Sunday, July 18, 2010

A brief history of 8 track tapes and the automobile

Hi folks -- I never had an 8 track player -- maybe just too poor when they came out, or maybe not interested in tunes at the time, or maybe I went directly to the cassette, but in any case I certainly missed a major cultural event. Every once and a while you'll find 8 track tapes at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Below is some information on the 8 track and the critical role the auto industry had in this technologies acceptance by the consumer.

The Eight Track tape recording system was popular from 1965 to the late 1970s. While today it has become an example of technological obsolescence, it was a great commercial success for a time 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.

After the introduction of magnetic tape recording in the post-WWII years, there had been some experimentation in tapes, but there had been no success whatever in getting satisfactory fidelity from tapes moving at a slow speed. For decent fidelity, no more than two programs could be placed, side by side, on the standard quarter-inch recording tape. Californian Earl Muntz (once known as “Mad man Muntz” the used car dealer), had, as early as 1962, developed a tape cartridge. This was an endless loop of tape encased in a plastic holder. Tape was fed from the inside of the spool, put the playing head, and then wound around the outside of the spool. This struck engineer-entrepreneur Bill Lear as a step in the right direction. What was needed now was engineering. The cartridge idea would have to be vastly improved and a completely reliable tape player, sturdy enough for the bounces and shocks it would get mounted in a car, would have to be developed.

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. 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 money 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.

Both Lear and Motorola had come a long way since sharing the building with the Midwest Slipper Company at 847 Harrison Street, Chicago. Motorola assigned an engineer, Oscar Kusisto, to the project. Like Lear, Kusisto possessed a rare ability to see to the heart of the problem and then come up with a simple solution the first thing that Kusisto and Lear decided was that they would go with a continuous loop of quarter-inch tape. They reasoned that while the cassette tape had merits (it was smaller than a cartridge could be, simply because the tape in the cassette was 1/8 inch or half as wide) it also had disadvantages. The narrower tape wasn’t as sturdy as the wider tape, for one thing and there were other considerations.

The next thing Kususto decided was that Motorola would develop the playing mechanism, and that Lear Jet Stereo would develop an absolutely reliable cartridge, a more difficult job than it appears. The first design criterion they decided on was that the tape would have to have 8 channels of information, twice what the Muntz tape cartridge had. Only in this way could they get enough music in each cartridge to make the cartridge practical.

What Lear did to make the tape cartridge what it is today is something that only highly skilled engineers can really appreciate. It wasn’t simply a question of making a device that would reliably pull a continuous loop of tape at a constant speed. That was difficult enough in itself and got him involved in such things as lubricants for the tape which would make the tape just so slippery, and which would neither dry out, losing their slipperiness, or come off the tape and make things that shouldn’t be slippery – the traction wheel, for example – slippery. He also had to make a device that was inexpensiveto manufacture (so that it could compete with phonograph records, which are really nothing more than a couple of cents worth of plastic) and which could be manufactured in large quantiiites. This meant he had to design not only the cartridge itself, but the machines which would make the cartridges as well. Oscar Kusisto, while Lear was spending much time and vast amounts of money developing a reliable cartridge, was spending many engineering hours and vast amounts of Motorola’s money developing a reliable playing mechanism.

What he had to do was design a machine that (a) would turn itself on when a cartridge was inserted; (b) pull a continuous loop of tape at an absolutely precise 3.75 inches per second (otherwise the music would sound horrible); (c) detect from two thin strips on the tape (each 1/32 inch wide) information which could be amplified with fidelity almost as good as the phonograph provided; (d) shift from one set of 1/32 inch wide strips to three other sets (in turn) of strips and then back to the first set (thus providing eight channels, or four stereo programs). The machine that did that had to be rugged enough to be operated in a car, wholly immune to both mechanical vibration and to hums, buzzes, and whistles generated by other electrical equipment in the car.

Actually, because of wind and engine and other noises inside a car, the passenger can’t really hear sounds below, say, 100 or 150 Hertz, nor above about 7,000-8,00Hertz. Some 8-track cartridges and playing equipment, however, can reproduce sound from about 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz, which is to say both lower and higher than the human ear can detect.

By the fall of 1964, Kusisto and Lear had a new ally, RCA. RCA said that if Motorola marketed a decent 8-track tape player, RCA would make tapes available, using artists from RCA’s large stable. Then in October 1964, Lear and Kusisto went to Henry Ford II. They hoped that Ford would be impressed enough with this new gadget to order it placed in the normal production system. Both knew it took at least two years, and more often three, before a new item appeared on a new model car. It took that long to get anything new into the system. What they hoped Ford would do would order his production department to include the tape player in the 1968 Fords. Henry Ford II recognized a good thing when he saw it. And unlike his counterparts at other manufacturers, he didn’t have to bother making proposals to be put to a vote after committee deliberations.

“We’ll shoot for July 1965,” Ford said. “I want a tape player available as an option on all 1966 Ford passenger cars from the Lincoln down to the Mustang.” In 1966 8-track players were featured as an option on Ford models; 1967 Mopar and VW followed. During 1967 every record manufacturer in America went into the tape-making business.In 1972, 450,000 units were installed in cars at the factory, and 3 million units were installed by either dealers or people in the electronics equipment business.

The story of the 8-track ended rather suddenly, but not unexpectedly. 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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I remember installing my first 8 track in mom and dad's old Impala. By today's standards the sound was not great but at the time it was considered a must have. Still have a few old 8 track tapes around and an 8 track player. Someday I'll set down and try to convert the 8 tracks to CD. Terry