Sinclair Spectrum+ Tape emulation: Métal Hurlant

So I’ve tried for years now to get a Spectrum +, or a ‘toast rack’ Spectrum 128k, and met no success at all. I have bid unsuccessfully on over 24 systems, with no luck at all. However on a business trip to the UK, I bid on 8 systems, and won 4.

One of many

So now I have too many, which I’ll have to flip a few as I don’t need so many, but for me it’s been super interesting as the whole UK 80’s scene was an isolated parallel software society, that a few software publishers ‘broke out’ once there was common hardware platforms in the 16bit (ST/Amiga), and especially in the Play Station 1 era.

A seeming 100% catastrophic failure of these machines is the keyboard.

dried out contacts

The plastics tend to dry up and disintegrate over the decades, leaving a dead keyboard. However since it’s such a common problem people do make modern replacements.

closeup of the damage

Here is a closeup of the damage, and you can see the clear breakage.

view of the domes

While the keyboard is disassembled it’s a good time to clean the domes, to make sure there is no debris inside, and give it a light wash.

Reassembly

One thing that caught me off guard is that the membrane is really made up of 3 layers, and that they need to be pressed together to make it fully work. So the cable that goes under the collar needs to be tight. Many videos recommend pushing the cable slightly towards the keyboard assembly to give it that extra bit of tension as you screw it down to give it that little extra push to press the layers together.

After all that fun, the keyboard is working and now I can continue onto the next part!

Software

As always one of the big challenges with old machines is getting software loaded. Media deteriorates, becomes scarce, and of course some titles become more expensive than the machines. So what’s a pirate to do?

Luckily a discount ‘toy’ computer from the 80’s also used ‘toy’ storage, in this case the humble audio Philips compact audio cassette. And many of these tapes have been ripped, and converted to a ‘tap’ format, for emulation.

So first you’d think that it’s a simple matter of converting the tap file to a sound file, and playing the resulting file to the computer, and bingo you are up and running! Except it’s not quite that simple.

Digital to analog

This is the easiest part, is the tap conversion, I’m using Igor Maznitsa’s zxtap-to-wav, which is pretty simple to go to a 44100khz

zxtap2wav-windows-386.exe -a -f 44100 -s -i IM2.TAP -o impossibleMissionII.wav

  TAP2WAV converter of .TAP files (a format for ZX-Spectrum emulators) into its .WAV image (PCM, mono).
  Project page : https://github.com/raydac/zxtap-to-wav
        Author : Igor Maznitsa (http://www.igormaznitsa.com)
       Version : 1.0.1

Detected data blocks : .P.D.C.D.D.D.D.D.D
The Result WAV file size is 11043 Kb
3.5mm jack
But we are living in a stereo world, but the ZX Spectrum is a monaural girl

Now you’d think we are good to go, however there is one more problem, and that is the mono plug in the Spectrum. As answered on stackexchange, by mcleod_ideafix, the fundamental problem is that odds are your sound card is stereo, your ‘headphone cable’ is also stereo. So instead of one nice big happy waveform, you’ll actually end up sending 2 waveforms down the stereo plug to the mono jack, that will introduce so much crosstalk that it’d be amazing that anything loads.

Inside the thread is a good explanation of how to fix the waveform to appear over both sides of the pin, but also this nice script to use sox to split for you:

#!/bin/bash
# wav2differential.sh - convert mono game tape audio to 2× stereo
# usage:   wav2differential.sh infile.wav
#          (creates  infile-differential.wav)
# scruss - 2016-06-07
# method by ‘mcleod_ideafix’; many thanks / greetz
#   — https://retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/a/774/439

base="${1%.wav}"
sox -q --norm=-3 "$1" -b 16 "${base}-n.wav"
sox -q  "${base}-n.wav" "${base}-ni.wav" vol -1.0
sox -q  --norm=-0.1 -M -c 1 "${base}-n.wav" -c 1 "${base}-ni.wav" "${base}-differential.wav"
rm -f  "${base}-n.wav" "${base}-ni.wav"

With the wav file in place, the next thing to do is to play it back to the spectrum. On the PC however in the age of multitasking you probably have a LOT of things going beep, and that’ll mess up the entire load process. Bring up the Volume Mixer, and mute everything that isn’t what you are using to play the wav file.

Mute them all!

The first few mistakes I made was thinking that I didn’t want to send too loud of a signal to the Spectrum, as it is voltage, and it probably doesn’t need that much. However the DAC is very hard of hearing, even by 80’s standards so that means you need to crank the volume to 100%

Overboost to 125%

As a matter of fact, go all the way to 125% if you are using VLC. Tapes load slow, expect anywhere for a minute for a 10kb program, and 5+ minutes for a 40kb program. Times vary depending on how the packed the waveform, fast loaders and other fun things.

Spectrum loading from Laptop

And yeah there we go, loading Impossible Mission II, converted from a .tap to wav, then split and combined waveform to load from a stereo plug.

Going overboard!

Now I have 3 ways!

In the last auction I inadvertly won, it included a joystick interface (that hangs OVER the keyboard, WTF?!), and a legit 1980’s Tape deck, the Ingersoll XK696. Shockingly it actually works! It did have it’s fair share of dust bunnies inside which needed promptly cleaning out, I tested with a ‘legit’ tape, a copy of startrike, and yeah, it loaded up fine! I do like how it’s got it’s own ‘monitor’ volume and speaker, along with nice big chunky buttons, and tactile feedback. Got to say I do like it, although yeah loading from tape is slow. But since I never did back in the day, there is something oddly weird about having to pace oneself because of the insanely slow peripherals. I wonder how slot in bps the 1541 was.

I also ordered a retro.care “MaxDuino TZXduino CASduino” loader which can read the tap files directly, and included a stereo to monaural RCA 3.5 cable in the bundle. Pitty it didn’t include a SD card, and I ended up buying some 4GB card for £5. Such is the price of wanting it immediately. It does let you set the baud rate from 1200/2400/3600 and a blistering overdrive of 3668? Short of an eye watering £90+ for a DivIDE/DivMMC board it does seem to be the budget way to go for someone who doesn’t want to waste all that time converting tap images to wav, then inverse wav to load from PC. But then again if you have 5+ minutes to load a program, you have time to convert files.

There does seem to be something oddly zen about loading from tape, and it makes one all the more hesitant to reboot as loading up something else is such a long process, and that is of course assuming that it even loads in the first place.

Also the other odd thing is that some programs/games want you to load tapes as if they are semi-random access needing you to stop and go on demand (maybe rewind too!). Granted other computers (MSX?) did include a control cable allowing rewind giving a more randomish access out of tape. It’s a limitation of the time, sadly and microdrives and floppies arrived too late, and failed to have any significant adoption to matter, sadly.

I don’t know if this will reach any audience, although there is some ‘retro wave’ going on since the unmentionable event of CNY 2019, and shut ins are getting retro. Although for me, it’s very interesting exploring this parallel and yet foreign experience of a retro past I never knew existed. Although I guess thanks to US Gold, many in the UK were well aware of American software from the likes of EA/Activision et al.

I forget where I heard the term “Métal Hurlant” although it does seem appropriate having a younger machine scream the programs of tape drive past to it’s earphone jack. But it’s most likely the French magazine, and my imagination of something cross between Jarre/Ulrich.

Lenslock: annoying DRM of the 1980s

So while I currently have no tape drive for my ZX Spectrum, loading totally legit tap files, got me into this fun thing, lenslock copy protection.

OK

But thanks to Simon Owen, there is this great emulator to an old physical dongal that’ll let you unlock the magical codes! LensKey doesn’t seem to scale to DPI that well, but it does work. And I was able to unlock Elite!

code..decoded

As you can see the weird pattern is reveled to be ‘j4’, you only get 3 chances, otherwise it’ll reset the Spectrum, and you HAVE TO LOAD FROM TAPE AGAIN. I can barely take it today, even with a dedicated MAX duino, tape emulator running at 3,850 baud, it’s just absolutely insane!

I need to write something sensible about tap files, and loading them to a physical machine, as it’s a bit more involved than I had first imagined. But it does work!!.. kinda.

The slap heard around the world

Even when Im trying to live under my rock, I still am somehow flooded with news that there was a slap fight.

Totally not kayfabe. Borrowed from CNN.com

No not this Will Smith Chris Rock thing, I’m talking of course about Clive Sinclair slapping Chris Curry at the Baron of Beef pub in Cambridge.

What’s the beef about?

Where’s the beef?

Clive vs Curry

As the legend goes, Curry worked under Clive, but he ran into Herman Hauser who had encouraged Curry to go his own way and make that computer of his dreams. Incised about this Clive was able to put together and rush out the Z80 before Acorn had anything ready to ship

£79.95

And more importantly it was CHEAP. You’d have thought that the zx80 would have found a larger world wide market but Commodore and Apple reigned supreme in North America.

Later that year Acorn would ship the Acorn Atom priced around £129 in kit, and £179 assembled it was a lot more expensive but granted it did have a lot more ‘computer’ in there.

In the following year Sinclair had released the ZX81, which although a larger price point also included a lot more, larger ram/rom better display and of course this was ready to ignite the coming war.

As the legend goes a TV show of all things, ‘The Might Micro, (2/3/4/5/6)’ had ignited such a storm in parliament that the Department of Industry & the BBC decided that they were going to produce programming to go along with a selected microcomputer. And that machine was the Newbury NewBrain… until it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be the machine of choice, and the selection was pushed back from the fall of 81 to the spring of 82. With the BBC being forced to open up selection to other UK computer manufacturers, both worked hard for a machine, however Curry swooped in with his new ‘BBC Micro’ (that had started working the day of the inspection) and won the contract.

1982 of course would give us the ZX Spectrum as Sinclair’s answer to what the people needed.

Oddly enough things in the long term didn’t work out for ether of them, as they both made so many missteps that they ended up ultimately shelving both of the units, with Acorn barely surviving, although their ARM processor does live on, mostly because it ended up free of any hardware platform to go along with it.

The plus isn’t plussed

There was no ZX 83 model, instead there was of course the QL for 1984. And taking on the design of the QL the Sinclair + was launched. And despite the name, it was just a 48k with a reset button and nicer keyboard. Very NON plussed. The only upgrade to the ZX would have to come from spain in the form of the 128.

The QL was 100% incompatible with the ZX. Apparently doing something like the SEGA Megadrive, by including both a 68000 and z80 was just too out of the question. Instead it was so focused on price it made the machine not serious enough for the serious business market Clive had craved so much. No socket for a 68881, and the drives being so incredibly tiny, IBM had quickly followed up the PC with the XT which allowed for a hard disk, while the QL with a single slot in no way could fit a then 5 1/4″ full heigh disk.

Although many fault the QL for having relied on the 68008 processor remember even IBM was using the 8088, with the same 8bit constraints, it’s not that it was impossible, it’s that the sleek stylized deck of the QL was just far too ahead of itself, it’d be fine for today, just look at the Pi400! I’d prefer to have one with SD cards up front but I guess I need to learn how to 3d print and make my own.

Another fault of the QL was not having the space on the motherboard to go to the full 1MB of addressable RAM like the PC, and loading the OS from disk. Having the OS in ROM was such an 8bit holdover when loading it from tape would have been useless but the PC way of loading the OS from disk was the way to go, also it far easier facilitated updating. I know the ST & Amiga also went with OS in ROM thinking it saved money but in the long term all the wedge’s of the era just limited themselves.

The real slap: in the market

The real SLAP heard around the UK

The real slap that was heard was the stagnation of both machines, and the decline of the UK computer makers. Acorn had apparently manufactured a tonne of Electron’s for Christmas but the order wasn’t actually put through because of some ‘pull back of a video game crash’ in Europe. I guess it’s the continuation of the video game crash in the USA, but as you can see the stockpile of machines to be blown out was just incredible.

And it was in 1984 that apparently Acorn had run an ad showing that Sinclair computers had a high defect rate, something that has always plagued Sinclair’s quest for low cost machines, Something that had been hand waved as a 1 year replacement policy with many teenagers abusing the machines, that led to the confrontation in the Baron of Beef along with the whooping Sinclair had unleashed on Curry. Although much of this has passed into more legend than fact, even Ruth Bramley didn’t recall anything about the event.

It’s an amazing flash in the pan, that has so many games, and so much early computer culture that was partitioned to a tiny island and for the most part in the rest of the world totally unknown. I hope to get a real Spectrum 128 one day, it sounds like a fascinating machine. Although they made a million? of them, they are quite expensive in any market place. I wonder sometimes if there is demand for a super cheap almost ‘disposable’ 8bit computer. Obviously it’d have be under £20.

Since all this UK micro computer stuff never really left the island it’s all new to me. And maybe many people outside of the UK, or surprisingly the iron curtain where zx spectrums were abundant.

footnote: I know people will say that there was some attempt at selling Sinclair Micros out of Texas with one OEM, but honestly I’ve never hear or seen of any such thing, it’s only recently as a curiosity on youtube. And they were incompatible anyways so whatever.

Also holy crap so an actor slapped another actor in a show where they backslap each other. Who cares?! Bring back Beavis and Butthead, and prime time boxing! People obviously have a thirst for this, why did the WWF’s kayfabe fade? the paywalls?

Nothing

I’m not sure why but I seem to be getting pulled into the ZX spectrum. Maybe it’s because I’ve yet to have seen one, and find it interesting about this massive parallel space I knew nothing of.

I’d found this review of the game, by sinc LAIR, which goes over a bit of history behind this port of the game. Very cool stuff, but for non русский speakers like me, be sure to turn on the auto translated subtitles!

The game is for sale for a mere €3 zxonline.net. One thing I had issues with, is because it’s Russian, normal Pay Pal blocks the transaction of account to account, so you have to use incognito mode, and tell Pay Pal to process it as credit card and it’ll work fine. Keeping in mind since Pay Pal does the CC charge, your # never goes to Russia. And it’s a damned shame, it’s not like ever Russian hacker is all about online crimes, some just want to make cool games.

Game play is challenging as hell! It’s very much a ‘one touch and you are dead’ game. I cheated and uses save states from the EmuZWin emulator.

ABSOLUTELY GET A JOYSTICK!

I don’t know why I was playing with the keyboard, holy crap don’t do that, don’t waste your time!

Would I recommend nothing for the ZX Spectrum 128k? Absolutely. It’s totally worth the €3, you can feel the love in this game!

sinc LAIR is going to have a live stream of it in a few hours, so I can see how to get past the spinning monster thing on level 2. Maybe I’ll post some video of me constantly dying.