The 8-track was a popular form of cassette recording in the United States. Its heyday lasted about 20 years, from the early 60s into the early 80s. In contrast to the record, the 8-track became popular for its portability, but was eventually succeeded by the cassette tape. Other names for the 8-track include Stereo 8, eight track tape, and in later models, the Quad 8 or Q8.
An example of magnetic tape sound recording technology, the 8-track eventually became a redesigned version of several existing tape cartridges. The first cartridge, created by Bernard Cousino in 1952, was the endless loop tape cartridge that contained a lengthy reel of recording tape divided periodically by foil to break up the recordings on a single track. The next cartridge, developed by George Eash in 1954, was developed specifically for commercial radio use and featured 3 tracks. This cartridge, called the Fidelipac, was the next improvement of the endless-loop tape cartridge. Lastly, in 1962 Earl Muntz developed the Stereo-Pak 4 track cartridge tape. This format was specifically targeted to car stereo systems and was initially a successful venture.
Thus from these cartridges, in 1964 the 8-track was created by Ralph Miller, an associate of Bill Lear from the Lear Jet Corporation. Originally, the 8-track had been a tape cartridge similar to Eash’s Fidelipac, but Miller improved upon Eash’s design, replacing a fixed, plastic roller with a rubber and nylon roller, allowing for easier mechanical capabilities and better sound quality. Also citing Muntz’s car stereo success, Miller sought to produce a cartridge that would playback in automobiles easier, and for a longer time span.
In Miller’s new design, a central reel fed the tape across the opening of the 8-track and wound the tape back onto the same reel. The rubber and nylon roller allowed for enough tension within the cartridge to pull the tape along without damaging it.
Miller and Lear improved upon the previous cartridge enough so that this new 8-track system could play a total of 8 tracks, with 4 sets of 2 tracks each. This new cartridge, with a small piece of foil spliced in between each track on the tape, allowed for fastforwarding and switching between tracks. Although Miller and Lear touted this 8-track version for its musical storage capabilities, there was a slight loss of sound quality within these tapes because of background noise caused by the tape movement.
Once the 8-track became established for its portability, it was picked up and promoted by the automobile industry, specifically the Ford Motor Company. Starting with only 3 popular models in 1965, the Thunderbird, Mustang and Lincoln, Ford offered customers the option to include the 8-track stereo in their vehicles, and by 1967, all Ford vehicles came with this option. Now with competition, Muntz’s 4-track cartridge stood no chance, becoming obsolete by 1970 due to the 8-track’s overpowering popularity.
The 8-track continued to spread throughout American culture, its compact and lightweight system allowing it to be marketed towards all audiences. In 1966, in-home 8-track players were created so that consumers could take their music everywhere, transferring it from their car to their house. By 1972, 8-track players had become ingrained into American society, redefining how the public built relationships with and around their music.
Eventually automobiles featured the pricier 8-track stereo model, the Quadraphonic 8, or Q8. In 1970 these cartridges and stereo players were the one of the first examples of 4.0 surround sound, but quickly lost appeal due to price and sound quality.
How It Worked
1) The 8-track features a length of tape ¼ inch wide that runs in a loop at 3 ¾ inches per second (IPS).
2) The tape is wrapped around a large wheel where it feeds out from the center along a path in front of the cartridge edge.
3) A pressure pad brings the tape into contact with a playback head, where it is “read.”
4) The rubber or nylon pinch roller inside the cartridge presses against the capstan, a rotating part of the player, moving the tape across the edge of the cassette.
5) Within the tape itself are 8 channels or tracks, each separated length wise on the tape, allowing for the playback head to bump down to the next one after it comes into contact with the foil on the tape.
Although a breakthrough in home entertainment when first modified and introduced, the 8-track cassette descended in popularity due to a variety of reasons. First, as the tape slid along the opening at the front of the cartridge, this constant movement allowed for feedback and noise to accompany the music. Despite producing less noise than the previous version, the tape within the 8-track cartridge also collected dirt, rubbing away the lubricant that allowed the tape to roll smoothly. Additionally, when the roller became flattened if left plugged in and the large tape wheel became loose, the tape playback quality declined quickly, thereby limiting the lifespan of 8-tracks to a few months.
Also, as the demand for 8-tracks soared, poor production materials became used to help cut costs. Plastic rollers, originally replaced, made their way back into the cassettes, as did ineffective lubricants and flimsy wheel tapes, resulting in cheaper, low-quality cassettes. These problems warped the sound and limited the portability of 8-track tapes, ultimately giving rise to the need for a new, reliable and portable continued music stream.
The 8-track cassette, in its final and most popular form, enjoyed a wide release and critical acclaim during its short 20 year life span. It paved the way for music to become a part of not only lifestyle, but also recreation. By acting as a bridge from the vinyl record to the cassette tape, the 8-track servess as not only a historical marker in music and technological history, but also a cultural landmark.
Although 8-tracks are still in circulation today, many are not playable, only acting as collectibles for those interested in a portable music past.
Cunniff, Richard T. "The Magnetic Tape Industry." Financial Analysts Journal February 1967. Vol. 23, 65-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4470106