Recovery of Heritage Software Stored on Magnetic Tape for

IJDC | Peer-Reviewed Paper
Recovery of Heritage Software Stored on Magnetic Tape for
Commodore Microcomputers
Denise de Vries, Craig Harrington
Flinders University, South Australia
Digital games make up a significant but little known chapter in the history of the moving
image in Australia and New Zealand. Beginning in the early 1980s, the Australasian
software industry developed a remarkable record of content creation. The ‘Play It Again’
project is conducting research into the largely unknown histories of 1980s game development in Australia and New Zealand, ensuring that local titles make it into national
collections and are documented and preserved, enabling the public to once again play
these games.
Microcomputers from the 1980s made extensive use of compact audio cassettes to distribute software as an inexpensive alternative to the floppy disk technology available at the
time. Media from this era are at risk of degradation and are rapidly approaching the end
of their lifespan. As hardware platforms and peripheral devices become obsolete, access
to the data for future scholars and other interested parties becomes more difficult. In this
article, we present a case study, wherein we investigate the issues involved in making
digital copies with a view to the long term preservation of these software artefacts.
A video game title stored on standard compact cassette for Commodore’s popular VIC-20
machine, ‘Dinky Kong’ by Mark Sibley was recorded using both inexpensive amateur and
professional playback equipment. The audio files obtained were processed using freely
available software, alongside a customised decoder written in MATLAB and Perl. The
resulting image files were found to be playable using an emulator. More importantly, the
integrity of the data itself was verified, by making use of error detection features inbuilt
to the Commodore tape format, which is described in detail.
Issues influencing the quality of the recovered image files, such as the bit rate of the digital
recording, are discussed. The phenomenon of audio dropout on magnetic tape is shown
be of some concern, however there exist signal processing techniques to compensate for
such errors.
The end result of the imaging process was a file compatible with a popular Commodore
VIC-20 emulator, the integrity of which was verified by using inbuilt checksums.
Received 14th October 2015 | Revision received 14th December 2016 | Accepted 14th December 2016
Correspondence should be addressed to Denise de Vries, CSEM, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001
The International Journal of Digital Curation is an international journal committed to scholarly excellence and dedicated
to the advancement of digital curation across a wide range of sectors. The IJDC is published by the University of
Edinburgh on behalf of the Digital Curation Centre. ISSN: 1746-8256. URL:
Copyright rests with the authors. This work is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International Licence. For details please see
International Journal of Digital Curation
2016, Vol. 11, Iss. 2, 76–86.
DOI: 10.2218/ijdc.v11i2.386
Denise de Vries and Craig Harrington | 77
A number of early home microcomputers made use of standard compact audio cassettes
to store software and data. In comparison to floppy disk drives, the playback/recording
hardware was inexpensive and the media were readily available. With the advent of music
stored on compact disk and now consumed mostly by digital download, audio cassettes are
becoming increasingly more difficult to work with due to obsolescence of the hardware.
In this paper, we describe the issues encountered in creating an image of the
Commodore VIC-20 game, ‘Dinky Kong’. This title was coded by Mark Sibley as a
teenager, locally distributed in New Zealand and is of historical significance due to the
fact that Sibley has subsequently created significant software works, such as Blitz BASIC
for the Commodore Amiga and more recently, the Monkey X programming language
(Sibley, 2014).
All magnetic media are susceptible to incurring damage over a period of years, which
is informally known as ‘bit rot’. This can be either due to demagnetisation of the data
laden layer or degradation of the media itself. In the case of magnetic tape, the latter
case is more common: the binders which hold together the layers of the tape are prone to
disintegrate over time (Gibson, 1997). Thus, it is desirable to preserve the information
before the data are lost forever.
The DC2N device (Fraia, 2006) offers a hardware solution to the problem of creating
digital copies of the data on tape. Image files of Commodore (or Sinclair) tapes are able
to be produced on non-volatile memory card using an original Commodore tape drive
directly connected to the DC2N. That is, there is no need for either a host system or a
legacy Commodore machine in the process, although the device itself can function as a
replacement for the Commodore tape drive, if desired. Unfortunately, this device has only
been produced in somewhat limited quantities and was unavailable for purchase, leading
to the need to investigate alternative methods for creating tape images.
Guttenbrunner et al. (2009) presented methodologies for preserving and extracting
data from cassettes for a Philips G7400. In their work, having access to the original
equipment enabled them to re-engineer the audio waveform, as well as all data formats,
and write a tool to migrate the data to non-obsolete formats.
In this article, the process of creating a tape image is described. Conventional
audio cassette playback equipment was used to capture the data which was subsequently
transformed into in a format compatible with a popular Commodore emulator. The main
contributions of this work can be summarised as follows:
• Description of Commodore VIC-20 tape format,
• Capture of legacy data without proprietary hardware,
• Description of the errors encountered during data capture,
• Creation of an error-free TAP file image.
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78 | Recovery of Commodore Magnetic Tape
Time (sec)
x 10
Figure 1. Plot of tape waveform sampled at 44100 Hz, illustrating approximate duration of a long
Magnetic Tape Data Format
The tape format used by Commodore’s PET, VIC-20 and 64 makes use of standard
compact audio cassettes with tones within normal range of human hearing. Specifically,
the pulse width modulation (PWM) scheme employed allows for data to be decoded at
a rate of 300 baud using the standard loaders present in Commodore’s operating system
(or KERNAL) (Commodore Business Machines Inc., 1984). This technique has the
advantage of being relatively robust to presence of noise, simple to implement and most
importantly, insensitive to slight variations in the playback speed of the magnetic tape
(Georgiou, 1984).
The beginning of a pulse is represented by a falling edge zero crossing: where the
waveform changes from positive amplitude to negative amplitude. The end point of the
pulse is the next such crossing. The distance between these two points may be considered
in order to classify the pulse as either a short, medium or long, as shown in Figure 1.
The Commodore tape format for an executable file consists of a lead-in tone, a header
block and the program data itself. The header block and the program data are both
repeated, but this redundancy is only used for the purposes of verification. If the two
copies of program data do not match, a load error is generated and it is not possible to
run the program. At the byte-level, an odd parity bit provides error detection (but not
correction) capabilities.
The lead-in tone at the beginning of the recording of approximately 2840 Hz consists
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Denise de Vries and Craig Harrington | 79
of repeated short pulses which allow for a correction factor to be calculated, permitting
some variation in the speed of the magnetic tape (Hampshire, 1983).
Individual bits of data and the control signals to indicate the start of each byte and the
end of the data (or header) block are encoded as pairs of short, medium or long duration
pulses, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Meaning of pairs of pulses.
First Pulse
Second Pulse
Start of a new byte
End of header/program data
Table 2. System clock frequencies. (Parker, 2012, p. 27)
Video Mode
Commodore VIC-20
Commodore 64 and 128
Frequency (Hz)
Commodore 16 and Plus/4
TAP File Image
This image file format arose as a result of the work of Håkan Sundell in his Master’s thesis
(Sundell, 1996). The data in a TAP file represent the length of pulses on magnetic tape,
expressed in terms of the system clock cycle frequency (divided by eight).
The data are encoded identically by the various Commodore machines, at a rate
dependent upon the system clock. The system clock differs slightly between machines
depending on whether the machine uses an NTSC or PAL display, as shown in Table 2.
For the initial version of the TAP format, each byte value of data in the file represents
a single pulse. The duration of a pulse in seconds is given by the following formula:
b yte v alue
pulse duration = 1
where f requenc y is a value (in Hz) chosen from Table 2. For example, the greatest
duration pulse which can be represented by a TAP image for the PAL VIC-20 platform is
given by a value of FF (in hexadecimal). This corresponds to a duration of
8 × 25510
= 1840 µs
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80 | Recovery of Commodore Magnetic Tape
which suffices to accurately capture the pulse data, except for the pauses between files.
Since the gaps between files do not carry data, it is less essential for their duration to be
precisely recorded.
Later versions of the TAP format included a means to accurately represent longer
pulses. A zero value indicates the next three bytes in the file should be considered as the
number of clock cycles corresponding to the duration of the pulse, in little-endian format.
The distribution of TAP pulse values in image generated by wav2tap software is shown in
Figure 2. From left to right, the three distinct peaks represent short, medium and long
pulses, respectively. The principal advantage of the TAP format is that it is essentially a
lossless format that preserves the cassette data as it occurs on the tape, instead of merely
the bytes which make up the executable. This means that all aspects of the software
are preserved, such as custom loading routines (e.g. ‘turbotape’), the music/graphics
present whilst the program is loading and also any recording scheme violations (e.g. for
implementing copy protection).
x 10
Byte value (decimal)
Figure 2. Distribution of TAP pulse values in image generated by wav2tap software.
T64 File Image
The T64 file format was developed by Miha Peternel (Peternel, 1991) as a part of the
C64S emulator. It serves as a container for one (or more) Commodore programs (or data)
encapsulating them in a single file on another system.
This representation is at a higher level of abstraction than TAP files, basically recording
the values of the bytes of data directly rather than the pairs of waves which make up the
individual bits.
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Denise de Vries and Craig Harrington | 81
Time (sec) × 44100
Figure 3. Histogram of pulse duration for MATLAB decoder (for a portion of the tape) where
pulse duration is expressed as the number of samples between zero crossings.
Sampling Rate of Audio Recording
According to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, a recording of the audio cassette
data at the lowest commonly used rate of 8000 Hz suffices to capture the underlying data,
since the shortest wavelength pulse has frequency of approximately 2840 Hz. According
to the author of the wav2tap program, a sample rate of 16 kHz or higher is recommended
for the best results (Williams, 2010). In practice, a smoother waveform is obtained by
sampling at the higher rate of 44.1 kHz, albeit at the cost of a slightly larger file size.
Capturing Commodore Cassette Data as Audio
Initially, an inexpensive ‘Digitech Audio’ brand cassette player (model JW-51SWG) with
a USB interface was used to make a recording of the cassette at 44100 Hz (bit depth of
16 bits). The resulting audio file in Waveform Audio File Format (WAV) was processed
using WAV-PRG 4.0.1 (Gennari, 1998) to yield an image in T64 format. Using the VICE
emulator (Boose et al., 1998) to run the program files on this image resulted in the game
executing, but crashing a fraction of a second into gameplay.
The fact that the game executed at all suggests the vast majority of the data were
correct, however some errors were present. It was decided to attempt to record the cassette
again using better equipment. The State Library of South Australia provided access to a
professional tape deck, a Tascam 122 MKIII connected to a Dell Precision T7500. The
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82 | Recovery of Commodore Magnetic Tape
signal path was:
• Playback on Tascam 122 MKIII with stereo +4dbu balance analogue audio output,
• Analogue to digital conversion on Digital Audio Denmark ADDA 2402 high end
professional 24bit 96kHz PCM Analog to Digital - Digital to Analogue converter
with AES/EBU digital output to computer,
• Digital input to computer via digital AES/EBU transfer into RME HDSpe AES
high end professional PCI bus audio interface card.
The process of digitising the Commodore data cassette was:
1. The cassette was fast wound back and forth a few times to reduce print through,
2. The azimuth alignment of tape head on Tascam 122 MKIII was adjusted to match
record azimuth as closely as possible,
3. The tape playback pitch adjust set to off position (i.e. standard playback speed of
1 87 i.p.s.),
4. Levels into ADDA set to maximum possible level without digital overload,
5. Software (Steinberg Wavelab 1 ) set to 24 bit depth, 96 kHz sample rate and file type
uncompressed .wav,
6. Recording made of full data track in stereo.
This was then downsampled to 44.1 kHz, using Steinberg’s Wavelab, for compatibility
with WAV-PRG.
Custom Decoder
MATLAB was used to find the sampled point just before the falling edge zero crossing.
That is, the sample point just above the horizontal axis. Though interpolation between
samples could have been used to find a more precise estimate of where the pulse actually
begins by estimating the intersection between the waveform and the horizontal axis.
Using the point just before the true beginning of the pulse proved sufficiently accurate
to classify a pulse, given a sample rate of 44100 Hz. A histogram was generated to show
the distribution of pulse lengths and manually estimate the cutoff points used to classify
a pulse as either short, medium or long. For example, the duration of the pulse shown in
seconds, or
Figure 1 as indicated by the dashed line corresponds to a duration of 44100
approximately 635 microseconds, which was recorded as a value of 28 in the histogram
shown in Figure 3.
Before creating an image in TAP format, the MATLAB script performed the additional
step of decoding the data to the byte level. The parity check bit for each byte was used to
verify the data were correct.
1 Steinberg Media Technologies:
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Denise de Vries and Craig Harrington | 83
Time (sec)
Figure 4. Plot of tape waveform sampled at 44100 Hz illustrating dropout.
The tape image produced in T64 format by using WAV-PRG was playable. However,
once the cassette is in this form it becomes more difficult to correct errors since only the
executable code is stored in the image. The redundant copies of the header and program
data are discarded.
An image in TAP file format was created using wav2tap (Williams, 2010) which
contained a single uncorrected error in a parity check bit. This error was a result of a
dropout in the audio, which is briefly described in the following section.
The phenomena of dropout when reading magnetic tape produces a characteristic change
in the shape of the waveform as if it has been pinched together, as shown in Figure 4.
Sarigoz, Kumar and Bain 2001 echo the findings of Hoagland et al. (Hoagland, Oehme
& Talke, 1978) and Osaki et al. (Osaki, Kurihara & Kanou, 1994) in stating that the
principal causes of dropouts has been found to be loose particles present between the
media and the tape head or defects in the media itself. Simply put, a small bubble (or
bulge) causes the distance between the tape and the head to gradually increase, resulting
in a drop in the level of signal.
Whilst dropouts may cause long trains of bit errors, known as ‘bursts’ (Sarigoz,
Kumar & Bain, 2001), in this instance, the short interruption of less than 0.02 seconds
duration was sufficient to cause only a single bit error. The peak level of distortion in the
shape of the waveform is at the middle of the dropout caused a portion of the signal to be
pushed below the axis, resulting in the disappearance of a zero crossing. This anomaly
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84 | Recovery of Commodore Magnetic Tape
Figure 5. Title screen displaying in VICE emulator.
was detected in the MATLAB script as an outlier in the pulse width data. Basically, two
adjacent pulses were merged into one pulse which had approximately double the duration
of any other pulse.
Sarigoz, Kumar and Bain 2000 show the peakshift profile may be used to detect
dropout since we expect the peaks in the waveform to remain reasonably constant over
time. Peakshift is defined as “the amount of the time a pulse in the readout signal is
shifted away from its nominal location by the dropout event” (Sarigoz, Kumar & Bain,
Sarigoz et al. 2001 provides an exponential model linking variation in the shape of the
waveform, in terms of its amplitude and peak location to the variation in spacing between
the head and tape. This model is used to implement a dropout correction scheme which
can detect and correct the dropout in real-time.
In this instance, since the error occurred in the odd parity check bit itself, rather than
the data, the missing bit was able to be recovered under the assumption that the previous
eight bits were correct. No other discrepancies were found, meaning there was a single
error over the entire recording. The error was of no consequence because it was located in
the second (redundant) copy of the program data. The resultant file image was executable
in a VICE emulator, the title screen image of which is seen in Figure 5.
In this article, knowledge of the Commodore tape data format to was used to decode, verify
and correct errors on a magnetic tape recording. The output produced by MATLAB and
Perl based scripts was an error-free TAP file image compatible with the VICE emulator.
The initial recording, made on lower quality equipment, contained many more
dropouts, including one in the leader tone which was detectable by ear as a change in
pitch. However, there was none in the exact spot corresponding to the single dropout in
the final recording. We suspect the single error encountered in the final recording was
more than likely a result of debris between the playback heads and the tape itself. This
suggests that more than one recording may be necessary, along with some compositing of
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Denise de Vries and Craig Harrington | 85
audio, in order to obtain a file from which the original data may be recovered.
Craig Harrington died 7 October 2014.
‘Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for
Industry, Community and Research Purposes’ is supported under the Australian Research
Council’s Linkage Projects funding scheme (project number LP120100218).
The authors thank Peter Kolomitsev, from Audio Preservation, State Library of South
Australia, for his invaluable assistance.
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IJDC | Peer-Reviewed Paper
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