Books You Should Read: Bil Herd’s Back Into The Storm

It’s a morning ritual that we guess most of you share with us; before whatever work a new day will bring to sit down with a coffee and catch up with the tech news of the moment on Hackaday and other sites. Most of us don’t do many exciting things in our everyday lives, so reading about the coolest projects and the most fascinating new developments provides us with interest and motivation. Imagine just for a moment then that by a twist of fate you found yourself taking a job at the epicentre of the tech that is changing the world,  producing the objects of desire and pushing the boundaries, the place you’d give anything to work at.

This is the premise behind our Hackaday colleague Bil Herd’s autobiographical chronicle of time in the mid 1980s during which he worked at Commodore, maker of some of the most iconic home computers of the day. We follow him through the three years from 1983 to 1986 as hardware lead on the “TED” series of computers including the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, and then the Commodore 128, a dual-processor powerhouse which was arguably the last of the big-selling 8-bit home computers.

It’s an intertwined set of narratives peppered with personal anecdotes; of the slightly crazy high-pressure world of consumer videogames and computing, the fine details of designing a range of 8-bit machines, and a fascinating insight into how the culture at Commodore changed in the period following the departure of its founder Jack Tramiel.

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Restoring A Dead Commodore 128DCR

Another day, another retro computer lovingly restored to like-new condition by [Drygol]. This time, the subject of his attention is a Commodore 128DCR that earned every bit of the “For Parts, Not Working” condition it was listed under. From a spider infestation to a cracked power supply PCB, this computer was in quite a state. But in the end he got the three decade old machine back in working condition and even managed to teach it a few new tricks along the way.

Obviously the shattered PSU was the most pressing issue with the Commodore. Interestingly, the machine still had its warranty seal in place on the back, so whatever happened to this PSU seems to have occurred without human intervention.

Rather than just replacing the PSU, [Drygol] first pieced the board back together with the help of cyanoacrylate glue, and then coated the top with an epoxy resin to give it some mechanical strength. On the back side the traces were either repaired or replaced entirely with jumper wires where the damage was too severe.

With the PSU repaired and tested, he moved on to cleaning the computer’s main board and whitening all the plastic external components. Even the individual keycaps took a bath to get them looking like new again. This put the computer in about as close to like-new condition as it could get.

But why stop there? He next installed the JiffyDOS modification to improve system performance, and wired in an adapter that lets the computer output a crisp 80 columns over S-Video. It’s safe to say this particular Commodore is in better shape now than it was when it rolled off the assembly line.

While an impressive enough final result, this is still fairly tame for [Drygol]. If you want to see a real challenge, take a look at the insane amount of work that went into recreating this smashed Atari 800XL case.

How Many Commodores Does It Take To Crack A Nut?

It’s brilliant enough when composers make use of the “2SID” technique to double the channels in a Commodore 64 with two sound chips, but even then some people like to kick things up a notch. Say, five times more. [David Youd], [David Knapp] and [Joeri van Haren] worked together to bring us just that, ten Commodore computers synchronously playing a beautiful rendition of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at this year’s Commodore Retro eXpo.

The feat is composed of nine Commodore 64 computers and one Commodore 128, all fitted with the SID chip. It is a notorious synthesizer chip for utilizing both analog and digital circuitry, making each and every one of its revisions unique to a trained ear, not to mention impossible to faithfully reproduce in emulation. The SID was designed by Bob Yannes at MOS Technology, who later went on to co-found Ensoniq with his experience in making digital synthesizers.

How this orchestra of retro computers came to be, including details on how everything is pieced together can be found on this slideshow prepared by the authors of the exhibition. It’s interesting to note that because of timing differences in each computer’s crystal clock and how only the start of the song is synchronized between them, they can’t play long music tracks accurately yet, but a 90-second piece works just fine for this demonstration.

These synthesizer chips are slowly going extinct since they’re no longer being manufactured, so if you need a new replacement solution, FPGAs can fill that SID-shaped hole in your heart. If you need the whole computer though, the newer Teensy 3.6 will do just fine emulating it all. Check out this beast of a display in action after the break. While we’re at it, this isn’t the only time multiple 8-bit computers have been combined as an orchestra, though these Commodores sound a lot better than a table full of ZX Spectrums.

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A Quite Obscure C128 Video Mode Hack

30 years ago, [Dave] found himself up a C128D creek without a paddle. His main monitor was on the fritz, and he needed to use his C128D in 40-column mode to run old C64 programs for development purposes. Normally this is only possible through the low quality composite out, but no composite monitor was available. Needs must, so he got to coding a workaround that would allow the C128D to output in 40 column mode through the higher-quality RGBI output. 

It’s a proper old-school hack in the spirit of the 8-bit era. The C64 ROM is copied into RAM, where it’s then modified to instead update a 40-column image that’s sent to the RGBI display hardware. The original C64 character ROM is also copied over to ensure everything displays correctly.

It’s not bulletproof, and a few pokes to the wrong memory locations have a high likelihood of crashing the system, seeing as the ROM is now in RAM. However, it does allow the user to enable FAST mode and use all the C128 extended keys. [Dave] recommends experimenting in an emulator first, lest you scare your vintage monitor with angry signals it can’t understand.

The C128 was Commdore’s last 8-bit computer on the market, and there’s a heck of a story behind its creation.