Saturday, August 23, 2008

Eight Track

It seems eight track tapes are a source of derision these days, right up there with bell bottoms and leisure suits from the seventies. "Oh, eight tracks - so yesterday" would seem to sum it up. Actually, when cassette tapes supplanted the ol' cartridges, I didn't mourn their passing other than to consider the investment in my collection.

One has to wonder why we put up with all the problems, for there were problems galore. The tape was too tight. The tape was too loose. The more it was played, the muddier it sounded due to deterioration of the tape from constant friction. We all learned how to be mechanics.

Lets turn the wayback machine to - oh, about 1973 or so. What were the listening choices for teenagers in their cars? There was AM radio - the sound has not improved much over the years, and most of the stations teenagers tuned in stopped transmitting at sunset. The formats were limited - in my neck of the woods - to Top 40, country, and a sort of country/adult contemporary (remember the time period here) that included a lot of Eddie Albert, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Big Band and whatever else got lumped in. Beatles? Not so much. FM was mostly a wasteland. We had a station that played elevator music. Doctor's offices loved it. At night, we could pick up KOMA from Oklahoma City, but not consistently. We knew we'd been out long enough when they played the same song for the third or fourth time that night.

There were some failed attempts to put records in cars. The medium was just too bulky and motion resistant. Reel to reel tape had inherent portability problems as well. Enter Bill Lear, founder of the Lear Jet Corporation and general inventor/tinkerer. He and a consortium including Ford, Motorola, and RCA Victor came up with Stereo 8, which eventually became universally known as the 8-track.

The tape had eight tracks available for recording. Generally, this meant two were used for stereo output, and gave the tape four "programs." The play head had to be shifted to pick up a different set of tracks. This was accomplished by a foil or conductive surface placed at the splice. When Program One came to an end, the endless loop tape had run all the way around to the splice, and the material passing over the solenoid coil would trip the head mechanism to shift to the next set of tracks. At the end of Program Four, the heads would be moved to pick up Program One tracks.

When the cassette was inserted into the player, the capstan was tripped to engage the roller, pinching the tape. The capstan pulled the tape, and the tape was held against the coil and playback head by some sort of spring pressure, generally a chunk of foam. The tape was always pulled from the center of the hub and replaced on the outside.

There were a lot of shortcomings to this design. The first and foremost was that the tape was always in a state of friction. The more the tape was played, the more it wore out. Tapes were engineered thinner so more content could be put into the cartridge, so they became more fragile. The tape would both stretch and bind. Excessive tension would cause the tape to "drag" or play slowly. One quick solution was to pull the tape from the cartridge until there was a foot or two of slack, then pull quickly on the outgoing end. The slack would be drawn back into the spool, often without the binding tension. Otherwise, you might have to cut the splice and unwind a round or two, then splice it back together. The cartridge had to be taken apart for this operation. Tin foil and Scotch Tape worked - but of course there were "kits" for all of this.

Sometimes the tape would be stretched too far. The excess was sometimes drawn into the pinch roller and capstan - "eating" the tape. If you caught it in time, and the tape wasn't too wrinkled, the cartridge could be saved. Generally, you'd take it apart, and "tighten" it up - adding a round on the spool.

The tape was designed for the friction - it was coated with graphite or similar material. Of course, this built up on the playback head. There were special cleaning cartridges available with special cleaning fluids - all proprietary. Supposedly, Qtips and alcohol were hard on the surface of the head, but I'm for thinking that was just propaganda churned out to sell cleaning supplies. A cotton swab would damage something that had a semi-abrasive tape dragged over it for hours at a time? Mmmkay.

There was even a quadraphonic option - there were only two programs, but with four discreet channels. One of my friends had a player in his Charger. For it's day, it sounded pretty dern good. Another problem was if the playback head became slightly misaligned. It would pick up faint signals from the adjacent tracks, called "ghosting" because it was usually pretty low level. Sometimes, it was the cartridge rather than the whole unit.

As time went by, the quality of the cartridges declined. If you ever hold an original Lear cartridge and a gas station special side by side, the difference in quality is very evident. The Lears were built thicker and stronger, and they were comparatively simple to take apart and repair. However, they were more expensive, so the more cheaply made examples began to take over the market.

It didn't help that the Compact Cassette format came along during this time. It was a superior format - smaller and longer lived. It meant switching over to a new format, but we'd see far more of that in the future when Compact Disk arrived.

When I was a junior in high school, one of the classes I took was welding. The teacher required that we enter Lincoln Arc Welding's contest for high schoolers. We had to write up a paper on a welding project, showing our design, and talk about the relative success of the design, and so on. I made some car ramps, and during assembly I discovered several problems with my design, which I duly reported. I figured I had screwed up, but they felt differently. I got a $25 cash reward, which I received close to our graduation the next year. So, the new group Boston had their debut album out. I bought four or five 8 tracks of it to give my friends as graduation presents.

Now that was a wise investment.


ptg said...

I installed an 8-track in my new '72 Chevy pick-up truck. There was no good place to put the big speakers; they ended up glued to the back window. My old Akai reel to reel has an 8 track recorder built-in. If you need anything dubbed to 8 track...

Anonymous said...

In High School (early 70's) I had an 8-track and my best friend had a cassette deck. The 8-track was MUCH less troublesome in those days - that tells you how much trouble the early cassettes were. They generally got better as time went on, except for the 120 min. tapes.

Jeffro said...

I didn't go cassette until the late seventies or early eighties, but yeah, the 120s sucked. They'd play a while, but anything slightly off would end up with it being eaten.

IIRC some home decks claimed they could run 120s reliably, but most car decks said right in the instructions that they weren't recommended.

The Local Malcontent said...

Thanks for the review and the explanation of 'ancient history'!

I remember the bands from then, but the workings of the 8-track tapes were brand new to me.

Much appreciated~!

Anonymous said...

My dad installed an 8-track in the '70 Chevy Nova we were leasing, '71 to '74. It was a slide-out install, and it came with a cartridge-sized gizmo that allowed us to hear AM radio through the speakers for the 8-track deck.

We had The Beatles, Henry Mancini, Glenn Campbell, Johnny Mathis, a pretty wide-ranging selection of cartridges that I think he got from a mail-order music club.

I think the '74 we leased after that had a radio already in it, so by the time the format faded away we hadn't been using it for a while.

We were using compact cassettes in a little portable tape recorder at home sometime around then, and there was a factory-installed cassette player in cars I've had that were made in '91 and '93, so that was a fairly enduring format.

Now that I have an after-market disc player in my truck, what I want is something that will play MP3s natively, such as directly from an SD card. I also want it installed by people who know how to make sure the damn thing can pull in AM stations, as the one I have can't.

Jeffro said...

Dayum, Kevin, I'd forgotten about those AM adapters! As for current AM radio reception - I read somewhere that most auto receivers really suck particularly compared to the older models for their ability to pull in weaker stations.

Jerry in Texas said...

I still have some 8-tracks and an 8-track player, which is broke. Needs a tiny rubber band, which dry-rotted off.

If you ever had to repair an 8-track, you leaped onto the new cassette format in a heartbeat.

Hot summer days were not kind to the 8-tracks either.

Anonymous said...

My radio can't pull in the local news-talk blowtorch with its transmitting antenna less than 50 miles away on a mountain with nothing in between except trees.

When I took it back to try to get the installers to do it right, they told me it was the radio "because nobody listens to AM anymore."

I wanted to tell him, "Well, then nobody is who's going to be paying for this stereo."

Jeffro said...

A few of my trucking buddies listen to AM for certain talk shows, but most of us have abandoned that band and most of FM for XM or Sirius.