Proper Cassettes For Your FPGA Retrocomputer

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You can tell the age of someone in our community with a simple question: what were the first removable data storage media you used? Punched cards for the venerable, cassettes for the middle-aged, floppies for the thirtysomethings, Flash cards for the twentysomethings, and maybe even “What’s a removable storage medium?” for the kids brought up on cloud services.  Even with refreshed interest in retrocomputing the cassette hasn’t made a comeback, but maybe that owes something to the hardware. Createing a cassette interface for an FPGA is a task that’s often overlooked, and that’s a project [zpekic] has tackled.

Cassette data recordings are frequency shift keyed, with the 0 and 1 of the binary information represented by different tones. An expected solution to detect these might be to use a Fourier transform, but instead he opts for a simpler solution of counting zero crossings and timing their interval. The resulting stream of data is fed into a UART from which the data itself can be reconstructed. All this is implemented on a Mercury FPGA board which contains a Xilinx Spartan 3A FPGA, but it’s a technique that could be used on other devices too.

So your FPGA retrocomputer deserves an authentic cassette interface, and now it can have one. We’d be especially impressed if all this 2020s wizardry could produce a more stable chuntey field, but we guess that might take a bit more work.

As a final aside, the project is dedicated to the memory of the pioneering Yugoslavian broadcaster [Zoran Modli], whose innovative 1980s radio show featured broadcasts of tape software for the computers of the time including our Hackaday colleague [Voja Antonić]’s Galaksija. Broadcasting software over the radio? That’s a cool hack.

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