Tiny Dongle Brings The Hard Drive’s Song Back To Updated Retrocomputers

Back in the “beige box” days of computing, it was pretty easy to tell what your machine was doing just by listening to it, because the hard drive was constantly thrashing the heads back and forth. It was sometimes annoying, but never as annoying as hearing the stream of Geiger counter-like clicks stop when you knew it wasn’t done loading a program yet.

That “happy sound” is getting harder to come by, even on retro machines, which increasingly have had their original thrash-o-matic drives replaced with compact flash and other solid-state drives. This HDD sound simulator aims to fill that diagnostic and nostalgic gap on any machine that isn’t quite clicky enough for you. Sadly, [Matthias Werner] provides no build details for his creation, but between the longish demo video below (by a satisfied customer) and the details of the first version, it’s easy enough to figure out what’s going on here. An ATtiny and a few support components ride on a small PCB along with a piezoelectric speaker. The dongle connects to the hard drive activity light, which triggers a series of clicks from the speaker that sound remarkably like a hard drive heading seeking tracks. A demo starts at 7:09 in the video below; the very brave — or very nostalgic — might want to check out the full defragmentation that starts at 13:11.

Sure, this one is perhaps a bit over-the-top, but in the retrocomputing world, no price is too high to pay in the name of nostalgia. And it’s still far from the most ridiculous hard drive activity indicator we’ve seen.

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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!

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Controller Swaps Can Save An HDD If You Do It Right

Hard drives are fragile and reliable all at once. It’s entirely possible to have a hard drive fail, even if your data is still in perfect condition on the magnetic platters inside. [Keith Sherry] was recently trying to recover data for a friend off a damaged hard drive, and demonstrated that modern twists on old tricks can still work.

The drive in question was an old 160GB disk that itself was being used as a backup. Of course, a backup you haven’t tested is no backup at all, and this one failed in the hour it was most needed.

The suspicion was that the controller board was the culprit, and that swapping the board out might bring things back to life. Back in the day, this was a common hacker trick. However, it often fails with modern drives, which store a great deal of drive-specific calibration data on the controller board. Without this specific data, another controller will be unable to access the data on the drive, and could even cause damage.

However, as [Keith] demonstrates, there is a way around this. A controller from a similar drive was sourced, albeit from a SATA version of the drive versus the original which used USB. A single chip is then removed from the original controller, containing the calibration data specific to that drive. Soldering this chip onto the new controller got everything up and running, and the files could be recovered.

If your data is invaluable, it’s likely worth paying a professional. As [Keith] demonstrates though, the old tricks can still come in handy as long as your techniques are up to date. DIYing your own data recovery can be done, it’s just risky is all.

Oh, and don’t forget — once you’ve recovered the files, throw the drive away. Don’t keep using it! Video after the break.

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Mistaken Identity — Piezo Actuators Not Test Pads

One hard disk recently failed in the EEVBlog laboratory’s NAS. Keeping true to his catch phrase, [Dave “Tear it Apart” Jones] opened it up and gave us an inside tour of a modern hard disk drive. There are so many technological wonders to behold in modern HDDs these days — the mechanical design, electronics and magnetics, and the signal processing itself which is basically an advanced RF receiver — that we can forgive [Dave] for glossing over a system of piezo actuators thinking they were manufacturing test points. Even knowing they are actuators, you have to stare at them and think for a bit before your brain accepts it.

Later realizing the mistake, he made a follow-up video (down below) focusing on just the disk head actuator arms and this micro-actuation system (or perhaps they are milli-actuators). The basic concept is a pair of piezoelectric transducers mounted on either side of the short arm holding the read head. Presumably they are driven out of phase to flex the arm left or right, but the motion is imperceptible to the eye — even under magnification, [Dave] was not able to discern any motion when he pulsed the transducers. When you consider that these micro-actuators are mounted on the main actuator arm, which itself is also in motion, the nested control loop arrangement to maintain nanometers of accuracy is truly amazing. Check out this 45 second explanatory video by Western Digital which has a good animation of the concept.

If you want to see your HDD in operation without taking it apart, check out the transparent drive we wrote about last month. And to read more about esoteric actuators, check out this article from 2015 which contains one of the longest words to appear in our pages — magnetorheological. If you’ve experience a hard disk failure, which thankfully is becoming rarer these days, do you chunk it or tear it apart?

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The Hard Drive MIDI Controller

[shantea] builds MIDI controllers, and after a successful first endeavor with a matrix of buttons and knobs, he decided to branch out to something a little bit cooler. It’s called Ceylon, and it’s effectively a turntable controller built from an old hard drive.

As a contrast to the first MIDI controller, this would be a stripped-down build, with just three faders, LEDs for eye candy, a pair of pots for gain control, and a hard disk surrounded by six anti-vandal buttons. The hard disk is the star of the show, acting as a rotary encoder.

When manually spun, the hard disk generates a few phases of sinusoidal waves. The faster you spin it, the higher the amplitude and frequency. These signals are far too weak to be sampled directly by a microcontroller, and for digital control – as in, MIDI – you don’t need to read the analog signals anyway. These signals were turned digital with the help of an LM339 quad comparator. With two of these comparators and signals out of the hard disk that are 90 degrees out of phase, quadrature encoding is pretty easy.

The software for this MIDI controller is based on the OpenDeck Platform, a neat system that allows anyone to create their own MIDI controllers and devices.  It’s also a great looking board that seems to perform well. Video below.

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PCI I-RAM Working Without A PCI Slot

[Gnif] had a recent hard drive failure in his home server. When rebuilding his RAID array, he decided to update to the ZFS file system. While researching ZFS, [Gnif] learned that the file system allows for a small USB cache disk to greatly improve his disk performance. Since USB is rather slow, [Gnif] had an idea to try to use an old i-RAM PCI card instead.

The problem was that he didn’t have any free PCI slots left in his home server. It didn’t take long for [Gnif] to realize that the PCI card was only using the PCI slot for power. All of the data transfer is actually done via a SATA cable. [Gnif] decided that he could likely get by without an actual PCI slot with just a bit of hacking.

[Gnif] desoldered a PCI socket from an old faulty motherboard, losing half of the pins in the process. Luckily, the pins he needed still remained. [Gnif] knew that DDR memory can be very power-hungry. This meant that he couldn’t only solder one wire for each of the 3v, 5v, 12v, and ground pins. He had to connect all of them in order to share the current load. All in all, this ended up being about 20 pins. He later tested the current draw and found it reached as high as 1.2 amps, confirming his earlier decision. Finally, the reset pin needed to be pulled to 3.3V in order to make the disk accessible.

All of the wires from his adapter were run to Molex connectors. This allows [Gnif] to power the device from a computer power supply. All of the connections were covered in hot glue to prevent them from wriggling lose.