I have long been meaning to work on some 8-track related projects. At long last intention grew to overpower inertia and I went looking for some raw materials. I was met with some surprises.
First, in the hiatus since I last went looking for old gear, many of my usual haunts have ceased to exist: the thrift store at 4th and McDonald has moved and gone upscale; the furniture store run by an incurable hoarder up at Main and 34th was liquidated by someone who wanted to run an actual business; and most lamentably, the free-for-all as-is section in the basement of the Sally Ann on 12th has been cleaned up and turned into pressboard furniture showroom. This left me feeling old. I fondly remember arriving at that Sally Ann just as a shipment of new junk was dumped into the troughs and it was a frenzy to be experienced. Unsaleable things that would’ve earned you a look of disapproval at the transfer station would show up in that basement for a dollar a pound — think Big Mouth Billy Bass at the nadir of his popularity; coffee makers with cracked decanters; mismatched department store speakers with torn fabric and wires cropped too short.
And of course the 8-track player, something I assumed would always be lurking in the corner, as omnipresent and unsaleable as macrame.
I began collecting old stereos as a pre-teen, trawling through the back aisles of Value Village in Coquitlam. I wanted one with everything — cassette, record player, AM/FM/short wave, 8-track, reel-to-reel, and whole banks of auxiliary inputs. In the process I populated my basement with a lot of equipment, mostly of abysmally low quality, fashioned from pressboard and plastic and little else. Most of them looked like this.
The brand name on this one is Channel Master, but it hardly matters. It could be Lloyd, or Viking, or Sears, Emerson, Magnasonic, or a dozen others, mostly made in Taiwan of the same low quality parts and often branded for whatever department store was importing them at the moment. These responded to the home stereo craze by delivering the poorest quality equipment that they could manufacture without entirely abandoning the pretense. (Channel Master, incidentally, lives on. They haven’t even changed their logo.)
The 8 track cartridge is the poster child for the era. The cassette tape was invented back in 1963 but numerous factors made it slow to achieve much market share. Meanwhile there were others trying to market a music format that would be compact and durable enough for automotive use — while there were automotive record players, they were obviously at a disadvantage — and into that environment, with inexplicable success, came the 8-track player. It was bulky, unpleasant and famously unreliable but gained the support of enough companies and consumers that it enjoyed widespread popularity from the late 1960s to the early 1980s in North America and the UK. (I’ve seen 8-track cartridges as far afield as Paraguay, in a thrift store which was also selling an oil painting of Adolf Hitler. It was The Beatles’ White Album.) By then the compact cassette had definitively shown its superiority and caused the 8-track to disappear in ignomy, not through the cassette’s own elegance or perfection so much as by failing to be as awful as the 8-track.
It was a design doomed to fail. It was much bigger than a cassette but was limited to only 45 minutes or so of music, stored on a continuous loop of tape wound on a spool inside the plastic case. The tape was hauled awkwardly out from the middle of the spool and wound back onto the outside, causing all manner of physical complications that boiled down to an unreliable format that by design could never rewind. Its most famous quirk — which gave it its name — is that it split an album into 4 “programs”, which were read off different stripes on the tape. 4 programs, each in stereo, makes 8 tracks. Great, if you don’t mind the chunk-chunk sound and break in the music as the tape head physically jumps to the vague vicinity of the next program every 12 minutes, triggered by a lump of tin foil attached to the tape crossing a couple of contacts in its path.
This is really stone-age technology and its sheer American blockheadedness is only clear piece of evidence I’ve ever found supporting the faked moon landing hypothesis. Could a nation that popularized this kind of technology possibly have been to the moon and back?
8-tracks and associated hardware consistently came up to the knees in every respectable thrift store I’ve ever known so it was with some surprise that I discovered that they’re becoming tougher to get. People actually expect money for them on EBay, and worse still, people are actually bidding for them. Locally, the selection is poorer and the prices are ridiculous — though I note that the guy asking $50 for a Ravi Shankar 8-track has just dropped his price to $40.
Long story short, after some sleuthing around Craigslist and Facebook I’ve come into possession of two stereos and a handful of cartridges without spending much. I’ll be working on a few projects but wanted to start with a general pillorying of the format and some photos of the specific units I got.
If you thought you were buying a Kenny Rogers cartridge, you’d be wrong — note the “In The Spirit Of” above his name. It doesn’t even say who’s performing and I haven’t mustered the courage to listen to it yet.
Here’s the business end of the Kenny Rogers knock-off. The capstan roller is visible on the left; there’s another roller inside the player that pinches the tape against the capstan, and as it turns, pulls tape from the middle of the spool. The resulting turning of the spool draws the tape back in the other side and winds it on. (Or that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.)
On the player side, both units are from all-in-one stereos. The first is pictured at the start of the post; the second is a Lloyd’s unit that came shelled from its chassis and only partially working:
Internally, these stereos are modular; record players can be unplugged and swapped easily, and though tape units and tuners are interconnected with wires soldered into place, they are built of separate components and circuit boards that are designed to be interchangeable. The Lloyd’s stereo contains an 8-track unit apparently made by Goldstar.
The Lloyd’s unit shows how laughably stone-aged this technology was:
Below is a close-up of the track switching mechanism. A small solenoid pulls a metal arm into the path of one of the cogs on a plastic wheel attached to the drive motor; when the arm is pulled along it causes the head to switch to the next program. In this way a small, cheap solenoid can get some help from the drive motor to do the lifting.
I pulled the tape head to try to figure it out, with unfortunately limited success: for no reason that’s clear to me, it has 7 pins plus a chassis ground. I’d expect two sets of coils, two for reading and two for recording, but how and why they’re wired in this configuration is not apparent.
The two strips on the front correspond to the left and right channels of whatever program the head is aligned to interact with.
I can’t say the Channel Master unit is markedly better but it does have more charm. It came to me with a drive belt that had decayed to the consistency of chewing gum. Easily replaced:
Here is the top view of the unit. Neither of these model numbers turn up any hits with Google; I’m startled when this happens but it seems to be consistently true of the 8-track era.
Below, looking at the control and amplifier board for the 8-track unit.
Below, looking at the tuner board; also where the 8-track and phonograph audio enters the switching area.
Below, another shot of the 8 track unit.
Below, a close-up of the track switching hardware and head.
Below, a close-up of the head (background) and the pins that detect when the foil strip marking the “end” of the tape passes through, triggering a track change.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how scarce information on the 8-track is online. Beyond the Wikipedia page and 8 Track Heaven, there is remarkably little. Nerd culture delights in preserving oddities but somehow this one is not welcome.
Perhaps we’re ashamed. Perhaps we ought to be.
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