If the mention of 8 Track Stereo audio tapes elicits snickers or a rolling of the eyes, so be it, I don’t care. 8 Track tapes provided the soundtrack of my youth. At the time I committed to the 8 Track format, it was the only viable option for mobile personal music.
Admittedly, the format turned out to be pretty crappy. Even at it’s absolute mechanically best, albums released on 8 Track often suffered because the tracks were reconfigured to fit on four, equal portions. That didn’t always work, because sometimes as the tape arrived at the end of the “program” the song would be faded out, then the next program began with the song fading back up. There was always that mysterious low frequency rumbling at the end of the third program just before the tape’s metal strip triggered the player to switch to the last channel.
The faults of the tape were legion. They tended to jam and unravel inside of the players. If they didn’t jam, they suffered from severe levels of “wow and flutter” or warbling sound. I always had a perfectly folded matchbook cover to wedge between the left side of the tape cartridge and the slot opening to force the roller against the machine’s capstan. The worst 8 Track tapes had cheap, hard plastic rollers. The best ones had softer, more pliable rollers. The best tapes didn’t require the use of the folded matchbook cover cure.
The tape players were mechanically simple devices. Inside, there was just a moveable playback “head”, and a rotating capstan. A small wheel or lever turned the machine on when the tape cartridge pressed against it. Simplicity usually means better, but in the case of 8 Track players, simplicity was too often used as an excuse to build shoddy equipment. Personally, my first car went through at least half-a-dozen players before I traded in the car. Most of them were “under-dash” units that I adapted bolted between the dashboard and the center console.
Most guys with 8 Track players in our cars, installed them ourselves. Holes for the speakers were cut into door panels and rear shelves, then the speakers were bolted in place. Wiring was routed from the player to the speakers. I installed mine beneath the carpeting and used flexible door junctions to avoid snagging and breaking of the wires. Some of my friends just draped the wires on top of the carpet and back seat to “surface mount” speakers on the back shelf of the car.
What often amazed and amused me, was that 8 Track players were the frequent target of thieves who broke windows and swiped the things out of people’s cars. Yes, I was the victim of one of those burglars. The upside was, the 8 Track player was dodgy and I was already looking for a replacement.
In my opinion, the blame for the demise of the 8 Track should be shared between the companies that manufactured the players and the recording companies that cut corners with slip-shod design and materials in their tape cartridges. Theoretically, 8 Tracks could have been much, much better.
Most of my friends and I did not utilize the 8 Track format as an in-home music source. We played vinyl LPs when we were at home or in dorm rooms. I did have a Panasonic receiver/8 Track recorder that was used to dub music from the radio or records to blank 8 Track cartridges for the car. My favorite blank tapes were made by Capitol, Radio Shack, and Three-M. The worst ones were off-brand and Memorex.
The best part of the tapes, personally, is when I found a mechanically good tape, slipped it into the player, and cruised down the highway. I played a lot of Santana, because Columbia tapes were physically the best. Then Grand Funk Railroad because I liked their music and they were on Capitol tape. Usually, though, self-recorded mix tapes were the best, because they only included my favorite songs.
The 8 Track had one last hurrah. Quadraphonic split the 8 stereo tracks into two “programs”. I didn’t own a Quad stereo, but I did buy a Panasonic Quad player that doubled as a conventional 8 Track player/recorder. I listened through special “four channel” headphones. I owned two Quad 8 Track cartridges, but they were disappointing.
At the end of the 8 Track in popular culture, I was ready to ditch the format, too. My third car was equipped with a factory installed cassette deck.
In the back of my closet, somewhere, is a Radio Shack “Realistic” 8 Track player. In some other corner, there are probably a dozen or so old 8 Track cartridges. I don’t really feel motivated to dig any of them out of hiding.