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8-tracks held the seeds of their own demise

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

 

Purple haze all in my brain." (Pause. Click.) "Lately things just don't seem the same." Thus sang Jimi Hendrix on TechMan's eight-track tape of the album "Are You Experienced."

The pause, click, of course, was the track changing in the middle of a song.

The saga of Stereo 8, the official name for the eight-track tape format, stars an inventor from Toledo, Ohio, a business jet magnate, a car dealer with the nickname of "Madman" and a major car company.

In 1952 William Lear invented the endless loop tape cartridge as a way to eliminate the threading and other inconveniences of reel-to-reel tape.

Two years later inventor George Eash, of Toledo, brought out the Fidelipac, a cartridge that caught on in radio and was often called the "cart." Carts were used to play commercials, jingles and other short recordings that needed to be played repeatedly from the beginning.

Entrepreneur and car dealer Earl "Madman" Muntz, a nickname he got from his frenetic commercials, got the idea that these four-track cartridges could be used to play music in cars and brought out the four-track "CARtridge." It wasn't a huge hit.

Re-enter Mr. Lear, who had been off designing and building the LearJet business airplane. In 1964 he designed the Lear Jet Stereo 8 cartridge. It was different from previous cartridges in that the rubber and plastic pinch rollers were incorporated into the tape instead of being in the player.

To increase the amount of music on a cartridge, the tape held eight narrower tracks side-by-side. Using two tracks for stereo meant four programs of music could be played.

Since two-sided albums had to be divided into four programs, songs were often split into two parts by a track change, song orders were reshuffled, or shorter songs were repeated. Or there were long passages of silence. All added to the clunky "charm" of the format.

To keep the cost down, the heads of players could read only two tracks, so to switch programs, the head had to physically move. This caused the audible pause and then the click when the program changed.

All this shifting could cause the head to become misaligned with the tape and because the tracks were so close together, there could be a bleed of sound from other tracks into the one currently playing or the two channels of stereo could get out of synch.

Mr. Lear's big breakthrough with the Stereo 8 came with a little help (pause, click) from his friends. In 1965, Ford offered Stereo 8 players as an option on many of its cars and the next year on all its cars. In the early 1970s the quadraphonic eight-track or Quad8 appeared.

You might think that eight-track was killed by the cassette tape. But the cassette was introduced two years before the eight-track and the two coexisted in the 1960s and '70s.

What really killed the eight-track was its own shortcomings. Stereo 8 tapes and players developed a reputation for unreliability because of splice failures and the phenomenon of the player "eating" the tape.

As Stereo 8 began losing market share, companies tried to make the tapes cheaper by using inferior materials and the reliability declined even more. Record companies put their development dollars into cassettes.

By the time the CD came out in 1982, the eight-track was widely consigned to attics, basements and flea markets.

Late-period releases can be valuable. For example, Bruce Springsteen's "Live/1975-85" was one of the very few box sets to be released on vinyl, cassette, compact disc and eight-track tape.

The last widely issued eight-track tape, most agree, was Fleetwood Mac's "Greatest Hits" in November 1988.

But some won't stop (pause, click) believing. There is a cult of eight-track aficionados. One of the best sites for eight-track culture and lore is www.8trackheaven.com.

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