DEC microVAX with tape drive

Bake It To ReMake It: Cooking Old Magnetic Tape To Recover Data

Those of us old enough may remember the heyday of the text adventure game genre from the first time around. London-based Magnetic Scrolls was an early pioneering company producing titles for the first Amiga and Atari ST platforms. Fast-forward to 2017 and [Hugh Steers], the original co-founder and core developer for Magnetic Scrolls has formed an initiative to revive and re-release the original games on modern platforms. Since the 1980s-era DEC MicroVAX used originally for development is not particularly rare in retro computing circles, and media containing source code was found in someone’s loft space, reviving the games was not a tall order.

First, he needed to recover a copy of the original source code from the backup tapes. But there was a problem, it turns out that the decaying tapes used a unstable polyurethane-based binder to stick the oxide material (which is what stores the data) to the backing tape, and this binder can absorb water over the years.

Not much happens until you try to read the tape, then you trip over the so-called sticky-shed syndrome. Secondly you may find that a small amount of the oxide layer sheds from the tape, coating the read head, rollers and guides inside the complicated tape mechanism. This quickly results in it gumming up, and jamming, potentially chewing up the tape and destroying it permanently.

This was further exacerbated by the behaviour of the DEC TK50Z tape drive, which needed to shuttle the whole length of the tape as part of its normal operation.

A temporary solution was to bake the tape in an oven to drive out the moisture and reduce the stickiness enough to run it through the drive safely. Then only the oxide-shedding problem remained. The TK50Z drive was swapped for a TZ30 which shuttles the tape less, but also critically with a simple hack, would allow the heads to be cleaned with IPA between read passes. This was enough to keep the gumming up at bay and allow enough data to be read from the tapes to recover several games worth of code, ready for the re-releasing process.

The video after the break shows [Rob Jarratt] working through the process of the data recovery.

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Modern Tape Echo Made Easy

Modern popular music increasingly relies on more and more complicated and intricate equipment and algorithms to generate catchy tunes, but even decades ago this was still the case. The only difference between then and now was that most of the equipment in the past was analog instead of digital. For example, the humble tape echo was originally made by running a loop of magnetic tape over a recording head and then immediately playing it back. Old analog machines from that era are getting harder and harder to find, so [Adam Paul] decided to make his own.

At first, [Adam] planned to use standard cassette tapes in various configurations in order to achieve the desired effect, but this proved to be too cumbersome and he eventually switched his design to using the cassette internals in a custom tape deck. The final design includes a small loop of tape inside of the enclosure with a motor driving a spindle. The tape is passed over a record head, then a read head, and then an erase head in order to achieve the echo sound. All of this is done from inside of the device itself, with 1/4″ jacks provided so that the musician can plug in their instrument of choice just like a standard effects pedal would be configured.

The entire build is designed to be buildable and repairable using readily-available parts as well, which solves the problem of maintaining (or even finding) parts from dedicated tape echo machines from decades ago. We like the sound from the analog device, as well as the fact that it’s still an analog device in a world of otherwise digital substitutes. Much like this magnetic tape-based synthesizer we featured about a year ago.

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Audio Cassette Tape Data Retrospective

It has been a long time since we stored software and computer data on audiotape. But it used to be the de facto standard for hobby computers and [Noel] has a great video about the Amstrad’s system (embedded below) which was pretty typical and how the process could be sped up since today, you have perfect audio reproduction, especially compared to consumer-grade audiotape.

The cassette tapes suffered from several problems. The tape had an inherently low bandwidth, there was quite a bit of noise present from the analog circuitry and heads, and the transport speed wasn’t necessarily constant. However, you can easily digitally synthesize relatively noise-free sound at high fidelity and rock-solid frequency. So basically a microcontroller, like an Arduino, can look like an extremely high-quality tape drive.

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Adding Remote Control To An Old Stereo

Sometimes, the best hifi gear is the gear you’ve already got. This is particularly the case in the cassette world, as high quality decks are long out of production. [Nick] liked his current rig, but wanted to be able to use it with a remote from across the room. Naturally, he set to hacking the feature in.

The cassette deck in question, a Yamaha K-220, was old enough to lack a remote, but thankfully new enough to use a computer-controlled tape transport. This meant that the basic features of play, stop, rewind and fast forward can all be controlled with simple digital buttons rather than mechanical ones. This made it easy to interface an ATmega328P to the stereo’s original circuitry. Digital IO pins are hooked up to the buttons, held as high-impedance inputs most of the time, only toggling to ground when necessary to trigger a button press. It was then a simple job to hook up an IR receiver to the chip and program it with some Arduino libraries to work with a typical stereo remote control [Nick] had laying around.

It’s a tidy build, and with more cool cassette releases coming out every year, we’re sure [Nick]’s going to put some miles on the setup. If you find IR too cumbersome though, you can go a step further and replace it with a web app instead. If you’ve been tinkering with similar things in your own workshop, be sure to drop us a line!

Wooden Cassette Tape Is A Veneer Stackup Seeking A Few Good Walkmen

While the days of audio cassette tapes are long over for almost everyone, magnetic tape still enjoys extensive use in some other realms such as large-scale data backup. Those that are still using it to store their tunes are a special subset of audio enthusiasts. [Frank] still has a working tape deck, and enthusiasm for classic non-vinyl sound. His homage to audio tape? Building a working cassette made (almost) entirely of wood.

The cassette is modeled on the formerly popular Maxell XL-II and the first versions of this build were modeled in paper. Once the precise dimensions of the enclosure were determined, [Frank] got to work building the final version from wood in a decidedly 2D process. He used a plotter to cut layers out of a wood veneer and glued them together one-by-one. The impressive part of this build is that the tape reel bearings are also made from wood, using a small piece as a race that holds the reels without too much friction.

Once everything was pieced together and glued up, [Frank] had a perfect working cassette tape made entirely from wood with the exception of the magnetic tape and a few critical plastic parts that handle the tape directly. The build is an impressive piece of woodworking, not unlike the solid wood arcade cabinet from a few days ago.

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3D Printing With VHS Tape Filament

If you have a pile of old VHS tapes collecting dust in your attic or basement that you know you’ll never watch again, either because all of those movies are available on DVD or a streaming service, or because you haven’t had a working VCR since 2003, there might be a way of putting them to good use in another way. With the miles of tape available in just a few cassettes, [Brother] aka [Andrew] shows us how to use that tape as filament for a 3D printer. (Video, embedded below.)

The first step of the build is to actually create the filament. He uses a purpose-built homemade press to spin several tapes into one filament similar to how cotton or flax is spun into yarn. From there the filament is simply fed into the 3D printer and put to work. The tape filament needs to be heated higher than a standard 3D printer filament so he prints at a much slower rate, but the resulting product is indistinguishable from a normal print except for the color. It has some other interesting properties as well, such as retaining its magnetism from the magnetic tape, and being a little more brittle than PET plastic although it seems to be a little stronger.

While the VHS filament might not be a replacement for all plastic 3D prints, it’s still a great use for something that would likely otherwise head straight to the landfill. There are some other uses for this magnetic tape as well, like if you wanted to build a DIY particle accelerator.

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TMD-1 Makes Turing Machine Concepts Easy To Understand

For something that has been around since the 1930s and is so foundational to computer science, you’d think that the Turing machine, an abstraction for mechanical computation, would be easily understood. Making the abstract concepts easy to understand is what this Turing machine demonstrator aims to do.

The TMD-1 is a project that’s something of a departure from [Michael Gardi]’s usual fare, which has mostly been carefully crafted recreations of artifacts from the early days of computer history, like the Minivac 601  trainer and the DEC H-500 computer lab. The TMD-1 is, rather, a device that makes the principles of a Turing machine more concrete. To represent the concept of the “tape”, [Mike] used eight servo-controlled flip tiles. The “head” of the machine conceptually moves along the tape, its current position indicated by a lighted arrow while reading the status of the cell above it by polling the position of the servo.

Below the tape and head panel is the finite state machine through which the TMD-1 is programmed. [Mike] limited the machine to three states and four transitions three symbols, each of which is programmed by placing 3D-printed tiles on a matrix. Magnets were inserted into cavities during printing; Hall Effect sensors in the PCB below the matrix read the pattern of magnets to determine which tiles are where. The video below shows the TMD-1 counting from 0 to 10, which is enough to demonstrate the basics of Turing machines.

It’s hard not to comment on the irony of a Turing machine being run by an Arduino, but given that [Mike]’s goal was to make abstract concepts easy to understand, it makes perfect sense to leverage the platform rather than try to do this with discrete logic. And you can’t argue with results — TMD-1 made Turing machines clear to us for the first time.

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