Monitoring Equipment for Beginners

In this modern age we use our phones for everything. They are our computers, our entertainment, our business partners, and sometimes we even talk to people on them. They are great tool that we use daily. With that said there are also some negatives about phones. Number 1 is the tracking aspect of them. We as a society have voluntarily put a tracking device on ourselves. Along with the tracking aspect is the fact that the G collects EVERYTHING you send, share and like… I think its time we take a step away from the phone for certain things. The reason I’m bringing up the phones is because I’m sure someone after reading half of this will tell me their phone does everything I’m recommending which I will agree but remember using a phone is using someone else’s infrastructure and that is a failure point.

So what we are talking about today is monitoring equipment that WE own and posses. I am talking about scanners, shortwave receivers, and SDR dongles that plug into your computer. We use these devices to gather information and possibly entertainment. For all around information gathering you will need at least 2 of these 3. For all around information gathering you will need a digital scanner and the shortwave receiver or SDR dongle. The digital scanner picks up local traffic. The digital scanner will be used 2 to 3 times as much as the shortwave receiver. The shortwave receiver with single side band(SSB) picks up shortwave radio shows, amateur radio traffic, and military traffic. The shortwave radio receiver is used to pick up information nationally and possibly internationally. Let’s take a closer look at all 3 of these receivers. We will start with the cheapest.



From the RTL-SDR website:

What is RTL-SDR?

RTL-SDR is a very cheap ~$25 USB dongle that can be used as a computer based radio scanner for receiving live radio signals in your area (no internet required). Depending on the particular model it could receive frequencies from 500 kHz up to 1.75 GHz. Most software for the RTL-SDR is also community developed, and provided free of charge”


This is the cheapest option of the 3 as long as you have a computer with a USB port. The SDR will listen to local radio traffic along with shortwave traffic. It does SSB also which is where you will find ham radio operators. The main free software for this radio is SDSHARP. There are many others but this is the most popular. There is a quick start guide to installing SDSHARP that I highly recommend using to get the program up and running otherwise you may be pulling your hair out trying to get it going. I will put a link to the program and the quick start guide down below. With a couple additional programs your SDR can listen to radios that are using P25 and DMR. Both of there are digital modes that different radios use. P25 is most common for law enforcement. DMR is common with ham radio operators and businesses. If you have an old analog scanner and cannot hear your local LEO’s anymore its because they went to P25 phase 1 or phase 2. With another program you can monitor air traffic with your SDR. So after looking at the SDR and seeing it will do both what the digital scanner will do and the shortwave receiver will do you are probably asking yourself why not just get the SDR and be done with it?? My number one answer is speed of scanning. My second answer is ease of transport. The SDR is a sit down and scroll through the bands tool. Its slow. The scanner is MUCH faster at getting through the bands and detecting signals. When you are in an unknown area and want to find unknown signals you just can’t beat the digital scanner. Next is ease of transport. The SDR needs a computer with the dongle sticking out the side of it with an antenna connected to it. The digital scanner can be put on a belt and wore under a jacket with earphones run up under the shirt. You can be scanning bands or frequencies while moving around. Let’s jump into digital scanners.

Digital Scanners

First off we need some definitions.

“A scanner (also referred to as a radio scanner) is a radio receiver that can automatically tune, or scan, two or more discrete frequencies, stopping when it finds a signal on one of them and then continuing to scan other frequencies when the initial transmission ceases.”

“Project 25 (P25 or APCO-25) is a suite of standards for interoperable digital two-way radio products. P25 was developed by public safety professionals in North America and has gained acceptance for public safety, security, public service, and commercial applications worldwide.”

“DMR stands for Digital Mobile Radio and is an international standard that has been defined for two-way radios. The DMR standard allows equipment developed by different manufacturers to operate together on the same network for all the functions defined within the standard.

The aim of the DMR standard was to create a digital radio system with low complexity and low cost that still allows for equipment from different manufacturers to work together, allowing users to shop around rather than being locked into a proprietary system which would be costly to replace and maintain.”

Ok enough with the definitions. Most law enforcement uses at least P25 phase one. You need to know this when deciding to purchase a scanner. There are 2 different kinds of scanners. Analog and digital. Analog are very cheap but the reason for that is the groups you mainly want to listen to are not using Analog radios. Knowing this means we want to get a digital scanner. Digital Scanners scan both analog and digital signals so you don’t need a separate scanner for both. In Wyoming the state is still using P25 phase 1 so I can get away with a cheaper digital scanner but if your area is using phase 2 you will need the more expensive scanner. There are two main scanner brands. Uniden and Whistler. They both have similar capabilities. The two I recommend is the Uniden BCD436HP or the Whistler TRX-1. Both are excellent scanners. The Uniden does not come with DMR decoding software standard while the Whistler does. That puts the Whistler 1 step above the Uniden. Both come with and SD card that have most radio frequencies download to it so all you have to do is put in your zip code and you are up and running. They come with software to install on your computer so you can update frequencies anytime there is an update. Both have a playback feature so if you miss a broadcast you can replay it. You will need to select how long you want the scanner recording.

So let’s look and see what we can do with the digital scanners.

First off we can hear what LEO’s are dealing with in the community. We can determine what area most crimes occur. We can hear where ambulance services are going to. We can listen to unencrypted government talk. We can listen to air traffic. We can listen to utility companies. We can listen to traffic workers like snowplow. We can listen to FRS/GMRS/MURS frequencies. We can listen to local Ham radio traffic. Finally we can scan for unknown signals close to us with the signal stalker/close call feature on both of these radios. Signal strength will depend on the antenna and height of the antenna. If we put a better antenna on our scanner and get the antenna 10 ft off the ground we will have way better luck than just using the rubber antenna that comes with the scanner. In my opinion you can’t hardly beat a digital scanner on your belt or in your signal intelligence site.

Shortwave receiver

The Shortwave receiver is used for picking up Shortwave radio shows, HF Ham radio traffic, military HF traffic, weatherfax, international time, and international traffic. When you need to know whats going on on the other side of the US or the world the SW receiver is where its at. Now there are many different receivers out there. When picking a receiver make sure it will do single side band(SSB)! Otherwise you may only get to hear AM frequencies. Ham radio operators use SSB. There is lower side band(LSB and upper side band(USB). Depending on what band they are on will depend on what side band they are using. You will figure that out once you start scanning the bands. 160-40 meters use LSB for voice communication and USB for digital communications. 30-10 meters use USB for both voice and digital communications. No is no rule about using USB where LSB is normally used. This is just the standard operating procedure(SOP) for the bands. Just like the SDR it is slow to go through the frequencies searching for signals on the shortwave receiver. Having a list of known frequencies to tune into next to your receiver will help aid in finding things to listen to. In another post I will put a list of frequencies to check out. I have the Tecsun PL-880 SSB receiver. I’ve had it for well over 4 years. It’s a great receiver. It works well with the standard antenna and even better with a 100ft long wire antenna connected to it. My only complaint is the rechargeable battery in it. I would prefer AA batteries over the rechargeable battery but other than that it have been a great receiver. There are many other receivers out there. Some a lot cheaper and some much more expensive. The main thing to remember is make sure whatever receiver you choose hase SSB capabilities!

I prefer the SW receiver over the SDR just for the ease of transport, ease of setup, and size but for the price difference if I didn’t have either I would go with the SDR.

All of these are great tool for your information gathering. The main thing to remember you need to be able to gathering information locally and national. Whatever you decide is your choice. Just get you tools together and get monitoring!! Experience is the best teacher.


5 thoughts on “Monitoring Equipment for Beginners

  1. Solid info and very helpful. We have been running a UV-5R programmed as a scanner during team drills but stepping up that capability to include digital / p25 seems prudent. The biggest concern after doing some preliminary research seems to be battery life. What are you getting with the Whistler?


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