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Antique Phonograph News
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society


Spring 2016

Winter Spring Summer Autumn
How My Train Jumped All 8 Tracks or Elvis Cool To Truck Stop Cruel
Program 3

by Keith Wright

Intro


Elvis’ ‘Gold Cadillac’ shown at the press conference of its Australian Tour, Sydney Trocadero, 17th January 1968. 8-track was Elvis cool!
(image courtesy of http://www.elviscadillacs.com/elvlimo.html)
[Kay is blaring “Promised Land” by Elvis Presley on 8-track through the car’s stereo…the car that is travelling upside down on the ceiling of the Midtown Tunnel, Queens, NYC]

Jay: You do know Elvis is dead, right?
Kay: No, Elvis is not dead. He just went home.

(From the movie, Men In Black)

The story so far: the work in magnetic recording started by Oberlin Smith and given form by Valdemar Poulsen in the late 1800s eventually leads us to George Eash’s “Fidelipac” of the 1950s. This self-contained infinite loop of magnetic tape was used in radio into the 1990s and also turned into a system to play pre-recorded music by the TV entrepreneur and “master used car salesman of all time”, Earl “Madman” Muntz. His 4-track “Stereo Pak” (2 programs of 2-channel stereo), despite Muntz, doesn’t become “the first widely successful consumer tape format”. Unfortunately for the Madman, Lear’s daughter, Shanda (I kid you not) takes Bill Lear for a ride in a 4-track equipped car borrowed from Muntz’s son. Lear immediately signs on as a dealer, loads his car with Stereo Pak ‘stuff’ and promptly ‘improves’ the design. Then, with a little help from Alexander M. Poniatoff of Ampex and an assist from RCA for content, 8-track players are installed in Lear jets and in 1966 Ford Fairlanes and Mustangs. Sales take off like airplanes.

But, what goes up must come down.

Now, once again lean back, push the cart into the machine and give free reign to that sound in your head. The cart has reached the sensing-foil to change programs. Here we go to program 3. Let it happen. No one will know...

[**Ka-chunk**]

Program 3 – Rise and Fall or Space Age to Crash Landing

In my last article I detailed how the 8-track tape evolved out of the Muntz 4-track Stereo Pak and also gave a bit of the flavour of the flamboyant meteoric character that was William Powell Lear. In part 3 we discuss the rise…and fall of the 8-track.

Although the 8-track today is dismissed as a failure and is somewhat of a joke, from a contemporary standpoint it was a huge success. It truly was the first tape format to achieve a mass market and sales of ‘carts’ (as the cartridge is known to enthusiasts) grew spectacularly from the early 1960s through the 1970s. While most of this was due to the 8-track, some labels continued to issue 4-tracks into the 1970s. I did mention that there was a brief unsuccessful competitor called ‘Playtape’ but Bernard Cousino also had a crack with the “Orrtronic 8-track”. Cousino, arguably the font of much of our cart technology, had a measure of success with his Echomatic cartridge in the 1960s as a “point of sale” or educational a-v technology. Looking for greener fields, Cousino had in the early 1960s linked up with Alabama entrepreneur and firebrand John Herbert Orr and the two cooked up a new firm, called Orrtronics, which was to be a company that made a background music system based on the old Echomatic cartridge. While Ford debated the adoption of the Lear cartridge in 1965, Champion Spark Plug funded the development at Orrtronics of a competing system, the ill-fated “Orrtronic 8-Track”, a better-sounding but commercially unsuccessful response to Lear’s cart. (from Morton)


The space age turned the Weltron portable 8-track player from this…
(image Author’s collection)

…into this icon of design.
(1972 advert, image Author’s collection)

“Lear was very tight with Henry Clay Ford. I remember when they brought Ford’s personal black Lincoln to the plant in a semi…it was a really neat installation.

“Another one of the interesting car installations was in 1965. We showed up at work and everyone was gathered around a car… it was Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac from RCA Records. We put two 8-track players in it and about eight speakers.” (From an interview with Lear employee, Frank Schmidt by Abigail Lavine.) [Elvis cool!]

Even though the origins of the 8-track have been clearly set out in my articles, as befits such a colourful format there is an…“alternate” version of its invention.

“Reports of UFO sightings followed all that summer [1964]… But then maybe the strangest thing of all happened. In the fall of 1964, late at night in a dark laboratory in Southern California, William Powell Lear gave birth to the 8-track tape…

“One does not have to be a disciple of fringe to begin to suspect that, indeed, something was and is up. And the deeper one looks, the weirder it gets. For starters, Bill Lear’s son, Bill Jr., a well-respected pilot, reports on his very own Close Encounter… Bill Lear’s younger son, John, also highly honored and regarded in the aviation world, is now a noted UFOlogist and publically states that on April 30, 1964, the aliens agreed to provide technology and we agreed to overlook the abductions, the messing up of our cattle, crop circles and whatever other sinister stuff they wanted to do. John Lear was written out of his father’s will.


Quad (Quadrophonic) would later be called 4.0 surround sound and have “twice the quality of stereo”. The technology debuted in 1971 and was “really good when played on the right system”. The 8-track was an ideal vehicle for this “cutting edge” technology.
(image and quotes courtesy of Wonderful Engineering)

“Was Bill Lear in cahoots with the government all along? Was he being fed the goods on alien technology and passing off all those inventions as his own? ...

“Is it possible that Learjet technology was over Bill’s own head? …

“It’s just too ugly to consider the notion that the 8-track was passed to Bill Lear as part of some alien mind control plan. I prefer to think that maybe 8-track slipped through the cosmic crack. That a whole, good-spirited band of alien trackers somehow managed to sneak the 8-track to us, knowing that at some point down the line there would be others here on Earth who would come to know that they know we know. And this knowledge alone may be enough to sustain us.”(Jean Erhardt)

Maybe 8-tracks weren’t alien technology but by the end of the 60s and into the early 70s there certainly was a touch of the future about them. On July 20, 1969, the human race arguably accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time when a human first set foot on another celestial body. The event ushered in ‘the space age’ and the following year there was an explosion of products brought out based on ‘space’. Some of the most soughtafter 8-track players are among them. (I will mention ‘collectable players’ in my future ‘Program 4’ article.)

The next step for 8-track was essentially to become a very early version of “home theatre”. Quadraphonic (or Quadrophonic and sometimes Quadrasonic) sound was similar to what is now called 4.0 surround sound. RCA Records in April 1970, announced a 4-channel version of the 8-track tape, named Quad-8 or Quadraphonic 8-Track Tape (later shortened to just Q8). These eventually appeared in Sept. 1970 with automobile players as well as home versions. The 8-track was perfect for true (called “discrete”) 4.0 sound as the 8 tracks on the 8-track cart could hold 2 programs of 4 discrete channels of sound. An original 8-track had, of course, 4 programs of 2-channel stereo.

The format was almost identical in appearance to stereo 8-tracks, except for a small sensing notch in the upper left corner of the cartridge. This signaled a quadraphonic 8-track player to combine the odd tracks as audio channels for Program 1, and the even tracks as channels for Program 2. The format was not backward-compatible with stereo or mono players; although quadraphonic players would play stereo 8-tracks, playing quadraphonic tapes on stereo players resulted in hearing only one-half the channels at a time.


Interior of an 8-track cart showing the endless loop with the tape being pulled from the center. The pinch roller (one of Lear’s “improvements” over the 4-track) that can get too hard or become gummy is in the upper right hand corner. The pressure foam, which can also deteriorate (and has in this cart), is just below the tape at the top left-center. The sensing foil is a bright line within the wound tape. Hard core “trackers” know how to open all carts and replace parts as required—with chewing gum foil and insulating foam (more to come in part 4).
(image courtesy of the author)

The last release in the quadraphonic 8-track format was in 1978, although most had stopped appearing by the end of 1976. Interestingly enough, Dolby Surround was introduced to the public in 1982.

8-track had hit its zenith. [Cue ominous music] The fall was swift and had multiple causes.

The first was…just the way the 8-track was developed. By putting twice as many tracks (8) on the same width tape, each track must be thinner and the songs can “bleed” over if the tape is misaligned. Other problems, such as tape wear and loud changes between programs didn’t help and neither did the inability to rewind. You can’t rewind when the tape is being pulled out from the centre of the spool. And it was only later “high end” machines that could fast-forward. No wonder you had trouble finding and playing the songs you actually wanted to hear. Recording was also a latter addition.

I’m not sure if it was a problem contemporary to the original life of the 8-track but many of the carts have not aged well. There can be problems with pinch rollers, capstans and pressure foam—all because of the ‘improvements’ made by Lear over the Stereo Pak, which were ostensibly to decrease the cost of the players. The 4-track cart had a hole where the wheel from the player would insert to engage and move the tape along. The 8-track has the roller on board and depending on the material it was made of, it later could have become hard or worse it could have broken down and begun to leave a gummy mess that destroyed the tape and required cleaning of the player. (Be wary of old Ampex carts!)

The second cause of the 8-track demise was the compact cassette tape. It evolved in Europe for use with small, battery operated player/recorders (like the Norelco Carry- Corder 150), which did not depend upon cars for their portability. Although invented (like the wax cylinder) for recording, the commercial potential of pre-recorded software was nevertheless not overlooked. Developed by the Norelco and Philips companies, cassettes were marketed worldwide (Philips of course fifteen years later combined with Sony in the invention of the compact disc, thereby being involved in both halves of the one-two punch that destroyed vinyl record sales). They were test-marketed in Britain and other parts of Europe in 1966, more than a year before their introduction to North America. In fact in the UK, with their head-start, compact cassettes initially outsold 8-track but the latter surged and as Billboard pointed out in 1971, “8-track is set to overtake cassette as the primary prerecorded tape system in the UK…the growth of the automotive tape market [is blamed] for the sudden surge in 8-track sales.”

Cassettes were originally disdained by audio critics as very low-end technology, even compared to 8-tracks. (“So far the 8-track cartridge is superior to the cassette for music…” Billboard, 1973.) The tracks themselves (the portion of the magnetic tape holding the information) were only half as wide as those on 8-tracks, and cassette tape moved at half of 8-track’s speed, combining for a very low perceived potential for sound reproduction. However, the cassette format offered a number of features that found favor with consumers more interested in convenience and versatility than high-end sound reproduction. Cassettes were inexpensive (blanks then sold for between $1 and $2 U.S.), players were portable and could record as well as play, and the tapes were smaller and yet could hold more music (up to ninety minutes, and later a full two hours) than preceding formats. (I show classes an 8-track and a compact cassette and ask which would was more convenient to carry.) They came out-of-the gate with fast-forward and…gasp(!)…rewind. The final shot in the arm that effectively made cassettes a part of world audio culture was the development of two new battery-run cassette machines— the Sony Walkman (which began life as the “Sound-About”) and the so-called “ghetto blaster” or “boom box”, both of which became available in the late seventies.


The Norelco Carry-Corder was in the vanguard of the compactcassette’s North American invasion. Recording was initially thought to be a key offering but pre-recorded music took over.
(image courtesy of the author)

The original, highly-portable Sony Walkman using compactcassette accelerated the 8-track’s demise.
(image courtesy of the author)

As time proved the tenacity of the cassette format, engineers endeavored to improve its quality—including Dolby A, B and C noise-reduction to decrease “tape hiss”—and eventually elevated cassettes to the rarefied air of high-end audio. “By 1975, the 8-track format began its steady freefall. Many car stereos now had options for cassettes, which were easier to play than 8-tracks, and didn’t split songs from one program to the next… The 1970s was also the era of the Energy Crisis and oil embargoes, and the tape and shells of 8-tracks were made from expensive petroleum-based plastics – that made the 8-tracks more expensive than cassettes, which used less plastics in their construction.” (Chuck Miller) By 1984, sales of cassettes even exceeded that of vinyl records.

It has been suggested that another cause of the 8-track’s demise was that the resources for its improvement were taken up by the Elcaset. This new tape format would have had the shape of a compact cassette but would have had tape the width of reel-to-reel (like 8-track—1/4” vs 1/8” of the compact cassette) and run at twice the speed. Include not dividing the tape into 8 tracks and it would have given performance comparable to reel-to-reel tape, which at the time was considered the ultimate by audiophiles. However, the major recording companies must have been getting fatigued with releasing titles on multiple formats at this point as none was really enthusiastic about Elcaset and it was dead by 1980. The initial research had begun by Panasonic, Sony, and Teac in 1976 ostensibly because it was felt at the time that the compact cassette was never likely to be capable of audiophile performance.

Despite their drop in popularity, 8-tracks survived into the 1980s. The last 8-tracks released by a record company were sold in 1983, but the Columbia Record and Tape Club still had 8-tracks as a selectable subscription option until 1987. This meant you could still get a copy of Chicago “XIX”, George Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” or Michael Jackson’s “Bad” on 8-track – as long as you ordered six more records over the next three years, and sent back those monthly subscription cards on time.


Compact cassette vs 8-track sales in Japan. The demise was swift.
(image courtesy of http://kovtr.com/wordpress/?tag=8-track-vs-cassette)

As of 1987 8-track was dead. However, there are numerous stories about travellers finding 8-track tapes still for sale in truck stops years later. […to truck stop cruel]

But...in my ultimate 8-track article I will tell you of 8-track’s strange, lingering afterlife.

[**Ka-chunk**]

References

1. You Really Got Me: An Illustrated World Discography of the Kinks, Doug Hinman and Jason Brabazon, Douglas E Hinman Special edition, July 1994.
2. “A History of Endless Loop Magnetic Recording Technology in the United States”, David Morton, 8-Track Mind (online magazine), 1995 (revised for the Web) Page no longer accessible. (KW archived copy)
3. “Dead Medium: the Elcaset cartridge tape and player”, David Morton.
4. “Interview with Frank Schmidt”, Abigail Lavine, 8-track Heaven website. Page no longer accessible. (KW archived copy)
5. “Saucer Stories and the Lear Family”, Jean Erhardt, 8-track Heaven website. Page no longer accessible. (KW archived copy)
6. “John Lear: Mind-Blowing Material About 9/11, UFO’s, And Aliens”, Youtube video.
7. “Paying Tribute to the 8-Track Tape”, Chuck Miller blog, February 15, 2011 at 6:00 AM.
8. “A Short History of the Cassette”, From: The Cassette Mythos, Autonomedia 1990. Wayback archived copy.
9. Stormy Genius, The Life of Aviation’s Maverick Bill Lear, Richard Rashke, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.
10. 10 Breakthrough Technologies That Ultimately Failed To Get Popular”, Wonderful Engineering.
11. Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money, Mark Coleman, Da Capo Press, New York, 2005.
12. “A Brief History of The Walkman”, Meaghan Haire, Time, Wednesday, July 01, 2009.
13. “8-track Surges in UK; Could Overtake Cassette”, Billboard, November 13, 1971.
14. “Innovations Spark Player, Tape Sales”, Billboard, March 3, 1973.
15. “Reason Number 3 For the Drop in Music Sales Availability— Too Little or Wrong Format”, Ghost Who Still Walks.