Retro Teardown: Inside An 8-Track Stereo Player

If you are a connoisseur of analogue audio, it’s probable you might have a turntable and a stack of records at home somewhere. If you are of a certain age you may even have a cassette deck, though you’re more likely to have abandoned that format some time in the 1990s. If you are old enough to have been around in the 1960s or 1970s though, you may have owned another analogue audio format. One of several that you might have found in a well-equipped home of that period was the 8-track stereo cartridge, a self-contained tape cassette format that fit four stereo tracks onto a single quarter-inch tape loop as eight parallel tracks, four each of left and right. A triumph of marketing, really, it should more accurately have been called 4-track stereo.

An 8-track stereo cartridge. Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC (CC BY 2.0).
An 8-track stereo cartridge. Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC (CC BY 2.0).

8-track cartridges were developed from earlier tape cartridge formats, largely to satisfy the demands of the automotive industry for interchangeable in-car entertainment. Thus if you owned an 8-track player it was most likely to have been found in your car, but it was not uncommon to find them also incorporated into home hi-fi systems. Thus we come to our subject today. Our retrotechtacular series usually highlights a video showing a bygone technology, but today we’re going to get a little more hands-on.

Some time in the early 1990s, I acquired an 8-track player, a BSR McDonald unit manufactured in the UK and dating from the early 1970s. BSR were much more well-known for their turntables, so this is something of an oddity. Where I found it has disappeared into the mists of time, but it was probably at a radio rally or junk sale. I certainly didn’t buy it because I wanted it to play 8-track tapes, instead I wanted a talking point for my hi-fi, something quirky to set it apart from everyone else’s. So every incarnation of listening enjoyment chez List for the last quarter century has had an 8-track player nestling within it, even if it has never played a tape while in my ownership. Thus we have a unique opportunity for this retro teardown.

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8-Track Tapes As A Storage Medium

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Before [Woz] created the elegant Disk II interface for the Apple II, and before Commodore brute-forced the creation of the C64 5 1/4″ drive, just about every home computer used cassette tapes for storage. Cassette tapes, mind you, not 8-track tapes. [Alec] thought this was a gross oversight of late 1970s engineers, so he built a 8-track tape drive.

This actually isn’t the first instance of using 8-tracks to store data on a computer. The Compucolor 8001 had a dual external 8-track drive, and the Exidy Sorcerer had a tape drive built in to the ‘the keyboard is the computer’ form factor. It should be noted that nearly no one has heard about these two computers – the Compucolor sold about 25 units, for example – so we’ll just let that be a testament to the success of 8-track tape drives.

[Alec] installed an 8-track drive inside an old external SCSI hard drive enclosure. Inside is an Arduino that controls the track select, tape insertion and end of tape signals. Data is encoded with DTMF with an FSK encoding, just like the proper cassette data tapes of the early days.

On the computer side of things, [Alec] is using a simple UNIX-style, pipe-based I/O. By encoding four bits on each track, he’s able to put an entire byte on two stereo tracks. The read/write speed is terribly slow – from the video after the break, we’re assuming [Alec] is running his tape drive right around 100 bits/second – much slower than actually typing in data. This is probably a problem with the 40-year-old 8-track tape he’s using, but as a proof of concept it’s not too bad.

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