Sunday, August 21, 2022


A visual shorthand for the 1970s, the 8-track tape cartridge appeared to peacefully co-exist with the competing Compact Cassette format for its entire time on sale, from 1964 to 1990, even if its popularity dwindled through the 1980s. I have only limited experience with the format, through an 8-track car player my father owned, but they only felt at the time like a “big cassette”. What allowed the 8-track to stick around for so long?

Both formats appeared around the same time. Philips unveiled the Compact Cassette in Europe in 1963, and in the United States in 1964, the same year the first demonstration 8-track players appeared from the Lear Jet Corporation, which spearheaded its development as an in-flight entertainment device. The first in-car units were offered as optional extras by Ford in 1965, alongside the first pre-recorded cartridges from RCA. Home-based hi-fi players and recorders for both formats would both appear before the end of the decade.

Like almost all tape formats, cartridges existed to make reel-to-reel tape easier to handle. The Compact Cassette miniaturised the reels and tape, to 0.15 inches wide and played at 1.875 inches per second, but the first pre-recorded demonstration cassette would not appear until 1967, the Compact Cassette’s initial poor recording quality only useful for dictation purposes. Instead, an 8-track cartridge used the same quarter-inch tape used in reel-to-reel players, playing at 3.75 inches per second, twice that of the Compact Cassette, but half the maximum speed of a reel-to-reel player, making 8-track almost an “audiophile” format by comparison. However, in splitting the tape into four programmes, each made up of two tracks, the 8-track increased both tape hiss and the possibility of “crosstalk” between the tracks and a misaligned playback head.

At four inches wide, each cartridge can play for up to eighty minutes, housing enough tape for four programmes of up to twenty minutes in a single-reel “endless loop” design, like the earlier 4-track Stereo-Pak and Fidelipak “broadcast cart” cartridges used for playing radio jingles, leading from the middle, and windingback around itself. The join in tape was bridged by a silver foil splice which, once it moved past a sensor, moved the playback head to the next programme automatically. The pinch roller usually found in the player mechanism was moved to inside the cartridge, allowing it to automatically engage and play upon being entered into the player, particularly useful when travelling.

With this form to play with, the albums that resulted on 8-track were, to me at least, not the greatest aesthetically. In terms of packaging, the hard plastic cartridge eliminated the need for the case required for a Compact Cassette, but the album cover and other information would be provided as a sticker that would deteriorate with age, along with the silver foil and foam pads inside the cartridge.

The biggest problem, however, is the inflexibilities of arranging an album onto an 8-track cartridge. With a C-90 cassette providing up to 45 minutes per side, you could fit the equivalent of an entire vinyl record on each side of a Compact Cassette, as Pink Floyd did with their double album “The Wall” in 1979. The maximum 8-track programme length of twenty minutes should accommodate one side of a record, but to minimise the amount of tape used, the maximum programme length will be the total length of the album, divided by 4. 

The worst example of this I could find was David Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station”, a six-song, 38-minute album, meaning 9.5 minutes per programme is available... but the title track is over ten minutes long by itself, taking up the entire first programme and the beginning of the second. “Word On a Wing”, song 3 of 6 on every other issue, is now song 2 on the 8-track, followed by “Wild is the Wind”, usually the album closer, itself broken up between programmes, perhaps to take advantage of a quiet moment in the song. This means that the final three rockier songs, “Stay”, “TVC15” and “Golden Years” (usually tracks 5, 4 and 2), can play without interruption. Make your album fit, or forget about it.

Meanwhile, the average length of each side of “The Wall” vinyl album was twenty minutes, fitting relatively easy onto the four programmes of an 8-track without making any changes to the songs’ length or running order, except that “Hey You”, the first song on side 3 of the vinyl version, begins at the end of one programme, and starts the next one. It is not possible to lengthen one programme to make the rest of the song fit, as you will have a gap at the end of the other three programmes, disrupting the flow of the album in a different way.

While 1978 was the peak year for 8-track sales in the United States, sales of pre-recorded albums by mail order clubs continued there until 1988, while the electronics retailer Radio Shack sold its Realistic-branded players and blank cartridges until 1990. Meanwhile, the more portable and cheaper Compact Cassette had caught up through constant improvements in tape and playback quality that did not happen with 8-track, although Dolby B noise reduction was licensed for both formats. But by then, the Compact Disc had allowed for seventy-four minutes of high-quality music, later eighty minutes to be played back on one side, without interruption.

No comments:

Post a Comment