If there are any readers still out there, they may note that Richard D. James has been kind of prolific of late, new album 2 years ago and some other bits and pieces since then. Lately though, there was a release of something called Cheetah, and since I’m one of those oddities that still covets cassettes I was eager to acquire a copy of the tape version.
Fast forward a few weeks post release and I finally get round to listening to the tape, however on tugging the tiny plastic thread that released memoric endorphins and the delicate smell of plastic on the tape box I note that the title of the first track is CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]. And it made me think, he’s a bit of a prankster when afforded the opportunity. And it’s a cassette, and if I were Richard, and I was releasing a cassette, I’d hide data on that tape. (And, of course there is the whole being subtitled Ld Spectrum thing which is a bit of a clue.) On the other side is a track subtitled Колхозная, which seems to be Kyrgyzstan for jumping tractor or farming collective.
For readers that aren’t familiar with the Spectrum, it was a home computer that was insanely popular in the UK during the 1980s, and various versions of it were launched across the world. Here’s one from Russia, which I believe was called the Companion.
It’s not as if he’s unfamiliar with the Spectrum, see Carnmarth from the Richard D. James album which has elements of Sabre Wulf loading embedded in the track.
So, how would I access that data? And without an actual Spectrum?
Last year I was gifted a Recreated Spectrum thing. It’s a bit of a shitshow really, Bluetooth was wonky in Windows, wouldn’t pair on OSX as I already have a Bluetooth keyboard connected and the app was discontinued and the keymap was busted and it only ate rechargable batteries and and and…
So we didn’t progress on that matter. It’s a nice looking ornament among the other electronic junk that fills this home. But I’ve been nudged by this, so let’s push things forward.
I remembered I had an actual Spectrum cassette in the basement of dead media, so I have a baseline to work from. Assuming this can be loaded from tape to an emulator, then I should be able to try loading from a tape via an emulator once I can find one to work with. I’ve got a tape deck to hopefully load from.
(Shout out to 2000AD here, my base tape is Strontium Dog – The Killing. It’s Prog 2000 day at the time of writing, it’ll probably be 2028 by the time I publish this and the post will be available in a nasal spray or something else instead.)
So on looking at worldofspectrum there are a handful of emulators that can load from tape, which would be the ideal scenario.
However, unsurprisingly I suppose, it isn’t as straightforward as I may have thought. So I wonder how much original hardware costs?
You know, I’m not quite rolling 65 quid on a theory crazy. And as I’m in the middle of Europe these days there are no carboot or similar opportunities to acquire a cheap version. So I guess I’m going back to alternative methods.
It seems that M.E.S.S. emulates various versions of the Spectrum, and it’s at least maintained (well, kind of, it’s been subsumed into M.A.M.E.) so I’ll try that. Looks like I’ll need to make a tape image as I don’t think load from hardware is supported.
M.A.M.E. of course powers this dust magnet in the corner, it’s an emulator core that can run many different computers/games/etcetera. I don’t think there is a version of MAME Pi that runs Spectrum, and you know I’m drifting away from the intended and imagine trying to control it with a joystick. QAOP12345M.
So, I’ve got the hardware and a way to load it and now I need to try and transfer the possible data from a tape to a file than can be loaded, so I need to find a program that can help me out with this.
According to worldofspectrum, there are a handful of programs that can help, so let’s try the one that’s Windows friendly, Spectrum Tape Reader v2.00 (PC/Windows) by Jocelyn Gibart. WOS says it saves out in the TZX format! The program is still fully in development and at the moment only ROM-timed blocks and fully generic turbo loaders can be handled (and the user needs to know the exact timing values of turbo loaders).
But, at this point in time I’m only looking to check whether or not there is actually data on the tape. And as I have an actual Spectrum cassette let’s try that first.
Now that we have something that can identify data blocks from a genuine spectrum tape, let’s try the Aphex Twin cassette.
Well, there’s a tone. That’s interesting at least, no? Don’t see a header so it may just be that there is a similar tone to a Spectrum key tone so inconclusive so far. Let’s wait a bit longer.
Oooh, there’s a data stream here.
There’s definitely something here, seems a bit unlikely there’s identifiable data by coincidence. So I’ve grabbed both sides of the cassette as there are similar traces. Now to try and load it into the machine.
I captured my baseline cassette, and have opened it in a hex editor. You can see it identifies as ZX binary data as presumably all Sinclair use a similar declaration.
So, let’s try the same thing with the data captured from Cheetah.
And side 2.
Even more data!
Now, let’s try to find out what’s on this cassette.
It was somewhat of a task to find something that might be able to load a self created .tzx, eventually Marvin on android looked like it might work.
This was looking quite promising until I realised it was slowly outputting an error message in basic and not something such as the question to the answer to the meaning of life as revealed by scrabble tiles.
So let’s back up here. I’ve got a cassette which very likely has hidden data on it, but my captured data is junk. Transferring data via analogue methods is a bit of a mess at the best of times anyway, especially if your equipment is suboptimal and that tape deck isn’t great, it’s got a bit of flutter on one channel so this might be a problem.
Let’s see what the basement of old junk has for us today.
A Sony Walkman that I’ve been considering adding a Raspberry Pi zero to as a media player, but also a cheapo tape deck that looks exactly the part. So, let’s try again. In the interest of time preservation, I was able to redo The Killing, and it looks a bit better (less data missing), so I’ll redo Cheetah.
Alas, redoing these doesn’t seem to have particularly successful despite the appearance of the loading screen from The Killing in the transfer process. so I think I need to sleep on this, I’m sure my theory is good here but something is failing me.
(Additionally, I tried grabbing the wav from bleep.com and rendering it down to 8bit mono 44.1, it doesn’t seem to load either but I can’t say for sure that the wav would have the Spectrum elements.)
At this point, I think I need to publish and walk away from it for a little time to let some other thoughts percolate. There does appear to be data in the tracks (which may just be random snippets though) but I can’t seem to make it work just now. I may need actual hardware instead.
For anyone interested, the tracks converted to wav files are here : cheetah.