Digitizing Sound On An Unmodified Sinclair ZX81

Whatever the first computer you used to manipulate digital audio was, the chances are it came with dedicated sound hardware that could play, and probably record, digitized audio. Perhaps it might have been a Commodore Amiga, or maybe a PC with a Sound Blaster. If you happen to be [NICKMANN] though, you can lay claim to the honor of doing so on a machine with no such hardware, because he managed it on an unmodified Sinclair ZX81.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ZX, it embodied Clive Sinclair’s usual blend of inflated promises on minimal hardware and came with the very minimum required to generate a black-and-white TV picture from a Zilog Z80 microprocessor. All it had in the way of built-in expansion was a cassette interface, 1-bit read and write ports exposed as 3.5 mm jacks on its side. It’s these that in an impressive feat of hackery he managed to use as a 1-bit sampler with some Z80 assembler code, capturing a few seconds of exceptionally low quality audio in an ’81 with the plug-in 16k RAM upgrade.

From 2023 of course, it’s about as awful as audio sampling gets, but in 1980s terms it’s pulling off an almost impossible feat that when we tried it with a 1-bit PC speaker a few years later, we didn’t succeed at. We’re impressed.

The ’81 may be one of the simplest of the 8-bit crop, but in its day it set many a future software developer on their career path. It’s still a machine that appears here today, from time to time.

An Amiga Sampler 30 Years Later

There was a magic moment for a few years around the end of the 1980s, when home computers were better than professional ones. That’s a mighty grand pronouncement, but it refers to the crop of 16-bit home computers that genuinely were far better than nearly all PCs at the time for multimedia tasks. You could plug a sampler cartridge into your Amiga and be in the dance charts in no time, something which sparked a boom in electronic music creativity. As retrocomputing interest has soared so have the prices of old hardware, and for those still making Amiga music that cart can now be outrageously expensive. it’s something [echolevel] has addressed, with an open-source recreation of an Amiga sampler.

As anyone who peered inside one back int he day will tell you, an Amiga sampler was a very simple device consisting of a commonly-available 8-bit A to D converter, a CMOS switch for right and left samples, and maybe an op-amp preamplifier. This is exactly what he’s produced, save fpr the CMOS switch as he points out that Amiga musicians use mono samples anyway. At its heart is an ADC0820 half-flash ADC chip, and the whole thing is realised on a very retro-looking through-hole PCB.

For a Hackaday scribe with a Technosound Turbo still sitting in a box somewhere it’s a real trip down memory lane. It was a moment of magic to for the first time be able to edit and manipulate audio on a computer, and we’re glad to see that something of those days still lives on. See it in action in the video below the break.

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