For my 2016 years-end vacation I didn’t feel like starting something completely new, so I worked a bit on my YAKC 8-bit emulator, the asm.js version is here.

I mainly wanted to learn more about the two popular Western Z80-machines ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, so I spent most of the time extending the emulator for those two systems.

The Speccy and CPC don’t quite fit into the emulator’s current theme of ‘obscure East-German home computers’, but there’s still a connection to the East:

The ZX Spectrum had a very simple architecture and could be built with standard microchips that were mass-produced in Eastern Europe. In East-Germany it were mostly hobbyists who built their own ZX clones, but in the Soviet Union (and mid-90’s Russia), and in Poland and Romania, Spectrum compatible machines were factory-built. Unfortunately those ‘proper’ Eastern-European Speccy clones weren’t available in Eastern Germany so I could never try one out myself.

The Amstrad CPC has a more interesting connection to the East: right on time for the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, East Germany presented the KC Compact, a CPC-compatible machine somewhere between the 664 and 6128. The CPC was much more complex than the Speccy, it required a custom gate-array chip designed by Amstrad, an MC6845 video display controller, and an AY-3-8912 sound chip. Only the video display controller chip was built as a clone in Eastern Europe. The custom Amstrad gate-array had to be ‘emulated’ with a couple of different chips that were more easily available, and the sound chip was a Taiwanese import (which was extremely unusual, it would be interesting to know the story how those chips made their way to Eastern Germany).

But with the reunification on the horizon the KC Compact was too late, only very few were built and sold. It was crushed by the 16-bit Amigas and Ataris flooding into the East.

When I added support for the Spectrum and CPC I also did a pretty thorough source code cleanup which should make it much easier to add support for new 8-bit machines in the future (even non-Z80 based systems, and systems with a lot of custom logic), and I think now is a good time to finally start a little blog post series which dives into the implementation details of the emulator.

YAKC Birds Eye View

The entire emulator package is split into 3 components:

  • Emulator Core: This is the actual emulator written in a simple C++ without dependencies. The main design goals for the emulator core are to be small and fast, easy to extend with new emulated systems, and easy to embed into other projects (for instance here’s the emulator embedded into a simple 3D scene demo)
  • Platform Wrapper: The emulator core doesn’t know how to get keyboard input, or how to render the emulator’s video and audio output, this must be provided by the Platform Wrapper component. The YAKC project comes with an Oryol wrapper, but it should also be simple to use something else (like SDL).
  • User Interface: the User Interface is an optional component sitting on top of the Platform Wrapper and Emulator Core, it allows to boot the emulator into the different emulated systems, load software into the emulator, and provides tools like a CPU debugger, memory editor, and various custom chip debugging windows. This is implemented with Dear Imgui

I’m trying to keep the whole emulator small and bloat-free, mainly to keep the emscripten-compiled asm.js version small, and so far this looks quite good.

With User Interface and Oryol Wrapper, the ‘executable’ sizes are as follows:

  • OSX, 64-bit: 1.2 MB uncompressed, 496 KB compressed (gzip –best)
  • asm.js: 1.7 MB uncompressed, 360 KB compressed

…and without User Interface (but with the Oryol Wrapper):

  • OSX, 64-bit: 818 KB uncompressed, 322 KB compressed
  • asm.js: 1.2 MB uncompressed, 206 KB compressed

Those sizes include the code for 5 different emulated system families with 13 different models:

  • the KC85 main line (KC85/2, KC85/3, KC85/4)
  • the Z9001 family (Z9001 and KC87)
  • the Z1013 family (Z1013.1, Z1013.16, Z1013.64)
  • ZX Spectrum family (48k and 128k)
  • 3 CPC models (Amstrad CPC 464 and 6128, and the KC Compact)

The Emulator Core

This is where all the interesting stuff happens, and most of the blog posts in the series will describe the internals of the Emulator Core. For now, I’ll only talk about how the Emulator Core looks from the outside.

There’s a single frontend class ‘yakc’ which allows to control the entire emulator.

To get a working emulator, the following steps are required:

  1. Initialization and ROM image registration
  2. Booting up an emulated system
  3. per frame: step the emulator forward
  4. per frame: render the emulator’s video output
  5. request and play audio output
  6. provide keyboard and joystick input to the emulator

1. Initialization

This only needs to happen once by calling the yakc::init() method, taking C-function pointers to three externally provided functions to print a failed-assert log message, and to allocate and free memory.

Here’s an example which uses Oryol functions. The Log::AssertMsg() function has a matching signature, so it is assigned directly as a function pointer. And in the 2 cases where the parameter signature doesn’t match, an indirect call through a C++11 lambda is used:

ext_funcs funcs;
funcs.assertmsg_func = Oryol::Log::AssertMsg;
funcs.malloc_func = [](size_t s) -> void* { 
    return Oryol::Memory::Alloc((int)s); 
funcs.free_func = [](void* p) { 

In the next step, ROM images must be registered with the emulator. The emulator comes with 2 embedded ROM images to boot into the KC85/3, but for all other systems, the ROM images must first be loaded by the Platform Wrapper.

To register the embedded KC85/3 ROM images, no special loading code is required since the ROM data is directly embedded as C arrays (called dump_caos31 and dump_basic_c0). The yakc::add_rom() method takes a ROM image identifier, a pointer to the raw ROM image data, and the size in bytes:

// register the built-in KC85/3 ROM images from C-arrays:
this->emu.add_rom(rom_images::caos31, dump_caos31, sizeof(dump_caos31));
this->emu.add_rom(rom_images::kc85_basic_rom, dump_basic_c0, sizeof(dump_basic_c0));

For the other emulated systems, the ROM images must be loaded and registered before booting the emulator. For instance the KC Compact requires one OS ROM image, and one BASIC ROM image, which are loaded through Oryols’s HTTP filesystem in the following example code:

// load and register the KC Compact OS ROM
IO::Load("rom:kcc_os.bin", [this](IO::LoadResult res) {
    this->emu.add_rom(rom_images::kcc_os, res.Data.Data(), res.Data.Size());

// load and register the KC Compact BASIC ROM
IO::Load("rom:kcc_bas.bin", [this](IO::LoadResult res) {
    this->emu.add_rom(rom_images::kcc_basic, res.Data.Data(), res.Data.Size());

The emulator can be asked whether all the required ROM images for an emulated system have been registered:

if (this->emu.check_roms(device::kccompact)) {
    // it's ok now to boot into the KC Compact

2. Booting

After the one-time init and ROM registration, the emulator can be booted into a specific system configuration with the yakc::poweron() method:

// boot into the KC85/3 with the CAOS 3.1 operating system:
this->emu.poweron(device::kc85_3, os_rom::caos_3_1);

The method yakc::reset() performs a system reset. What happens in reset depends on the emulated system (for instance some systems preserve the RAM content, while on other systems there’s no difference between a reset and a complete power cycle):

// reset the current emulated system:

Finally, the yakc::poweroff() method switches off the emulated system. This should also be called before booting into a different system:

// switch off current system, and boot into the KC Compact

Since the KC Compact cannot be booted into different ROM images, the second parameter to the poweron() method can be omitted for this system.

3. Stepping the Emulator

The method yakc::step() is used to run the emulator for a given amount of time. It is called once per frame, usually 60 times per second.

The step() method takes 2 parameters, the first parameter is the frame duration in microseconds (at 60fps this would be around 16666). The emulator will convert the frame duration into CPU clock cycles and run the emulation for this number of cycles before returning.

The second parameter to the step() method is less straightforward. It is a clock cycle counter from the audio wrapper and is used to precisely synchronize the emulator with the real-time audio playback. I have arrived at this solution after a lot of trial and error to get audio emulation ‘right’, and the topic is interesting enough for its own blog post. So let’s skip the details for now:

// once per wrapper-application frame:
int frame_time_in_micro_seconds = ...;
uint64_t processed_audio_cycles = ...;
this->emu.step(frame_time_in_micro_seconds, processed_audio_cycles);

The emulator will now happily do its thing, booting up into the operating system, and then wait for user input. But we can’t see or hear a thing yet, and we can’t interact with the emulator through keyboard input.

4. Render the Video Output

The emulator continuously updates a flat RGBA8 framebuffer which is usually copied once per frame into a 3D-API texture and then rendered as a fullscreen-rectangle.

As said before, the emulator itself doesn’t know how to perform this copy-and-rendering step, this must be performed by the Platform Wrapper. The emulator core itself just provides a method to access the RGBA8 framebuffer content and its dimensions:

// get pointer to and dimensions of RGBA8 framebuffer 
int out_width, out_height;
const void* rgba8_ptr = this->emu.framebuffer(out_width, out_height);
if (rgba8_ptr) {
    // copy data into a 3D-API texture and render as fullscreen rectangle

The yakc::framebuffer() method may return a nullptr if the emulator is currently in poweroff state, and the returned pointer and dimensions may change every time the framebuffer() method is called (although in reality this happens only when booting into a different system).

5. Request and Play Audio Output

Getting glitch-free audio out of the emulator turned out to be much more complicated than expected. I went through a lot of trial-and-error and a few complete rewrites until I had a solution which even works with WebAudio as backend.

The main problem is that the audio data generated by the emulator is completely unpredictable but must be played back with a very low latency. Each of those alone isn’t such a big deal, but unpredictability and low-latency is not trivial. This means that the audio backend needs to use a very small sample buffer size (to keep latency low), but this makes the whole system very sensible to buffer underruns where not enough generated audio data is ready when needed by the audio backend, and the smallest seemingly unrelated events like switching to a different browser tab might throw the emulator and audio backend out of sync, producing audio glitches.

The solution I came up with is that the audio backend ultimately controls the emulator’s speed. Even though the emulator is ticked forward by the per-frame function of the host application, the audio system defines a small time window which the emulator must not leave. If the emulator is behind or ahead the audio time window, it will execute more or fewer cycles per frame to get back into that window. In the end this means that the audio system controls the speed of the emulator with a higher priority than the application’s framerate.

The audio interface between the emulator and the audio playback system is very simple, just a single callback method yakc::fill_sound_samples(). This is called by the audio backend with a pointer to a memory buffer which must be filled by the emulator with new audio samples:

    /// fill sample buffer for external audio system
    void fill_sound_samples(float* buffer, int num_samples);

This is the only method in the whole emulator package which might be called from a different thread.

In the Platform Wrapper layer, I’m using SoLoud as medium-level multi-platform audio playback solution. This turned out to be a very good choice for the emulator since it is easily extensible with new ‘audio source’ classes, having that much low-level level control was very useful for the tight synchronization required between audio playback and emulator speed. SoLoud also comes with a fast LowPass filter which is great for getting that typical ‘cheap TV speaker’ sound.

6. Providing Keyboard and Joystick Input

80’s home computers typically support keyboard and joystick input.

Due to cost-restrictions many home computers didn’t support the standardized PC-style keyboard layouts which makes it quite tricky to map today’s keyboard input to emulated systems. For instance the Z1013 only had 32 keys, with 4(!) shift keys, but no up/down keys (only left/right), the ZX Spectrum had a similar non-standard keyboard layout.

The solution I choose for the YAKC emulator is to feed highlevel ASCII codes into the emulator instead of lower level hardware key codes. This has the advantage that text input works ‘intuitively’ for most host platforms and international keyboard layouts, but often doesn’t work well for controlling games, since the physical key layout may be very different, and more importantly, pressing multiple keys at the same time isn’t supported.

Only one digital joystick is emulated currently, joystick directions are hardwired to the cursor keys, and the joystick fire button is mapped to the spacebar.

So all in all, the emulators input interface needs a bit of work in the future.

Right now, input is provided through the method yakc::put_input(), which takes two parameters: one 8-bit ASCII code, and one 8-bit joystick mask (bits 0..3 for the 4 directions, and bit 5 for a single fire button).

The yakc::put_input() method should be called once per frame. If no key is pressed, the ASCII code parameter must be 0:

uint8_t ascii = ...;
uint8_t joy0_mask = ...;
this->emu.put_input(ascii, joy0_mask);

What’s Next

I guess that’s enough for today :) My plan is to have a look at the Emulator Core next, starting with the lowest-level layer (memory system, clock, and the system bus), and then continue with the CPU and support chip emulation and finally how to build a complete system by connecting chips through the system bus. After that there should be 2 dedicated blog posts about the video and audio systems.