For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re talking about reverse engineering the Digital Compact Cassette. Why should we care about an obsolete format that was only on the market for four years? Because if a copy of the Spin Doctor’s Pocket Full of Kryptonite costs $50 USD on the used market, it has to be good.
In the early 1990s, several different digital magnetic tape formats came onto the scene. The MiniDisc was magneto-optical, yes, but back in the day it was amazing for recording bootlegs. DAT also appeared in the early 90s, and it was a godsend for recording studios. There was another format introduced in 1992, the Digital Compact Cassette. It was backward compatible with standard audio cassettes, an important feature, because no one would want to replace their entire cassette-based music collection with a new-fangled digital format. That would be just lunacy.
Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be [Jac Goudsmit], prolific creator on Hackaday.io, with projects ranging from the L-Star Software Defined 6502 Computer to a GPS Controlled FischerTechnik Clock. [Jac] grew up on a PET 2001, and in the years since he’s worked on projects ranging from motion control systems for lithography equipment, pick and place machines, and even at a Radio Shack. In this Hack Chat, he’ll be discussing the history of the Digital Compact Cassette, the behind the scenes on how stereo PCM is recorded to tape, and other topics like the difference between CS/EE careers in the Netherlands and the USA.
Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. Our Hack Chats usually happen on Fridays at Noon, so buckle up because this is going down Friday, December 1, at 12:00 PST. What time is that where you live? Who cares! Here’s a time zone converter!
Click that speech bubble to the left, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.
You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
The audio cassette is an audio format that presented a variety of engineering challenges during its tenure. One of the biggest at the time was that listeners had to physically remove the cassette and flip it over to listen to the full recording. Over the years, manufacturers developed a variety of “auto-reverse” systems that allowed a cassette deck to play a full tape without user intervention. This video covers how Akai did it – the hard way.
Towards the end of the cassette era, most manufacturers had decided on a relatively simple system of having the head assembly rotate while reversing the motor direction. Many years prior to this, however, Akai’s system involved a shuttle which carried the tape up to a rotating arm that flipped the cassette, before shuttling it back down and reinserting it into the deck.
Even a regular cassette player has an astounding level of complexity using simple electromechanical components — the humble cassette precedes the widespread introduction of integrated circuits, so things were done with motors, cams, levers, and switches instead. This device takes it to another level, and [Techmoan] does a great job of showing it in close-up detail. This is certainly a formidable design from an era that’s beginning to fade into history.
The video (found after the break) also does a great job of showing glimpses of other creative auto-reverse solutions — including one from Phillips that appears to rely on bouncing tapes through something vaguely resembling a playground slide. We’d love to see that one in action, too.
One thing you should never do with a cassette deck like this is use it with a cassette audio adapter like this one.
Continue reading “The Hard Way of Cassette Tape Auto-Reverse”
If you are of the generation who were lucky enough to use the first 8-bit home computers in your youth, you will be familiar with their use of cassette tapes as mass storage. Serial data would be converted to a sequence of tones which could then be recorded using a standard domestic cassette recorder, this recording could then be played back into the machine’s decoder and loaded into memory as a complete piece of software. Larger programs could take a while to load, but though it was rather clunky it was a masterful piece of making the best of what was at hand.
[Mike Kohn] was working with some microcontroller infra-red communication projects when he saw that the same techniques could be used to produce a tape interface like those on the home computers of old.
Over the years he has returned to the project a couple of times, and his original Atmel processor has been supplanted by a W65C265SXB development board based on the 16-bit derivative of the 6502. This made generating the tones as straightforward using his processor’s built-in tone generator, but decoding still presented a challenge. His earlier attempts used an LM2917 frequency to voltage converter to decode tones to logic levels, but on further consideration he decided to move to the LM567 tone decoder. This chip is designed specifically for an on-off logic output rather than the 2917’s analogue voltage output.
His recording device was originally a hi-fi separate cassette deck after experimenting with microcassettes, but eventually he used a data recorder designed for a Radio Shack TRS-80. All his code can be found in his GitHub repository.
It’s probably true to say that [Mike] has made a better cassette interface than the one you could have found on your home computer back in the day. We’ve featured a few data cassette hacks over the years, including this Commodore tape deck with an LED counter, and a tape deck emulator capable of holding an entire software archive.
[Scott Campbell] built a cassette-based synthesizer that sounds exactly like everything you’ve heard before. The sound generation comes straight off cassettes, but the brainbox of this synth varies the volume and pitch. It’s called the Onde Magnetique, and it is what you would get if you combined a Mellotron and Ondes Martenot.
The key component for the Onde Magnetique is a Sony cassette recorder that conveniently and inexplicably comes with a ‘tape speed input’ mini jack. By varying the voltage sent to this input jack, the speed of the tape, and thus the pitch of the sound being played, is changed. Build a box with a touch-sensitive button for volume, and a few tact switches for different speeds, and you have an electromechanical bastard child of a Mellotron and an Ondes Martenot.
By itself, the Onde Magnetique produces no sound – it only controls the pitch and volume of whatever is on the cassette. [Scott] produced a few single-note cassettes for his instrument, with ‘voice patches’ including a flute, choir, and a synth. With the CV and Gate input, these sounds can be sequenced with outboard gear, producing the wonderful sounds heard in the video after the break.
Continue reading “Onde Magnetique Will Wow And Flutter Your Ears”
A good hacker hates to throw away electronics. We think [Matt Gruskin] must be a good hacker because where a regular guy would see a junky old 1980’s vintage Fisher Price cassette player, [Matt] saw a retro stylish Bluetooth speaker. His hack took equal parts of electronics and mechanics. It even required some custom 3D printing.
You might think converting a piece of old tech to Bluetooth would be a major technical challenge, but thanks to the availability of highly integrated modules, the electronics worked out to be fairly straightforward. [Matt] selected an off the shelf Bluetooth module and another ready-to-go audio amplifier board. He built a custom board to convert the stereo output to mono and hold the rotary encoder he used for the volume control. An Arduino (what else?) reads the encoder and also provides 3.3V to some of the other electronics.
The really interesting part of the hack is the mechanics. [Matt] managed to modify the existing mechanical buttons to drive the electronics using wire and hot glue. He also added a hidden power switch that doesn’t change the device’s vintage look. Speaking of mechanics, there’s also a custom 3D printed PCB holder allowing for the new board to fit in the original holder. This allows [Matt] to keep the volume control in its original location
Continue reading “Fisher Price Bluetooth Speaker Hack”
Long before audio engineers had fancy digital delays, or even crappy analog delays, there were tape delays. Running a tape around in a loop with a record and play head is the basis of the Echoplex and Space Echo, and both of these machines are incredible pieces of engineering.
Microcassette recorders are not, in general, incredible pieces of engineering. They do, however, have a strip of magnetic tape, a record head, and a play head. Put two of them together, and you can build your own tape delay.
The basic principle of a tape delay is simple enough – just run a loop of tape round in a circle, through a record and playback head, record some audio, and send the output to an amplifier. In practice, it’s not that simple. [dogenigt] had to manufacture his own tape loop from microcassettes, a process that took far too long and was far too finicky.
For a control circuit, [dogenigt] is using four audio pots and one linear pot for speed control. The audio pots are responsible for input gain, feedback, the amplitude of the clean signal, and the output of the signal after it’s been run through the delay.
Apart from being one of those builds that’s very dependent on the mechanical skill of the builder, it’s a pretty simple delay unit, with all the electronics already designed for a stripboard layout. You can hear an example of what it sounds like below.
Continue reading “Microcassette Recorders Become A Tape Delay”
Way back in the previous century, people used to use magnetized strips of tape to play music. It might be hard to believe in today’s digital world, but these “cassette” tapes were once all the rage. [Steve] aka [pinter75] recently found a Bang & Olufsen stereo with this exact type of antequated audio playback device, and decided to upgrade it with something a little more modern.
Once the unit arrived from eBay and got an electronic tune-up, [pinter75] grabbed a Galaxy S3 out of his parts drawer and got to work installing it in the old cassette deck location. He used a laser cutter to make a faceplate for the phone so it could be easily installed (and removed if he decides to put the tape deck back in the future).
The next step was wiring up power and soldering the audio output directly to the AUX pins on the stereo. Once everything was buttoned up [pinter75] found that everything worked perfectly, and mounted the stereo prominently on his wall. It’s always great when equipment like this is upgraded and repaired rather than thrown out.