Dance and house music exploded in a big way at the end of the 1980s. Typically the product of well-equipped studios with samplers and mixers worth thousands of dollars, it was difficult for the home gamer to get involved. That was, until the advent of the glorious Amiga, as [cTrix] ably demonstrates.
The video explains the history of both the music and the hardware, and highlights just why the Amiga was so special. Packing stereo audio and a four-channel sound chip, it had the grunt to pump out the tunes. All it was lacking was an audio input – which is where third-party hardware stepped in. Parallel-port analog-to-digital converters hit the market in a big way, letting users sample audio on their home computer without breaking the bank.
[cTrix] then proceeds to demonstrate how one would go about producing a dance track on an Amiga way back in 1990. A home stereo is used to play records, hooked up to a Stereo Master parallel port sampler. With a bunch of drum, piano, and synth samples recorded and saved on disk, a tracker is then used to assemble the track. It’s then compared with other music from the era as a great example of how things used to be done.
After a youth spent playing with Amigas and getting into all sorts of trouble on the school computer network, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for hardware from the 80s and 90s. This extends beyond computers themselves, and goes so far as to include modems, photocopiers, and even the much-maligned dot matrix printer.
My partner in hacking [Cosmos2000] recently found himself with a wonderful Commodore MPS 1230 printer. Its parallel interface was very appropriate in its day, however parallel ports are as scarce as SID chips. Thankfully, these two interfaces are easy to work with and simple in function. Work on a device to marry these two disparate worlds began.
Enter: The Paralleloslam
While I was gallivanting around the Eastern coast of Australia, [Cosmos2000] was hard at work. After some research, it was determined that it would be relatively simple to have an Arduino convert incoming serial data into a parallel output to the printer. After some testing was performed on an Arduino Uno, a bespoke device was built – in a gloriously plastic project box, no less.
An ATMEGA328 acts as the brains of the operation, with a MAX232 attached for level conversion from TTL to RS232 voltage levels. Serial data are received on the hardware TX/RX lines. Eight digital outputs act as the parallel interface. When a byte is received over serial, the individual bits are set on the individual digital lines connected to the printer’s parallel port. At this point, the strobe line is pulled low, indicating to the attached device that it may read the port. After two microseconds, it returns high, ready for the next byte to be set on the output lines. This is how parallel interfaces operate without a clock signal, using the strobe to indicate when data may be read.
At this point, [Cosmos2000] reached out – asking if I had a name for the new build.
In a world where standards come and go with alarming speed, there’s something comforting about VGA. It’s the least common denominator of video standards, and seeing that chunky DB15 connector on the back of a computer means that no matter what, you’ll be able to get something from it, if you can just find a VGA cable in your junk bin.
But that’s the PC world; what about microcontrollers? Can you coax VGA video from them? Yes, you can, with an ESP32, a handful of resistors, and a little bit of clever programming. At least that’s what [bitluni] has managed to do in his continuing quest to push the ESP32 to output all the signals. For this project, [bitluni] needed to generate three separate signals – red, green, and blue – but with only two DACs on board, he had to try something else. He built external DACs the old way using R/2R voltage divider networks and addressed them with the I2S bus in LCD mode. He needed to make some compromises to fit the three color signals and the horizontal and vertical sync pulses into the 24 available bits, and there were a few false starts, but the video below shows that he was able to produce a 320×240 signal, and eventually goosed that up to a non-native 460×480.
As usual with his videos, [Kerry] gives us a great rundown on the theory behind the hardware he’s working with. The chip in question is an interesting beast, an HMC624LP4E from Hittite, a company that was rolled into Analog Devices in 2014. The now-obsolete device is a monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) built on a gallium arsenide substrate rather than silicon, and attenuates DC to 6-GHz signals in 64 steps down to -31.5 dBm. After a functional check of the board using the DIP switches, he whipped up a quick Arduino project to control the chip with its built-in serial interface. It’s just a prototype for now, but spinning the encoder is a lot handier than flipping switches, and once this is boxed up it’ll make a great addition to [Kerry]’s RF bench.
If the computer you have isn’t particularly fast, there’s a well-documented way to get more out of it. You just need more of the same computer, and you can run your tasks on them all at the same time. Building computer clusters is an effective way of decreasing the time it takes for computers to solve certain problems, even if the computers themselves aren’t top-of-the-line hardware. Of course, with cheap enough hardware, people will build clusters out of just about anything, including the ESP32.
For this project, [Wei Lin] admits that this isn’t really a serious attempt at building speedy hardware, but rather an interesting exercise in creating a cluster as a sort of learning experience. ESP32 boards can be found for around $10 so building an experimental cluster with these is even more feasible than using the Raspberry Pi. [Wei Lin] goes into a great amount of detail on his GitHub page about all of his goals with the project, most of which involve exploring the functionality of the new cluster and its underpinnings.
While this might seem like little more than a thought experiment, it does have the advantage of being a great solution for problems that involve gathering data from points that are physically very far from one another. If you’ve ever been interested in parallel computing or computing clusters, this is a great project to check out. If you have more Raspberry Pis on hand than ESP32s and still want to build a cluster, check out this project that used a mere 750 of them for one.
Long ago, when mainframes ruled the earth, computers were mute. In this era before MP3s and MMUs, most home computers could only manage a simple beep or two. Unless you had an add-on device like the Covox Speech Thing, that is. This 1986 device plugged into your parallel port and allowed you to play sound. Glorious 8-bit, mono sound. [Yeo Kheng Meng] had heard of this device, and wondered what it would take to get it running again on a modern Linux computer. So he found out in the best possible way: by doing it.
Gravity can be a difficult thing to simulate effectively on a traditional CPU. The amount of calculation required increases exponentially with the number of particles in the simulation. This is an application perfect for parallel processing.
For their final project in ECE5760 at Cornell, [Mark Eiding] and [Brian Curless] decided to use an FPGA to rapidly process gravitational calculations. This allows them to simulate a thousand particles at up to 10 frames per second. With every particle having an attraction to every other, this works out to an astonishing 1 million inverse-square calculations per frame!
The team used an Altera DE2-115 development board to build the project. General operation is run by a Nios II processor, which handles the VGA display, loads initial conditions and controls memory. The FPGA is used as an accelerator for the gravity calculations, and lends the additional benefit of requiring less memory access operations as it runs all operations in parallel.
This project is a great example of how FPGAs can be used to create serious processing muscle for massively parallel tasks. Check out this great article on sorting with FPGAs that delves deeper into the subject. Video after the break.