Commodore Floppy Drive Fixing Chaos

One of the best parts of retrocomputing is that you can obtain so many broken systems and peripherals for repairing and other assorted fun. This was the wholesome activity that [Drygol] embarked on recently with a gaggle of Commodore floppy disk drives that he obtained, involving a lot of cleaning, soldering, calibrating and other assorted entertainment. This follows cold on the heels of an earlier repair session of a stash of Commodore 1541 FDDs.

Testing Commodore FDD head alignment using the 1541 diagnostic cartridge.
Testing Commodore FDD head alignment using the 1541 diagnostic cartridge.

As with any such devices, the first thing to do is to clean the heck out of them, to remove forty-odd years of dust and other debris, followed by testing of functionality, replacing dead ICs and the usual round of (electrolytic) capacitor replacement. Retrobrighting gives it that fresh-out-of-packaging look, which leaves just the calibrating of these drives. This procedure is essential to make sure the read/write head is aligned with the tracks on the disks, and is the most fiddly part of the process.

What helps a lot here is the 1541 diagnostic cartridge by [World of Jani] that displays real-time information on the drive while you are tweaking its speed and head alignment. All you have to do is tweak the speed potentiometer, and adjust the position of the drive motor, which takes a bit of patience and a steady hand. After this repair session a few Mitsumi drives unfortunately remained dead due to busted coils. Despite a valiant repair attempt on the heads by manually rewinding the coils, this remains a topic for a potential part III.

The Ultimate 1541 Talk by Michael Steil, presented at the Vintage Computer Festival West

The Ultimate Commodore 1541 Drive Talk: A Deep Dive Into Disks, Controllers, And Much More

When we think of retrocomputing, it’s very often the computers themselves that get all the glory.  There’s nothing wrong with this of course- the computers of the late 70’s and 80’s were incredible machines that were chock full of hacks in their own right. But some of the most interesting hacks of the day happened not in the computers, but rather in their peripherals. A devotee of such periphery is [Michael Steil], who was driven to compile years of research, knowledge, and hard data into The Ultimate Commodore 1541 Drive Talk which you can view below the break.

In the talk, [Michael] covers the physical disk composition and construction, the disk drives, controller hardware, and the evolution thereof. The bit-by-bit breakdown of the tracks, sectors, and header information on the disks themselves is fascinating, as is the discussion of various copy protection techniques used by vendors to prevent piracy at a time when sneakernet was in full swing.

The descent into the circuitry of the controller reveals a venerable 6502 CPU which powered many vintage computers. Further discussion divulges the secrets for getting higher performance from the 1541 drive using innovations that are as recent as 2013.

A computer historian and archaeologist, [Michael] discusses how using modified vintage hardware is sometimes enough to save your old floppy collection. He also shows how modern interfaces that read disks all the way down to the magnetic flux level can be used to reconstruct missing data.

[Michael] masterfully lays bare the complexity, engineering, and hackery that went into storing less than 200kb of data. Whether you’re a Commodore enthusiast or not, your appreciation for the 32GB USB stick collecting dust on your desk is bound to grow!

We’ve covered [Michael]’s exploits before, and you may wish to check out the Ultimate Apollo Guidance Computer Talk or the Ultimate Gameboy Talk. Do you have your own favorite retrocomputer hacks and insights to share? Be sure to let us know via the Tip Line!

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Custom Joystick For An Old Commodore Finds An Unlikely Home

Retro hardware is getting harder and harder to come by, with accessories such as joysticks and mice dropping out of the market the fastest. So if your old machine needs a new joystick, you may find yourself whipping it up yourself. While you’re at it, you might as well have some fun as [Tom Tilley] did when he built a C-64 joystick inside a replica disk drive case for his rare SX-64 luggable.

Anyone who remembers the amount of desk space the classic Commodore 1541 disk drive occupied might wonder why someone would want such an enormous base for a joystick. But rest assured that no actual 1541s were harmed in the making of this joystick; rather, [Tom] created a smaller replica of the drive case from MDF. The face of the case is about 80% original size, and the depth is cut down to about half the original, so the joystick actually ends up being a manageable size while offering a nice, broad wrist support. The drive door is 3D-printed and painted, and adorned with the original green and red LEDs. Decorations like the front badge and even replicas of the original rear panel labels, connectors, and switches were printed from files off a website devoted to recreating Commodore hardware from paper. Because Commodore love knows no bounds.

It’s silly, but it works, and we love the attention to detail. Hat’s off to [Tom] for not settling for yet another joystick build, and for keeping the Commodore flame burning. They may be tough machines, but they won’t be around forever.

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Raspberry Pi Becomes Cycle Exact Commodore Drive Emulator

The Commodore 1541 disk drive is unlike anything you’ll ever see in modern computer hardware. At launch, the 1541 cost almost as much as the Commodore 64 it was attached to ($400, or about $1040 at today’s value). This drive had a CPU, and had its own built-in operating system. Of course, anyone using a Commodore 64 now doesn’t deal with this drive these days — you can buy an SD2IEC for twenty dollars and load all your C64 games off an SD card. If you’re cheap, there’s always the tape drive interface and a ten dollar Apple Lightning to 3.5mm headphone adapter.

But the SD2IEC isn’t compatible with everything, and hacking something together using the tape drive doesn’t have the panache required of serious Commodoring. What’s really needed is a cycle-accurate emulation of the 1541 disk drive, emulating the 6502 CPU and the two 6522 VIAs in this ancient disk drive. The Raspberry Pi comes to the rescue. [Steve White] created the Pi1541, an emulation of the Commodore 1541 disk drive that runs on the Raspberry Pi 3B.

Pi1541 is a complete emulation of the 6502 and two 6522s found inside the Commodore 1541 disk drive. It runs the same code the disk drive does, and supports all the fast loaders, demos, and copy protected original disk images that can be used with an original drive.

The only hardware required to turn a Raspberry Pi 3 into a 1541 are a few transistors in the form of a bi-directional logic level shifter, and a plug for a six-pin serial port cable. This can easily be constructed out of some Sparkfun, Adafruit, Amazon, or AliExpress parts, although we suspect anyone could whip up a Raspberry Pi hat with the same circuit in under an hour. The binaries necessary to run Pi1541 on the Raspberry Pi are available on [Steve]’s website, and he’ll be releasing the source soon.

This is a great project for the retrocomputing scene, although there is one slight drawback. Pi1541 requires a Raspberry Pi 3, and doesn’t work on the Raspberry Pi Zero. That would be an amazing bit of software, as ten dollars in parts could serve as a complete emulation of a Commodore disk drive. That said, you’re still likely to be under $50 in parts and you’re not going to find a better drive emulator around.

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