where you are supposed to write it down and I just can't do it... At least not at the speeds I'm trying to learn...

    Should I be able to hard copy 30 or 35wpm? I've tried typing and hand writing but I always do better if I just close my eyes and let my ears do the work. By the time my brain tells my finger to type "J", I'm two letters behind... Maybe that's a ticket to building that buffer. The other problem with software that sends random characters is that are no patterns... So you don't really develop that recognition... although I suppose it does help reduce the user think time per character. Maybe I should write a code teaching program that uses dictionary words, randomly, vs random characters. Or, a program that uses an adjustable Farnsworth spacing. Send the words at 50 wpm, but space them at 25 wpm, then 30, etc...

    I think you are correct - and continued practice and building up that buffer will definitely help...

    I can tune across the lower end of 40 meters, and with many stations the words almost float right in front of me and its effortless. With other senders there is an extra "step" I have to decode! The time that's lost in that "decode" step is where it falls apart for me. I guess the point is that I CAN copy it, but I have to think a little harder and that is what sets me back. I really see this as *my* problem since they are sending readable code... If that buffer were a little larger, and my response time to characters a little faster it wouldn't matter that the patterns and words are lost in the lack of space, or the unusual lop-sided "accent" of certain fists. I had a yl once who spoke fluent French, but with an American accent. I could understand her. I can't understand a lick of Parisian French, Canadian French is easier as well... its the same difference I think... and if my French were really good, I could understand anybody.

    Thanks - that was actually helpful and encouraging! I'd love to get up to that 50wpm mark some day. I listen to some of those guys and its so effortless. Its really a thing of beauty.
  6. AB2T

    AB2T Ham Member QRZ Page

    It's strange -- I have to take the 5 wpm again (this time in Canada). I failed the Novice code the first time. I hope that I have better luck this time!

    I've actually had to sit down and practice writing each letter by hand to sync my brain into really slow code. The military is quite correct; a mill is much much easier and faster. Still, I was never allowed to lug a typewriter into the ham exams!

    Send as slow as you have to. I can't send legible code any faster than 15 wpm (comfortably) -- 20 wpm (max) on paddles. I can listen at higher rates, but my hands just don't work that fast. Doesn't stop me from enjoying CW.

    I think that a person who sends slowly but legibly and reliably will do better than a person who tries to send fast but can't do it well. If the fastest a person can do is 5 wpm, that's great. Also, I don't think there's shame in using a keyboard if one struggles with a bug or paddles but can send legibly at a higher rate with help. There are hams that are prejudiced against this last point ("keyboards aren't real CW", "it's cheating", "you might not decode by ear" etc.) The art of listening is just as much of a challenge as sending.

    Besides, has anyone tried to use a CW decoder? It's a lot easier to use the organic decoder that's pre-programmed into H. sapiens sapiens rather than read garbage on a screen.

    73, Jordan
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2010
  7. K3STX

    K3STX Ham Member QRZ Page

    What AE2CS is talking about is that fists have significantly DETERIORATED since he was last in Ham radio and he has trouble copying these lousy fists. And the advice to him is that he has to "practice" more to get able to copy these lousy fists. I think such advice misses the point.

    I think he is correct in his assessment of the state of Morse code. With "practice" you will indeed become better able to understand these "accents". The "accents" are from people learning Morse using these stupid techniques these days (Farnesword, Koch, and others) where they intentionally screw-up the spacing when the code is sent (like 25 wpm letters with 5 wpm spacing). And then the ops who LEARNED this way don't know how to send code properly.

    The only time you should need a pencil and paper is for Morse sent really slow, like 5 wpm. At that speed a word like "dictionary" takes 20 seconds. For everything else just head copy, use paper for notes (his name, rig, QTH, etc..). The faster you go (30wpm+) the easier it is.

    If you can copy well-sent code at 20 wpm you are fine. Don't beat yourself up for not being able to copy lousy 13 wpm code.

  8. AB2T

    AB2T Ham Member QRZ Page

    I completely agree that spacing methods for CW speed building have had a negative effect on fists. From what I remember even that the VE era ham exams were in Farnsworth (except the Extra, which was normal speed, normal spacing.) So hams can be forgiven by thinking that Farnsworth is standard or even desirable. After all, it was on the exam!

    As for hams that got their licenses after restructuring: perhaps the emulation of Farnsworth on the air is an old practice with a cumulative bad effect on fists. (???)

    73, Jordan
  9. KI6J

    KI6J Ham Member QRZ Page

    It's just like a cocktail party. There's a guy who mumbles, a guy with a speech impediment, and a guy with an accent from nowhere on this planet. You lean forward a little, listen harder, and hope the conversation is worth the effort. Don't forget to nod in agreement a few times.
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2010
  10. K7RQ

    K7RQ Subscriber QRZ Page

    As more and more of these old-timers with fist impediments get new rigs with built-in keyers, the situation may get better.
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