Behold The Mighty Floppotron 3.0

If anyone has been struggling to get hold of a 3.5″ floppy drive lately, we think we’ve got a clue as to why — behold, the mighty floppotron 3.0 by [Paweł Zadrożniak.] With an utterly bonkers 512 floppy drives, four flatbed scanners and sixteen hard disks of various sizes, the floppotron 3.0 MIDI synthesiser is possibly the biggest such retro hardware synthesiser so far. Since every part of the system is motor-based, nobody is going to be surprised that to power the show is quite an undertaking, with nearly twenty switched-mode PSU modules needed to keep up with the demand, averaging 300W but rated at 1.2kW peak!

A full custom MIDI-to-RS485 gateway based around the nRF52xx series MCU deals with the communication to the collection of instrument controllers. These controllers are generic enough to take RS485 input and control a dedicated driver for either an array of floppy drives (up to 192), an array of hard drives or the handful of scanners. The way the floppy drives are grouped is quite neat. Rather than using each drive to generate a specific tone, the software uses the whole column for each note. By varying the number of drives moving simultaneously over time, the sound volume varies, simulating the note envelope and giving a richer sound. Multiple columns driving in parallel give the system a 16-note polyphony. The floppies cover the low notes, with the four flatbed scanners covering the higher notes. MIDI drum sounds are mapped to the hard disks, operating in a, well, percussive manner, with different case shapes giving unique sounds. Even the firmware can be updated over MIDI! So, checkout the demo video after the break for a sweet rendition of the very familiar “Entry of the gladiators” by Czech composer Julius Fučík.

If you think this looks familiar, you’re not mistaken, we’ve covered an earlier floppotron before, but we reckon nobody has attempted to do it with ye olde eight-inch drives yet!

Continue reading “Behold The Mighty Floppotron 3.0”

Live Floppy Music Adds Elegance To Any Event

It wasn’t long after early humans started banging rocks together that somebody in the tribe thought they could improve on things a bit by doing it with a little rhythm. As such the first musician was born, and since it would be a couple million years before humanity figured out how to record sound, musical performances had to be experienced live throughout most of history. On the cosmic scale of things, Spotify only shows up about a zeptosecond before the big bash at midnight.

So its only fitting that [Linus Åkesson] has perfected the musical floppy drive to the point that it can now be played live. We understand the irony of this being demonstrated via the video below the break, but we think it still gets the point across — rather than having to get a whole array of carefully-scripted drives going to perform something that even comes close to a musical number, he’s able to produce tones by manipulating a single drive in real-time.

In his write-up, [Linus] not only goes over the general nuts and bolts of making music with floppy drives, but specifically explains how this Commodore 1541-II drive has been modified for its new life as a digital virtuoso. From his experiments to determine which drive moves corresponded to the most pleasing sounds, to the addition of a small microphone and a piezo sensor paired with an LMC662-based amplifier to provide a high-fidelity capture of the drive’s sounds and vibrations, there’s a lot of valuable info here for anyone else looking to make some sweet tunes with their old gear.

We’ve seen something of a resurgence of the floppy drive this year, with folks like Adafruit digging into the classic storage medium, and an experimental project to allow the Arduino IDE to create bootable x86 floppies. You won’t hear any complaints from us — while they might not offer much capacity compared to more modern tech, there’s something about a stack of multi-colored disks with hastily applied labels that warms our cold robotic hearts.

Continue reading “Live Floppy Music Adds Elegance To Any Event”

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!

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

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.

Continue reading “A Floppy Controller For The Raspberry Pi”

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.

Continue reading “Floppy Drive Keyboard Is Inefficient Fun”

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.

Continue reading “Repairdown: Disklavier DKC500RW Control Unit”

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.