One of my goals for 2008 is to finish all of the analog-to-digital conversion projects I started in 2007. This includes converting all our VHS tapes to DVDs, and all of our old CDs, cassette tapes and records to MP3. Another one of the projects, which has proved to be both the most rewarding and the most frustrating, is the conversion of all my old Commodore 64 diskettes to D64 images.
Just to get everybody up to speed … on one hand, in the real world, you have real Commodore 64 computers and real Commodore 64 disk drives that use real floppy disks. On the other hand, you have virtual Commodore 64 machines, called emulators, that run on modern personal computers. These virtual computers need virtual disks to work, and those disks are commonly stored in D64 format. You can take those virtual D64 disks and put them in a virtual disk drive connected to your virtual Commodore 64 and load them and play them as if it were all real. There are two ways to acquire D64 images. You can download them, or, if you have the proper equipment, you can make your own.
So, let’s talk about the “proper equipment.” The tried and true method requires a unique combination of hardware and software. On the hardware side, you’ll need a computer running DOS with either a SPP, PS/2, EPP or ECP parallel port. You’ll need a real, vintage Commodore disk drive, and you’ll need a special “X1541” cable to connect the two. There are at least six different flavors of “X” cables (X1541, XE1541, XM1541, XA1541, XH1541, and XP1541), each of which require different software tweaks and configurations. Once you get everything wired up and talking, the DOS-based program Star Commander will allow you to convert real Commodore disks to D64 disk images.
The trickiest part of the whole process is finding a parallel port that works. In my experience, the older the computer, the better your chances are of getting everything working. I finally got everything to work by using a 486 PC from the mid-90s, which I keep around for this sole purpose. Adding to the project’s complexity is the problem of getting D64 images off my 486 and onto my laptop. When’s the last time you networked a DOS-based machine to a Windows XP laptop? I ended up with a dual-boot setup on the 486; that way I can transfer disks through DOS, and connect to my home network using Windows 98 (using ten-year-old networking tools and protocols) to transfer the images over. Clunky, but it works. I don’t complain.
Star Commander is a DOS program that resembles the old DOS versions of PC-Tools and Norton Commander, with a split screen display showing the Commodore drive on the left side of the screen and the PC’s hard drive on the right. Once everything’s connected and working, creating a D64 image is simply a matter of pressing a button, waiting, and praying that my disks are still good and not full of read errors.
The back side of most disk sleeves contained pictoral examples of things that could damage your disks, including: magnets (which includes monitors, speakers, motors, and cell phones), bending, heat, cold, touching the disk, opening the drive while the disk was loading, opening the drive while the disk was being written to, powering the drive or computer off with the disk still in the drive, or exposing the disk to dirt, dust or smoke. Even if you managed to keep your disks away from all those things, the biggest killer of floppy disks has been time. The older 5 1/4 disks get, the more prone they are to develop errors. According to this page, the average life span of a floppy disk is six months. Most of the disks I’m converting are between 20 and 25 years old.
And of course, I run in to errors. If there is a silver lining to this cloud it’s that the errors aren’t always where data is stored. The conversion process tries to copy and archives every track and sector of a floppy disk. So far I’ve found lots of disks with errors on the inside or outside edge (Track 1 or Track 35), but that doesn’t always seem to affect the data stored on the disk. The only way to know for sure is to test every archive, something that would take years.
It takes roughly a minute to convert each disk to a D64 image, not including things like sorting, cataloging and testing. I have roughly 700 Commodore floppy disks — double sided. That’s 24 hours of conversion time alone; hopefully I can get them all done within a month or two, assuming I put all my other analog to digital conversions on hold. Testing each one could take a year.
The most common question people ask me about this is, “why are you doing this?” Even my wife asked, “hasn’t somebody already done this?” For the most part, yes. 95% of what I’m archiving has already been archived. Through Google, I could find 95% of the programs on my disks and download them all in a single day. That leaves 5%, however, that aren’t out there. 5% of my programs are things I, or friends of mine, wrote or created. There are pictures, letters, stories, demos and even programs that my friends and I created. There are things on these disks that I have the only known copy of. It is a race against time to archive these things on to a new media that is not deteriorating on a daily basis. In D64 format, these disk images can live on forever. It is a way to finalize my old C64 collection, to set it in stone and share it with the world. I’m not sure that the world’s that interested in it, but it’s something I feel like I need to do.
The hardest part of the entire process is not getting sidetracked by playing each disk.