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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
For people under a certain age, the 8 inch floppy disk is a historical curiosity. They might just have owned a PC that had a 5.25 inch disk drive, but the image conjured by the phrase “floppy disk” will be the hard blue plastic of the once ubiquitous 3.5 inch disk. Even today, years after floppies shuffled off this mortal coil, we still see the 3.5 inch disk as the save icon in so many of our software packages.
For retro computing enthusiasts though, there is an attraction to the original floppy from the 1970s. Mass storage for microcomputers can hardly come in a more retro format. [Scott M. Baker] evidently thinks so, for he has bought a pair of Qume 8 inch floppy drives, and interfaced them to his CPM-running RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer.
He goes into detail on the process of selecting a drive as there are several variants of the format, and interfacing the 50 pin Shuggart connector on these drives with the more recent 34 pin connector. To aid in this last endeavour he’s created an interface PCB which he promises to share on OSH Park.
The article provides an interesting insight into the control signals used by floppy drives, as well as the unexpected power requirements of an 8 inch drive. They need mains AC, 24VDC, and 5VDC, so for the last two he had to produce his own power supply.
He’s presented the system in a video which we’ve put below the break. Very much worth watching if you’ve never seen one of these monsters before, it finishes with a two-drive RC2014 copying files between drives.
If you were an early 1990s youth, the chances are [Nirvana]’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of those pieces of music that transports you straight back to those times. As your writer it evokes a student radio studio and the shelves of its record library, and deafening badly-lit discos with poorly adjusted PA systems and unpleasantly sticky dance floors.
This build is the most refined floppy drive organ we’ve seen yet. The floppies are divided into single-voice blocks of eight controlled by an ATMega16, with dynamic volume envelopes mad possible by the number of simultaneously running drives, so the sounds can fade in and out like “natural” musical instruments. The hard drives and scanners are run against their mechanical stops, providing percussion. All the boards are daisychained via SPI to an Arduino that acts as a PC interface, and the PC schedules the performance with a Python script.
He’s provided a couple of pieces as YouTube videos, the floppy motors work particularly well for [Nirvana]’s grunge, but perhaps a bit more mechanical for Hawaii Five-O. This last track will be more evocative than the first if you attended a particular university in the North of England where it was the end-of night record played as the lights came up in one of the discos that had a much better-adjusted PA because the technician knew what she was doing. For those of you with different childhoods, there’s also the Imperial March.