HOW TO COPY HALF A MILLION CASSETTES
... every month, legally — BARNABY PAGE
visited Costape, one of the country’s largest
duplicators of Spectrum games,
to watch ’em roll
Making the master: when a program first arrives at COS, it’s transferred from
the Spectrum to a strong one-inch master, via this Studer cassette machine,
at 7.5 inches a second.
A technician makes phase and frequency adjustments here, eliminating
anything that could interfere with the data. (‘There’s a lot of rubbish on most
tapes,’ says one.)
And then, for safety’s sake, next month’s CRASH Smash is loaded back off
the master and on the Spectrum to check it’s all there.
Very fast forward: this is why the tape must be so strong. At least 2,000
copies of most full-price games go out at once, and to save time they’re
duplicated in this room at a whizzing 240 inches a second, or 15 miles an
hour — on to 12 two-mile-long reels (or ‘slaves’) which can be cut into
cassette-length tapes later. The master, of course, is a single looped copy of
The machines can reach a racing speed of 30 miles an hour, but it’s not
reliable for copying data. When COS is running off a few thousand cassettes
of Marianne Faithfull, no-one will notice if a few subtleties of sound drop off
— but lose just one vital line of program and the product’s ruined.
So every one of those reels, each providing over 42 hours worth of playback
time, is checked. ‘If it loads, it’s OK,’ says COS Technical Manager Graham
Williams. ‘But you only need one dropout and the whole thing’s killed.’
The BASF tapes used for data duplication are 18 microns (0.18 millimetres)
thick, though tapes running longer than an hour (music, for instance) must
be just 12 microns thick to fit in the case.
Quality control: each master can make up to 36,000 copies, so it had better be
right! A few of the first copies to come off the master are sent to the
software house for approval, and when they’ve given the thumbs up this COS
technician compares one copy from every reel with those approved originals.
‘We work on the assumption
that it there’s a problem it’s going
to be at the end of the tape,’ says
COS’s Graham Williams. ‘You’ve
checked the end of the last one, so
the beginning of the next is
Superscissors: they’ve all been copied and you’ve got perhaps 12 miles of
tape on your hands. It’s in the cutting and casing room that the cassette
starts to look like the real thing.
509 C5 tapes (five-minute tapes often used for computer programs) can
be cut from each of those dozen massive reels — and when the tape was
duplicated, a 3Hz signal-generator put an overtone on the end of each of
those 509 copies.
So now the reel is put in this stunningly fast winder, which snips off a
cassette’s worth whenever it picks up that overtone. The length of tape is
automatically spooled into a cassette case (you can see the pile ot them, like
chocolates in a vending machine, on the right).
The machine also measures the exact length of the first copy it cuts, which
workers test to make sure the program’s all there, and then monitors the
length of each cassette-worth it cuts after that. There’s not a sprite on
the cutting room floor...
Putting it all together: the
cassette’s been run through a
labelling machine, and now this
Heath Robinsonesque device
adds the inlay and the box in one
swift operation, taking about three
seconds for each cassette. COS
can wrap the box, too, but that’s
not usual for software.
Then it’s off to the distributors
and ultimately the software shops
— to hit or flop.
DIRE STRAITS FOR THE DUPLICATORS
DEPENDENT on just a few big software houses, the
game-duplication business is very specialised. Besides the London-based COS
group (it stands for ‘COmputer Software’, as you could have guessed) the major
players include Interceptor Print in Aldermaston and Ablex Audio Video in
Both COS and Ablex came to the booming software business from traditional
origins. COS, founded three years ago, was (and still is) duplicator of all the
Linguaphone language-study tapes. And Ablex, which started software work in
1979, was part of the Decca Record Company.
But now Ablex, which still produces millions of music tapes each year,
claims to be the largest software duplicator in Europe.
Among its statistics:
- about 15 million tapes duplicated in 1986
- 650,000 cassettes once duplicated in a week.
And Ablex, owned today by Racal Electronics plc, has made tapes, disks and
Spectrum microdrives for most of the software giants, including Ocean, US Gold
(which even has an office in the Ablex factory), Firebird and Gremlin
COS, by contrast, takes a smaller share of the market (which, like most of
the software business, is torn by arguments over who’s bigger and
stronger than whom) — but prides itself on the full service it offers.
COS doesn’t just duplicate (though it ran off 489,000 cassettes in
September) but also prints labels, inlays and boxes, stores the finished
product in warehouses and even does some distribution for Firebird and
One of COS’s most complicated projects was packaging Brian
Clough’s Football Fortunes for CDS Software earlier this year,
complete with board, playing cards, counters, game banknotes and booklet! (See
our issue 38 review.)
On the bottom line, though, all the software-duplicators need music too.
Software is usually recorded on tapes of C5 to C15 length (ie five to 15
minutes long), but because each short tape takes so much work they’re not
as profitable as music tapes about an hour long.
‘You need the occasional Dire Straits album, overspill from Polygram,
say, 30,000 copies,’ observes COS’s Graham Williams. This
Christmas COS will duplicate about 250 music titles — hundreds of
thousands of cassettes.
And the record companies are often more reliable than software houses,
booking hours of duplicating time every week rather than suddenly thrusting a
hastily-developed game on the machines to rush it into the shops within a few
‘The software business is basically the music business 25 years
ago,’ says Williams — describing the world of small producers and
eccentric shoestring operations as well as the duplicator’s role.
But where are our Beatles?