Where can I find information about the digital modes and how to get started on them? I would like a concise yet easy to understand tutorial.
With a quick search I found several documents where you can get information about using FT8:
- Getting Started on FT8 — ARRL-hosted powerpoint
- FT8 operating guide — PDF with setup and tips, hosted by the inventor of the mode
- Setting up FT8 — a blog post that looks helpful
For a bit more background:
Typical equipment usage
In recent history, hams generally use one or two additional pieces of equipment between their personal computer and transceiver:
- something to get audio data in/out of the radio. The SignalLink and RigBlaster products are two commercial offerings, or its possible with a little care to simply wire the up the audio input/output from a cheap USB sound card dongle to a traditional transceiver.
- [optional] a "CAT" (computer aided tuning) interface, which will be some sort of rig-specific cable and serial interface that can typically read and change the VFO settings, and trigger the PTT circuitry under the control of software running on the personal computer. This is not strictly necessary, as one could tune by hand and use either VOX or manual intervention, but recommended if you intend to do more than dabble.
These work together as follows: the radio is set to Upper Side Band mode and tuned below the frequency where digital QSO's are happening. By ear you would typically hear fast little "tunes" which vary depending on the digital mode, but now these are being fed into the sound card input of the PC instead. You run an application that "records" [or listens to…] these sounds and processes them. This application also can generate the same sort of signals and "play" them back to the radio in place of the normal microphone input.
An SDR like the Multus kit or the FlexRadio gear really just takes the above combination further — instead of dealing with a 3-kHz band of audio-frequency data, they let you process a whole 96kHz or wider swatch of baseband signal around their built-in digitally-controlled VFO. This usually means a single USB cable can do all the work, without the SignalLink and CAT adapters.
(Unfortunately, most digital mode ham apps were built in the PC era and before the rise of SDR. In practice, using an SDR with ham software ends up being an exercise in simulating a vintage rig with "virtual serial cables" and "virtual audio cables" to emulate the rig control and 3kHz filtering and such … hopefully I don't sound too bitter ;-)
FT8 is just one "digital mode" option among many. AFAICT, the main [and perhaps only?] implementation right now is found in the WSJT-X application for Windows/Linux/macOS.