Tag Archives: retro

Load ZX Spectrum games from MP3!

My memory of the ZX Spectrum is warm and hazy, but even I remember the pain you had to go through with tape players, and adjusting the azimuth of the tape head.  I even had (and who didn’t?) a specific special screw driver permanently in place in the tape player so I could tweak it as required.

To imagine you could get away with loading ZX Spectrum games from an audio file, created from a file which in turn has been created from the actual tape blows my mind.  To do it using a lossy-compression algorithm like MP3 makes my cortex bleed.

But you can, and it’s not that hard!

I’ve had the Spectrums in the house for a couple of weeks now, so I felt it was time I actually tried to you know, play a game on one of them.  This isn’t without challenges and in the process I discovered some more issues with the little black microcomputers from my past.  I don’t have a tape deck knocking around, although I do have a very old walkman style cassette player.  In my head, I’d been half planning to use that to try and load games on the Spectrum, and one eBay purchase had some tapes.  But I remembered something I’d read online about ‘speed loading games from an MP3 player’, so decided to do a little more research on that.

A quick google search later, and I was looking at this website.  Twenty minutes after that, downloading the software it mentions, I was playing Manic Miner on one of my real ZX Spectrums, on my TV.  Crazy!

I’ll write a longer blog post later, for the full process, and the issues it revealed with the stuff I’ve bought so far.

It’s not just the Rust

The first 48k Spectrum to arrive works fine, but the image is pretty flickery.  I’d assumed that was because the RF connector looked rusty, so after asking on Facebook/Twitter, I gave it a solid clean!  That requires taking the whole thing apart of course, and that means risking the paper thin membrane connectors which are shoved into the motherboard.

The inside of this Spectrum is different though, it’s a 3B apparently, and the connectors the membrane goes into are lying at an angle, I’m not sure if that’s original or not.

The membrane connectors are also slightly thicker and tougher than I would have expected, so I’m wondering if it’s been replaced at some stage (if it has, nice job, the metal faceplate looks well attached).  Anyway, here’s the back of the board.

And here’s the RF connector, it’s not as bad as I had feared.

5 careful minutes with some abrasive material, and it was significantly cleaner.  I also took the opportunity to clean up the rest of the board and then put it all back together (before I remembered to photograph the RF connector again).  Sadly, despite the clean, the image isn’t significantly better, so I need to ask around and see what else could be causing it.  In the meantime, here’s a pretty useless shot of the cleaned connector inside the case.

Opening Pandora’s Spectrum

I wanted to have a look inside the ZX Spectrum +2, to see if I could work out why the TV image is so fuzzy from the RF feed.  I couldn’t see if the connector was rusty or if there was some other issue, and I’d never seen the inside of a +2 either (I never originally owned one).

This is the second Spectrum I’ve bought where someone has replaced a missing screw with a wood screw!  This time, the wood screw is about 3 times the diameter of the screw it replaced!  Anyway, I got the screws out, and lifted the case apart, you have to sort of jiggle the tape deck PCB out from underneath a metal bracket, but it wasn’t too hard.  The inside of the thing is pretty manky (the 48k I got along with this smelled a bit like chip fat).  20 minutes later I had the board cleaned.

The area next to the board which sits under the tape deck looks like it’s got a bit of grease knocking around, probably from the deck itself, so I gave that a good clean as well.  The back of the main board isn’t like a 48K Spectrum, so you don’t get an issue number or anything, but I took a photo just in case it means something and I need to look it up later.

However, the main reason for taking this thing apart was checking out the RF signal.  The connector itself is pretty clean, but the metal box with the RF circuitry is missing the lid, and I think I found the problem with the signal.  These two photo’s are near identical, but with just a slight angle difference to help see the problem.

Is it me, or has someone cut / snipped / broken the wire attaching the RF connector to the rest of the electronics?  The wire sticking up out of the orange component on the middle left doesn’t go anywhere, and the wire coming out the back of the actual RF socket isn’t attached to anything.  It’s almost as if someone tried the composite video hack, and either failed or then removed it.

Essentially, I think it’s a miracle I can see anything at all using the RF feed.  I need to do some more research in case I’m missing something obvious, but I can’t see how it would work at all without a connection.  I don’t have a connector for the RGB out (or indeed, anything I could view it with initially), so I may get to try out my soldering skills on fixing this if I can find a diagram showing how it should look!

Another box of Retro Magic

Note: Can’t keep using the same title, so I’ve changed the posts to be part of a collection of articles.  As well as that, they’re the only ones that will show up in the Retro Computing category.

So, as well as the DataServe-Retro parcel that arrived, I got another of the Spectrums I’ve won on eBay.  This was actually the 2nd one I won (the first one still hasn’t arrived, but is on the way, apparently).  I didn’t buy this lot for just the Spectrum (which was obviously in a bad way in the photo’s), but because it comes with a couple of joysticks, a joystick interface (couldn’t tell what kind in the photo), and a thermal printer (no clue if it works!)

Anyway, unpacked the content, and I’m now the proud owner of a bunch of somewhat dirty peripherals!

The joysticks are a Cheetah 125 and a Cheetah 125+.  The latter is pretty grimy!

The interface turned out to be a DKTronics single port joystick interface.  It’s pretty dirty as well.  It should look like this.

It actually looks like this.

A little bit of a clean will do it the world of good, assuming it still works!

The printer is the Alphacom 32, which I believe is the US version of the standard Sinclair thermal printer, although it’s in a more sturdy, robust case.  The interface has some springs, which are badly bent, but nothing I don’t think I can’t fix (enough double negatives?)

And of course, this box did contain a 48K Spectrum!  The photo on eBay suggested there was some sticky tape holding the case on, and that turned out to be true.  Removing the tape has removed a little bit of paint, and the case clearly bends up away from the plastic (someone’s tried replacing the membrane or the rubber, and have bent it).  Other than that, it actually works perfectly well.  The image isn’t as crisp as the Spectrum with the broken membrane, but is must better than the one with the rusty RF connector.

All-in-all, I’m pretty pleased with this purchase.  It wasn’t expensive, and if the printer works (untested) it’ll be well worth the asking price.  The motherboard in the Spectrum is in good condition, so if I can tidy the case up, or get another one, it’ll be a nice little computer.

Edit: Change my mind again, not using the Articles page, because there are too many, must sticking to the Retro Computing category.

8bit Mid-life Crisis – part 5

Got a couple of parcels this morning.  The first one was from DataServe-Retro and contained my new (old) power supply and a brand new RF cable.

There’s no plug on the power supply, which was pretty common in the 80’s, but is always surprising these days.  I did know it wasn’t going to have one.  Putting the plug on reminded me that it’s probably 10 years or more since I’ve had to do that, and I wonder if kids still get taught how to do it at school like we did.

Anyway, the power supply works fine and the RF cable is nice and tidy.  The image from the working Spectrums is a little bit better with the new cable as well.  Very pleased with the service from DataServe, and although they aren’t super cheap, for something like a power supply I’m happier getting it from there than I am eBay!

They sell keyboard membranes as well, so I might get one of those (next month, no money left this month!) to fix up the Speccy with the split ribbon cables.

8bit Mid-life Crisis – part 4

I need a better title for these posts otherwise real-soon-now I’ll be up to part 194.  So anyway, I decided to check out the inside of the new Spectrum (I’m going to have to start giving them names, so the new one is, sold-as-working).  So, I decided to check the inside of sold-as-working, since it looked like some of the keys weren’t working.  Turns out that it’s unlikely to have been caused during transit, and either the seller was fibbing, or that screen-shot of the full output is from a long time ago.  Anyway, not-to-worry, I had my eyes open before I started buying these things.

So, sold-as-working looks okay from the front.  The top lettering has lost most of the white, and on closer inspection, the bottom right of the keyboard metal plate has an odd dent.  More on that later.  The case looks okay, and the connectors look pretty clean.  We know it generally works because the output is very clear.  No sign of rust on the screws, but I’m not convinced they’re originals.

If you look at that last shot, of the TV connector, the case looks like it’s a little bit separated.

Anyway, I took the case apart, and sure enough, one of the screws is not like the others (it’s a wood screw for a start).  The board looks okay.

And now we know it’s an Issue Two board.

Once it was all apart, I checked over the keyboard connector ribbons, and it’s clear where the problem lies.  Both ribbons have cracks in the lower ends, and I thought I could maybe get away with just a snip, but then I found the real issue.

That split in the smaller of the two ribbons is pretty much half way up, so if I snipped it, there’s no way I’d be able to actually plug it in as well.  We’ll be needed a new membrane then.  Of course, fitting the membrane is a challenge because you need to take the metal plate off.

Oh wait, wasn’t it dented?

And true enough, someone else has already had a go.  Maybe this is a new membrane, or maybe someone just tried taking the plate off, but that glue looks ‘interesting’.  It looks like the dent is the only place it’s still actually glued firmly to the plastic, so I’m going to have to be careful getting that off, and then getting it cleaned and glued down again.  But, I’m pretty sure that’s why I bought these things in the first place?

The other part of the big parcel with this Speccy was a bunch of games.  They are here in all their glory!

Well, I wanted a project …

8bit Mid-life Crisis – part 3

A Parcel!O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  I received a parcel yesterday, naturally there wasn’t anyone in the house.  Grete picked it up for me today from the Post Office, and although initially I feared it was an HDMI cable I’d bought from Amazon, Grete assured me on collection it was rather larger than that!

Turns out it’s the very last Spectrum 48k that I bought, excellent turnaround from the eBayer that sold it to me.

I’m actually working tonight (long running issue at work), so after getting in, in between cooking some food and logging on to my work laptop, I ripped open the packaging and sure enough, inside is a boxed Spectrum 48k.  You can even see the original price tag on the cardboard box!

Some pictures,

Boxed 48k SpectrumOriginal Price Tag

The exciting thing about this delivery is not just that it’s another Spectrum but that it includes a power source and a TV RF cable.  That means I can test the other two Spectrums I already have!  Huzzah!  As you can imagine, I’m pretty excited!

During a lull in work, I manage to get 20 minutes to try all 3 machines.  I plugged in the first Spectrum I got (no idea if it works), and before I even tuned the TV in, I could hear the keyboard clicks! It’s alive!  5 minutes of TV tuning later (which you know, is fun, because it’s about 10 years since I had to tune a TV signal), and I get this.

Fuzzy TV Image

from this Spectrum,

Cheap Spectrum

As you can see, the TV image is pretty shocking.  But, this is the Spectrum with the rust on the AV connector, so I’m pretty confident at this stage I can clean that up.  All the keys work (miracle!) and the Spectrum is alive!

Next, I plug in the new one.  Instantly, I get this,

Clear TV image

from this,

Slightly Less Cheap Spectrum

As you can see, a much cleaner image.  The back of the new Spectrum is far cleaner as well (more pictures when I have more time).  Sadly, somewhere between being boxed up by the seller and arriving at my house, some of the keys have stopped working (upper left side).  I suspect the ribbon cable inside is a little torn or flaky and just needs some work to repair it.  I’m not sad because I now have two mostly working Spectrums and a way to test more!

I plugged in the Spectrum +2 as well, with a bit of power cable fiddling I can get the tape drive to work, but I can’t get it tuned in.  The +2 also has a bit of rust on the AV connector it appears and I either need to get it cleaned, or spend more time trying to tune it in.  I can almost see an image on the TV so I’m pretty sure the thing powers up okay.

Exciting times my friends, exciting times indeed.

8bit Mid-life Crisis – part 2

Another day, another ebay win (is it ebay or e-bay, or even EBay, eBay, Ebay?)  After telling myself I had bought enough (4 Spectrums, plus a power supply and cable from the very nice man at DataServe), I couldn’t resist scanning eBaY just in case ‘anything nice came up’.

Sellers Photograph of the ZX Spectrum I boughtAnd of course it did.  So I bid on, and eventually won a working Spectrum shown with both the Speccy and the screen (48k rubber key edition).  It even has a box and everything (sides missing)!  It comes with a few games as well.  Of course, it could turn out to be a pup (maybe it’s got the fault where only 16K RAM shows up), or something else could be up with it, but it certainly looks decent in the pictures.  That’s £17 plus £11 postage (including the games!)

That one has also shipped already, so should be here soon.  The first one still hasn’t shipped and I haven’t had a response from the seller to my EBay query yet either, so starting to get a touch nervous about that.  Paid for it on the 6th, no communication since then.  I’m sure it’ll be okay.

The middle one is still en-route, posted on Friday so there’s a chance it’ll arrive in the next couple of days.  Hopefully the new (old) power supply and lead (from DataServe-Retro) will be here by then and I can work out how many of them (if any!) still actually work.

After that, who knows?  I may try the RF to Composite Video conversion on one of the cheaper ones that work, to try my hand at a bit of soldering.

Of course, then there’s a long discussion about how to actually play games?  Do you buy a tape player and find tapes (or write out TAP files to tape), or do you buy something like the DivIDE so that you can write all your legitimate tape contents to a CF card and load games from that?

Am I even buying these things so I can play games?  Probably not, frankly, who wants to spend 3 hours trying to play Atic Atac on a tiny keyboard or dodgy second hand joystick when it’s trivial to play with an emulator?  But it’s not about that, it’s about having the kit again, physically in my hands, after all this time.

8bit Mid-life Crisis

I got out of bed one day last week and decided it was time.  Since then, I’ve bid on about 10 ZX Spectrums on e-bay, and have won four.  Two (same seller) have arrived, one is dispatched and on the last (the first I won) still no update, but I’m sure it’ll get here.  I’ve lost out on a bunch where I wasn’t prepared to bid over my own internal limit.

There are some important things to know.

  1. I know nothing about collecting retro computers.
  2. I have no electronic engineering or electrical engineering skills, at all.
  3. I’m pretty shoddy when it comes to manual actions like, oh I dunno, replacing a keyboard membrane or fixing the drive belt on a tape unit.
  4. I have no real idea what kinds of failures retro computers might experience and don’t have the faintest idea how to approach fixing them.

Other than that, I think it’s the ideal hobby for a 40+ over-weight geek who was born at the start of the 70’s and lived through the 80’s micro-computing revolution.

I do want to perhaps learn more about 1-4 as I go, and I’d love to use this to gain some skills with electronics and soldering and all that jazz, so you never know.  For that reason, I set myself a pretty low purchase point on e-bay, I don’t want to end up breaking anything decent, and there’s a lot of stuff on there so I don’t have to rush into it.

The two Speccy’s that have arrived (1 x 48k, 1 x 128k +2) don’t have any cables, and there’s no indication they even work.  The one en-route (1 x 48k) might or might not work, but it has a couple of joysticks, a thermal printer, and what might be a Kempston joystick interface.  The last one appears to work (1 x 48k), but I have no visibility of the actual Speccy itself, just the screen output.

I’m hoping out of the four I can get a decent looking working Speccy and learn a bit about restoring them, getting them working, and changing the output from RF to AV in the process.

Folk on Twitter and Facebook asked why.  It’s a good question, and my only answer is, mid-life crisis maybe.  So here we are, at the start of my 8bit mid-life crisis.

Here’s some pictures.

ZX Spectrum 48k (unless it turns out to be a 16k version)

There’s quite a bit of rust on the screws and on the RF output.

ZX Spectrum +2

The tape housing looks a bit scratched, and I’ve no idea if that’s a valid serial number, otherwise, looks in okay condition.

Once I have a power supply and an RF cable, I’ll let you know if they even work!