Time Warp – Attack of the 8-track

Sony didn’t revolutionise portable music with the Walkman. Not even close. It started back in the late ’60s, and it was the humble 8-Track that gave the hippies freedom to groove in the backs of their combi-vans.

In fact, 8-Track (or Stereo 8 as it was officially known) pretty much liberated the suffering masses from the bonds of home-bound ‘pre-recorded’ music players such as old-school tape-to-tape reels and record players. While these were way too impractical to be carted around, the compact and sturdy 8-Track system was a perfect fit for cars and gave rise to the first ‘boombox’-style portable devices. So how did 8-Track get started, and more importantly, why did it die?

It was the 1952 invention of the ‘endless loop tape cartridge’ by Bernard Cousino that got things going. He created the tape reel mechanism that would eventually lead to 8-Track, and this consisted of a single loop of metal-oxide coated tape that wound from, and back to, a single spool. It’s kind of hard to imagine, but effectively the tape emerged from the centre of the spool, looped across an opening in the cartridge to be read by the player, and then wrapped back onto the same spool.

Because the design made rewinding impossible, 8-Track could only be played in one direction, although some players could fast forward by speeding up the motor. Switching between the music stored on the tracks required physically realigning the play head so it moved to read a different part of the tape, and was normally done by pressing a track button. A side effect of this was diminished sound purity, which suffered background noise from slight head misalignments. Still, as music was recorded to four ‘programs’ stored on eight individual tracks, (two tracks were needed per program to create stereo sound) listeners could jump to the general area where a song was, and then fast-forward to it.

Interestingly, a ‘4-Track’ version released before 8-Track. It was created by entrepreneur Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz of Los Angeles, California, who saw the potential of the fledgling cartridge system and wanted to harness it for the automotive industry. He developed his Stereo-Pak 4-track stereo, which had just two programs, each consisting of two tracks, in 1962. Muntz also stitched up deals with RCA to licence music for his format.

Unfortunately, Muntz showed his creation to another entrepreneur, Bill Lear, who was the maker of the Lear Jet. Bill liked the design and made improvements to it over the next few years. In 1965, Lear launched the Lear Jet Stereo 8 format. Also, by using his close connections with Motorola, which at the time made car radios for Ford, Lear was able to have his product available as a dealer option in all Ford Motor Car models by 1966. Also, around the same time, RCA released 50 pre-recorded albums on the 8-Track format, and continued to ramp up support to a point where there was only about a month’s delay before an 8-Track version of an album was released after vinyl.

In its heyday, the 8-Track was the first to give people the choice not only about what music they wanted to hear, but where they wanted to listen to it. With cheap car, home and boombox units available, listeners could enjoy their 8-Track cartridges in the car, the home, and the great outdoors.

While the 8-Track enjoyed quite a party through the ’70s, the cassette tape landed on the scene at the end of the decade and really called in the cops. Cassettes had a ‘rewind’ option, and were cheaper to produce – especially the recordable versions. Also, music companies at the time wanted to avoid supporting too many different formats, and were quick to pull the plug on 8-Track once sales started to slide.

With 8-Track all but dead by the end of the ’70s, a format similar to 8-Track called the Professional Broadcast Cartridge managed to hang around to the ’90s. It was widely used by radio stations for playing jingles, commercials and station identifiers, but as with many other formats, computer audio systems eventually put it to rest. Still, even now, the 8-Track has its enthusiasts, and many collect and covet the old cartridges and players.