8-Track Recorders and Cartridges
The 8-Track is a medium that was popular in the 1970s before the advent of the Compact Cassette. Especially in America it was known, also in other countries it was known for some time but never a great success. In the early eighties they went under due to the arrival of better cassette tapes.
They were not outstanding in terms of quality. But the focus was also on ease of use, 8-Tracks players were also often found in cars.
The medium alone has never really been reliable, especially now after 40+ years.
Every tape needs maintenance/repair and recorders are not always in good condition. Still, with the right setup, you can go far!
- How does an 8-Track work?
- Check 8-Track
- 8-Track Players and Recorders
- Maintenance and connection
- Make your own recordings
- Purchase new cartridges
1. How does an 8-Track work?
An 8-track is a cartridge with tape, the width of the tape is the same as on a tape recorder, this gives better quality than tape the width of a compact cassette.
Yet an 8-track often delivers poor sound quality, this has to do with the operation but also the layout of the tape. Below is a photo tour through a cartridge.
1. Inside of an 8-Track.
2. Here the tape is pulled out from the center.
3. Passes the program header here.
4. Here are the erase, write and read heads.
5. This is the Pinch roller, the capstan presses the tape against it and pushes it forward.
6. This is where the tape comes back onto the spool.
An 8-Track is therefore an endless loop. It is important to know that you can only turn it in one direction. turn it counterclockwise and your tape will tangle.
The tape itself is divided into four programs, not along the length but across the width of the tape. Let's look at this under a magnifying glass.
1. Let's now look at the tape itself.
2. The camera alone won't get me there.
3. I put my mobile on the big magnifying glass and put a second magnifying glass under it.
4. And set the camera to full zoom.
5. So an 8-Track has eight tracks
6. These eight tracks are divided into four programs
7. Each program uses two tracks for stereo (left and right)
8. This separate division can be explained by the heading that reads the tracks.
9. The head reads the two channels at the same time, when switching, the whole head goes one step up or down.
By arranging the tape in this way, the user can theoretically choose between four music programs. Which is convenient, but you can also play all four of them one after the other as one large playlist. This way you can easily lose an hour or more of music on one cartridge.
Because the programs run next to each other, you can't jump halfway through a program to the beginning of another program, if you switch it will play the next program where you stopped with the previous one.
The disadvantage of these eight channels is that you also sacrifice a lot in sound quality, because you cram four stereo playlists onto 6.4 mm wide tape.
Because the width of the programs on the tape is so narrow, and the head itself has to move up and down continuously, there is a chance that the head is no longer aligned properly. As a result, the header reads two programs at the same time.
In doing so, we can prepare ourselves for the next topic, the cartridge itself. These too have their own problems.
2. Check 8-Track
There is a metal strip on the tape, this is where your programs start and end. It also immediately bonds the ends of the tape together to form an endless loop.
In many cases it happens that this strip has come loose, it can still be attached to the tape, but it can also have ended up somewhere in the cartridge. In other cases it has disappeared...
This means that the endless loop has been broken and you cannot play the cartridge.
Above is a cartridge with a loose strip. It's a fairly common problem, as well as the sponges (which I've already provisionally replaced here) have completely perished. You can see this with the blue cartridge I showed earlier.
It is therefore important that you check each cartridge before use. First of all, check if you see tape. If you see the tape, the question is whether the metal strip has come loose. When a cartridge is in 'start position' you should be able to see the metal strip.
Check the sponge on which the tape rests, it is advisable to replace it with all old cartridges. I myself have previously replaced them with washing up sponges but will look over time for a more professional repair set
You also check the Pinch Roller, with other tape media it is built into the playback device, with 8-tracks it is in the cartridge itself. These rubber wheels may have hardened over time, lose their grip or have cracked. They are also often in need of cleaning.
Inside is the reel on which the tape rests, sometimes it is stiff or there is dirt on the shaft.
Also check whether the tape is still neatly rolled up.
Finally, it can be a good idea to clean the inside of the cartridge.
They are all parts that I cover on this repair page. With the check behind us, we look further at the players and recorders.
3. 8-Track Players and Recorders
The 8-Track is therefore designed for simplicity, this is no different with players and recorders. Here we are going to look at the Realistic TR-882 8-Track recorder. A compact device that screams the 70s! On this page I have already taken it apart to replace its lights. But now let's take a look at it from the outside.
Realistic is a brand of Radioshack, which at the time was part of Tandy. The names may not mean anything to you, but they are all of American origin. These devices were built and sold by the same company, not top models, but very solid and maintenance-friendly. This recorder is over 40 years old but still runs like a charm, as long as you give it some good cheer every now and then...
The front contains a number of buttons, compared to other media there are not many.
From left to right the following:
The record button, you can only press this if there is no cartridge in it, you only have to put it in afterwards, it is wise to also press the pause button to start recording quietly. When the button is turned on, the light above it lights up. Below the button is a stereo microphone connection.
The door with the program lights above it, as soon as you put an 8-track in the machine, it will immediately play it on the last selected program, again it is useful to first press pause before inserting a cartridge.
Inside you have a view of the elements that come into contact with the tape/cartridge:
The program head (This scans the metal strip on the tape and switches the program)
The write, read and erase head. (Writes and reads the tape, unknown if he also erases it)
The Capstan (This presses the tape against the Pinch Roller and takes care of the transport)
The Pause pedal (Literally a pedal that pushes the cartridge out of the machine a bit)
I quickly flick through the manual, but can't find anything about the erase head. With other media this is often a separate (black) head, but here I suspect that it is built into the read/write head.
The big black button is the pause button, the 'pause' text has unfortunately disappeared, if you press it (during playing) it pushes the cartridge a bit away from the transport, the motors inside keep running but the cartridge no longer makes contact.
Below it are the buttons for Program Selection, Fast Forward and the Auto Stop.
What is striking about the Fast Forward is that the sound remains present during use. So you can hear during winding how far you have to go to the next song.
You can use the Auto-stop function if you want the machine to stop as soon as it has played program 4. The device then switches off the motors. If you disable this option, the player will continue to play the programs endlessly until you stop it yourself.
The device has small VU meters, these are needed when recording to check the sound level, the level can be determined with the buttons below.
Of course, the meters also move during playback.
Finally, the back of the machine, a fixed cable for voltage and connections for RCA Tulip: Stereo, Line-In and Line-Out.
A little extra is the Output Level Control, to the left of the connections. This allows you to adjust the volume of the outgoing sound, something I normally only see on more luxurious models.
Also some stickers and printed information about what not to do with the device.
There are even more functions that you do not see on this device, other models can be much more extensive. Personally, I'm still looking for a more luxurious model, until then, I'll do it with this old faithful device.
4. Maintenance and connection
The players and recorders need maintenance to continue to work optimally, I only deal here with the tasks where the device does not have to be taken apart...
There remains little maintenance about everything almost everything falls under the category of repair, the only thing that remains is cleaning the heads, I do this with 96% Alcohol (Ketonatus). I'm cheating in the pictures. I took the housing off so that I can better reach the heads, normally you do this from the door, but I can no longer take action photos.
I clean all parts that are in contact with the tape, but first remove the tension from the device before you do this! Residual voltage remains on the program head for a long time, only clean it after the appliance has been switched off for a day.
As a filler on this subject, another excerpt from the manual, they recommend cleaning the heads after every 25 hours of play, it is striking that it does not mention the Capstan.
Connecting the recorder is not difficult, some models may of course have different connections.
We take another clipping from the manual. You can connect the recorder in many ways. In many cases connecting the Line In and Line out is sufficient.
You connect the Line-output to your amplifier, the Line-Input you connect to a sound source, you also only use this if you want to record.
Playing an 8-Track is the easiest thing there is, the medium is designed for it. Nevertheless, there is the following to say.
Some players have the option to use Dolby, set the machine in the correct position for this and also put other parts as they should be. Of course turn the machine on when needed, mine turns on automatically when I put a cartridge in it.
I have to use quite a bit of force to push the cartridge in. I put it on pause beforehand so that the cartridge doesn't hit the heads. As soon as you take it off the pause mode, the cartridge should start playing.
Because the player itself does not weigh much, I easily push it back. That's why I stop it with my fingertips when I put a cartridge in it.
5. Make your own recordings
Okay we've had some topics now, we know how 8-Tracks work, how the players are put together and how to play them and keep them clean.
Time to record an 8-track mixtape!
For recording I use a 'new' cartridge. Coincidentally of the same brand as the device. I have 80 minutes of recording time, divided over 4 programs. That gives me 20 minutes per program.
I know from experience that they usually give some extra tape, to find out how much I let him play a program and keep track of how many minutes of playing time I really have.
As soon as he switches programs I read the time, I have about 21 minutes and 15 seconds playing time per program, 85 minutes in total. That is 5 minutes more than indicated on the packaging!
Of course we can't record anything without a playlist. The first thing you decide is what kind of playlist you use. With an 8-track you can choose to make four separate programs, or you can play the music as one long list. This way, some tracks will be broken to switch programs, but it will save you the most time.
I choose the first option, I divide my music neatly over four programs of about 20 minutes.
Previously I worked with a website and notepad, in which I wrote down the numbers and their times, on the website I calculated how much time I had left. Yesterday I spent several hours creating a replacement that can do both tasks at once.
The result is not bad. This Excel file calculates for me how much time I have per program, how much I have used and how much I have left. I only have to fill in the data myself.
I also create a folder where I dump the songs I want to use, I make a selection and see which songs fit together on a program. It's like puzzling.
I use a computer as the source, I send the sound via the Line-out to the Line-in on the recorder. The line-out from the recorder goes to the amplifier (via an equalizer).
Put the device on pause and press the record button when you insert the cartridge.
Although I also recommend turning on the Auto-Stop, this recorder will turn off automatically when it has finished recording the 4th program, the makers have thought about this carefully.
The disadvantage of this recorder is that there is no unit to read at the volume buttons, I have to do it by touch. When the buttons are up, I write that as a 5 on a scale of 10. For example, I write down how high the recording level should be for each song.
In the end it doesn't have to be perfect either, the recording quality of this recorder isn't the best, so I'm content with what I can.
While recording, I check the gauges and make sure they don't spike too much.
Once a program is finished, I pause playback on the computer and set the recording level for the next track. Once the cartridge is switched I wait a second or two before resuming playback.
Once the playlist is ready and the cartridge has recorded its last track, I set the recording level to zero and wait for it to turn off.
6. Purchase new cartridges
Okay, hopefully you learned a lot about using and maintaining 8-Tracks. But how do you actually get new cartridges? You don't come across them often in the Netherlands and Europe. But in America they come with the boxes full.
As you can see, the prices are reasonable compared to other media, the difference of course is that these cartridges often have to be refurbished before you can use them. I used to have a salesperson who sold whole lots for just under a dollar.
For example, I bought a Beatles 8-Track for 0.98 cents.
Prices are quoted in 2020. Source of images is Ebay
Popular or specialty cartridges can cost a little more, but sometimes you can find the same ones cheaper elsewhere.
Finally, you can also buy New-Old-Stock (unused) cartridges, sometimes even in batches.
Here too the prices are not too bad, but do not expect that you can use it immediately without refurbishment.
Also note that many of the ads shown are from America. Some, especially the Beatles' ones, come from England.
I don't have many tips, but pay attention to the shipping costs and buy in batches if possible.
Above a number of batches, the top two are from the same seller, you could then combine the shipping costs. Buy 31 cartridges for a total amount of $51.63 (€45 +/-). that is about one and a half euros per cartridge (although there are some duplicates in between).
While an 8-track may look like it's about to fall apart in the photo, they may still be in good condition inside. But also the other way around! Sometimes I come across 8-track cartridges in thrift stores or in 'vintage stores', that's how I partly acquired my collection.
Regarding the purchase and price of the devices with which you play them. Simple 8-track players can be dirt cheap, more luxurious models are often a bit more expensive, but the prices remain acceptable in my opinion. Chances are they'll need a major overhaul, but some also sell them after they've repaired it themselves, for an even higher price of course. It just depends on what you want to spend on it...
I have yet to describe the subject, but I can already refer to the download page so that you can make and print 8-Track stickers yourself.