An album in eight tracks

Kirk McElhearn wrote an interesting article in MacWorld called “Music: Then, now, and tomorrow” in which he discusses the portability of music in the past, present, and future. In particular this part really got me:

I started thinking of road trips I had taken with friends, back when I was younger, in the late 70s. We never traveled very far — maybe an hour or two to go to the beach, a concert, or a party — but we always had music to accompany us. Back then, it was cassettes or 8-track tapes: I especially remember Jon’s Mercury Marquis, which had an 8-track player and a shoebox of tapes in the back seat. (“Baby you were born to ka-chunk run.”)

One comment summed it all up with this brief statement:

I imagine you can effectively divide people by age based on whether they understood the ka-chunk in that quote.

For you young ‘uns, the sound is the 8-track player changing programs. See, an 8-track tape is a continuous loop. There’s no rewind and fast-forward is just two or three times faster than playing. What they did to help you move around was make the tape wider and record four stereo tracks (eight tracks in total, thus the name of the format) side-by-side. This effectively divided the tape into four parts. Where the tape loop was spliced together, there was a piece of foil tape on the back and when the player sensed the foil, it would move the playback head sideways to the next pair of stereo tracks, or program. You could press the Program button to force the playback head to move at any time. Thus, you jump you ahead through a quarter of the album every time you pressed the button.

So what happened if the songs on the album didn’t nicely fit into those four programs? They could make the tape longer until the quarters were large enough to divide the songs among. The problem with this solution was that one or more programs would then have a big silent spot at the end. So they’d often let a song run from one program to the next. You’d be merrily playing your music, and when the foil tape came along, there’d be a ka-chunk when the program changed. The music itself would suffer a brief discontinuity, but such was the price for being able to carry music with you.

Looking back, it was kind of ridiculous.

To this day, I’ve never purchased music on tape. I bought plenty of blank cassettes, but only to record vinyl. Then when CDs came, everything changed. My experience with 8-track tapes is only slight. My dad bought a few and his first home stereo played them, but he much preferred vinyl.

One year for Christmas, my parents bought my sister a stereo. I believe she was in university at the time, which would have made me five or six years old. It had a record player and an 8-track that you could use to play or record tapes. Yes, record! I remember her setting it all up and wanting to try recording a record. When she was about to start it, my dad called to everyone to be quiet… because to him, recording a record meant putting a microphone up to the speakers of the stereo! Having the player and recorder connected internally was a new thing in his experience. And despite this great leap in convenience and fidelity, recording was still a real-time operation.

Years later she passed the stereo along to me and I was thrilled. I wasn’t big into music yet so my friends and I would record ourselves more often than music. Still, it was really fun.

As Kirk points out in his article, things certainly have changed. My father eventually amassed a collection of about 500 LPs. That was more than anyone else I knew had. They took up no small amount of space. Now I have about three times as many CDs, and with an iPod Classic, I could carry all of it around in my pocket. I don’t have a Classic, but I can carry about 20% of it around at any one time in my iPod Touch. Some 1500 songs at a time is just fine by me, thanks!

We’ve got it pretty good, I think. Much better than just one album on a tape the size of a paperback book… and that tape would ka-chunk three times while you listened to it!

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3 Comments

  1. Shawn
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 07:48 | Permalink

    You bring back fond memories of my ’72 Monte Carlo with an 8-Track. Considering it was better fidelity than AM radio, it sure was good listening. I was at an antique and classic car show last week and a car still had one. I smiled.

    • Posted July 8, 2009 at 08:35 | Permalink

      Come to think of it, my brother had a third generation Chevy Nova with an 8-track player, too. It wasn’t stock, however. He probably installed it himself and it hung under the dash. There was plenty of room under there in those days. Imagine that now? Jeez…

  2. Jessica
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 09:41 | Permalink

    I heard on the radio the other day that Cheap Trick will be releasing a new album on 8-track. They found some studio in Texas, I think, that still has the technology to do it. Of course, it won’t be *only* on 8-track; that would be silly! It’s just a fun little extra that they’re doing–probably for you old folks who still wax nostalgic about such things. 🙂

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