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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A Floppy Controller For The Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is the darling single board computer that is everything to everyone. It even has lit up the eyes of the older set with the Pi 400 mimicking the all-in-one keyboard computer design so popular in the 1980s. Another project that harkens back to that golden era is this Raspberry Pi floppy controller board from [Dr. Scott M. Baker].

[Scott] is no stranger to floppy controllers, having worked with the popular WD37C65 floppy controller IC before with the RC2014 homebrew Z80 computer. Thus, it was his part of choice when looking to implement a floppy interface on the Raspberry Pi. The job was straightforward, and done with just the IC itself. Despite the Pi running at 3.3 V and the controller at 5 V, [Scott] has found no problems thus far, implementing just a resistor pack to try and limit damage from the controller sending higher voltage signals back to the Pi. With that said, he plans to implement a proper level shifter down the road to ensure trouble-free operation long term.

The project is rounded out with a bunch of Python tools used to interface with the controller, available on Github. Performance is limited by the non-realtime nature of the Raspberry Pi’s user mode operation, which [Scott] notes could be fixed with a kernel module. With that said, if you’re looking for performance, floppies aren’t it anyway.

We do love the Pi put to use in retro tasks; it can even be a SCSI Swiss Army Knife if you need one. Video after the break.

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Floppy Drive Keyboard Is Inefficient Fun

Most of us are used to a typical 101-key setup for typing on our machines. Mobile and touchscreen devices have offered alternative interfaces over the years, but generally still sticking to QWERTY or other similar layouts. [foone] cares not for convention however, building a text-entry device based on the iconic floppy disk.

The build starts with a standard PC floppy drive, hooked up to an interface board to allow it to work over USB. It’s hooked up to a Raspberry Pi, which runs a Python program that listens out for media insertion events. When a new disk is detected, it reads the volume label, and sends it over to a Teensy LC which simulates a USB keyboard attached to the host PC. The setup uses 29 disks, for A-Z, !, shift, and space. It’s all stuffed inside a SCSI disk enclosure which helpfully provides a power supply along with the classic beige 90s aesthetic.

While you’re probably not going to be typing out your dissertation on this thing, it makes for an excellent conversation piece. We’ve featured some of [foone]’s eclectic work before, too. Video after the break.

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Repairdown: Disklavier DKC500RW Control Unit

If you’ve been kind enough to accompany me on these regular hardware explorations, you’ve likely recognized a trend with regards to the gadgets that go under the knife. Generally speaking, the devices I take apart for your viewing pleasure come to us from the clearance rack of a big box retailer, the thrift store, or the always generous “AS-IS” section on eBay. There’s something of a cost-benefit analysis performed each time I pick up a piece of gear for dissection, and it probably won’t surprise you to find that the least expensive doggy in the window is usually the one that secures its fifteen minutes of Internet fame.

DKC500RW installed on right side.

But this month I present to you, Good Reader, something a bit different. This time I’m not taking something apart just for the simple joy of seeing PCB laid bare. I’ve been given the task of repairing an expensive piece of antiquated oddball equipment because, quite frankly, nobody else wanted to do it. If we happen to find ourselves learning about its inner workings in the process, that’s just the cost of doing business with a Hackaday writer.

The situation as explained to me is that in the late 1990’s, my brother’s employer purchased a Yamaha Mark II XG “Baby Grand” piano for somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000. This particular model was selected for its ability to play MIDI files from 3.5 inch floppy disks, complete with the rather ghostly effect of the keys moving by themselves. The idea was that you could set this piano up in your lobby with a floppy full of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits, and your establishment would instantly be dripping with automated class.

Unfortunately, about a month or so back, the piano’s Disklavier DKC500RW control unit stopped reading disks. The piano itself still worked, but now required a human to do the playing. Calls were made, but as you might expect, most repair centers politely declined around the time they heard the word “floppy” and anyone who stayed on the line quoted a price that simply wasn’t economical.

Before they resorted to hiring a pianist, perhaps a rare example of a human taking a robot’s job, my brother asked if he could remove the control unit and see if I could make any sense of it. So with that, let’s dig into this vintage piece of musical equipment and see what a five figure price tag got you at the turn of the millennium.

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Preserving Floppy Disks Via Logic Analyser

The floppy disk is a technology that is known only to the youth of today as the inspiration for the Save icon. There’s a lot of retro computing history tied up in these fragile platters, thus preservation is key. But how to go about it? [CHZ-Soft] has found an easy way, using a logic analyzer and a healthy dose of Python.

Floppy drives have particularly low-level interfaces, offering up little more than a few signals to indicate the position of the head on the disk, and pulses to indicate changes in magnetic flux. The data is encoded in the pattern of flux changes. This has important implications as far as preservation goes – it’s best to record the flux changes themselves, and create an image of the exact magnetic state of the disk, and then process that later, rather than trying to decode the disk at the time of reading and backing up just the data itself. This gives the best likelihood of decoding the disk and preserving an accurate image of floppy formats as they existed in the real world. It’s also largely platform agnostic – you can record the flux changes, then figure out the format later.

[CHZ-Soft] takes this approach, explaining how to use a Saleae logic analyser and a serial port to control a floppy drive and read out the flux changes on the disk. It’s all controlled automatically through a Python script, which automates the process and stores the results in the Supercard Pro file format, which is supported by a variety of software. This method takes about 14MB to store the magnetic image of a 720KB disk, and can even reveal a fingerprint of the drive used to write the disk, based on factors such as jitter and timing.

It’s an impressive hack that shows that preservation-grade backups of floppy disks can be achieved without spending big money or using specialist hardware. We’ve seen other projects in this space before, too.

Bear McCreary's floppy music for Revolt

Floppy Drive Music By Emmy Winning Composer

We’ve featured a lot of awesome music made using floppy drives before, but this is the first time we’ve seen it used as the main instrument in a movie score, and by Emmy winning composer [Bear McCreary]. The movie, in this case is alien invasion film, Revolt, but you’ve surely heard Bear’s amazing work in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series, The Walking Dead, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (my favorite of his), or the one for which he won an Emmy, Da Vinci’s Demons wherein the main theme sounds the same backwards as forwards, to name just a few. So when someone of [Bear]’s abilities makes use of floppy drives, we listen.

[Bear] works with a team, and what they learned was that it’s a clicking sound which the drives make that we hear. It’s just so fast that it doesn’t come across as clicks. The speed at which the clicks are made determines the pitch. And so to control the sound, they control the floppy drives’ speed. They also found that older floppy drives had more of the type of sound they were looking for than newer ones, as if floppy drives weren’t getting hard to find as is. In the end, their floppy orchestra came out to around twelve drives. And the result is awesome, so be sure to check it out in the video below.

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Hackaday Links: January 22, 2017

What is a 1971 Ford Torino worth? It depends, but even a 2-door in terrible condition should fetch about $7 or $8k. What is a 1971 Ford Torino covered in 3D printed crap worth? $5500. This is the first ‘3D printed car’ on an auction block. It looks terrible and saying ‘Klaatu Varada Nikto’ unlocks the doors.

Old Apple IIs had a DB19 connector for external floppy drives. Some old macs, pre-PowerPC at least, also had a DB19 connector for external floppy drives. These drives are incompatible with each other for reasons. [Dandu] has a few old macs and one old Apple II 3.5″ external floppy drive. This drive can be hacked so it works with a Mac Classic. The hack is simply disconnecting one of the boards in the drive, and it only reads 400 and 800kB disks, but it does work.

The US Army is working on a hoverbike. Actually, it’s not a hoverbike, because it doesn’t have a saddle or a seat, but it could carry 300 pounds at 60 mph. That’s 136,000 grams at 135 meters per second for the rest of the world out there. This ‘hoverbike’ will be used for very quick resupply, and hopefully a futuristic form of jousting.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a few new microcontrollers built around the RISC-V core. The first is the HiFive1, a RISC-V on an Arduino-shaped board. The Open-V is another RISC-V based microcontroller, and now it too supports the Arduino IDE. That may not seem like much, but trust me: setting up the HiFive1 toolchain takes at least half an hour.

The NAMM show has been going on for the last few days, which means new electronic musical gear, effects pedals, and drum machines. This is cool, but somewhat outside our editorial prerogative. This isn’t. It’s a recording studio using a Rasberry Pi. Tracktion is working on a high-quality digital audio input and output add-on for the Pi 3. This is really cool, and you only need to look back at MPCs and gigantic Akai samplers from 15 years ago to see why.

Hey LA peeps. Sparklecon is next weekend. What’s Sparklecon? The 23B hackerspace pulls out the grill, someone brings a gigantic Tesla coil, we play hammer Jenga, and a bunch of dorks dork around. Go to Sparklecon! Superliminal advertising! Anyone up for a trip to the Northrop ham meetup next Saturday?