VinylFanatics
News
LP Vinyl
LP Reviews
Reel To Reel
Reel Reviews
Cassette
Cassette Reviews
Mono
Stereo
Quad
Video
Digital
Compare Formats
My Musings
HP Interview
George Mann Interview
Guest Writers
Tape Project
New to Classical
Under-appreciated
Discographies
21st Century Vinyl
Great LP Sonics
Multiple Formats
Better Records?
Fight high LP prices
HiRezStereo.com
Free Ads!
Links
Letters
Recordings
Audio System
Basic Repertoire

Analog Stereo Formats

The Stereo LP

Please see the Vinyl LP page for the history of the Stereo LP format, recommended recordings and LP care and maintenance.

Stereo Reel to Reel

Please see the Reel to Reel page for the history, recommended recordings, tape types, tape storage tips, care and maintenance.

Stereo Cassette

Please see the Cassette page for the history and recommended cassette recordings.

The 4-track cartridge

The 4-track cartridge or Stereo-Pak is an audio storage magnetic tape cartridge technology, inspired by the Fidelipac 3-track tape cartridge system invented by George Eash in 1954 and used by radio broadcasters for commercials and jingles - since 1959, then adapted by Earl "Madman" Muntz in 1962, for use in cars as an alternative to radio.

The tape is arranged in an infinite loop that traverses a central hub and crosses a tape head, usually over a pressure pad to assure proper tape contact. The tape moves at 3 inches per second, pulled by tension, but this tension is dampened by a lubricant, usually graphite, on the back of the tape to prevent a tape's tension from damaging the tape and/or player. The tape ends in a 4-Track are not connected by a splice made of a conductive material - as are the later "automatic" switching 8-track cartridges. 4-track cartridge players had to be switched manually between programs 1 & 2 by a lever on the machine. Due to the method the tape is moved, it is impossible to rewind, and often risky to fast-forward a 4-track tape.

The splices in a 4-track tape can break due to age, handling, or poor manufacturing quality. This problem also affects other infinite-loop tapes, such as 8-tracks.

History

The endless loop tape cartridge was designed in 1952 by Bernard Cousino of Toledo, Ohio, around a single reel carrying a continuous loop of standard 1/4 inch plastic oxide-coated recording tape running at 3 3/4 inches/s (9.5 cm/s). Program starts and stops were signaled either by a conductive foil splice or sub-audible tones. The tape was pulled from the center of the reel, passed across the opening at the end of the cartridge and wound back onto the outside of the same reel. The spool itself was freewheeling and the tape was driven only by tension from the capstan.

George Eash [also of Toledo, OH], an inventor who had rented space in Cousino's building in the fifties, later revised Cousino's design [1954 - received patent Jan. 1957] and marketed it under the name Fidelipak. These cartridges were first used in radio stations (broadcast cartridges) from 1959 on to program commercials & single song hits.

Entrepreneur Earl "Madman" Muntz of Los Angeles, California saw a potential in these broadcast carts for an Automobile Music Tape System and in 1962 introduced his "Stereo-Pak" 4-Track Stereo Tape Cartridge System & Tapes - mostly in California [& Florida]. He licensed popular music albums from the major Record Companies and duplicated them on these 4-Track Stereo Tape Cartridges or CARtridges, as they were first advertised.

Previously, music in the car had been restricted mostly to radios. Records, due to their methods of operation and size, were not practical for use in a car, although several companies tried to market an automobile record player: that is where the Motorola Corporation derives its name (motor + Victrola = Motorola).

Notable celebrities such as Frank Sinatra had 4-track players outfitted in their cars, and music was released on 4-track tape for automobile enjoyment and later, home use.

Muntz manufactured 4-track tape players and pre-recorded 4-track cartridges until approximately 1970, when the 8-track tape prevailed. Columbia Records was one of the few major record labels to release music recorded on 4-track cartridges themselves on a widespread basis.

Earl Muntz's 4-track Stereo-Pak cartridge had four monaural or two pairs of stereo tracks. To switch back & forth between the 2 program tracks, a manual lever is engaged which physically moves the head up and down mechanically. [4-Tracks did not switch tracks automatically like the later 8-Track Cartridges.]

The tape was coated with a slippery backing material patented by Cousino, usually graphite, to ease the continuous slip between the tape layers. This coating sometimes also caused the pinch wheel to slip, leading to poor speed control and tape flutter. Due to these problems, 4-track cartridges were never popular with audiophiles. While the design allowed simple and cheap players, unlike a two-reel system it didn't permit winding of the tape in either direction. Some players offered a limited fast-forward by speeding up the motor while cutting off the audio but rewinding was impossible.

After taking a ride with Muntz in a 4-track player-outfitted car, Bill Lear, maker of the Lear Jet, modified 4-track technology for his own uses. Most notably, eight tracks were squeezed onto the same " tape, reducing potential audio quality, but allowing twice as much music to be put onto the same length of tape. The pinch roller was also an integrated part of the 8-track cartridge, although many early rubber rollers would suffer from deterioration - because the rubber had not been fully cured. Once this was discovered all later rubber pinch rollers were "fully cured" (hard) rubber - or plastic rollers (introduced by RCA in 1970) were used instead. Thanks to his connection to Motorola, which made radios for Ford Motors cars, Lear was able to ensure that 8-track players would be included in many Ford cars, and they became popular mainly during the early- to mid-1970s. 4-track tapes gradually faded away and were gone by late 1970, as most people switched to 8-tracks, although players compatible with both 4-track and 8-track tapes were sometimes made. 4-Track tapes are still in-demand by Collectors.

8-track cartridge

The 8-track cartridge is a magnetic tape technology for audio storage, popular from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. The 8-track was created by Bill Lear in 1964 at the Lear Jet Corporation, after he heard Earl "Madman" Muntz's 1962, 4-track tape system, called Stereo-Pak. Stereo-Pak, in turn, had been inspired by the 1959 Fidelipac 3-track system (invented by George Eash in 1954) used by radio broadcasters for commercials, jingles, and single song hits.

The original format for magnetic tape sound reproduction was reel-to-reel audio tape recording, first made available after World War II in the late 1940s. However, the machines were bulky and the reels themselves were more difficult to handle than vinyl records. Born from the desire to have an easier-to-use tape format, the enclosed reel mechanism was introduced in the mid-1950s.

Development

The endless loop tape cartridge was first designed in 1952 by Bernard Cousino of Toledo, Ohio, around a single reel carrying a continuous loop of standard 1/4-inch, plastic, oxide-coated recording tape running at 3.75 inches per second (9.5 centimeters per second). Program starts and stops were signaled either by a conductive foil splice or sub-audible tones.

This cartridge was later revised and marketed under the name Fidelipac in 1959 by George Eash (also of Toledo, Ohio), an inventor who had rented a work space in the Cousino building in the 1950s. These Fidelipac cartridges were first used as radio station promo and advertising "carts" starting in late 1959. Collins Radio had introduced them at the 1959 National Association of Broadcasters convention.

Entrepreneur Earl "Madman" Muntz of Los Angeles, California saw a potential in these "broadcast carts" for an automobile music system and in 1962 introduced his "Stereo-Pak" 4-track system and tapes, mostly in California and Florida. He licensed popular music albums from the major record companies and duplicated them on these 4-track cartridges, or "CARtridges", as they were first advertised.

Bill Lear, of Lear Jet fame, designed the Lear Jet Stereo-8 track cartridge in 1964. It simplified the mechanism by rolling the motorized metal capstan in the player against a pinch wheel installed inside the cartridge to pull the tape across the player's read head (in the earlier Muntz 4-track Stereo-Pak, the pinch wheel was part of the player and flipped into the cartridge through an access hole). The tape was pulled from the center of the reel, passed across the opening at the end of the cartridge and wound back onto the outside of the same reel. The spool itself was freewheeling and the tape was driven only by tension from the capstan.

The tape was coated with a slippery backing material patented by Bernard Cousino, usually graphite, to ease the continuous slip between the tape layers. This coating sometimes also caused the pinch wheel to slip, leading to poor speed control and tape flutter. Due to these and other problems, 8-track cartridges were unpopular with audiophiles. While the design allowed simple, cheap, and mobile players, unlike a two-reel system it didn't permit winding of the tape in either direction. Some players offered a limited fast-forward by speeding up the motor while cutting off the audio, but rewinding was impossible.

Muntz's 4-track Stereo-Pak cartridge (Eash's Fidelipac) had four monaural or two pairs of stereo tracks. Track switching was achieved by physically moving the head up and down mechanically by a lever. A professional version also used in broadcasting, achieved much wider bandwidth with single full-track mono or a half-track stereo pair, along with a separate cue track for recording cue tones for fast cues and a fixed, non-moving playback head. While this provided higher fidelity and was extremely convenient and reliable for busy disc jockeys and studio engineers, program length was usually limited to that of a single song and the cartridges required some maintenance, making the format too expensive and limited for consumer use.

In all versions, the cartridge played continuously with no rewinding, though there was usually a short gap in the audio at the splice in the tape loop. 8-track cartridges doubled playing time by recording four stereo tracks (for a total of eight) on the tape, although this made each track half as wide, reducing the sound quality. 4-track tapes had to be manually switched from program 1 to 2 and back. (The term 4-track cartridge was created by back-formation.) 8-track tapes were advertised as "automatic", because the foil-sensing splice at the end of each track switched the player to the next program automatically, without the need for a person to adjust the player as was necessary with the 4-track cartridge.

8-tracks had an audible pause and mechanical click (often in the middle of a program) when tracks were automatically switched. Unless by coincidence the original song lineup had breaks that fell naturally near the 1/4, 1/2 & 3/4 positions of the original album, there would either be long pauses at the end of the track (if the original song order were to be preserved and the songs not chopped), the songs were reordered (to achieve a more even distribution of song time to minimize the end or track pauses), or in the most egregious cases, having a song actually be chopped into pieces.

Worse, due to the expense of 8-track 1/4" wide tape heads, most 8-track players used a two-track 1/4" head and moved it to align with each of the four "programs" (pairs of left and right track) on the tape. Mechanical alignment of the head to the tape is crucially important, and moving the head up and down with a comparatively clumsy and imprecise mechanism ensured the head would quickly come out of alignment. Among audio service technicians, there used to be a joke that "the 8-track is the only audio device which knocks itself out of alignment four times during each album", a premise which actually did not occur.

If the azimuth of the head became misadjusted, there would be a faint audio bleed of adjacent tracks into the currently playing track, as well as a loss of frequency response, as with any misadjusted tape system. Also, the cartridge mechanism was prone to breakage from dropping, etc., so misused and uncared for 8-tracks had generally short lives.

Commercial release

The popularity of both 4-track and 8-track cartridges grew from the booming automobile industry. In September 1965, Ford Motor Company introduced built-in 8-track players as a custom option. [2] By 1966, all of their vehicles offered this upgrade. Thanks to Ford's backing, the 8-track format eventually won out over the 4-track format, which disappeared by late 1970.

Despite the problems of fitting a standard vinyl LP album onto a four-program cartridge, the format gained steady popularity due to its convenience and portability. Home players were introduced in 1966. With the availability of cartridge systems for the home, consumers started thinking of 8-tracks as a viable alternative to vinyl records, not only as a convenience for the car. Within a year, prerecorded releases on 8-track began to arrive within a month of the vinyl release.

The devices were especially popular among professional truck drivers, as this was the first successful prerecorded playback device for use in a moving vehicle. Previous attempts to build a mechanical disc player were troubled by skipping caused by vehicle motion.

8-track recorders were available but never achieved the sales level of the players. Like cassettes, their recording quality meant they were rarely used for commercial music recording although there were famous exceptions such as Bo Hansson's The Lord of the Rings.

Quadraphonic 8-track cartridges (Introduced by RCA Records in September 1970 and first known as Quad 8, then shortened to just Q8) were also produced. The format enjoyed a moderate amount of success for a time but faded in the mid-1970s. Collectors prize these cartridges since they provide 4 channels of discrete sound, unlike matrixed formats such as SQ. Most Quadraphonic albums were specially mixed for the Quad format.

Decline and demise

The Compact Cassette made the 8-track cartridge obsolete. Unlike the 8-track, it was invented as a monophonic dictation device in 1963 with no consideration for high fidelity in its original design. The stereo "Music" audio cassette (or Musicassette) introduced in 1966 became a practical high-fidelity format with the addition of Dolby noise reduction to cassette tapes in 1971. With further refinements, frequency response in excess of 20 kHz and wow and flutter below 0.05 percent by the 1980s in the best machines would rival all but professional reel-to-reel decks.

Cassettes were more convenient to use, with faster song access compared to 8-tracks, which did not have rewind and had only limited fast-forward functions. They had more robust sound quality, were smaller than 8-track tapes, stored more music without breaks, and could be recorded in home cassette decks, which were uncommon in 8-track format. During the transitional period in the 1980s, there was wide availability of adapters that fit into automotive 8-track players to allow insertion and playback of cassettes without the need to install a new stereo.

8-track players became less common in homes and automobiles as the 1970s went on. 8-track Tape Cartridges were phased out of retail stores by 1983. Selected titles were still available as tapes through record clubs until 1989. Some independent artists have released 8-track tapes as late as 2006.

Although today the 8-track is dismissed as a failure, from a commercial standpoint, it was a huge success. It was the first truly portable format of music, reaching a mass-market and giving people the ability to take their favorite music in the car, on the beach, or anywhere else for that matter. Even today, 40 years after its debut, the 8-track has established a somewhat cult following, with avid collectors located coast to coast.

Cartridge repair

A decrease in the quality of the parts used in the 8-Track cartridge was one of the direct downfalls of the format, as problems developed with the reliability, sound and smooth playing of the tape. As 8-track tapes age, they sometimes need to be repaired so that their life may be extended. With a little care and patience, an old 8-track can be restored to its original performance.

Old tapes may break at the channel-switching foil splice when the glues used during manufacture harden with age. Repair sometimes requires careful disassembly of the cartridge and the addition of a new metallic foil-sensing splice.

On some cartridges, a plastic and foam pressure pad behind the tape path holds the tape against the tape head as the tape moves across it. This material can disintegrate with age, leaving a glob of sticky material that will not support the tape against the head, and may damage the tape. A new foam pressure pad will remedy this problem, although this also requires cartridge disassembly.

Also, in early cartridges, the rubber in the pinch roller, which pulls the tape across the heads, was not fully cured, and this caused them to deteriorate with time, melting into a sticky, tar-like material. These can be replaced with a new rubber pinch roller of the same size and proportions. Rubber pinch rollers manufactured after 1969 are made of fully cured rubber that does not deteriorate over time. In late 1970, RCA Records switched to a new plastic material, which some other companies also used. However, rubber is the preferred material for pinch rollers as it grips the tape better for more even and precise movement.

PlayTape

Playtape was an 1/8" stereo audiotape format and playback system introduced in 1966 by Frank Stanton. It was a two-track system, and was launched to compete with existing 4-track cartridge technology. The tapes played anywhere from 8 to twenty-four minutes, and were self rewinding. Because of its portability, PlayTape was an almost instant success, and over 3000 artists had recorded in this format by 1968.

At the time of PlayTape's launch, Earl Muntz's Stereo-Pak (based on the broadcast "Fidelipac" cartridge system) was the current reigning sound delivery system, and his car players were offered with stereo sound. Bill Lear's 8-track tape system, though in production, had still not achieved its market potential. Moreover, neither Lear nor Muntz was offering a portable player, though Muntz eventually did sell one.

While PlayTape found some success in targeting the youth audience, it was not as successful in targeting the business audience. Stanton marketed his device as a dictation machine, but he was unable to persuade businesses to adopt his creation. Issues of player quality limited sales, and ultimately, the introduction of home and portable players by the 4-track and 8-track manufacturers led to the demise of PlayTape.

Only a handful of small compact players and a few very rare car players were sold to the open market. They are collector’s items today.

Elcaset

Elcaset was a short-lived audio format created by Sony in 1976. At that time, it was widely felt that the compact cassette was never likely to be capable of the same levels of performance that was available from reel-to-reel systems, yet clearly the cassette had great advantages in terms of convenience. The Elcaset system was intended to marry the performance of reel to reel with cassette convenience.

The system was technically excellent, but a total failure in the marketplace, with a very low take up by a few audiophiles only. Apart from the problem of the bulky cassettes, the performance of standard cassettes had improved dramatically with the use of new materials such as chromium dioxide, and better manufacturing quality. For most people, the quality of standard cassettes was adequate, and the benefits of the expensive Elcaset system limited.

The system was abandoned in 1980, when, curiously, all the remaining systems were sold off in Finland.

The Sony Elcaset

8-Track Heaven
Your Guide to the World of 8-Track Tapes

4-track cartridge tapes

PLAYTAPE - The 2-track cartridge tape