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    The Eight Track tape

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    maxim9691

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    The Eight Track tape

    Post by maxim9691 on Sat Jan 09, 2010 10:41 am

    The Eight Track tape recording system was popular from 1965 to the late 1970s. While today it has become an icon of obsolescence, it was a great commercial success and paved the way for all sorts of innovations in portable listening. The eight track tape consisted of an endless loop of standard 1/4-inch magnetic tape, housed in a plastic cartridge. On the tape were eight parallel soundtracks, corresponding to four stereo programs. For many people old enough to have owned an eight track system, it is a technology associated with the automobile and in-car listening. Ironically, however, it was first developed not by the auto industry, but by a leading aircraft manufacturer: the Learjet Corporation.

    Years before he set down to work on the famous Learjet, William Powell Lear had made a name for himself developing instruments and communications equipment for airplanes. In 1945, Lear Inc. was moving into the consumer electronics field. The company became a licensee of a Chicago-based R&D laboratory called the Armour Research Foundation allowing Bill Lear access to Armour's successful wire recording technology, bits of which made their way into his own design for an endless loop wire recorder.

    The second main commercial application was in the field of auto sound. Earl "Madman" Muntz was a former Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealer who had earned his nickname through his loud, flamboyant television commercials. His motto was "I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale. It's more fun that way!" Already a national celebrity by the 1950s, he soon jumped from auto sales to electronics, opening a chain of television retail outlets.
    fidelipac cartridge

    The sets he sold were manufactured by another of his other firm's, Muntz Television Inc., and they were based on a clever design that saved a few bucks on parts and assembly. The TV business had its ups and downs, and Muntz went from riches to rags when he landed in bankruptcy court in 1955,and then back to riches a few years later when the market turned around. When he discovered the Fidelipac in the early 1960s he sold Muntz TV and threw in his lot with the endless loop, never to return to his television business (although in later years he re-entered the TV industry with a line of big screen TV sets).

    Muntz had inexpensive Fidelipac players custom manufactured in Japan, and licensed the music of several record companies for duplication on carts. Even though the players were intended to be installed in cars, where "hi-fi" hardly mattered, Muntz sought to enhance the appeal of his product by adopting the stereo tape standards established by recorder manufacturers a few years earlier, and his players used the new, mass produced stereo tape heads being made for the home recorder industry. These heads put two stereo programs, a total of four recorded tracks, on a standard 1/4 inch tape.


    Muntz players caught on quickly, starting an autosound fad in California which then began to spread east. By 1963 Muntz players were to be found stylishly adorning the underdash regions of Frank Sinatra's Riviera, Peter Lawford's Ghia, James Garner's Jaguar, Red Skelton's Rolls Royce, and Lawrence Welk's Dodge convertible, not to mention Barry Goldwater's ride (make not known). During 1964 and 1965 a number of major labels began issuing new releases and old favorites on 4-track, and the Fidelipac looked like it was going to be the next big thing in consumer audio. A number of home players even appeared.

    Suddenly Bill Lear appeared on the scene, newly world famous for his spectacularly-successful Learjet business plane, and announced in 1965 that he had developed a cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded tapes without any sacrifice in music quality. In 1963,he became a distributor for Muntz Electronics, mainly in order to install 4-track units aboard his Learjets. Dissatisfied with the Muntz technology, he contacted two of the leading suppliers of original equipment tape heads, the Nortronics Company and Michigan Magnetics. He specified a head with much thinner "pole-pieces" and a new spacing that would allow two tracks (or one stereo program) to be picked off a quarter-inch tape that held a total of 8-tracks. Although a departure from the Muntz player, the technology of the closely-stacked multitrack head was by the early 1960s well established in fields like data recording. Lear in 1963 developed a new version of the Fidelipac cartridge with somewhat fewer parts and an integral pressure roller. During 1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 "Stereo-8" players for distribution to executives at the auto companies and RCA.
    background image

    The early Learjet Stereo 8 player, pictured here, was designed with convenience in mind--and safety. The minimal knobs and controls were intended to make it quick and easy to play tapes while driving, without the driver taking his or her eyes off the road.



    Just how Bill Lear managed to convince the auto executives to cram those players under the dashboards of Ford Mustangs and Fairlanes is a little unclear. Certainly Lear brought his reputation as the successful leader of a business, and had many personal contacts in industry. In a roundabout kind of way, he already had ties to Ford. In the 1930s Lear and Paul Galvin had together built Motorola into a leading manufacturer of car radios, and Motorola was now affiliated with Ford.

    Whatever the details of Lear's selling job, the keys to the Stereo-8's spectacular success seems to have been linked to getting the backing of both Ford and the recording industry. After getting RCA Victor to commit to the mass-production of its catalog on Learjet Stereo-8 cartridges, Ford agreed to offer the players as optional equipment on 1966 models. The response, in one Ford spokesman's words, "was more than anyone expected." 65,000 of the players were installed that year alone. The machines were initially manufactured Ford's electronics supplier and the firm that had pioneered the "motor victrola" - that is, the Motorola Corportation.

    Although the 8-track today is dismissed as a failure, from a contemporary standpoint it was a huge success. It was the first tape format to achieve a true, national mass market. While the projections of the promoters of recorded tape on reel-to-reel had fallen short all during the 1950s and 1960s, cart sales on 4 and 8-track 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.
    Cousino Echo-matic cartridge

    Meanwhile, a number of new contenders rose up to enjoy fleeting moments of glory. Bernard Cousino of Toledo, Ohio, for example, had designed an endless-loop tape cartridge that was marketed under the brand name Echo-matic. He had a measure of success with his Echo-matic cartridge in the early 1960s as a "point of sale" advertising medium and background music technology. In 1965 the Champion Spark Plug company (a subsidiary of Ford) purchased a controlling interest in Cousino's firm. With the success of the 8-Track, champion's insisted, the company became a manufacturer of Lear-style players, and Cousino became a major supplier of players for Sears Roebuck.
    Orrtronic Auto-mate

    Cousino was involved in another significant venture as well. In the the early 1960s he had become aquainted with Alabama businessman John Herbert Orr, whose Orradio Industries tape manufacturing firm had recently been acquired by Ampex and who was preparing to start a new under the name John Herbert Orr Enterprises. Orr and Cousino cooked up a new firm, called Orrtronics, which was to be a company that made a home and automobile tape system based on the old Echo-matic cartridge. These Orrtronic "Auto-Mate" cartridges and players sold in significant numbers for a few years in the mid-1960s.

    Orrtronic 8-track

    Meanwhile, Ford was debating the adoption of the Lear cartridge in 1965, and looking to its Champion division for guidance. Before it became clear that the 8-track would be widely adopted throughout the auto industry, it looked like Champion could introduce a competing product that did not depend on Lear patents. Champion funded the development at Orrtronics of such a competing system. This was the ill-fated "Orrtronics 8-Track", a cartridge similar to the Learjet product except for the way the tape loop was routed inside the plastic cartridge. It's not clear whether the system was ever sold to the public, but a few players and tapes have survived; they may represent demo models.

    The enormous success of the Stereo-8 did not end the succession of competitors. In fact, in the late 1960s and 1970s there were numerous other variations on the basic endless loop cartridge. Most of these were aimed at niche markets rather than mainstream commercial music. The best known was the Playtape, a tiny cartridge introduced in the fall of 1966 which later re-emerged in slightly modified form as the medium in Dictaphone Corp. telephone answering machines in the 1970s. Answering machines, in fact, were a major source of new endless loop variations from the 1960s on. The success of the Fidelipac in radio spawned a host of imitators, including both the well known Audiopak, the Aristocart made in Canada, the Marathon made by some Massachusetts firm, and the Tapex. One modification of the 8-Track itself was a cartridge that contained not only an endless loop of tape but also a filmstrip, syncrhonized to the audio on the tape.









    Playtape cartridges, pictured here, measured about 4 inches on the long dimension, came in mono and stereo versions and in varying lengths.


    The manufacture of 8-track players, which had begun at Motorola in Illinois, shifted almost entirely to Japan between 1965 and 1975 (actually, Japanese success in this market started earlier, as Earl Muntz had farmed out his production of Muntz Stereopak players to Japanese contractors). There were a few efforts to revive the flagging American tape recorder industry, but to little avail as the foreign firms cranked players out in huge numbers using cheap labor and favorable import regulations. Many US electronics manufacturers (even the prestigious Ampex Corporation) would find it more profitable to sell Japanese-made players under their own brands. Nonetheless Quatron Inc., a Maryland firm, had some success making the (now coveted by collectors) Model 48 automatic 8-track changer, but its star soon faded. By the time the major record labels stopped offering new releases on 8-track, there were no domestic manufacturers of home or auto players. Conditions were quite different in the manufacture of tape and cartridges, where American firms held on to most of the domestic market.

    The story of the 8-track ended with both a bang and a whimper. The major record labels announced their decision to stop supporting the 8-track format between 1981 and 1983. However, some continued to issue top-10 pop albums for some time. Also, 8-tracks of most popular releases were available well into the 1980s via the mail order record clubs. Also, there were numerous small labels that supported the format for some years.



    Written by David Morton.



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