New era of digital preservation

In the age where technology is ever moving and evolving, what of the technology which has come and gone?  And in particular with the data which has been forgotten about and disguarded?

These days there are pockets of digital preservers whom specify in preserving materials from a particular medium.  For example preserving VHS/Vinyl to digital form is something that has been happening for a number of years.  Like VHS, disks and tapes will sadly eventually decay and render useless in years to come as materials deterioate and signals fade and so it is important to have digital backups of these materials before they disappear altogether and have means of being able to access that data.

One of my big interests is digtal preservation in the retro gaming world.  In particular across the Commodore brand of machines,  the Commodore 64 and the Vic 20.  This includes digitally backing up complete copies of tapes as digital .TAP files and disks as digital .D64 images which all can be ran back via a PC based emulator and are preserved for future generations.  This process in the past has often been fiddly and quite tricky, with special cables having to be built to connect Commodore specific hardware to a PC and transfer data.  The PC had to have a particular old style parallel port as well, which led to myself using a very old laptop from the late 90’s.

DC2N and 1541U2 plugged into a C64C. NOTE! .. The DC2N is not normally plugged into a C64 by default as it primarily runs standalone, but only if I wanted to play back TAP images to the hardware.

Thankfully within the past year or so we have been blessed with two new pieces of hardware which has made the process a whole lot smoother, and with the extra bonus of being able to play back our preservation work on the real hardware.  These two pieces of hardware?   The DC2N and the 1541 Ultimate V2….

DC2N, what’s that?

The DC2N is a digital dumping tool for the Commodore cassette format which was used for the likes of the C64, Vic 20 and C16/+4 machines.  Tapes in particular are a medium which are beginning to fade and deteriorate, even now.  So it has been critical to preserve as much as possible.  Not only just to get games that have not been yet backed up, but also preserve fully complete tape loaders with loading screens, music and text attached – all valid parts that make up the complete “digital package” of a game.

DC2N loading Short Circuit (Note the tape counter)

Luigi Di Fraia is the man behind this ingenious piece of kit which comes in a well built black box.  In its version 2 status, it can allow you to populate an SD card with .TAP files (Digitally recorded tape files), mount and then load them back to the machine like a real tape (Including long loading times and all!).  But its core and main purpose the ability to hook in a C2N tape deck onto the end of the device and back up real tapes to the device as dump files which can be later ported to a emulator friendly TAP file once copied to a PC (Version 3, to highlight its purpose as a dumping tool, will be potentially removing the playback functions).

In its dumping mode, the device is powered separately by 5V DC adaptor and use it standalone to backup tapes, which is handy for me and leaves my C64 free to do other work (Such as disk backups).

Functionality is provided by the black buttons which replicate the Play, Stop, Fast Foward, Rewind, Pause, Record buttons from the C2N.  Using the LCD screen on top, each of the buttons provide different functions to allow for mounting TAP images and for recording from the playing tape drive.  At first you may need to read the manual a bit to get used to the functions available, but it’s nothing complex at all.  Everything additionally functions as a real C2N would, and even I could write BASIC programs and save them to the device if I wanted to – however my main purpose will be for just backing up tapes.

One big bonus for me personally is the ability to use the device on the Vic 20,  which is a machine that I have many tapes and TAP files that I have wanted to play on the real thing.  Before, i’d have to port the TAP image individually back to a real tape and then play on the machine, which was very cumbersome and slow.  It additionally works on the C16/+4, so there is yet another platform I can make use of with the device if I ever wanted to.

One thing is that Luigi has discouraged the copying of TAP images back to real tape with the device due to people potentially restoring tapes and selling on Ebay as originals (Which of course is quite likely).  This is fair enough, and if you wanted to restore tapes back to the original cassettes, then you’ll need to find other means of doing so.

Loading back a digitally backed up "Short Circuit" game, just like a real tape game, complete with it's loading screen and music.

Overall the hardware has been in the making for a number of years as Luigi has built and designed everything within his own free time.  It has been worth the wait, and Luigi must be praised for producing a great preservation tool!

Compared to the old method of using a XE1541 cable and a laptop,  the process is extremely fast and efficient to back up tapes, which is great for me with my limited time these days.   I just wish it could also automatically scan the tape inlays for me and crop them too! 😉  Just one thing is that you must ensure that the C2N you use is correctly aligned and working to create the best possible quality TAP images without having to tidy up the files afterwards.

And what about the 1541 Ultimate?

The 1541U has been permanently plugged into my C64 ever since I got the first iteration a year or so ago.  Just recently I have received the more polished second edition of the hardware, in a slick black case and with a USB port added!

The device is a digital replacement for the 1541 disk drive, which allows the playing of disk games from their digital D64 format on the real machine, supporting multi-loading and a variety of other emulation files such as .t64,  .prg and I think G64 images?

It isn’t just a disk drive however,  but there is a wealth of extra features which are mind blowing … including a RAM expander (Up to 2mb),  a SID player, ability to mount different cartridges on boot up (I have set the Action Replay 6 as my default) and networking features (Which on the version 2 I think will appear again via the USB port!).    I can additionally plug in a USB hard drive/pen into the side and load directly from it and list its directory contents.
Most of the time I will browse through the A-Z structure I have setup on my SD card and mount individual D64 files for loading.

For preservation, it has been brilliant – especially for the Games That Weren’t project, where I have been able to hook in a second disk drive and use the Action Replay utilities to copy a real disk from the second drive back to the 1541U and a blank D64 image.  The process is as quick as doing a normal Action Replay disk copy, which is about 20 seconds.  As a comparison, with the old XE1541 cable to PC method, it could take a few minutes to back up a disk side … so backing up a ex-C64 developer’s box of work disks takes far less time!

There is a little socket underneath which also allows us in future to hook up to the tape drive socket and potentially be able to play back TAP titles via the device, which will cover the ability of playing back TAP backups produced by the DC2N.

For gaming, you can pretty much fit the entire Gamebase 64 collection onto a single SD card – which is almost 30,000 C64 games accessible from one device.  No more having to manually port games back to real disks like I used to!  And if I need to test out a newly released demo or game, I can pop it onto a nearby USB stick and bang… have the thing loaded up in a manner of seconds on real hardware.  Additionally the device has allowed playing of C64 cartridges such as Myth,  Toki,  Robocop 2 and 3 – which is the icing on the cake.

And so….

Overall both devices have provided me with the best possible mechanism of backing up and preserving,  but also playing back what we have saved (In particular with reference to the 1541U) – directly onto the hardware it was built for.  I’m not sure what i’d do now if I didn’t have the devices.  Although both are expensive due to the limited builds,  but they are very worthy investments, and ones which you will feel no regret afterwards of handing over the money.  Most likely you’ll probably want to buy a second as a backup 🙂

If you want to find out more about the two devices, then check out their respective websites below:


2 thoughts on “New era of digital preservation

  1. Digger February 3, 2011 / 11:03 am

    How did you get to copy the disk to D64 in 20 sec? I’ve tried using AR’s 6.0 “whole disk copy” but it took at least a minute and half. I’ve heard that using Fast Hack’em is more efficient as it does load & save at the same time, but haven’t tried.

  2. fgasking February 3, 2011 / 11:24 am

    I don’t think I did 🙂 … You’re right, a whole disk copy is about a minute and a half, so no quicker with the 1541U. I must have been thinking about basic file copying which I sometimes do to get all the files off a disk rather than a whole disk copy. Sorry about that 🙂

    I’ll have to try out Fast Hack’em, as anything to save time backing up disks will be very useful when sent about 100 of the things to preserve 🙂

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