Sunday 26 April 2015

It Lives! - The Commodore Pet 2001

Hmm, for the second time in a week, I start with an apology for being slow with my blog posts - but this is pretty poor, even by my standards. Five years between posts really isn't good enough!

I've been inspired to start posting again by my adventures with my Commodore Pet 2001 - I've received help from all manner of lovely online people and thought it's time a gave a little back by documenting what I've done.

I've always had a soft spot for my Pet 2001 - it's on my blog's masthead not just because it's an iconic design, but also it's the first 'vintage' computer I ever decided to rescue. I picked it up in 1995 as part of a bulk purchase of Pets from a local charity shop, at a time when these machines weren't rare or classic or vintage - they were simply obsolete junk the store couldn't get rid of.

At the time I was involved in opening a cybercafe here in Cambridge (England) - a cafe that would go on to the be oldest in the UK, if not the world. The Pets were simply set dressing, sitting high on bookshelves overlooking the coffee drinkers, giving a retro charm and contrasting with the high-tech NeXT workstations used for internet access. They're probably still there!

This year is the 20th anniversary of the cafe, which made me wonder if the Pet 2001 might still work. I've always been a little scared of it - unlike most of my old micros, there's a monitor and properly high voltages inside this metal case. When I last turned it on, some ten years ago, I got a screen of gibberish and a hot dusty smell. What would happen this time? Would it burst into flames? Would it electrocute me the moment I touched the bare metal?

I plugged it in, flicked the power switch at the back and stood well back. There was no bang, no flames - just that screen of gibberish again. Well, that gave me confidence that something was alive in there, so the first step was to pop the lid and take a look - there's something automotive about the way this machine opens up - and I peered at the filthy motherboard inside, without a clue where to start.

It was time to visit the Vintage Computer Forum to see if they could help. They reassured me that I should be safe from electrocution, that it's possible for a Pet to be this filthy and still work, and it might be something as simple as loose chip.

So I pushed gently on each of the socketed chips, turned it back on again, and was confronted with:


Oh my god, she lives again!

Alas, things weren't perfect - only a few keys on the delightful chiclet keyboard actually responded (how on earth did anyone actually use this keyboard back in 1977?).

Although I was prepared to try and clean it, a lucky eBay auction meant I came by a spare. Replacing it couldn't be simpler - a few screws held it on the lid, and the cable unplugged from the motherboard. The new keyboard wasn't any cleaner, but it worked perfectly.

Time for a little basic programming - a classic '20 GOTO 10' - and soon text is scrolling up the screen! Time to find some better software - and a surprise. Unlike more modern machines such as the Commodore 64 or Spectrum, there's no software out there on eBay - my saved search still hasn't found a single cassette for sale.

However, there are some archives out there - I was pointed in the direction of this one hosted by Bo Zimmerman - but there's still the issue of how to get the software onto the machine.

First step was to download 'tapDancer' for Android, which converts the .PRG files into those wonderful screeching sounds that take me back to 1982.

I then tried recording these to tape, and loading them onto the Pet - but it didn't recognise them. Problem now is that there's too many variables - is the problem with my recording on my trusty old Panasonic tape recorder, or is the internal cassette drive on the Pet kaput?

Next suggestion from Facebook was that I used a car tape convertor - one of those fake cassettes with a 3.5mm jack plug on a fly lead, that we used to use in our car stereos before MP3 inputs. I liked that idea, but sadly, it didn't work either.

So, perhaps the internal datasette has a fault? Given the age of the machine, it's not impossible - but I was loathed to buy a spare, just to rule that out.

Again, Facebook to the rescue - I was pointed in the direction of the Cassiopei, a small black dongle that emulates a Commodore's datasette. Inside, there's 8M of memory on which I could store hundreds of .PRG file, ready for loading.

Jan - the Cassiopei's developer - confirmed it would work with my Pet, although the older, buggy version of the Basic might mean problems with optional the high speed loading. I didn't care, any form of loading would be good. 50 euros got me prompt delivery of the little device (impressively packaged too!) - my only glitch now was a lack of a PC to load the data! Whoops - but a copy of Parallels on my Mac and an old copy of XP got that up and running.

The Cassiopei is simplicity itself. I type

LOAD "",2

on the Pet to load from the second, external drive (which the Cassiopei pretends to be). I then push 'menu' on the device itself. 'Menu' loads a small bootstrap that allows me to chose a PRG file from the internal memory - this is then loaded like a normal tape.

If I have any niggle, it's that the Cassiopei is at the rear of the device - perhaps I can get a cable to bring it round the front - I'll take a look at that.

So, my Pet lives - and it's a great little machine. There's something about the built-in screen that makes this machine so retro and so immediate - I can just turn it on, and have it running a comically blocky version of space invaders within minutes. Thanks to everyone for helping me bring it back to life!

Thursday 20 May 2010

Casio SK1 - Nostalgia hits again

In a fit of nostalgia, I picked up one of these in a local second hand shop. We've had great fun blowing raspberries into it and playing back the results. We're classy.

Back in 1984, samplers were ridiculously expensive, well beyond my student grant budget. So a bit of ingenuity was needed. My first solution was a Boss digital delay - it had a sample/hold mode that could be used to trigger a sample with the pedal. Ha! n-n-n-nineteen here we come.

My next sampler was a great second hand shop find - an Oberheim Prommer, designed to create sounds for their DMX drum machine, but could be used a simple 8bit sampler in its own right. Now I could even play samples from a keyboard. From then on, everything I wrote had liberal use of the Orchestral stab - move over Trevor Horn.

But the SK1 was the most exciting budget sample solution of them all - because it was polyphonic. We got to be dab hands at the following process - play an 'A' on a keyboard, and then sing the note, holding it as steady as possible. Sample it, and hit loop. Feed through primitive Tandy Reverb, and hey-presto, this etherial, distorted mellotron-like choir sound that I used again and again.

Eventually I bought a Casio FZ-1 - a great machine, but without the charm and immediacy of the SK1. Ah, nostaligia ...

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Need. Want. Need. Want.

Oh my, there's a Fairlight for sale on eBay - and it's a proper one too, a CMI IIx with MIDI and apparently a proper working screen and everything. AND, if it couldn't be more exciting, it apparently belonged to the Art of Noise. Oh. My. God. My inner 16 year wants this machine so bad it hurts. If it stays under £1,000 I'll put in a bid, but I suspect it will go for much much more.

Here you are, take a look - the Fairlight on eBay - but don't you dare bid on it. It's mine, I tell you! All mine!

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Pimp my 8Bit - #1

I have too many old computers - and I find it increasingly difficult to justify owning them. I can justify old synths on the grounds of uniqueness of sound that no plugin can ever quite replicate. I can draw parallels to Stradivarius (or, hell, even the original Stratocaster) and point out the premium people will put on machines that "aren't made like they used to be". But 80s computers are slow, primitive and frustrating. An evening trying to load 'Chuckie Egg' from tape will soon dampen even the strongest nostalgic urges.

So here's the challenge I've set myself. Is it possible to actually build a useful 8bit computer (we'll leave the definition of 'useful' fairly open for the moment). What if I went on eBay and bought all the expansion options I could never afford in the day? What if I tapped into those user communities that keep the flames burning even now - that build IDE adapators for ZX Spectrums and network cards for Apple IIs? Could I build an almighty Frankenstein's monster of a machine? Could I ... gulp ... even browse the web on it?

Well, watch this space.

(Thanks to Dave Dunfield for the picture of a fully pimped up TI99 /4a)

Friday 28 November 2008

Keyfax - all the keyboards you can't afford.

Who else remembers this book? First published in 1985, later revisions had much less scary pictures of Julian on the cover. My copy is much loved and well thumbed - I knew it almost off by heart. I was the world's greatest expert on synthesisers I could sadly never afford.

A flick through the book now has given me a whole bunch of 'where are they now?' article ideas. There's long lost exotica like the Kinetic Sound Prism (Julian's 5th favourite keyboard at the time) or Beilfuss Performance Synthesiser. Wondefully retro home keyboards like the dazzling and complex range of Casiotones. And the just plain odd, like the RMI Computer Keyboard ...

I'll do some research on all these machines for you - as well as work my way through a stack of 'Electronics and Music Maker' I found in the loft. Ah, sweet nostalgia!

Monday 24 November 2008

Well blow me! The Yamaha VL7

Oops, I did it again. I spotted this in the corner of my local pawn shop amongst the usual collection of casio home keyboards, with their 32 styles of auto accompaniment (I just love to rhumba). This exotic machine exuded quality, yet I'd never heard of it before. A quick Google told me I was looking at a 'virtual acoustic synthesiser' (thanks SoundOnSound) that once cost an 'affordable' £2,199 - and came laden with hyperbole - 'truely revolutionary', 'unbelievably good', a 'minimoog for the nineties' if it wasn't so darned expensive. Well, it wasn't so expensive now - I emptied my kids' piggy banks and staggered home clutching my latest essential toy.

I remembered virtual synthesis from the Korg Prophecy - rather than use samples, it would digitally model what happened when air was blown down a tube, or a string was plucked and damped. I also remember being quite impressed after a 2min demo at the back of a local music store, so I had high hopes for this machine. First impressions were less than impressive - I switched it on, did a couple one finger melodies (did I mention this beast is monophonic) and heard nothing my Fantom or JV-1080 couldn't do. Oh well, technology has obviously moved on ...

It wasn't until I read the manual and looked again at this machine it all started to click. It's got three mod wheels and two continuous sliders. It should also have come with a breath controller and a foot controller. This machine is all about control. So I set up the controllers, cleared my mind and tried to think 'flute'. Oh wow. It's obvious stuff, but the harder you blow across a flute (or down a whistle or pluck a string), the sound doesn't just become louder. It changes subtly, and every little nuance of that is modelled. Once I stopped bashing at keys and tried to get a feel for the instrument I was playing, I was blown away (if you'll excuse the pun).

So, I'm in love. I explained this purchase to my wife as a desire to turn a quick profit, but now I can't let it go. Infact, I've got eBay searches running to get the breath and foot controllers this machine is missing to get the full VL7 effect. And frankly, I think it looks quite handsome in the middle of the living room.

Quick Update

Eventually I did sell it - oh, how it hurt, but it was made quite clear to me that no new equipment could come into the house until this beast went. And if you put it like that, well ...

So on Ebay it went - and blimey, what a bidding frenzy. These machines are obviously still very sought after. So thank you to all the bidders, and eventually I made some four times what I paid for it. So now I have a full Paypal account, and I'm itching to buy something!

Thursday 20 November 2008

The Super Stylophone!

I had a nostalgia spasm a few weeks back and bought one of the new model Stylophones. It brought me, oh, 15 minutes of fun playing along with CDs before it went on a shelf to gather dust.

So you cannot imagine how gutted I am to have missed this beast on eBay. Up until an hour or so ago, I wasn't even aware of the existance of the Super Stylophone - now I want one so much it hurts.

Yes, it's a 'pro' stylophone - it has *two* stylii (do you use them like chop sticks?) and a photo-cell that you can wave at to produce wah effects (just like my Fantom!). It has a range of sounds, it has controllable sustain/decay, it has vibrato and, err, reiteration. It's seriously rare and I'm sure would impress impressionable women.

Now, maybe you know all about these machines. Maybe you're sitting there at home, knitting stylophone covers with your dual stylii. But, if you're like me, and had spent most of your life blissfully unaware of it - but suddenly find yourself with a thirst to know more, visit 'The Stylophone Website' and be amazed by the matching amplifiers, the 'bass' stylophone (think TB303) and the rather cute Hong Kong rip off.

* UPDATE *  - it's back on eBay! I know some of you have been struggling to find me the perfect Christmas present ...