Archiving C64 Tapes Correctly

It’s pretty simple to archive Commodore 64 tapes, but it’s hard if you want to do it right. Creating the complete archive of the German “INPUT 64” magazine was not as easy as getting one copy of each of the 32 tapes and reading them. The tapes are over 30 years old by now, and many of them are hardly readable any more.

Good Tapes, Bad Tapes

Here is the overview of the tapes I have of each issue, how many I could read correctly, and what percentage that is:

Issue # Copies # Read OK % Read OK
8501 8 2 25%
8502 6 1 16.7%
8503 8 1 12.5%
8504 6 0 0%
8505 6 1 16.7%
8506 6 1 16.7%
8507 6 0 0%
8508 6 1 16.7%
8509 6 5 83.3%
8510 6 0 0%
8511 6 3 50%
8512 10 3 33.3%
8601 4 3 75%
8602 4 2 50%
8603 4 3 75%
8604 4 4 100%
8605 6 3 50%
8606 4 2 50%
8607 4 4 100%
8608 4 3 75%
8609 6 4 66.7%
8610 6 5 83.3%
8611 2 1 50%
8612 2 1 50%
8701 2 1 50%
8702 2 2 100%
8703 2 2 100%
8704 2 2 100%
8705 2 1 50%
8706 4 1 25%
8707 6 0 0%
8708 4 2 50%

As you can see, some tapes are pretty much unreadable these days, others are okay. For issues that were problematic, I kept buying more copies on eBay, hoping to eventually find one that reads correctly. (Interestingly, the distribution suggests that correlates more with the brand of tape (8707 seems to be a very bad one) than with age.)

By the way, all numbers of copies are divisible by two, because all INPUT 64 tapes have an identical copy of the data on the reverse side. So for issue 8702, for example, I only had a single tape, and both sides read correctly.

How to Dump Tapes

There are many ways to dump C64 tapes, and I’ll describe two.

If you have a C64 and an actual Datasette reader, you can use the 1541 Ultimate-II+ cartridge. The included dongle allows you to connect the Datasette to the cartridge, so you can directly record a tape onto a .TAP file on a USB storage device also connected to the cartridge.

If you are doing this, make sure that your Datasette has a clean head and is correctly aligned. HeadAlign by enthusi is very useful for this. If you have multiple Datasette recorders, try them all and start out with the best one before changing the alignment.

Another way is to record the tape into a WAV file using a regular tape recorder. Online shops are full of very cheap (but good) Walkman-like devices with a built-in analog-digital-converter that connect directly to USB and show up as an audio-in device. Using a tool like Audacity and one of the many WAV-to-TAP tools (my favorite is the ancient “tape64”, whose Windows binary works nicely with Wine), you can then convert it into a TAP file.

The advantage of this method is that you can still massage dumps of tapes that you have trouble with. In Audacity, you can use filters or split the two channels, and in conversion tools, you can adjust the threshold or the speed.

Interestingly, some tapes read well on a tape player, others read well on a Datasette. If you have trouble getting a correct dump and few copies, you might want to try different methods of reading the tapes.


How do I know whether a tape has in fact been read correctly? Practically all recording formats use checksums, so a tool like the excellent tapclean can help:

$ tapclean -t 8702a.tap 

TAPClean 0.34 - (C) 2006-2017 TC Team [Built Jun 12 2017 by ldf]
Based on Final TAP 2.76 Console - (C) 2001-2006 Subchrist Software

Read tolerance = 10

Computer type: C64 PAL (985248 Hz)

Loaded: 8702a.tap

Scanning...  Pauses  C64 ROM tape

TAPClean version: 0.34


TAP Name    : 8702a.tap
TAP Size    : 1221451 bytes (1192 kB)
TAP Version : 1
Recognized  : 94%
Data Files  : 28
Pauses      : 186
Gaps        : 204
Magic CRC32 : A9F18B1C
TAP Time    : 8:44.16
Bootable    : YES (1 part, name: INPUT 64)
Loader ID   : n/a

Overall Result    : FAIL

Header test       : PASS [Sig: OK] [Ver: OK] [Siz: OK]
Recognition test  : FAIL [1153201 of 1221431 bytes accounted for] [94%]
Checksum test     : PASS [28 of 28 checksummed files OK]
Read test         : PASS [0 Errors]
Optimization test : FAIL [0 of 28 files OK]

Saved: tcreport.txt
Operation completed in 00:00:09.

The tool recognized 28 pieces of data on the tape, and all of them had correct checksums. That’s a good sign, but not good enough. And that’s not just because single-byte checksums might be too weak to rely on.


It is possible that some pieces of data did not get recognized. If a header is unreadable, tapclean will treat it as an unrecognized area and warn about it. In the printout above, the tape failed the “recognition test”, because it only understood 94% of the tape (which includes silence). What are the other 6%?

Tapes often contain some garbage, and many INPUT 64 tapes have a minute of beeps at the end that don’t seem to encode any data. So these 6% may not be a problem.

Another data point on whether all data objects got recognized is by extracting everything and having a look at the listing:

$ tapclean -t 8702a.tap -doprg
$ ls prg/
007 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
008 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
010 (0318-09FF).prg
011 (0318-09FF).prg
013 (033C-0354) [CTEXTE].prg
017 (3000-3FBA).prg
021 (033C-0354) [RAHMEN_______COM].prg
025 (C440-CFF4).prg
029 (033C-0354) [TITELBILD].prg
033 (0801-1891).prg
037 (033C-0354) [l_O_H_N_S_T_E_U].prg
041 (0801-6BCE).prg
045 (033C-0354) [j_u_l_i_a].prg
049 (0801-4B99).prg
052 (033C-0354) [i_d___w_E_R_K_S].prg
056 (0801-3F16).prg
060 (033C-0354) [6_4_E_R__t_I_P_S].prg
064 (0801-59CE).prg
068 (033C-0354) [i_n_p_u_t___c_a].prg
072 (0801-2E7C).prg
076 (033C-0354) [l_A_B_E_L___t_O].prg
080 (0801-2AEC).prg
084 (033C-0354) [d_R_E_I___M_A_L].prg
088 (0801-5538).prg
091 (033C-0354) [eNGLISCHE_gramMA].prg
095 (0801-5B22).prg
098 (033C-0354) [v_O_R_S_C_H_A_U].prg
102 (0801-2A94).prg

Commercial Commodore 64 tapes usually don’t use the original encoding as supported by the C64’s operating system. More optimized schemes are often 5x-10x more efficient. Nevertheless, the first program on tape has to use the original encoding, so that the tape is bootable.

This tape contains a bootable program named “INPUT 64” at the beginning. The Commodore encoding saves the 192 bytes header (file name, type etc.) twice (007, 008), followed by the data, which is also saved twice (010, 011). On this tape, everything after this is in “SUPERTAPE” format. Every SUPERTAPE file consists of a single header (e.g. 013 for “CTEXTE”) and a single copy of the data (e.g. 017).

The printout above shows that after the boot program (2x header, 2x payload), there are 12 additional files. For each file, there is a header and there is payload. So this looks okay. Here is an example of a missing object:

$ tapclean -t 8707a.tap -doprg
Checksum test     : PASS [29 of 29 checksummed files OK]
$ ls prg/
066 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
067 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
069 (0318-09FF).prg
070 (0318-09FF).prg
072 (033C-0354) [CTEXTE].prg
076 (3000-4093).prg
080 (033C-0354) [RAHMEN_______COM].prg
084 (C440-CFF2).prg
088 (033C-0354) [TITELBILD].prg
092 (0801-1891).prg
096 (033C-0354) [i_n_p_u_t___w_I].prg
100 (0801-4A1D).prg
103 (033C-0354) [eNGLISCHE_gramMA].prg
107 (0801-5E09).prg
111 (033C-0354) [s_P_I_D_E_R].prg
115 (0801-471B).prg
118 (033C-0354) [a_S_S_E_M_B_L_E].prg
128 (033C-0354) [i_d___w_E_R_K_S].prg
132 (0801-3E4D).prg
135 (033C-0354) [i_c_i].prg
139 (0801-2DB0).prg
143 (033C-0354) [6_4_E_R__t_I_P_S].prg
147 (0801-4911).prg
151 (033C-0354) [p_I_N_G___p_O_N].prg
155 (0801-247F).prg
159 (033C-0354) [r___T_S_E_L_E_C].prg
163 (0801-22A5).prg
167 (033C-0354) [v_O_R_S_C_H_A_U].prg
171 (0801-0E89).prg

The checksum test passed, but the payload for the file with header 118 (“a_S_S_E_M_B_L_E”) is missing. In this case, it’s clear, but if two entries in sequence had been missing, it would have been tricky to detect this.

Comparing Multiple Copies

With just a single copy, we cannot really know whether the data is correct. Checksums are not reliable enough, and it’s hard to detect if a file was just not recognized. If we have two copies of the tape and they read the same, we can be very confident that the dumps are correct. tapclean’s “magic CRC32” that it prints after analyzing a tape is a strong checksum of all recognized data concatenated. So if two dumped copies have the same CRC32, we can assume that the dumps were correct.

It is quite unlikely that two dumps have the same file(s) missing, and it’s extremely unlikely that they had the same bit flips. Well, that is, if we assume that the tapes did not have mastering errors (or weaknesses), but also verifying the checksums and visual inspection of the contents should rule this out.

The following bash script shows the CRC32 values (e.g. “3D3C8936”), the number of correctly checksummed files and the number of total files (e.g. 30-31) for each tape:

for i in `find . -name \*.tap`; do
  echo $i
  (tapclean -t $i > $i.log)&
for i in `find . -name \*.log`; do
  issue=$(basename $i | cut -c 1-4)
  numfiles=$(cat $i | grep "^Checksum test" | cut -d "[" -f 2 | cut -d " " -f 1-3 | sed -e "s/ of /-/")
  crc32=$(cat $i | grep "^Magic CRC32" | cut -d ":" -f 2)
  echo $issue $crc32 $numfiles $(echo $i | sed -e "s/.log$//")

Here’s example output:

8708 00000000 0-0   ./8708a2.tap
8708 16979EE4 32-32 ./8708b2.tap
8708 16979EE4 32-32 ./8708b.tap
8708 3D3C8936 30-31 ./8708a.tap

8708b.tap and 8708b2.tap (the back sides of two different copies) are correct dumps: They have the same CRC32, they have all correct checksums, and the number of recognized items is even (header, data, header, data, …).

More Copies

Using this strategy, I was able to confirm correct dumps of 18 of the 32 tapes. 14 more to go.

The obvious way is to buy more copies on eBay until I have two that produce the same data. But luckily, there was another source: The C64 TOSEC Collection contains dumps of 20 of the tapes. Their time stamp says 1996, which is when then tapes were 10 years old instead of 30, so they should have been in much better shape. By looking at the checkums and the contents, we can get an idea of whether they are likely correct dumps. This is what the script from before says:

8508 8F9A4357 34-34 ./tosec/8508.tap
8511 F75CC32E 34-34 ./tosec/8511.tap
8605 200E286D 30-30 ./tosec/8605.tap
8510 D0534C58 34-34 ./tosec/8510.tap
8509 74B093F1 32-32 ./tosec/8509.tap
8606 DA4AF054 29-29 ./tosec/8606.tap
8502 8BDAF783 40-40 ./tosec/8502.tap
8512 764F2F59 31-31 ./tosec/8512.tap
8705 A103816A 30-30 ./tosec/8705.tap
8704 E84CC753 30-30 ./tosec/8704.tap
8602 B4F9D173 32-32 ./tosec/8602.tap
8612 547A7371 32-32 ./tosec/8612.tap
8506 78BC0D59 35-35 ./tosec/8506.tap
8603 E70B3E72 30-30 ./tosec/8603.tap
8507 22A807D1 32-32 ./tosec/8507.tap
8608 F9BD6BC9 34-34 ./tosec/8608.tap
8505 9C7FC3F2 35-35 ./tosec/8505.tap
8601 3F749A69 30-30 ./tosec/8601.tap
8611 48C4C35F 28-28 ./tosec/8611.tap
8703 C6757D2F 29-30 ./tosec/8703.tap

At least 8703 has an incorrect checksum. Several tapes have an odd number of recognized items, but sometimes, tapclean doesn’t seem to count correctly, so extracting all items (“-doprg”) and counting them makes sure what the right number is.

If we add these 20 copies to our collection and run the script again, we will be able to verify several more correct dumps.

8502 B76D97FE 35-39 ./1/8502a.tap
8502 8BDAF783 40-40 ./1/8502b.tap
8502 00000000 0-0   ./3/8502a.tap
8502 11D3CFC5 10-20 ./3/8502b.tap
8502 A7A10C6E 0-3   ./4/8502a.tap
8502 FC899939 0-0   ./4/8502b.tap
8502 8BDAF783 40-40 ./tosec/8502.tap

In this example, 1/8502b.tap and tosec/8502.tap contain the same data, so this verifies that these dumps are correct. Overall, this allowed me to verify the correctness of dumps of 8502, 8505, 8506, 8508, 8611, 8612 and 8705. Seven down, seven more to go!

Splice Verify

There are many issues where one dump looks okay, but we do not have an identical one to verify it. But it is not strictly necessary to have another identical dump. If we are certain that no files are missing, and that for every file, there is another dump with the identical file, we can be very certain that the dump is correct. I call this “splice verify”.

Let’s look at 8706:

8706 E6E7FCDA 28-28 ./1/8706a.tap
8706 8F259FA2 9-18  ./1/8706b.tap
8706 3BDC28F3 23-28 ./2/8706a.tap
8706 1B471853 8-17  ./2/8706b.tap

1/8706a.tap is a candidate for a correct dump. We can test whether there are identical copies of each item on the tape on other copies by hashing all items on the candidate and looking for them on the other copies. The following script will extract all tapes into subdirectories of “dir”:

rm -rf dir
mkdir dir
for i in `find . -name \*.tap | cut -c 3-`; do
    cd $(dirname $i)
    rm -rf $(basename $i)-$(dirname $i).dir
    mkdir $(basename $i)-$(dirname $i).dir
    cd $(basename $i)-$(dirname $i).dir
    tapclean -t ../$(basename $i) -doprg
    mv prg/* .
    rmdir prg
    cd ..
    mv $(basename $i)-$(dirname $i).dir ../dir/
  ) &

Then the following script will search for extra copies of every item on the candidate tape:

cd dir
for md5 in $(md5 -q 8706a.tap-1.dir/???\ *); do
  echo $md5
  md5 -r */* | grep $md5

And this script makes sure that every correctly read file on the other tapes also exists on the candidate:

for md5 in $(md5 -r */???\ * | grep -v 8706a.tap-1.dir | grep -v BAD.prg$ | cut -d " " -f 1 | sort | uniq); do
  echo $md5
  md5 -r 8706a.tap-1.dir/* | grep $md5

Using this method, it is possible to verify 8503, 8507, 8510, 8701 and 8706. Only two more tapes need to be verified!


We could keep buying more copies of 8504 and 8707 on eBay, but they don’t actually appear all that often. So let’s look at how bad our dumps are. Let’s take 8504:

12C4A3EA 30-30 ./8504a-1.tap
7C6D8541 34-35 ./8504b-1.tap
1337D0C8 20-25 ./8504a-2.tap
868DA7B6 38-38 ./8504b-2.tap
B80FD685 29-30 ./8504a-3.tap
8948C0B7 33-34 ./8504b-3.tap
C909C30F 26-27 ./8504a-4.tap
E3F7B698 8-24  ./8504b-4.tap

None of the dumps seems correct. 8504b-2.tap is the best, but the file count as printed by tapclean is wrong, and there is actually an item missing: The payload of “h_i_r_e_s_s_p_e”.

012 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
013 (033C-03FB) [INPUT_64].prg
019 (0300-0303).prg
020 (0300-0303).prg
025 (033C-03FB) [GUTEN_TAG].prg
026 (033C-03FB) [GUTEN_TAG].prg
031 (0801-0C96).prg
032 (0801-0C96).prg
039 (033C-0354) [TEXTE].prg
046 (3000-3B76).prg
053 (033C-0354) [RAHMEN_______COM].prg
059 (C440-CF78).prg
066 (033C-0354) [TITELBILD].prg
073 (0A00-0AFF).prg
080 (033C-0354) [h_i_r_e_s_s_p_e].prg
093 (033C-0354) [k_a_l_e_n_d_e_r].prg
100 (0801-38A2).prg
106 (033C-0354) [r_e_v_e_r_s_i].prg
112 (0801-267D).prg
119 (033C-0354) [s_h_o_r_t_____s].prg
125 (0801-2075).prg
131 (033C-0354) [k_o_n_t_a_k_t_e].prg
137 (0801-57D4).prg
144 (033C-0354) [bits___bytes_im].prg
152 (0801-6A70).prg
159 (033C-0354) [einkommensteuert].prg
166 (0801-28CB).prg
172 (033C-0354) [h_i_l_f_s_p_r_o].prg
179 (0801-1BEC).prg
185 (033C-0354) [n_e_w_s].prg
191 (0801-2873).prg
198 (033C-0354) [6_4_E_R_____t_i].prg
205 (0801-4D89).prg
211 (033C-0354) [a_r_t_e_m___s].prg
217 (0801-2E30).prg
223 (033C-0354) [s_u_p_e_r_t_a_p].prg
230 (0801-1A4A).prg
236 (033C-0354) [l_a_s_t__n_o_t].prg
243 (0801-2106).prg

If it weren’t for the missing data, we could splice-verify this dump. Using the scripts from earlier, we can show that all files can be found on other copies, and all correct files from other copies are on this dump – except for the “h_i_r_e_s_s_p_e” payload.

Then why not splice in the correct object from a correct dump? 8504b-1.tap is one of the dumps that contains a correct copy. tapclean’s tcreport.txt file for the tape with the correct data shows us some information about the “h_i_r_e_s_s_p_e” payload:

Seq. no.: 113
Location: $3DFA2 -> $3E13B -> $4E25E -> $4E269
LA: $0801  EA: $3000  SZ: 10239
Pilot/Trailer Size: 62/0
Checkbyte Actual/Expected: $7DA9/$7DA9, PASS
Read Errors: 0
Unoptimized Pulses: 12338
CRC32: CBF1C874

It is located between offsets $3DFA2 and $4E269 inside the file. Here’s the part from the hexdump:

$ hexdump 8504a-1.tap
0003df70  21 43 21 21 21 21 21 21  1e 21 21 21 43 fb 00 6c
0003df80  09 00 00 0b 19 00 00 ff  47 00 00 e5 2b 00 00 d9
0003df90  12 00 00 fe 3d 04 32 32  32 21 1e 21 37 32 2f 21
0003dfa0  21 21 21 43 1e 32 21 21  1e 32 32 2f 21 21 21 21
0003dfb0  40 21 32 1e 21 21 32 32  32 21 1e 21 21 43 21 32

Every byte in a TAP file (after the 20 byte header) represents the length of a pulse in units of about 8 microseconds. Zero is an escape code, after which a three byte little endian value follows which specifies pulse lengths above 255. So the zeroes here just before what tapclean identified as the beginning of the payload are areas of silence on the tape. Grouped correctly, these are the 6 very long pulses, which represent a pause of about half a second:

00 6c 09 00
00 0b 19 00
00 ff 47 00
00 e5 2b 00
00 d9 12 00
00 fe 3d 04

Just after this is where we want to cut.

The cutting position of the end can be found similarly, and by looking at the tcreport.txt of the tape with the broken file, we can find out what part to cut and replace with the good version.

At the end, we need to make sure the number of data bytes in the TAP file’s header at offset 16 (32 bit little endian) is correct.

By doing this, we can create correct versions of the two remaining issues, so now we have a verified correct dump of each of the 32 issues!

The Moral of the Story

Read your tapes early. If you have any tapes, read them now! It doesn’t matter if they have been dumped before: These dumps might be incorrect, because they might not have not been verified with a second copy.

5 thoughts on “Archiving C64 Tapes Correctly”

  1. FWIW, I wrote some software to the TAP → WAV conversion a while back that uses actual signal processing (limited-bandwidth interpolation, automatic filters through gradient descent, cleaning of tapes through the Viterbi algorithm). I wrote it just to prove a point (so it’s utterly unfinished), and it does several things worse than most other tools, but it has saved a few tapes that were utterly lost to other techniques. You might want to try it as an extra tool in your arsenal for those problematic cases. :-);a=tree

  2. This is really nice work!

    Have you had a look at the pressure pads in these cassettes (the square of foam on a spring that holds the tape against the head)? I digitised a load of cassettes a few years ago – mostly audio but a few C16/Spectrum data cassettes as well – and found that quite a few of them had rotted pressure pads. Playing these in a cheap tape deck doesn’t produce good results because the tape drifts across or away from the head. One approach would be to use a fancier dual-capstan tape deck that doesn’t rely on the pressure pad, but I ended up dismantling a good-quality cassette shell with an intact pressure pad and swapping the reels of tape into it…

  3. Really nice work, great that you are doing this to the vintage computer community!

    In an episode of the youtube channel Techmoan there is a recommendation of an insulation thing ment for insulating doors and windows, from Clas Ohlson, which has worked out good for for replacing the felt pads on old 8-track (a.k.a. “stere-8”) tapes. I’ve bought a roll of that stuff but haven’t tried it myself. If it works on the larger 8-track tapes it might also work on standrad compact cassettes. As Adam stated, the felt pad isn’t really necesary in dual capstan decks. IIRC there are even dual capstan decks that actively pushes the felt pad away from the tape as it’s not only not needed but actually adds slight variations in tape speed.

    Re good cassette players: In my experience, the few dual capstan decks from the 70’s seems to be the most affordable way to get a deck with excelent mechanical properties for playing tapes of questionable mechanical quality. I’d suggest searching for 70’s Tandberg cassette decks or even school/educational tape recorders as every Tandberg cassette mechanism is afaik dual capstan and also of the super sturdy really durable and reliable kind with one smaller motor for each spool, with the spool directly on the motor axis, a larger (afaik AC mains powered) motor with one single drive belt driving the capstan axles (and a drive belt for the tape counter), and one solenoid that moves the heads and the rollers in to or out of the tape. Nothing to go wrong there as compared to what I call “fake three motor” decks (for example well known decks as Yamaha KX-1200) which have one motor for changing tape transport modes, one for the capstan axle(s) and one motor to drive both spools.

    It seems like the old Tandbergs go for a reasonable price at least here in Sweden at Ebays sibling called Tradera.

    Other decks that might be a good choice if you find them is the 1970’s Akai dual capstan decks like GXC-310D, GXC-325D, GXC-760D and similar, but those are probably rather rare.

    If you are really have too much money you could buy a 1980’s Tandberg deck or some of the better Nakamichi decks, but at least the best Tandberg models seem to cost the equalient of about 1000-2000 EUR (!!!!). (Not that surprising as they, like the Nakamichi Dragon, did cost about SEK 30000 new in the mid 80’s, and are really the best cassette deck you can ever get. As a side trick, I think the only way to get something resembling those decks but at a reasonable price would be to combine one of those 70’s Tandberg decks (or school cassette recorders) with the electronics and tape heads of one of the better 80’/90’s decks from some other brand like Yamaha, Pioneer or similar. But that’s really only a good idea if you are going to record music. Playback of music, and both recording and playback of data works as good on a 70’s as on a 80’s/90’s cassette deck assuming the tape heads are in a reasonable condition).

    Btw I’m not sure how computer tapes were duplicated back in the days. If they were duplicated using the same hardware as with music cassettes, they might had been duplicated as stereo tapes even though the content is mono. If so, there shouldn’t be much difference using a mono or stereo tape head. But if the tapes were duplicated using mono hardware, you might actually be able to pick up a bit more of the signal using a mono head than a stereo head as the mono head will pick up all of the signal that’s in the place which would be the gapbetween the channels on a stereo tape. Of course a stereo head will pick up a bit of that signal, but not all of it. That might be the little tiny bit of extra signal quality that could save an otherwise unreadable tape.

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