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512 disk drives later, Floppotron computer hardware orchestra hits v3.0

We pick the creator's brains on why he would undertake such a marvelous ordeal

The Floppotron computer hardware orchestra has reached version 3.0. The question is, where do you even find 512 floppy disk drives? Its creator, Paweł Zadrożniak, tells all.

The Floppotron is a marvellous bit of engineering. Its tones frequent many a YouTube video (this writer was rather taken by the rendition of "Take On Me" performed by the device's second iteration) and as a repurposing of obsolete hardware, it would be hard to come up with a more imaginative approach.

The first version made its debut in 2011 and consisted of a pair of floppy drives. The device's performance of the Imperial March has clocked up 6.7 million views at time of writing.

Version 2.0 increased the drive count to 64 and added eight hard drives and a pair of flatbed scanners. The latest incarnation ups the ante with 512 floppy drives, 16 hard drives and 4 scanners.

Youtube Video

Zadrożniak has documented the construction of the machine (we're particularly impressed with the "floppy disk drive wall"). But why?

"The project has started with just a random idea in 2011," he said. "I'm an electronics hobbyist and like to do those small projects for learning purposes or just for pure fun.

"I also like music. I used to play a little piano and when those projects involve any music then it's getting more fun to me."

"Fun" is one word for it, although there is undoubtedly considerable skill in getting MIDI from one end to play out via the instruments (for want of better word) made up of whirring and clunking device motors.

"Maybe it's not a particularly useful device," conceded Zadrożniak, "but it was a little challenging and super fun to make."

Also challenging is scrounging all those parts. After all, where would one even go to find that many working drives nowadays?

"I got the floppy drives in small batches from advertisement/internet auction services," he said. "They usually came from off-lease refurbished or scrapped computers. Sometimes the leasing companies sell the individual parts when the lease period ends.

"The floppy disk drives as well as the scanners are getting more difficult to find as hardly anyone uses them today and they are no longer manufactured. If nobody needs them today, most of them may up in the junkyards."

Or as the beating heart of the Floppotron.

Decades-old hardware does, however, present its own challenges. "It's 20 or 30-year-old hardware and its prone to failure," he said. "Electronics in floppy disks drives tend to fail sometimes when powered up after spending 20 years in dusty warehouse. In my case, 11 FDDs out of 512 have failed shortly after powering up for the first time. Since then, the rest is working fine.

"But I don't know for how long – time will tell."

While much of the electronics are of Zadrożniak's own custom design, another issue is how to power the beast. A PC ATX power supply is nowhere near strong enough to cope, and making hardware scream means high power consumption. "One stack of 32 drives can draw up to around 16A of current when all drives are active," said Zadrożniak, so an array of 16 modular 5V/18A power supplies have been used to power the stacks of drives.

As for the future of his creation, Zadrożniak is eyeing the addition of new instruments, perhaps involving dot-matrix printers.

We cannot wait. ®

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