Finding equipment

RADD’s first pieces of equipment were two Iomega Zip drives that were in a pile in the hall waiting for the trash collectors to arrive. At the time, I wasn’t even planning to build RADD; I just knew that plenty of people still had Zip disks, and I didn’t want the drives to be thrown away!

Installations like RADD can look out of reach due to the difficulty of finding older A/V equipment in usable condition at a reasonable price. Some pieces are inescapably expensive, it is true! (I would love a film digitizer and a microfilm/microfiche digitizer. I can’t afford them.) But savvy searching can help save money for the expensive stuff.

Rule one is “be patient.” If you need a piece of equipment immediately, expect to pay a premium for it. (I have, once or twice, when I’ve had a project in hand.) If you can wait for a deal, you’ll likely find one. Rule two is “find repairfolk.” You will need them! Ask your network.

Rule three is “ask your community first.” RADD, PROUD, and PRAVDA have benefited immeasurably from the generosity of people in the campus and Madison communities. You’ll be amazed at what people have!

Everyone knows about thrift stores, eBay, and Craigslist, but these are far from your only sources of viable equipment. Additional sources include:

  • Government or university surplus. These are often open to the public only on specific days. Some, as here, have online auctions—but do not limit yourself to those; some of the best gadgetry will only be found in the warehouse.
  • ShopGoodwill.com. Condition is never guaranteed, but I have had a lot of good luck here. Once you have an account, you can set up email alerts for items of interest. (If the item is commonly misspelled, set up an alert for the misspelling also.)
  • RecycledGoods.com. Mostly digital, some A/V. If the prices seem high, that’s because RecycledGoods actually tests equipment before resale. Listings will specify if something is not working, or not fully working.
  • PropertyRoom.com. An omnibus police auction site. Real gems are rare, but they do pop up now and again. Beware shipping charges.
  • Everything But The House. An estate-sale auction site. Good for vintage A/V. Shipping charges amazingly high, unfortunately.

Good luck!

What media can RADD work with?

(This list is current as of January 27, 2017.)

Still image media

  • Slides
  • 35mm film [caution: filmstrips and long film rolls are cumbersome to work with]

Audio media

Some of the playback equipment listed below is small, low-use, expensive and/or rare, and portable, ergo locked up. If you need it, please speak to Dorothea Salo in advance. Thank you!

  • Microcassettes
  • Minicassettes [player locked away]
  • Standard audio cassettes
  • Digital audio tape (DAT)
  • Alesis digital audio tape (ADAT) [caution: this machine has not yet been tested due to lack of media]
  • Sony mini-discs [player locked away]
  • 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm, 78 rpm vinyl records
  • Coming soon: most speeds of reel-to-reel tape (machine awaiting a final repair)

Video media

  • VHS and VHS-C tapes
  • U-Matic tapes
  • Betamax tapes
  • Betacam tapes
  • Mini-DV (camcorder) tapes
  • Hi8 tapes
  • Digital8 tapes

(RADD does not currently work with 8mm, Super8, or 16mm film. Try Holder PrintWorks. We also do not currently have DVCAM playback equipment.)

Digital media

  • Most 5.25″ floppy diskettes in most filesystems (“flippy” disks will not work)
  • 3.5″ floppy diskettes, including Mac-formatted diskettes
  • Iomega Zip disks
  • Iomega Jaz disks
  • IMation SuperDisks
  • Most hard drives

Coming soon (awaiting a working SCSI setup):

  • SyQuest SparQ disks
  • SyQuest EZFlyer disks

Bodging a case for a 5.25″ floppy drive

Most digital data-rescue kits will want a 5.25″ floppy drive. The main difficulty with these is that extant ones are practically all designed to be installed inside a computer case. To ship one safely, it makes sense to find an enclosure for it.

As best we know, no enclosure is available for purchase ready-designed for a single 5.25″ floppy drive and its connectors. (RADD uses this dual-drive enclosure, which works fine but is rather too heavy to ship.) The best anyone can do is bodge one.

To match PROUD’s setup, you will need:

  • A drive. The usual recommendation is a TEAC FD55-GFR, though other drives may work also.
  • A drive controller. Your options are a Kryoflux (lovely, but very expensive) or Device Side Data’s small USB controller card, which comes with the needed ribbon cable to connect it to the drive.
  • A power source for the drive. Device Side Data sells one that works just fine.
  • A standard USB A/B cable (one end squarish, one end rectangular) to connect the controller card to the computer.
  • A case! Look for a case that fits a full-height CD or DVD (“optical”) drive. Key to making this work: the rear panel must be either dispensable or plastic. A case with a metal rear panel will not work, unless you have access to metal-cutting gear.
  • A small-bladed hacksaw or jab saw.

PROUD is using this CoolGear enclosure. This Addonics enclosure has also been recommended.

The exact manner of putting the drive and enclosure together depends on the exact enclosure chosen, but here is the basic idea:

  1. Disassemble the enclosure. Rip out all fans, cards, and cables in the rear of the enclosure; you will not need them. (Some will be glued in; pry out the glue blobs.)
  2. Put the drive into the enclosure, lining up the front of the drive with the enclosure front. (A little electrical tape may keep the drive in line better; not all drives and all enclosures can be screwed together, unfortunately.)
  3. Look at the back of the enclosure and the back of the drive. Decide how much needs to be sawed off the rear panel to fit the power cord and ribbon cable through.
  4. Once everything fits, reassemble the entire enclosure. (If possible, mount the FC5025 card inside the enclosure, but that plus the ribbon cable is very likely too large to fit.) Electrical tape can help steady the power cable and cover sawed-off edges.
  5. Plug the ribbon cable into the FC5025 card, then wrap the cable’s extra folds around it (leaving the USB jack clear), to provide the card a little protection. (In our experience, this card is quite durable, but every little bit helps.)

The result is not beautiful, but it is functional.

PROUD: Equipment and software roster

Equipment included in the PROUD digital-data rescue kit:

  • HP EliteBook 8460p laptop computer with power cable, running Windows 7 Professional
  • Forensic ComboDock with all associated cables
  • 3.5″ USB floppy drive
  • 5.25″ floppy drive (TEAC FD55-GFR) in an enclosure, powered by this cable
  • FC5025 USB floppy controller card, attached to 5.25″ drive via included ribbon cable
  • Iomega 250MB USB Zip drive

Installed software:

The problem of FireWire

FireWire is a near-obsolete connection and data-transfer standard. Unfortunately, it is also the best way to capture digital video data from MiniDV camcorders, and many perfectly adequate audio interfaces also rely on it. Normally we would hope for adapters to an up-to-date connection standard like USB, but in FireWire’s case we’re out of luck.

For desktop machines running Windows, the solution is relatively simple: a PCI or PCIe card with FireWire ports such as the one StarTech sells. These are readily available used and new, and not difficult to install.

For relatively current Macs, desktop or laptop, the easiest solution is Apple’s FireWire to Thunderbolt adapter (plus a cheap adapter or cable that allows plugging into the 4-wire port in most camcorders and the 9-wire port in the Apple dongle). We have successfully used this setup with a previous-generation MacBook Pro; what we do not presently know is whether it can be adapted to the current-generation USB-C-only laptop line.

For Windows laptops, such as we are planning to use for video capture in PRAVDA, we have no solution for most current-generation machines. Roughly one or two generations back, however, two potential solutions exist:

  • Laptops with an actual FireWire port. These were generally “business-class” laptops; they are not easy to find, but they do exist.
  • Laptops with an “ExpressCard” slot, plus a FireWire ExpressCard (again, StarTech sells these). Such laptops are fairly easy to find refurbished; their specs will not be the latest-greatest, but fortunately they don’t need to be for PRAVDA’s purposes.

Audio-gear manufacturer Presonus has a useful list of Windows laptop models that meet one or the other of the above requirements. For any A/V capture laptop intended for a portable rig like PRAVDA, we also recommend checking that it has an optical drive capable of writing as well as reading CDs and DVDs; nearly all on Presonus’s list should qualify. If such a drive is not built into the laptop, the rig would need to include an external optical drive—possible, but a waste of precious packing space.

Good luck!

PROUD and PRAVDA funded!

We are tremendously excited to announce that the Institute for Museum and Library Services has awarded RADD a Sparks! Ignition grant to build and document two kits, one for audiovisual digitization (“PRAVDA,” for “Portably Reformat A/V to Digital from Analog”), one for digital-data rescue (“PROUD,” for “Portable Recovery of Unique Data”).

Our hope is that proving the feasibility of constructing such kits will spark kit construction at centers of cultural heritage such as state libraries and archives, DPLA Service Hubs, library consortia, and LIS schools. In turn, the kits will enable small cultural-heritage institutions to rescue and share at least some of their most at-risk collections, and to help patrons rescue their own personal and family history.

We are glad to share with the community the abstract and (slightly redacted) narrative from our grant application. We make no pretense of perfection—indeed, if we were to write this grant today we would change a few things!—but we hope sharing these helps others write successful applications.

Our thanks to John Ryan

RADD couldn’t exist without the generosity of the campus and Madison communities. Another example of this generosity was just added into the technology array.

RADD uses the Device Side Data controller card to be able to read 5.25-inch floppy disks. Device Side Data used to sell an enclosure for the card, but no longer does. We always felt nervous about just leaving RADD’s two cards out on the table; they are fairly sturdy (we admit we have dropped them a few times), but no electronics enjoy rough treatment.

Luckily, John Ryan, a Student Shop Technician at the College of Engineering Student Shop came to RADD’s rescue. He drilled and cut a small plastic equipment box to hold the card safely with the ribbon cable and USB cable plugged into it.

We are very grateful for Mr. Ryan’s work!