If you’re into retro-computing and have a Commodore 8-bit computer, such as the Commodore 64 or Commodore 128, you’re going to love this project!  We’re going to do a Pi1541 build.

The Commodore line of 8-bit computers used a disk drive called the Commodore 1541 (later the 1571 and 1581).  This venerable drive is a classic and deserves to be treated us such.  However, it’s also not all that reliable these days as its age is catching up to the components. In fact, many of the Commodore 1541’s components are no longer available at all. For this reason, I try to use mine as little as possible and keep it as more of a showpiece in my museum.

Why Choose the Pi1541?

There are other drive emulators out there.  In fact we wrote the SD2IEC Manual (Unofficial Manual) a couple of years ago, a very popular page on our site.  The SD2IEC is simple “emulator” that allows you to read and write SD cards on the C64.   I put emulator in quotes, because the SD2IEC is not a true emulator, rather it emulates some functions of the 1541 based on commands passed to it.  This can be a problem, since anything that attempts to change code in the 1541 will fail to work.  This means many copy protection schemes, fastloaders, and other such utilities are simple not going to function on the SD2IEC devices.

The Pi1541 is a Real 1541 Emulator

The Pi1541 on the other hand is a true Commodore 1541 emulator! It uses a copy of the original ROM images from the Commodore 1541 and a full 6502 emulator to present itself to the computer as a true drive in every way. Due to this, everything works with 100% compatibility, including all fastloader routines, copy protection systems, and the like. It just works.  In fact, it works with the EPYX fastloader cartridge also, one of my favorite C64 fastloaders!

In addition to being a full emulator, it has a hardware LED, and piezo buzzer to provide the sights and sounds of the drive working, along with an OLED screen for browsing SD card images.  Oh! Did I mention you can 3D print some awesome retro cases to put it in?

So today, we’re going to build a Pi1541!

Building a Pi1541

Let’s begin the process of building our Pi1541.  First let’s make sure you have all of the parts you need to get started.  Here’s a handy Pi1541 parts list to get you started:

Some Optional Parts and Tools

If you plan to 3D print your case, you can get the files on Thingiverse.  If you don’t have a good 3D printer, here’s the one we use and have had great luck with.

Pi1541 Build Video

Prototyping the Pi1541

The first thing I did before building my Pi1541 is to simply prototype it on a breadboard to make sure everything actually works.  This is a simple way to find mistakes and test ideas before putting the Pi1541 on a soldered board which is much more difficult to change after the fact.

It’s also important to note that as of this writing, only the Raspberry Pi 3 and 3B+ are supported by Pi1541.  The RPi 4 is not yet supported and there is no timeline for supporting it (if ever).

pi1541 prototype on breadboard

Pi1541 Wiring Diagrams

The Pi1541 comes with a wiring schematic that is decent enough to follow.  However, I know so many people prefer simpler Fritzing style diagrams for these types of projects.  So in order to make this project as simple as possible for you to replicate, I’ve provided both.

Pi1541 Wiring Diagram (Fritzing style)

If you’d like to just create the Pi1541 on a breadboard (or you just find Fritzing style diagrams easier), you can use this simple diagram to get you started on your project.

Pi1541 wiring diagram fritzing

Pi1541 Schematic Diagram

This is the official Pi1541 wiring schematic for this project.  Note that the official schematic does not show connection of the OLED display.  If you decide to use an OLED or LCD display, connect the OLED displays’s pins as follows:

  • OLED SDA to Raspberry Pi PIN 27
  • OLED SCL to Raspberry Pi PIN 28
  • OLED VCC+ to 3.3V rail
  • OLED GND to Ground

You will need to make a change in the options file to enable this, covered later in this tutorial.

Pi1541 schematic

Building the OLED and Switch Board

The first part I tacked was building the circuit board that will hold the Pi1541’s OLED display and its hardware control buttons.  I used the circuit boards listed above and scored them with a razor knife, snapped them, and then finished off the rough edges with a little sandpaper.

Pi1541 OLED display wiring


On the back of the OLED circuit board, I simply jumped all of the grounds together to make it simpler to wire.  It might not be the most elegant solution, but It works just fine.  The final wire is tied to a common ground.

Pi1541 OLED Display Wiring

To make wiring everything to the Raspberry Pi simpler, I decided to use JST connectors.  This simply slide over the header pins of the Raspberry Pi‘s GPIO header and makes things clean and simple.  You can find links in the parts list above.

The Commodore 64 and most other Commodore machines use 5 volt serial lines.  This was very common in the 1980s.  Today, most everything uses 3.3 volts. The Raspberry Pi uses 3.3 volts for all of its GPIO pins.  In order to keep the C64 from frying our Raspberry Pi, we need include a Logic Level Converter between them.  A logic level converter translates the voltages between the C64 and RPi to make sure everything works.  I also put a JST header on the logic level converter so that I could simply and quickly attach my custom C64 serial/IEC cable.

Since many of the wires in the schematic above go to common terminals such as 3.3 volt, 5 volt, and ground, I decided to make an additional circuit board to provide common headers.  I also used this board to hold the passive Piezo speaker that the Pi1541 uses to make drive track movement noises.  I simply hot glued this to back of the case.  So let’s talk about the case next!

Pi1541 headers and piezo speaker

3D Printing the Pi1541 Case

Next up we need a case to put this Pi1541 into and make it look the part.  To do that, I used files from Thingiverse.  Eventually, I am going to remix this case and change some things to suit my liking.  For one, I am going to eliminate the large hole in the back of the case and replace it with a hole designed for a wire and grommet to pass through.  It works fine for now.

The thing I most like about this Pi1541 case is that is looks like the 1541-II that Commodore released a few years after production of the new C64C.  It looks great!

Installing the Pi1541 Firmware

Installing the Pi1541 firmware is a completely different process than setting up the Raspberry Pi for Raspbian.  This confuses a lot of first time Pi1541 users.  In the case of the Pi1541, Raspbian is not loaded onto the Pi! In fact, the Pi1541 software becomes the operating system for the Raspberry Pi, replacing Raspbian.

Software You Will Need

You will need to download the following software:

  • The latest version of the Pi1541 software
  • The latest Raspberry Pi Firmware (note this is not the same as Raspbian)
  • Latest version of the Vice emulator (to get the 1541 ROM files)

Pi1541 File System Must be FAT32

The first you need to do is obtain an 4GB or 8GB micro SD card.  You can use a larger micro SD card, but you will need to partition it to only 8GB or less.  This is because the Pi1541 needs to be a FAT32 file system.  It will not boot from exFAT.

Using the SD card formatter, create a FAT32 file system on your micro SD card.  The most common reason that setup fails when building a Pi1541 is because the file system is formatted as something other than FAT32 (exFAT, NTFS, etc.).

Building the Pi1541 Micro SD Card

Now that we everything ready, build the Pi1541 micro SD card as follows:

  1. Unzip the Raspberry Pi firmware file into a temporary location on your hard drive.
  2. From the firmware\master folder copy the following three files into the root of your micro SD card: bootcode.bin, fixup.dat, and start.elf
  3. Unzip the Pi1541.zip file into the root of your micro SD card.  This should create a folder called 1541.
  4. Unzip Vice to a temporary folder on your hard drive.
  5. From the vice-3.x\DRIVES\dos1541 folder in Vice, copy the file dos1541 to the root of your micro SD card and then rename it to d1541.rom (note that you could also substitute jiffy.bin if you are using jiffyDOS).
  6. From the vice-3.x\C64 folder, copy the file chargen to the root of your micro SD card. This is the Commodore font.
  7. Place any .d64 images you’d like to use inside the 1541 folder.  You can also create folders to organize your files (ie games, utilis, etc.).

With the micro SD card ready to go, place it into your Raspberry Pi connected to an HDMI monitor and plug in the 5V USB power connector.

You should almost instantly be greeted with the Pi1541 home screen on your monitor.

pi1541 home screen hdmi

Enabling OLED Screen Support

It’s practical to have the Pi1541 connected to an HDMI monitor all the time, even though there are some fantastic bits of information it shows on the screen.  The better option is to attach an OLED or LCD screen to your project.  If you decide to do so, you’ll need to make a change to the options.txt file in the root of your micro SD card to enable the screen.

pi1541 OLED sreen (LCD screen)

uncomment the following line by removing the two forward slashes from it:

//LCDName = ssd1306_128x32

This works with OLED screen we’re using in this project.  If you’re using a different screen, uncomment the line that matches your screen.

Additionally, if you’re following our wiring diagram above, you’ll need to uncomment the following line to configure Pi1541 to use our alternate I2C pins (27/28 rather than 3/4).

//i2cBusMaster = 0 //SDA - pin 27 SCL - pin 28

Lastly, you’ll probably want to uncomment the following line in order to enable the CBM native font (which just looks amazing!).

//ChargenFont = chargen

Final Assembly of the Pi1541

Once you’ve got the firmware loaded and you’ve tested everything, its time to begin final assembly.  If you’re using the same 3D printed Pi1541 case that we chose, you’ll just need 6 small screws from Amazon or Home Depot.

About the only hard part of final assembly is carefully tucking all of the wires into the Pi1541 case without damaging anything.  If you used the JST connectors like I did, it helps to feather all of the wires into place after making your final connections.

Using the Pi1541

Using the Pi1541 couldn’t be much simpler.  There are five buttons across the front of the device.  These buttons are for operating the drive emulator.

pi1541 front display and buttons explained

  • SELECT / START EMULATION – This button selects a folder (and opens it), or selects a disk image to start emulating.
  • MOVE UP – Moves the cursor selection up one row.
  • MOVE DOWN – Moves the cursor selection down one row.
  • EXIT / BACK – Exits the current folder (back up one level).
  • ADD DISK TO SET – For adding disk images to a multi-image set. Handy for games that use multiple disks.

If you’ve correctly placed all of your disk images (some people call them ROMs) into the 1541 folder, you should be able to push the select button on the 1541 folder and see all of your games.  use the up/down buttons to scroll through the list and finally hit the select button to mount the image and start emulation.

If you used folders, use the back/exit button to go up one level.

Trying out the Pi1541

Now we’re ready to use the Pi1541 to do what we all love best, play some amazing 1980s retro 8-bit games in all of their glory!  I started out by playing Jumpman.  It turns out I really don’t remember how to play this game and totally sucked at it!

pi1541 jumpman

Next up I tried Spelunker, I am so much better at that game.  Spelunker was one of my all time favorite games on the C64.  I played it for hours on end as a teenager.

pi1541 spelunker

The Pi1541 is 100% emulation of a real 1541. It even supports all of the LEDs and drive noises you’d expect to hear out of a real 1541 disk drive!

working Pi1541

Some Things I Would Do Different

If I were to rebuild this Pi1541 there are just a few minor things I would change or do different:

  • I would reprint the case in high resolution mode.  I used draft mode to save time and there are pretty ugly spots.  Draft mode took hours off the print job though.
  • I would remove the large hole in the back of the case and replace it with a hole for the wire and a grommet.
  • I would make a single 40 pin header with the JST connectors making it a single connector to the Raspberry Pi.  This would make the Pi easy to remove and replace without rewiring every time.

Well I hop you enjoyed this article and our fun Raspberry Pi1541 build tutorial!  If you run into any problems or have any questions, leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to help you out!