More Format Wars

May 10, 2010

Through the C20th sound was preserved via a bewildering array of formats. Wax cylinders, 78rpm shellac discs, singles, EPs, LPs, wire recorders, magnetic tapes of varying widths moving at varying speeds, compact Cassette tapes of varying shape and size from Elcasets to those tiny ones found in answer machines, Laserdiscs, Minidiscs, DAT, DCC and CD to name some of the most popular.

Somewhere in the middle was the 4 track and 8 track Cartridge format. More popular in the USA than here and more popular in cars than in the home it had a lifespan from roughly 1965 to the early 1980s.

I don’t know what I expected to find when I prised open an 8 track cartridge tape to see how it worked…..perhaps the tape performing some complicated figure of eight manoevre around numerous rollers…… Actually the interior is quite basic yet elegant in its simplicity. I was aware that the tape was divided into 8 tracks which could make 4 “programmes” creating the stereo by reading two tracks at the same time.

What I didn’t realise is that the continuous tape is pulled out from the centre of the single hub. Consequently the tape has to be very loosely wound and it is critical that the correct pressure is maintained against the tape between the capstan on the player and the pinch roller inside the cartridge to keep everything moving along and preventing the dreaded “concertina effect” where the tape bunches up with disasterous consequences.

The clever bits are evidentally within the 8 track player itself. A metal strip at the end of the tape “programme” activates a solenoid coil to move the playback head to the next “programme” on the tape loop. You often saw similar metal strips at the beginning and end of open reel tapes to switch those machines off when the tape came to an end.

PS: I note that currently on eBay someone has for sale a number of new/unused/shop-soiled/working (??) “Wein” taiwanese 8 track cartridge players (table-top not car dashboard type…..amp and speakers required) for the not unreasonable sum of £25 each !!! (They are also selling an AM Radio Broadcast Transmitter for £55,000 which I am sure must have an interesting story behind it……….)