Some months ago in the Sinclair QL italian mailing list we talked about Microdrive cartridges imaging/dumping. Since I started a real preservation exertion for all the software produced during the 80’s and 90’s, in order to avoid the so-called ‘digital oblivion’, the colleague Stefano Guida interviewed me about the work being carried out.
“Hello Simone, as all the members of the Sinclair QL mailing list (email@example.com) know, during this period you are doing a great job preserving software stored on original Microdrive cartridges, creating a repository of images which can be used on emulators. When and why you had this idea?”
Namely in December 2013, 30 years to the date of purchase of my first Sinclair ZX Spectrum 16K, when I purchased a replacement Spectrum 128k on eBay (my old +2 was KO) with the intention of restoring all of my software collection purchased between 1983 and 1993 (originals on cassette tapes) and in particular the MGT floppy disks, very interesting because they contained the multiloads created by OUTSOFT (myself and Cesare Falco – known as “SQUONK”) and they were in effect MIA (Missing In Action).
From there I went right away to collect all the remaining, and missing, Sinclair machines and I lingered on the QL, which is a wonderful machine but with the bad reputation of being called a failure almost exclusively because of its native data storage system: the infamous Microdrives.
I initially got in touch with RICH MELLOR, who sold me all of his remaining original software and advised me who to contact in the UK for responging the Microdrive cartridges. After an initial simple cataloguing, I went into action testing the one and only dumping program available then: µDump.
At this point I asked Massimo Raffaele, colleague on the Speccy and QL mailing lists, to join me in the project and to take care of testing and reworking any dumped image in order to have a 100% ‘validation’ of it.
Immediately we noticed strong inconsistencies between the newly created images and the results of loading Microdrive cartridges on the real QL and decided to contact the creator of Q-emuLator and µDump, Daniele Terdina, for reprogramming with some features which we explicitly required for the project.
From there, in November 2015 µDump 2 was born, which proved to be quick and reliable and with which we are finally able to make 100% correct dumps of any Microdrive cartridge, often even avoiding the need to responge them.
Example of current Microdrive cartridges in preservation phase:
“A part of the software was already converted but unlike the Spectrum there is no site that catalogues all of the software.
Once you have completed the painstaking work will it be made available?”
Certainly: the initial plan included an almost immediate online publication of what was being produced by the recovery process, but we didn’t take care of that since we were very busy completing the first phase – recovering the material.
“To publish the software there is always the problem of copyright. Do you also take care of contacting the old software companies to ask if it is possible to publish the preserved material?”
Max and I are officially part of the QL-preserving program of Rich Mellor who works in parallel to us: they recover everything in unprotected format / usable with QPCII and Q-emuLator while we take care to recover all the original software, complete with protections, and dumping it in its original form (particularly from Microdrive cartridges, but also from floppy disks).
For this reason we are constantly monitored by RICH which is currently the main holder of the distribution rights for QL software still subject to copyright.
When we’ll be close to the online publication, we will initially upload the commercial software which has been made freeware (with the consent of the copyright holders) together with the complete list of all the recovered material and which version has been recovered (.mdv/Microdrive cartridge or .img/floppy disk).
Here you can find the list of programs currently preserved in their original formats.
“Which kind of hardware do you use to perform the conversion?”
An italian QL with a 768KB Trump Card, a Miracle 720KB double disk drive, Mice ROM from Eidersoft, RGB cable from Retro Computer Shack and a HDMI upscaler that allows me to connect the QL to any latest generation TV having a perfect cut-free image, essential for correctly viewing the QL 4-color hires screen.
Additionally, I use a ‘Microdrive Tape Cleaner’ (manufactured in UK) to clean the tape before being inserted in the drives for the dump and a tailored cartridge called ‘Capstan Roller Cleaner’ manufactured in accordance with an idea of mine by an Austrian guy (Polish-born) named Leszek Chmielewski and printed with his 3D printer, which is able to clean up the precious Microdrive roller after each job (the real sore point of the whole system).
“How many Microdrive cartridges did you convert and how many of them have given problems (defined as percentage…)?”
I would say that out of the almost thousand dumps performed, problems have not so much been with the cartridges itself (original cartridges gave less problems) but the responge process. I tested three sponge types from different suppliers, the last one being sufficiently good concerning quality and low friction.
“What are the problems encountered?”
Initially, the main problem was the first version of µDump: it wasn’t completely reliable, so we were not sure if the resulting dump was correct or not. As later confirmed by µdump2, we needed a second revised and corrected version to make the whole process more usable.
The second problem was the original sponges that disintegrate after 3/4 readings (if you are fortunate); also the responging itself, if not done well, creates so much friction as to make the cartridge unusable.
After various techniques I managed to get a result of almost 85% success dumping the received material.
“Once obtained the images, is it possible to put them onto real Microdrives cartridges?”
This is a sore point… we recently discussed with Daniele Terdina the importance of a reverse utility – we feel that this is crucial because first of all it could confirm how many and which bugs are still to be corrected in Q-emuLator and on the other hand it would allow the person making the dump to safely put his own material back onto the cartridge.
I do not hide that I lost at least 20/25 original cartridges after double/triple dumps to get the 100% certified ‘stamp’ from Massimo Raffaele.
“How was your responging done?”
Initially using the sponges coming from Dave Park from the USA (the best ones), then the ones from Ian Gledhill (UK), finally sending everything to David Marling (UK) as he uses two-colored sponges (red and black) very high and durable, which I have to flatten properly to avoid the friction problem.
(End of interview)
I take this opportunity to launch an appeal to all tuned QL users: if you have Microdrive cartridges or floppies to recover you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can deliver the programs to make the dumps, or I can send a courier to collect the items and take care of everything for you.
For the Microdrive cartridges I offer a free responging to those who will lend them to us, as well as a digital copy/image of the preserved data. Ditto regarding floppy that often must be cleaned inside to be read after 30 years.
Here is my current collection of Sinclair material in continuous evolution/restoration.
I also recommend my YouTube channel where you can find all the technical tests made with the QL, and other videos related to Sinclair world (especially the dump process).
We have also a Vintage BBS where we meet and talk about QL and all Sinclair stuff:
We upload monthly all our preserved software on the BBS as read-only access because we need to check what is free and can be downloaded from all users (now more than 250!!!).
Here the Facebook page of the preservation program.
I also started to dump all my ZX Spectrum and ZX 81 original tapes in TZX format and we will put it on too. I have many ZX81 “missing in action” too to preserve and publish.
I’ve preserved also all my Sam Coupè original Floppy Disks (more than 500) plus other things, are all visible in the UPLOAD section of the BBS.
Finally a taste of what we are preserving:
Happy QL to everybody!
Me at 7 years old on a B/W photo in native Sinclair QL “Mode 4” (512×256 pixels)