Media Format Guide 8-Track Tape and Cassettes

Media Format Guide

8-Track Tape

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.

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.  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. These cartridges are prized by collectors since they provide 4 channels of discrete sound, unlike matrixed formats such as SQ.  Most Quadraphonic albums were specially mixed for the Quad format.

The 8-track was made obsolete by the Compact Cassette.  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 Tape Cartridges were phased out of retail stores by 1983.

Selected titles were still available as tapes through record clubs until 1989. Many of these late-period releases are highly collectible due to the low numbers that were produced. Among the most rare is Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood. There was also a rare record club only 8-track box set of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Live/1975-85, which is probably the only boxed set ever released on vinyl, cassette, compact disc and 8-track tape.

There is a debate among collectors about what was the last commercially released 8 track by a major label, but many agree it was Fleetwood Mac's Greatest Hits in November 1988. The last 8-track tapes by major recording companies were from record and tape clubs in 1988 like RCA (BMG Music), was Chicago 19, shipped in 1988. There are reports of bootleg 8-track tapes being made in Mexico as late as 1995. Some independent artists have released 8-track tapes as late as 2006. Apart from a select group of highly collectible artists, the record club issues, and the quadraphonic releases, many 8-track tapes seem to have limited value to most collectors, especially if they have been misused or are worn looking. 8-track cartridge tapes that are in near-new or unopened condition have the most collector value. The record-club-only 8-track cartridge that seems to sell for the highest amount is The Police's The Singles, which has sold for over $200 for a single copy. Another highly sought-after title among collectors has been The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, which has sold for over $100 for an open copy in average condition, though there are other titles that have sold for much more. Examples include: a fair condition Iron Maiden 'Number Of The Beast' which sold for $225 and the kingpin of collectable 8 tracks continues to be the Frank Sinatra Antonio Carlos Jobim collaboration which sells for thousands.

Cassette Tape

The compact audio cassette medium for audio storage was introduced in Europe by Philips in 1963, and in the U.S. in 1964, under the trademark name Compact Cassette. Although there were other magnetic tape cartridge systems at the time, the Compact Cassette became dominant as a result of Philips' decision (in the face of pressure from Sony) to license the format free of charge. It went on to become a popular (and re-recordable) alternative to the vinyl record deck during the 1970s.

The mass production of compact audio cassettes began in 1964 in Hanover, Germany. Prerecorded music cassettes (also known as Musicassettes; M.C. for short) were launched in Europe in late 1965. Musicassettes were introduced to the U.S. in September 1966 by The Mercury Record Company, a U.S. affiliate of Philips. The initial range consisted of 49 titles.  However, the system had been initially designed for dictation and portable use, with the audio quality of early players not well suited for music. Some early models also had unreliable mechanical design. In 1971 the Advent Corporation introduced their Model 201 tape deck which combined Dolby type B noise reduction and chromium dioxide (CrO2) tape. This resulted in the format being taken more seriously for musical use, and started the era of high-fidelity cassettes and players.

During the 1980s, the cassette's popularity grew further as a result of portable pocket recorders and high fi players such as Sony's Walkman, which used a body not much larger than a cassette tape. As the transistor radio defined small music in the 1960s, and the iPod in the 2000s, so did the Walkman define very small portable music in the 1980s, with cassette sales overtaking those of LPs.  Apart from the purely technical advances cassettes brought, they also served as catalysts for social change. Their durability and ease of copying helped bring underground rock and punk music behind the Iron Curtain, creating a foothold for western culture among the younger generations.  For similar reasons, cassettes became popular in developing nations. In 1970s India, they were blamed for bringing unwanted secular influences into traditionally religious areas. Cassette technology created a booming market for pop music in India, drawing criticism from conservatives while at the same time creating a huge market for legitimate recording companies and pirated tapes.  In some countries, particularly in the third world, cassettes still remain the dominant medium for purchasing and listening to music.

In many western countries, the market for cassettes has declined seriously since its peak in the late 1980s. This has been particularly noticeable with pre-recorded cassettes, whose sales were overtaken by those of CDs during the early 1990s.  By 2001, cassettes accounted for only 4% of all music sold in the United States.  Since then, the pre-recorded market has undergone further decline, with few retailers stocking them because they are no longer issued by the major music labels. 

While cassettes and related equipment have become increasingly marginalized in the field of commercial music sales, recording on analog tape remains a desirable option for some.  In 2002, Imation received an $11.9 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology for research into increasing the data capacity of magnetic tape. Some musicians still prefer to record their masters on magnetic tape for artistic reasons, and some consumers prefer to buy cassettes for the richness of analog sound.

Cassette Single

A cassette single (also known as a "cassingle") is a music single in the form of a Compact Cassette. The format was introduced in the 1980s, when vinyl record album sales were declining in favor of cassette recordings; the cassette single was introduced to replace the 45 record in a similar way.

Bryan Adams' "Heat of the Night" was released as a "cassingle" on March 13, 1987, making it the first commercially released cassette single in the U.S.

Originally, most cassette singles were released in a cardboard sleeve that slipped over the outside of the release. This was then shrink wrapped in plastic. As the cassette maxi-single was released, more intricate packaging was incorporated that looked similar to the packaging of a regular cassette release. These were placed in regular plastic cassette cases with a paper/cardstock insert. Unlike a full-length cassette album, these were generally only a two-sided inlay instead of a fold-out.

Cassette singles never eclipsed vinyl to the same extent as cassette albums had. They were popular during the 1990s, as record companies promoted their use to the detriment of the more expensive to produce vinyl singles. The cassette reached a high level of popularity, due to the ubiquity of mobile devices such as the Sony Walkman, mobile stereos such as the Hitachi Super Woofer and car audio cassette players.

During 1985 the Compact Disc was introduced. It would later become the preferred music format for consumers.  In the UK, after the introduction of CD singles, cassette singles were retained as a low-cost alternative, sold alongside the compact disc version, but at a somewhat lower price (often $2.29 compared to $3.99 for the CD), and often with fewer "bonus" tracks. By the end of the 1990s, many forms of prerecorded audio cassettes were being phased out, although cassingles were still stocked by most retailers until 2003.

In Australia cassette singles were popular until the late 1990s. Australian cassette singles suffered from a lack of packaging and design when compared to their UK or European counterparts. Record companies such as Virgin and EMI would use a standard design for all releases, which featured a square copy of the vinyl artwork on the cover and standard typography and record company logos on the inlay card. Rear cover artwork was not used.