Loading BASIC programs from cassette tape to the Sega Master System

Monday, 16th August 2021

After I posted about the pattern filling modes on Twitter I was alerted to the BBC Micro Bot website which hosts a gallery of programs that produce impressive graphical output from very short BASIC programs (short enough to fit in a Tweet!)

I tried a few of them out but unfortunately ran into problems with a lot of them that use various tricks to reduce the original program text length by embedding non-ASCII characters directly into the body of the program. My usual approach to prepare programs was either to copy and paste them into an emulator (my emulator strips out non-ASCII characters on pasting, as these can't be mapped to keystrokes) or to save them to a file and transfer that serially, and my own editor's tokeniser and BBC BASIC for Windows both had a habit of mangling the non-ASCII characters.

TV showing a picture of a shell generated from a BASIC program

The BBC Micro Bot website does not provide a way to download the BASIC programs directly but does provide a share link that allows you to export a disk image or play back the program from a virtual tape cassette. I don't have a a disk drive attached to my Master System, but the tape option seemed promising...

The basic cassette tape interface

My initial approach to loading programs into BASIC from external storage was to connect my Cambridge Z88 computer running PC Link 2 or EazyLink to the Master System with an RS-232 serial cable. This works well for me, but isn't very practical for others who might not already own a Z88, and I do want this to be an easy project for people to replicate!

Being able to load from tape would significantly lower the barrier to entry, if the cassette tape interface circuit can be constructed easily. You wouldn't even need an actual tape player; the drive belts have gone in mine (I tried to make a test recording on mine and it just unspooled the tape into the bowels of the machine) so for the time being I've been testing loading from PlayUEF, the web-based UEF player that's also found on the BBC Micro Bot website. This can be run from a browser and it works well on my mobile phone and makes loading programs from a web link an absolute doddle. Perfect!

The challenge, then, is how to get that audio data into the Master System in the first place and whether it's got enough grunt to be able to decode it in software. Using the same tape format as the BBC Micro seemed like it would be a good choice so I read this article on the Acorn cassette format on BeebWiki. The highest frequency audio signal is a sine wave at 2400Hz. As we'll need to handle both halves of each cycle we'll need to sample the signal at least 4800 times per second. As the Master System has a CPU clock of around 3.58MHz, that gives us 3.58×106/4800≈756 CPU cycles for each half of the cycle which should be more than sufficient.

Breadboard with the prototype tape interface on it

We still need to get the audio signal into the Master System somehow! I did a bit of digging online and couldn't find too much information about suitable electrical interfaces. My best lead was the circuit diagram for the BBC Micro's tape interface, however that requires several op-amps and I only have a single LM741 in my parts bin, which isn't going to do a very good job on a single 5V supply. In the short term I've used the circuit above which is a slightly modified version of this common circuit used to convert S/PDIF signals to TTL levels using an unbuffered hex inverter as an amplifier. It's not the most stable circuit and has a habit of oscillating when not fed an input signal but the +5V pullup on the output from the console inhibits this (putting a pull-up or pull-down on any of the inputs changes the mark:space ratio of the pulses). That a load on the output affects what's happening on the input is definitely not a good indication of a properly-functioning circuit, but it'll have to do for now.

Logic analyser trace of the audio signal converted to square pulses

I don't know how well it'll respond to a real tape cassette player, but the signal from my PC's sound card or my mobile phone produces very clean square pulses so it should be enough to start experimenting with until I can come up with more stable design.

Decoding the tape signal in software

To decode the signal we'll need to know whether the tape is outputting silence, a 1200Hz tone or a 2400Hz tone. I'm handling this with a simple routine that samples the current level of the input, then loops around waiting for the input level to change state, counting the number of times it takes to go around the loop before the transition. If the counter overflows before the state changes then it's assumed that the tape is outputting silence, but if the state changes before that we can check the value the counter reached to see if it got to a small value (a high frequency signal from the tape) or a large value (a low frequency signal from the tape).

To determine a suitable value for the thresholds I wrote a test program that simply called this routine in a loop 256 times, storing its results in memory, before dumping the results to the screen once all 256 values had been found. By playing a section of the tape in the middle of a data block (so there would be a good mixture of 1200Hz and 2400Hz tones) I got the rather pleasing result that 1200Hz tones appeared to make the counter reach $20 (32) and 1200Hz tones made the counter reach $10 (16), so I put the threshold value between them at 24 as an initial test.

Once we know the frequency of the tape signal at a particular point we can use this to determine the current bit – a "0" bit is a complete 1200Hz cycle (so we'd see two instances of the counter reaching >16) and a "1" bit is two compete 2400Hz cycles (so we'd see four instances of the counter <16). Knowing the bit on its own is not very useful, though, so I added byte decoding which waits for a start bit (0), receives and stores 8 data bits, then checks for a stop bit (1). I could then dump this data to the screen:

A data dump from the tape to the screen

At this point the data isn't completely correctly decoded, but it always produces the same results on every run-through which to my mind was a good sign. The text displayed at the bottom of the screen shows some recognisable fragments of the original BASIC program (as the program is tokenised the keywords are missing). The main problem I was having was down to synchronisation; as the article on BeebWiki states "an odd number of 2400Hz cycles can and does occur" and these occasional cycles were throwing me out of sync. The fix was to add an extra check when handling 2400Hz; even though four 2400Hz half-waves are expected, if a 1200Hz half-wave is detected instead it's assumed that we've gone out of sync and the bit should be decoded as a complete 1200Hz pulse instead. After making this change more recognisable text started coming through, so I was able to move on to decoding the data blocks.

Decoding data blocks on tape

Files on tape are broken up into multiple data blocks, each with a header describing the block (e.g. file name, block number, data length) followed by a variable amount of data (up to 256 bytes) containing the data itself. To load a file from tape each incoming block has to be handled. If the block number is 0 then that's the start of the file, so the filename is checked. If this matches the supplied filename (or the supplied filename was the empty string "") then the loader switches from "Searching" to "Loading" mode and the data we just received is stored in memory. From that point on each incoming block is appended, as long as the block name and number match what we expect (i.e. the same filename as before but the block number should be the previous block number + 1). This continues until the "end of file" block flag is set. A CRC-16 of the received data is also checked after each block to ensure that the data has been received successfully. If there are any errors (the block name/number doesn't match what was expected, or the CRC-16 check fails) then an error message is printed and you can rewind the tape a bit to try receiving the block again.

This doesn't sound too complicated, but I've not had too much luck implementing this successfully. My code is currently a bit of a mess and doesn't properly maintain the "Loading" or "Searching" states which means that if an error occurs at any point then it can get a bit confused trying to resolve it (to the point where it's easier to just abort the load and start again from the beginning). However, the tape block issues are not the only problem...

Conflicting BASIC program formats

The programs I'm trying to load are designed for the BBC Micro, where programs are stored in the Acorn or "Wilson" (after Sophie Wilson) format. However, BBC BASIC (Z80) was written by Richard Russell and therefore uses the "Russell" format. Both have a lot in common, fortunately but the way each line is stored in memory differs (this is covered in more detail in the "Program format" article on BeebWiki). Fortunately the formats are similar enough that it's possible to convert them reasonably trivially in-memory.

My initial plan was to leave the loaded program as it is, and to provide a star command (e.g. *FCONVERT, named after the FCONVERT.BBC program) to convert from the "Wilson" format to the "Russell" format. Unfortunately, after loading the file BBC BASIC (Z80) checks the program and applies its own fixes to it, notably writing the appropriate terminator on the end of the program. As far as I can tell it does this by following the program along, line by line, until it finds what it believes is the end. In the "Russell" format the first byte of the line is its length, and in the "Wilson" format it's a carriage return (value 13). What I think this means is that BBC BASIC (Z80) thinks that the second line of an Acorn program should occur 13 bytes in, and as this isn't likely to be the case it ends up writing its terminator 13 bytes in to end the first line. This prevents me from fixing loaded programs after the fact, as they've already had part of their contents overwritten.

Instead, I've added a check to the program after I've loaded it but before I've returned control to BBC BASIC. If I am able to read the program from start to end in "Wilson" format then I apply the conversion to "Russell" format automatically. In practice this means that both file formats load correctly, but I don't particularly like the way that if you LOAD a "Wilson"-format file then SAVE it back it'll be saved as a "Russell"-format file.

There are still some differences in the formats and the way they're tokenised but usually that can be fixed by loading the problematic lines into the line editor (*EDIT) and pressing Return without making any changes. This forces them to be retokenised and has fixed some of the issues I've run into.

Another issue is that "Wilson" format BASIC files support a line number 0, but "Russell" format ones do not; the file will be loaded and can be run, but if you try to LIST it then it'll stop when it reaches line 0 (which is usually the first one!) so programs appear to be empty. This is not something I think can (or indeed should) be fixed automatically but if necessary you can change the line number for the first line from 0 to 1 with ?(PAGE+1)=1 so there is at least one solution.

The video above shows a couple of programs being loaded from the BBC Micro Bot website onto the Master System. Even with the terrible audio to digital interface it gets the job done! The 7905=7905 messages at the end of each block during loading show the CRC-16 calculated for the received data followed by the expected CRC-16, as they match it indicates the data is getting through successfully.

Emulating the tape interface

As alluded to above my current loading system works well enough when everything is OK but it gets a bit confused when there's a fault. I never really planned out how to handle this and the code's a bit of a spaghetti mess in places so I drew out a flowchart of a more robust loader, which itself is also a bit of a mess but hopefully one that will make loading tapes more user-friendly and robust.

Unfortunately, doing any work on this interface has been very tedious as every time I make a change I need to try it on real hardware – I don't know of any Master System emulators that include tape support! I've been using my own Cogwheel emulator throughout which is itself not a very good emulator (there are no proper debugging tools, for example) but I can at least bolt on weird features I need like PS/2 keyboard emulation, so I thought it would be a good use of my time to add tape interface emulation. I started by writing a UEF (Unified Emulator Format) parser that could turn a UEF image file into a 4800 baud bitstream that could be fed into the Master System's controller port. For some reason my files end up being slightly different lengths to the sound files generated by PlayUEF – nothing major, but a handful of seconds over the length of a roughly 7 minute file. I tried loading the generated bitstream as a 4800Hz sample rate file into Audacity and it didn't quite line up with the audio file generated by PlayUEF either, but after poring over the specifications for the UEF format I was unable to figure out where the discrepancy lay.

Undeterred I pressed ahead and added this simple cassette player to the emulator, which happily seems to work well in spite of the reported timing differences:

Cassette recorder interface in the Cogwheel emulator

One thing that's notable there is that the program CIRCLE2 appears in the catalogue on-screen. When I first added the cassette interface emulation it was missing, but it would not be detected on real hardware either, which made me quite happy! Being able to more rapidly make and test changes to the tape loader code I was able to experiment and found that the tape loader seemed to miss the synchronisation byte ($2A) sent at the start of block headers on the CIRCLE2 program. This seemed to be due to going out of sync with the bit stream in the period between detecting the carrier tone and the first start bit, so I changed the code to demand exactly two 1200Hz half-waves as the start bit rather than using my more lax code that decodes the contents of the main bit stream that allows for extra 2400Hz pulses. This ensures that the start bit is always properly synchronised, and after making this change CIRCLE2 appeared in the catalogue as it should. I then reflashed the ROM chip on the cartridge and tried on real hardware, and that now picks up CIRCLE2. Being able to fix a problem that appears on hardware by replicating and resolving the same issue in software emulation justifies the few hours I spent adding the cassette tape emulation!

Unfortunately, I'm down to under a hundred bytes of free program space on the 32KB ROM I've been developing with, and I still have a lot of features I'd like to add (including the more resilient tape loader). I've been trying to put this moment off as long as possible as I'm going to have to use bank switching to map in additional memory banks, and that means a lot of difficult decisions about what code lives on which ROM pages to minimise the amount of switching that's required. Conventionally slot 2 is used as the slot to map different banks into but at the moment that's where I've mapped in the cartridge RAM to extend BASIC's memory. On the plus side very little of my code needs direct access to BASIC's memory (I mostly use my own data storage or the stack which lives at the top end of memory, far above slot 2) so this would seem like a good fit but I currently allocate storage space in BASIC's free memory for some operations (e.g. as temporary space when copying data around the screen during scrolling operations) so I'll need to change that code to use memory allocated elsewhere. It's not the most glamourous part of the project, but it'll need to be done if I am to add all the features I'd like.

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