Atari Firebee - An Atari Coldfire Clone Built for Music
The TOS compatible FireBee is now in production! Initial deliveries will begin towards the second half of 2010! Here are the most recent expected production specs!
Part 1: AMN Interviews Mathias Wittau, Project Coordinator of the Atari Firebee (Previously known as the Atari Coldfire Project Reloaded)
Q: How did the Atari Coldfire Project get started? Where did you find all the developers and how many are there working on the ACP-Reloaded?
A: Until November 2008, I was a regular Atari user with a Hades 040 and some MegaSTEs. During this time, in a German forum, someone brought up the following question: is the Hades is still in stock at Medussa computers? So I tried to contact Fredi Aschwanden, the creator of the Atari Hades clone, to ask him about upgrading my Hades to a 060 processor and if he still had some motherboards for sale. Fredi was stunned that I contacted him in Switzerland from Austria. After he heard my questions, he asked me if there was still any need for new Atari-compatible machines.
I was following the Atari-Scene since the very late 90's and had the whole Atari Coldfire Project story in mind from the beginning (since the end of the Milan 2). I only had one weekend to think about the whole issue. I prepared a 4-page proposal in which I tried to convince Fredi into developing a new Atari clone. I also offered my help free of charge.
Thankfully, Fredi answered and was interested. We agreed that if I could summon a team to handle the software programming, he would take care of the hardware design. That´s when I began to contact every developer I had ever heard of, inviting them to join forces for this project. From the beginning, it was crystal clear that no one would earn a single cent for the work we were doing - we had to do it for ourselves. We had to use open source and produce open source (as far as possible). The reaction was bigger than we thought!
By January 2009, we got 20 people who would invest some time and knowledge into constructing and developing this machine. It was absolutely great that we could join forces with Wolfgang Förster who has been working on the Suska (an Atari STe clone) for 5 years now. I was glad that we agreed that there should be no rivalry between present atari-projects as Wolfgang is a very important team member of the ACP-reloaded now.
Eventually, we managed to get the know-how from all the big Atari-Clone developers: Medus a, Suska, Milan, and also Didier Mequignon who writes software for the CTPCI boards for the Falcon CT60/63. It seems funny, but all this project really needed was someone to initiate and coordinate the people who were already interested in creating a new Atari clone. Now we got the best team ever! Since I cannot develop, I still keep the role of coordination.
Q: What is your role as the project coordinator?
A: As the coordinator, I try to get the overview. I communicate with all the 36+ people involved and keep things organized. I think about future ideas and who to invite to the project next. And even if everything isn't perfect (some parts are still not solved), everything has come together quite well. The prototypes are already in existence and new developers are contacting us all the time.
I´m also in charge of all office-tasks such as taking customer's preorders, researching about software contacts, calling everybody, thinking about and reading licenses, talking within all the Atari related forums worldwide, seeking translators, and keeping the ACP webpage up to date.
Q: Is this project really non-profit? How do your team members view this?
A: The Atari Coldfire Project is non-commercial. Nobody will earn anything. It´s clear in everyone's mind that there is no Atari market any more and so even the developers will have to buy their own machines. Where ever possible, we will publish the research, source codes, and schematics as open source. The motives of the team members are diverse and I don´t like to speak for all of the 36+ members participating in the project one way or the other. However, I think everyone agrees that the platform as a whole needs open licenses to move forward. Many of the ACP developers come from the open source scene (MiNT) or from Demo-crews. Therefore, ACP-reloaded as an Open Software and Hardware project was a natural result of our team coming together. Likewise, we have the old and new clone developers on board, which is very positive.
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Q: How many Coldfires would you like to produce?
A: Well, for sure scores of thousands! The question is how many pre-orders we get. At the moment we are at the lower three digit range. Given that the CT60/63 has sold about 400 units, I personally think that this should also be possible for our computer. If it is possible to reach old ex-Atari users, we probably could come close to 1000. But these are dreams of the future. Let´s wait for the first series, and see how the feedback goes.
Q: What would you like to prove with a successful and popular production run of these Coldfire machines?
A: We don´t want to prove anything. At most, we want show that the Atari community is still alive. I think diversity is an important aspect as it leads to innovations and development. Off-the-shelf hardware from a few vendors means deadlocks and dependencies. At present, we've already developed some hardware innovations not in existence on any other desktop computer.
Additionally, there are still some people who work exclusively with Ataris and compatible Clones. These people simply need more recent and faster hardware. When our project went public, the first people to contact us were professionals from the DTP and music sectors to preorder and tell us that we are on the right path.
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PART 2: The Atari Firebee's MIDI and Audio Features
Q: What are the audio specifications and capabilities of the Atari Coldfire machine?
A: Well, after a long discussion, the ACP team decided to include standard IN/OUT sound directly on the board for daily usage of audio. We have 48KHz IN/OUT and a MIC (MINI-Jacks) on-board. These are reach able through an AC´97. Don´t confuse AC´97 with ”bad on-board sound” as the AC´97 is a standard - not a chip (likewise, you can't blame MIDI-protocol for the really bad latencies the early PC sound-cards got). The chip we're using for encoding and decoding audio has a SNR of 90dB and a THD of 0.005%. It also features an 18-bit AD-Converter and 20-bit DA-Converter with the possibility of different stand-alone sampling rates at the same time (full duplex stereo). The software for the AC'97 which is currently under development by Didier Mequignon (software developer Atari CTPCI, Aniplayer etc.).
We based the whole ACP concept on the Atari Falcon because we realized that people would love to see a modern Falcon-compatible machine much more than a TT-Clone so we decided to code the hardware initialization this way. This will also make it much easier to implement the Falcon's DSP56001 within the FPGA, which one of our developers has been working on since the beginning of 2009. When the DSP is ready, we can expect more Falcon audio software to work on our machine. And don't forget the ROM-Port which is extremely important for musicians. The ROM-Port will be present even if many people don't understand why we kept this old interface (Midex or Dongle users will know why).
The Atari Coldfire also has a highly customizable PCI bus. You can attach between 2 to 20 PCI slots/devices to the computer (but the computer itself takes the first slot). So it is possible to use the same board within a 19" Rack with 8 PCI cards or perhaps with just two PCI devices within a very small enclosure. We hope that there will be some audio cards made available for TOS and GEM-environments. For the Chiptunes fans we have implemented ST-Sound compatibility.
A: If you look at the prototype, you will see the Compact Flash. To the right of that is that is the IDE connector (ATA44) and next to that is the ROM Port. For people who need it we will provide a cheap cable with an original connector (port dimensions would have been too big for PCI-formfactor as with most other common DIN connectors).
Q: Is the ST-Sound an actual YM2149 chip or is it purely emulated?
A: Our ST-Sound is a YM2149 implement via hardware in VHDL within the FPGA. This is a 1:1 mapping of the original YM2149 and not a software emulation inside the AC'97 chip. The ST-Sound code has already been executed on the Suska Atari emulation board by Wolfgang Förster and is available as Open Source. The fascinating point about the FPGA is that it can be reconfigured based on need. Should someone be up for making a different chip in the future, this can be programmed inside the FPGA as well. What do you think of a Paula chip?
Q: What kind of music software is currently under development or already in existence that will take advantage of the Coldfire's hardware capabilities?
A: Slowly, slowly...you are not talking about a concern which has a huge development department. At the moment, Didier Mequignon, is working on the Software for the AC'97. Whatever else develops for the Atari audio sphere, we'll have to see what is realistic in the future based on how many resources are in existence (i.e. developers).
To really understand what the ACP developers are doing, they are aiming to create a super fast GEM machine which will be compatible with every Atari ST/TT/Falcon machine as much as possible (even 8-B it could be possible). What ever third party developers create after this, is a question of the community and software programmers. We see it as our primary go al to provide hardware and assure deliverable computers.
Falcon compatibility is a very important point for Atari-users – that is very clear to all of us at working on the ACP. We want to ensure that every cleanly written GEM audio application will work. Later many titles which where coded for older STs or Falcons may work as well. As far as the rest of the Atari developers that are still alive out there, they could – with a simple recompilation – optimize their programs for the ColdFire processor, what means that they could possibly run at the full native speed of 266MHz. The development environments are already finished (GCC) or under progress (AHCC- PureC compatible, GFA-BASIC).
Q: What kind of music software could be written that will take advantage of the Coldfire's hardware capabilities? Do you believe there are still developers out there willing to do this for the Atari Coldfire project?
A: A lot of possibilities for new software creation are possible on a system with a good FPGA, like the RME-Hammerfall which has 0% CPU load because its wise usage of the FPGA. Imagine a G3 with a RME card, and you get a approximately what could be possible with this computer.
Whatever new music software programs will be created after the ACP is released is a question for third party developers as I've already mentioned. I firmly believe that most ex-developers are still out there and that many of them still have an affinity towards Atari. I believe they'd all be eager to support the ACP in some way. Whatever active developers may still be out there, the number of people we contacted and who answered positively was completely unexpected. Regarding former developers, I have to say in most cases they are cooperative and well-disposed. My experience is that everyone I contacted directly and showed respect for his previous work or products at Atari-sector, where highly delighted and assured their support. Even if it was ”only” granting rights to their old projects.
I'd suggest that if you have any music apps you'd like to see updated for the ACP, contact the developers and tell them – you might be surprised at their response!
Q: Is there an advantage using a Coldfire for Music production vs. the classic ST or Falcon series?
A: That depends on what you are planning to do. If you only want to drive your MIDI setup with an ST then you don't need a new computer. If we're talking about sound editing, then that's different. Power intensive applications will definitely benefit from the ACP, especially if they are optimized for ColdFire. Hopefully any programmers that optimize new or old software for the Coldfire processor, will also optimize the code for the existing 060 users too.
There are other advantages as well. The ACP will have 512MB Ram hard-wired to the board. The computer is absolutely silent as there is not a single heatsink in use, which could be helpful in recording situations. Last but not least, the complete motherboard is 27 x 10 x 1cm – pretty mobile when you understand what I'm hinting at.
Q: Will the Coldfire be backwards compatible so it can run legacy MIDI applications such as Notator, Cubase, and Logic?
A: The Coldfire itself is not 100% compatible. Its instruction set is a subset of the 68k instructions. So far during tests, TOS and MiNT are running very well. Adjustments are therefore possible with little effort. For programs which are using instructions no longer available on the ColdFire, there will be a compatibility layer. This layer will be used for non-existing instructions while the operating system runs naively on the Coldfire at the same time. Additionally, Fredi Aschwanden (the Creator of the Hades, Medusa Computers), has some foxy ideas – remember, he patched TOS for the Hades as binaries (th us without the source code) via branch tables so that it worked on 040 and 060 equipped machines! Both Wolfgang Förster and Fredi Aschwanden expect that the ACP board will be more compatible than the Hades.
Regarding the really old and unsupported applications - that really poses a challenge. Cubase and Logic, for example, will definitely be a precondition for wide acceptance of the ACP hardware. Hence these programs have a high priority for us.
What the hardware makes available is the possibility that there could be completely different configurations. For example, we could put a complete ST with 8MHz inside the FPGA, which would then run alongside the Coldfire. The 68000 is already at our disposal as open source from the Suska board. Wouldn't it be an interesting possibly, running a sampler at the same time as Cubase on the same board? Basically, it'd be like running Cubase on a complete ST inside the FPGA and the sampler inside the faster GEM computer on the Coldfire processor together at the same time on the same board (in theory).
Q: What kind of MIDI ports will the Coldfire have? Would the developers consider installing a MIDI THRU port and/or a port for a MIDI expansion box for multiple MIDI I/O? What about custom Coldfire peripherals for musicians (audio cards, MIDI expansion boxes) similar to SoundPool and Steinberg's products such as the FDI and S/PDIF units?
A: The MIDI ports will reside on one MiniDIN giving IN/OUT and THRU capabilities. We had to use a MiniDIN because there was no room for three big DIN connectors and it wouldn't fit the dimensions of the PCI form-factor. People who like to use MIDI can use a breakout cable to achieve the three DIN connectors.
Soundpool and Steinberg products should work as well. The Falcon DMA-Port will be added for extra expansion. At the moment, we are evaluating if it makes sense to produce the Desseé audio card, and if it can be polished up in some way. Personally I'd like an AES/EBU and a DMX512 interface – let's wait and see!
Q: How will the Coldfire compare to the Atari Falcon as a music production computer?
A: At the moment we are working on the initialization of the prototypes and developing the bootcode for the computer and you are asking for comparisons? ;) It would be very hard to answer that question.
Q: How will the Coldfire compare to the Hades as a music production computer? Is the Hades for sale or in production still?
A: The Coldfire will be more compatible with ST/Falcon hardware than the Hades was. This became possible trough the architecture and the FPGA.
As for the Hades, it has sold out. Nevertheless there was still some interest. It was around November 2008 originally, when discussions for developing a new computer by Medusa Computer Systems, and that the ACP got a 2nd chance (thus the name ACP-Reloaded). What emerged was a computer which costs 1/3 of the Hades and will be considerably faster and more compatible.