Ridiculed today as the essence of obsolescence, the clunky, primitive 8-track tape brought about a social change of the same magnitude as the epochal Supreme Court decisions and the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
The 8-track tape, introduced in 1965, consisted of an endless loop of standard ¼-inch magnetic tape, housed in a plastic cartridge. On the tape were eight parallel soundtracks, corresponding to four stereo programs. Although it was developed by Learjet for aviation playback, the technology became an instant success when auto makers began installing tape decks in cars. Prior to the 8-track tape, music playback at home was limited to vinyl records, expensive reel-to-reel decks and the radio,and, in the car, to AM radio only. The easy-to-use, self-activating decks and small, lightweight cartridges for the first time allowed the driver, and not the radio station, to choose the music, thus insuring the format’s success. The popularity of the system encouraged the rapid development of 8-track tape components for home stereos, capable of recording and playback, making it possible for listeners to access their music on a single, portable format, at home and in the car. With its ease of use and flexibility, the 8-track tape quickly overtook the sale of large, heavy, fragile,vinyl records, to become the largest segment of the retail music market in the early 1970s.
To be sure, 8-track tapes had their drawbacks. While the self-playing, endless-loop required no attention while driving, it could not be fast-forwarded, rewound or cued, only played through. To hear a certain song, one had to listen the entire track. Fitting the 10-12 songs of an album into the tape’s four 10-minutes segments meant that the track order of vinyl recordings was not respected (a huge problem for albums without breaks between tracks like Dark Side of the Moon or clear narratives like Tommy). The most egregious offense was the sometimes-unavoidable splitting of longer songs between two tracks, which entailed a fade-out mid-song, a long silence followed by the tape head (loudly) shifting to the next track and then a fade-in to the rest of the song. Serious audiophiles and fans stuck with vinyl.
Inferior in sound quality but capable of rewinding and allowing for a kind of random access, cassette tapes replaced 8-tracks in the early 1980s. While the tapes are now emblems of the past-ness of the 1970s, the 8-track inaugurated the era of portability, multi-platform capability, and, most importantly, personal choice in music–the basic functionalities we expect all devices to provide. Modern consciousness radically differs from that of even 50 years ago because we now have life-long, always available, highly-personalized soundtracks running constantly and shaping our days. We may have different equipment but we still inhabit the 8-track conceptual framework.
On this day in music history: May 17, 1975 - “That’s The Way Of The World”, the sixth studio album by Earth, Wind & Fire hits #1 on the Billboard Top 200 for 3 weeks, also topping the R&B album chart for 5 weeks (non-consecutive) on April 19, 1975. Produced by Maurice White and Charles Stepney, it is recorded at The Caribou Ranch in Nederland, CO from September 16, 1974 - October 2, 1974. The bands’ sixth release also serves as the soundtrack to the Sig Shore (“Superfly”) produced and directed film, the movie flops at the box office, but the album takes on a life of its own, becoming EWF’s mainstream breakthrough. It spins off two singles including “Shining Star” (#1 Pop & R&B) and the title track (#5 R&B, #12 Pop), as well as fan and airplay favorites such as “Reasons”, “Yearnin’ Learnin’” and “Africano”. It also wins the band their first Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group (for “Shining Star”) in 1976. At the time of the album’s original release, it is also issued as a quadraphonic stereo LP and 8-track tape. Well regarded by audiophiles for its excellent sonics, the album is also issued as a half-speed mastered LP in the mid 80’s by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, and as a hybrid SACD disc by the label in 2005. Both are long out of print and command premium prices on the collectors market. “That’s The Way Of The World” is certified 3x Platinum in the US by the RIAA.
Back in 2010, I stumbled upon something special. Some DJ by the name of ‘dadahack’ had created a special custom run of mp3 players that he called the TAP3. They are the exact same size as your typical audio cassette tape too. This was from the original run of 500, and it has a few cool features:
Micro USB port for charging & accessing the SD card to load and unload mp3’s
SD card slot for easy playlist replacement if you have multiple SD cards
Standard stereo 1/8" headphone jack
Play/pause, next track, previous track, volume up, volume down, distort audio button (I don’t bother with that one)
Indicator lights to know when the device is on or off, and what mode it is based on the color and flashing pattern
But the best part about the whole thing is that you can put it into a cassette player, and when the reels begin spinning, the TAP3 will begin playing.
If you decide to advance a track, you stop the tape player, fast forward for a second or two, stop the player, then hit play again. It also works the other way around to go back a track. It isn’t perfect though and doesn’t want to work sometimes, so I find myself resorting to pulling the TAP3 out and pressing the buttons, then putting it back in.
Due to the lack of a display, it typically works best with pre-made cohesive playlists. It tends to play tracks in whatever order they were added to the SD card. And it comes pre-loaded with dadahack’s album simply called “TAP3”. Only a track or two really suit my tastes, but that’s typical of most artists I listen to.
I seem to remember hearing about him making another run of these, but I may be mistaken. Either way, this thing is pretty amusing.