The 8-track or Stereo 8 Cartridge maintained a level of popularity for about two decades, and is a format that is still recognizable today, even if it has fallen out of practical application. From the mid 60s until the early 80s it brought portable, affordable sound to millions.
I know there are many people out there who are too young to know much about the 8-track. So for a quick introduction let me say that an 8-track tape never ended. It had four programs but there was no side one or side two like a record. Instead, the tape was an endless loop – each end of the tape was joined This model has a 10 plus year track record together by a metal foil splice. As that metal foil passed over a sensor in the 8-track machine, the program would automatically switch to the next. The four programs of an 8-track tape were generally 11 Ë minutes in length for a total time of 46 minutes. Longer durations became available as blank media.
Inventing the 8-Track Cartridge
Endless loop tape cartridges had been in use since they were invented in 1952 by Bernard Cousino. A few years and a few advancements later, an entrepreneur named Earl Muntz marketed what he called the “Stereo-Pak” (a.k.a. 4-track cartridge). This was his version of the endless loop cartridge for car stereo systems. Bill Lear followed this up by doubling the number of tracks on the tape, and dubbed it the “Stereo 8” which was more commonly known as the 8-track tape.
For a few years, there was a format war between the 8-track and 4-track cartridges. Stereo-Paks offered slightly better sound quality because the tapes only had four tracks as opposed to eight on the same amount of tape. The four-track also mimicked the original music release format (long playing records) better, while the 8-track often had to have the play list reorganized to avoid long silences between songs. Also to avoid silence, sometimes bonus tracks or guitar/piano solos were added between songs. Some cartridges even had a song repeated elsewhere on the tape. Even worse though, songs were sometimes broken into two parts. While listening to a song, about halfway through, you would hear the song fade out, then the “ka-chunk” sound of the player switching programs, and then the song fading in again to finish its duration. Other times though, you just had to put up with some silence.
8-Tracks in the Market
Stereo 8 began its life as an automotive format. In September of 1965, the Ford Motor company announced the 8-track player upgrade to its major models. That partnership catapulted the 8-track format head and shoulders above its competition. The Stereo 8 format grew in popularity and became a big seller. As demand for the new format grew, 8-track home stereo systems started to be manufactured. Eventually one would see car stereos, portable stereos, and home stereo systems for it everywhere. But unlike the cassette, the 8-track never outsold record albums.
Poor Design and Demise of the 8-Track Tape
For a while, the convenience and portability of the 8-track player overshadowed the mechanical problems of both the players and tapes. However, there were looming threats to the success of the 8-track on the horizon – namely the cassette tape and increased problems with the tape decks and the aging cartridges themselves.
There were no quality control standards in place to maintain a certain level of acceptable failure with the format and more and more, 8-track owners found that the players needed to be serviced regularly.
Plus, Stereo 8 tape decks weren’t the most convenient around – especially by today’s standards. Rewind wasn’t possible because of the design of the endless loop cartridge. Even fast forward wasn’t available on many machines and it was always a bit of a risk to fast forward anyway. Both reel-to-reel and cassettes were capable of these “great engineering achievements,” and like 8-tracks, cassettes were portable. The Stereo 8 players had numerous issues, but let’s take a look at the cartridge itself.
Because the tape was an endless loop there had to be a splice holding the tape together. With continued use (and time) it would eventually come apart causing the tape to become lost inside the cartridge or eaten by the tape deck. Eight-track cartridges have what is called a pinch roller in them to help with the forward movement of the tape. These pinch rollers were a great source of fear to many owners of Stereo 8 tape machines. As the rubber of some pinch rollers aged and decayed, a gooey substance was created that made a mess of the tape decks. One last problem worth mentioning is that because of the design of the endless loop, tension would build up causing the tape to stop and/or break. This is because the speed of the tape coming out of the center of the reel was not quite the same as the tape returning to the outer edge of the reel. The longer a tape was – the greater the chance of tension buildup up and damage occurring.
The problems with the tapes and tape players, in conjunction with the efforts of record companies to limit the number of formats, led to the eventual decline of the 8-track medium. When sales of the 8-track started to decrease, the major music labels were quick to drop the format. Compact cassette (standard cassette) tapes were beginning to gain momentum in the market, which gave the music business even less incentive to allow the 8-track any more life.
Gone, but Not Forgotten
Although the 8-track format was less common in the early eighties among home and portable users, the format hung on to life through record clubs – “Get 12 tapes for 1” – until the late eighties. Since then the 8-track has been synonymous with just about anything becoming obsolete. When trying to impress on somebody the obsolescence of something – just mentioning the 8-track always seems to do the job.