Monitoring and recording comms in the middle of nowhere!

Voices are all around us. Voices are our way to communicate and our personal way to express our thoughts and feelings. Voice is what we are using daily and in daily lives. Let's make good use of it and try to not only hear a voice but capture it using modern technology. Welcome to my short document of "watching" and listening to radio frequencies out in the range and ways to collect not only what is seen (by taking photos and videos) but as well as what is heard and touches us in an imperceptible way... well, on a first glimpse imperceptible way.

Many years ago, I was impressed with spotters being able to hear how a tower at an airport can talk to a pilot in a plane miles away. I was thinking, "how it is possible to hear each other's conversation from such a great distance using a small antenna and a scanner the size of a human hand?" Well, it led me to start thinking and find out how those spotters taking photos of arriving and departing aircraft are monitoring comms with their scanners. Funny, how they knew the European F-16 is approaching an airport and wants to do a touch-and-go while I was just puzzled seeing the arriving fighter just slightly touching the runway of the airport I was watching. They could prepare to take a pic or two as they were the ones that heard the pilot's intentions on the radio.

To monitor the action with a scanner you need to know some basic things. If you want to become the one who is spotting actively with the scanner in your hand, just sit comfortably and read what I was able to learn and gather by planning my trip(s) to Dreamland.

1. The choice of the scanner

The scanner is your primary thing to get when you want to 'listen to the radio'. There are many different models and your choice is dictated by your own needs. The fact is that if you want to get the best one you need to pay a lot but... do you really need the best possible scanner for amateur spotting? Probably not. I personally chose the Uniden Bearcat BC125AT, which is one of the simplest scanners available on the market. The scanner has 10 banks with 50 programmable channels each, which is quite enough for spotting out in the desert. It doesn't actually include an important tool - recording, but there are ways to get around this, which I will discuss below ;)

2. Choose a scanner that works with your desired frequency range(s)

Each scanner has a range of frequencies it can receive. European scanners have different ranges than the ones built for the US or Canada but if you are a European based interceptor then you can easily choose a US scanner as that one will cover most of European frequency ranges. And you will be able to use it in both worlds.

US dedicated scanners may have, for example, the following ranges:
- 25-54 MHz
- 108-174 MHz
- 225-380 MHz
- 400-512 MHz

While the same scanner's European version will have these frequency ranges:
- 25-88 MHz
- 108-174 MHz
- 225-512 MHz
- 806-960 MHz

As you can see, both versions present different capabilities and European ones works on higher frequencies. But both versions cover the VHF (118-137 MHz) and UHF (225-380 MHz) air band that is used in aviation.

Next thing to keep in mind is different channel spacing ("step") in the US (25 kHz) and in Europe (8.33kHz). Most scanners support both so this is not a strong factor when you need to decide which scanner to buy, but it is worth looking at.

Sometimes you need to adjust the squelch for your current position, if there are strong interfering signals around. Squelch is simply a function to suppress the audio output of a receiver in the absence of a strong input signal. My scanner has a range of 0-15. You need to set the right value to listen to comms but not to static between transmissions. In most cases level 11 worked best for me but you need to experiment to find the best setting depending on your situation.

3. Divide your frequencies in groups

As I mentioned before, my scanner has 10 banks with 50 channels each, 500 channels total. It is definitely enough for amateur spotting in the Nevada desert. You can scan saved frequencies, or you can search new ones by band scanning. It is always better to divide frequencies in banks so you can select what you want to listen to by turning banks off.

For instance, if you are too far from the location. Let's say for example, you are monitoring LAX airport (Los Angeles) and you have frequencies of both LAX and KLAS (Las Vegas) saved in the memory of your scanner. Use Bank 1 just for LAX frequencies and Bank 2 for KLAS only. As you are hundreds of miles away from Vegas, you won't catch a signal from KLAS so to speed up scanning and increase your battery life you can switch Bank 2 off to skip all KLAS frequencies. This is why I recommend separate banks for specific base/airport.

4. Pay attention to battery life

As you are going out to the range and plan to camp you won't have a chance to charge your rechargeable batteries, so bring some extra rechargeable batteries. I took 6 batteries and it was enough for a 4 day trip and scanning freq's almost all the time. It is better to buy rechargeable batteries than any other ones as they last longer and you save money.

5. Antenna

Most scanners are sold with an antenna as a kit. Some people may say the 'standard' antenna will work ok, while others will say that it is better to use an enhanced one. The reality is simple, you need to decide for yourself. I preferred to buy an aftermarket antenna as it seemed to work better. A good antenna will improve the range of the scanner, but if your scanner has a standard one that proves to work well, I wouldn't spend my money on an aftermarket one. Sometimes the simplest method is just the best.

6. Learn your scanner before your trip

During your trip you will have a lot of things to do as there is always something unexpected. That is why I would suggest you learn to use your scanner before you come to the Nevada mountains. Read the manual and make some notes. Or search for an online tutorial - which was my choice, actually. On my way to the States, I just downloaded a particular tutorial that I found interesting and had it saved on my phone, just in case. You may have problems with Internet connection out there, so better to prepare yourself in advance.

7. Recording

Now that you know your scanner well enough, you can use it not only to listen to comms heard over the radio but actually to record them. You can use various devices, from a phone to a PC. But out there at the range you need to minimize your equipment weight and keep it simple. So I would suggest using your smart phone or a dictaphone.

I tried both options. The dictaphone ended up being worse than the phone when it comes to quality of the recording. This is purely based on working with two different model phones and one dictaphone.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is that you need to understand that smart phones have an output sound port, which means they cannot directly record from your scanner. Fortunately the modification for this to work is easy. You just need to make your phone output work as input, and that is exactly what I will explain here. You do not need to modify your phone, but instead just use a couple of small and cheap adapters as shown here: An Adapter Jack 3.5 mm - 2x Jack 3.5 mm(1) and an Adapter Jack 3.5 mm - 2xJack 3.5 mm(2). Connect them to your phone and scanner as shown.

Then use a standard 3.5mm male to male adapter cable (mono or stereo) to connect the port labeled "Plug in your 3.5mm jack here" to the red (or pink) microphone port. Now your phone will "see" your scanner, but it still doesn't mean you will be able to record comms just yet.

To record comms, you will need to have a voice activated app on your phone. If you use Android, you can use Google Play Store to find a particular app that works perfect for me: "VA Recorder". Set it to run automatically when the phone detects sound input. Each communication will have a separate file and your recordings will include only comms and no gaps between them.

The other device I tried - a dictaphone - worked the same but the quality of the recordings was not as good, so I stayed with the phone. Possibly it was just because I chose a low quality device.

One more thing to note: if you want to monitor the comms while recording, you need to plug your headphones in the adapter port labeled "plug in your headphones here" in the picture above. Also, you need to start your app first then turn on your scanner and wait for the app to automatically adjust and then plug in your phone when all previous steps are done.

That's it. Have a nice day monitoring your frequencies and do not forget to run your app in the background!


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