What Are 8-Track Tapes?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Sometimes known as 8-track cartridges, 8-track tapes are a type of recording technology that along with cassettes and vinyl records served as a primary format for the distribution of recordings during the 1960s and 1970s. Considered an improvement over the reel-to-reel tapes that were common prior to 1960, 8-track tapes offered a means of using recording tape to create copies of recordings while providing the protection of a sealed plastic housing that helped to minimize the incidence of damage to the tape. For a number of years, new releases by major record companies were offered in each of these formats, until the cassette tape eventually emerged as a more popular and reliable option to 8-tracks in the late 1970s.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The functionality of 8-track tapes made it possible to arrange and record music on the tapes in a fashion that provided high-quality sound. The system called for the use of a process that was sometimes known as "switching tracks." When this switch took place, the song currently being played would fade, followed by an audible click. Once the progression was complete, the song would fade back in and continue. This particular aspect of 8-track tapes was viewed unfavorably by consumers, prompting them to eventually move away from the tapes and purchase cassettes in growing numbers by the end of the 1970s.

While immensely popular in the United States for a period of time, this particular technology experienced limited appeal in other parts of the world. Outside of the United Kingdom, Canada, and a few other nations, the use of 8-track technology was virtually unknown. Even within the United States, opinions on the merits of 8-track tapes versus vinyl or cassette tapes varied, with some finding the larger and more cumbersome 8-tracks to be inferior to the more compact cassette tapes. Others found the sound quality provided by 8-tracks to be superior to that offered by vinyl or cassette releases, and also found that 8-track systems installed in cars tended to function more efficiently than the early auto cassette systems.

For much of the 1960s and until the end of the 1970s, releases by new artists were typically made available to consumers as vinyl records, cassettes, and 8-track tapes. Typically, the three options were sold side by side in record stores and other retail outlets. It was not unusual for combination stereo systems of the day to include a turntable, AM/FM radio, cassette deck and 8-track tape player, allowing consumers to make use of all of these media without the need to buy separate equipment for each one.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments

anon999276

The "8" stands for 8 recording tracks. There are 8 segments vertically on the tape that hold separate sets of information. But each program was recorded in stereo, left and right. So it takes two tracks of information to play one program in stereo. So 8 tracks divided by 2 because of stereo makes 4 programs. I hope this helps.

anon992237

What's the 8 for/mean? Is it that 8 mixed tracks (e.g. songs) fit on the tape? Or that there were 8 simultaneous tracks (i.e. 8 separate tracks of recording, per song, live mixed during playback)?

The latter sounds like a pretty sweet set up.

Lostnfound

I remember the horrible noise the 8-track decks made when the "program" changed. "Cha-chunk"! It was the playback head changing position, but it made the worst noise -- in the middle of the song.

The most wonderful thing was when cassettes came out and the big innovation was automatic playback. No longer did you have to eject the tape and turn it over. Just let it play and the deck played the B side of the tape. Ah, technology.

Grivusangel

The problem with the 8-track is that, if the tape broke (and invariably, it would), getting the tape piece(s) out of the machine could be a frustrating process.

My mom worked in a doctor's office and when the 8-track in our home stereo ate a tape, she brought home a pair of long hemostats that would reach into the back of the deck and we could grab the piece of tape and pull it out.

I remember my sister holding the deck door open and shining the flashlight into the depths of the deck. I was seven and had much smaller hands, so I could maneuver a little better. I got the tape piece out from around the capstan roller. It was a good day and we could use the 8-track again. Until the next time. The decks in cars were more reliable, definitely. My dad drove a '73 Mercury and we wore out the deck and it never did eat a tape.

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