Sunday, January 22, 2017

Does anybody remember eight track tapes?

There was a moment in time between vinyl records and cassette tapes where our music came from eight track tapes. All of a sudden, they were everywhere; home, work and most importantly in our cars.

I was already familiar with cart tape technology, having used “carts” in radio the previous ten years at several radio stations. We played commercials, public service announcements, promos, jingles and eventually music off of carts. The difference was that broadcast carts contained only one audio track, and one queue track, to stop the endless tape loop at the beginning of the next commercial on the tape. Eight track tapes had no queue track. Instead the heads of the player would move vertically from one position to another to play the second through the fourth track. The one thing you had to do with both carts and eight tracks is to find the splice where the tail of the tape was attached to the head to form the loop. If you didn’t do that, you wound up with an audible “thump” in the middle of your recording. I even came up with a way to segue from one song to another so I would not have a blank space between songs.

My car did not come with an eight track player so I mounted one under the dash of my Ford LTD that connected to a pair of speakers in the rear window shelf. It took most of a Saturday to get it all wired in. The hardest part was finding a path from the dash to the speakers in the rear. The solution was to remove the covers on the rocker panels and run the cables through the frame of the car under the doors. Yes, my luck was bad; it was a four door car. I thought I’d never get the panels back on right and be able to close the doors again. But finally it was all done and my car was finally rocking the way it should be.

That covered the player, now I needed something to play on it. When eight track tapes were new, they were relatively expensive. So I replaced my old reel to reel tape with one that one that could record eight track tapes as well. I wound up with the Roberts version of the Akai X-1800SD Reel to Reel Cross Field Stereo Tape Player Recorder 8 Track. I have to tell you that I was in hog heaven. I spent hours dubbing my 33 1/3 RPM vinyl collection over to eight track and spent even more hours listening to them in the car driving to and from work.

There was a fly in the ointment; eight track tape cartridges and the machines that played them did not take kindly to being bounced across the many potholes and train tracks that inhabited the highways and byways that were the paths around town. The machines could get out of alignment and then I would be under the dash with screwdriver and wrench realigning the heads. Worse than the machines, sometimes a particularly bad bump would cause the tape to jump over the pinch roller included in each cart. When that happened, the tape would come to a grinding halt but not after several feet of tape were blown out into the mechanism of the player. After that happened a few times, I learned to make a copy of the cart onto reel to reel tape so I could make a new cart from the reel to reel copy instead of building it from scratch.

Alas, the writing was on the wall; eight track tapes were soon replaced in the mid ‘70s when the Advent Corporation introduced their Model 201 tape deck that combined Dolby type B noise reduction and chromium dioxide (CrO2) tape with a commercial-grade tape transport mechanism. We never did solve the problem of tape spilling out of the cartridge but at least now we could take a pencil and rewind the tape back into the cartridge and motor on. I do believe that more #2 pencils were used to rewind tape than to write on paper for a few years.

When my next car came equipped with a cassette tape in the radio, I finally gave up my eight track ways and bought a commercial grade cassette recorder for my component stereo system, remember them?!? My trusty Roberts then became a mixing source for the cassette recorders as well as a way of copying the few commercially made eight tracks that I had purchased to cassette.

I would be remiss in telling my story if I didn’t acknowledge that copying in analog meant a reduction in quality. I didn’t notice it much in the beginning but as tunes came out with higher and higher fidelity, I began to notice the difference. I have to hand it to digital technology that no matter how many digital copies of copies you make, it still has the same quality as the original recording. However, nothing had the warmth and richness of vinyl and to a slightly lesser extent, eight track carts. So in my memory, I can hear the throaty rumble of that LTD adding to the bass track of the Funk Brothers as I listen to that Motown eight track rolling down the highway. Oh MY!

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