It has been a long time since we stored software and computer data on audiotape. But it used to be the de facto standard for hobby computers and [Noel] has a great video about the Amstrad’s system (embedded below) which was pretty typical and how the process could be sped up since today, you have perfect audio reproduction, especially compared to consumer-grade audiotape.
The cassette tapes suffered from several problems. The tape had an inherently low bandwidth, there was quite a bit of noise present from the analog circuitry and heads, and the transport speed wasn’t necessarily constant. However, you can easily digitally synthesize relatively noise-free sound at high fidelity and rock-solid frequency. So basically a microcontroller, like an Arduino, can look like an extremely high-quality tape drive.
My DEF CON Safe Mode badge just arrived in the mail this afternoon. The Vegas-based conference which normally hosts around 30,000 attendees every year has moved online in response to the global pandemic, and the virtual event spins up August 6-9. Known for creative badges, North America’s most well-known infosec con has a tick-tock cycle that alternates electronic and non-electronic badges from year to year. During this off-year, the badge is an obscure deprecated media: the audio cassette.
This choice harkens back to the DEF CON 23 badge which was an vinyl record — I have the same problem I did back in 2015… I lack access to playback this archaic medium. Luckily [Grifter] pointed everyone to a dump of the audio contents over at Internet Archive, although knowing how competitive the badge hacking for DEF CON is, I’m skeptical about the reliability of these files. Your best bet is to pull the dust cover off your ’88 Camry and let your own cassette roll in the tape deck. I also wonder if there are different versions of the tape.
But enough speculation, let’s look at what physically comes with the DEF CON 28 badge.
A lot of projects we feature use video in some form or other, but that video is invariably digital, it exists as a stream of numbers in a computer memory or storage, and is often compressed. For some of us who grew up working with composite video there is a slight regret that we rarely get up-close and personal with an analogue stream, so [Kris Slyka]’s project putting video on a conventional audio cassette is a rare opportunity. (Video, embedded below.)
Readers with long memories may recall the Fisher-Price PixelVision toy from the late 1980s which recorded black-and-white video on a conventional cassette running at many times normal speed. This system does not take that tack, instead it decreases resolution and frame rate to a point at which it can be recorded at conventional cassette speeds. The result is not particularly high quality, but with luminance on one side of a stereo recording and chrominance on the other it does work.
The video below the break is a run through the system, with an explanation of how video signals work. Meanwhile the code for both encoder and decoder are available through the magic of GitHub. If you’re interested further, take a look at our examination of a video waveform.
After freeing the tape mechanism from the original enclosure and extraneous electronics like the AM/FM tuner, [Igor] got to work designing a retro styled enclosure for the hardware which would show off the complex electromechanical bits which would traditionally be hidden. With the addition of a clever 3D printed holder, he was even able to add microswitches under the original player’s buttons so he could detect the player’s current state without having to modify the electronics. This lets the finished player change the color of the RGB LEDs based on what it’s currently doing.
[Igor] came up with a very clever way of integrating light-up icons into the case by placing bright LEDs behind specially crafted thin sections of the print. It looked awesome in his tests, but after the considerable sanding, priming, and painting it took to turn the 3D printed parts into a production-quality enclosure, the LEDs are no longer visible on the final product. Even though they didn’t work in this particular case, we think it’s a brilliant technique worthy of stealing further research.
The detail that [Igor] but into this build is phenomenal. Seeing all the individual components he had to design and print to make the final product come together is really nothing short of inspirational. Projects like these are where 3D printing really shines, as trying to replicate this build with traditional manufacturing techniques would be an absolute nightmare.
You should probably hope you haven’t seen [Techmoan’s] cassette recorder before. That’s because it is a Neal interview recorder that was mainly used by police to tape interrogations. This one was apparently used by the Royal Navy and was sold for parts. Turns out, the repair was simple, but the teardown and the analysis of the machine — you can see it in the video below — is pretty interesting if you’ve never seen one of these before.
The unit looks like a heavy-duty piece of industrial electronics from the 1980s. Unlike a commercial tape deck, this one is made to do one thing: record. You can’t even rewind a tape in it. Also unlike a consumer recorder, the Neal has a few special features aimed at making sure you didn’t miss some important confession on tape. First, it beeps if there’s no microphone plugged in. When [Techmoan] showed the recording head, we noticed it looked like it was split in half. Towards the end of the video, we found out why. In addition, the unit records two tracks: one audio track and another with a voice reading the elapsed time every 10 seconds — pretty high tech for its day.
As we’ve said many times here on Hackaday, it’s not our place to question why people make the things they make. There’s a legitimate need or utility for many of the projects we cover, no doubt about it. But there’s also a large number of them which are so convoluted that they border on absurd. Not that we love the crazy ones any less, in fact, we usually like those the best.
So when we saw this incredible modification to a Panasonic RN-404 microcassette recorder which replaces the audio hardware with a custom built vacuum tube amplifier, we didn’t bother asking what the point was. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make the most impractical method for recording and playing back audio, or maybe it was just to see if it was possible. No matter why it was done, it’s here now and it’s absolutely glorious.
If the look of the hardware didn’t tip you off that this project makes use of old Soviet-era components, the video after the break certainly will. Specifically, it’s using 1ZH25R and 1S38A tubes which were originally intended for military use. Just like all cool old Soviet tech was. Say what you will about the Cold War, it certainly got the engineering juices flowing.
There’s quite a bit of information about how these ancient tubes were brought back to life by way of this gorgeous home-etched PCB. Suffice to say, working with tubes is an art to begin with, but working with such small and unique ones is on a whole new level.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen some tiny tubes make their way into a piece of consumer audio equipment, but this one certainly takes the top spot in terms of professional final results.
[Blaine Murphy] has set out to store an archive of visual art on cassette tape. To do so he encodes images via Slow-Scan Television (SSTV), an analogue technology from the late 50s which encodes images in for radio transmission. If you are thinking ‘space race’ you are spot on, the first images of the far side of the moon reached us via SSTV and were transmitted by the soviet Luna 3 spacecraft.
Encoding images with 5os technology is only one part of this ongoing project. Storage and playback are handled by a 90s tape deck and the display unit is a contemporary Android phone. Combining several generations in one build comes with its own set of challenges, such as getting a working audio connection between the phone and the tape deck or repairing old consumer electronics. His project logs on this topic are solid contenders for ‘Fail Of The Week’ posts. For instance, making his own belts for the cassette deck was fascinating but a dead end.
The technological breadth of the project makes it more interesting with every turn. Set some time aside this weekend for an entertaining read.