... 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 game.

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 probably OK.’

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.


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 Telford, Shropshire.

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:

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 Graphics.

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 Domark.

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 days.

‘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?