Turning 8-Track Player Into A Walkman

Following time backward, for portable music we’ve had iPods, CDs, and cassette tapes which we played using small Walkmans around the size of a cigarette box. And for a brief time before that, in the 1960s and 1970s, we had 8-track tapes. These were magnetic tapes housed in cases around the size of a large slice of bread. Car dashboards housed players, and they also came in a carry-around format like the one [Todd Harrison] recently bought at a Hamfest for $5 and made more portable by machining clips for a strap and adding a headphone jack.

But before hacking it, he wanted to try it out. Luckily his sister had hung onto her old tapes and after plugging it in and sliding in a tape, it worked! Opening it up he found that the contacts for the batteries were rusted but the mechanical components and electronics inside were very clean. Though he did add glue to a crack in the plastic read-head support, cleaned out some grease, did some lubricating, and cleaned the contacts in the volume control’s potentiometer. Check out his teardown video below for those details or if you just want to see how it all works.

Then came making it portable so that he could embarrass his kids by carrying it around the mall. The shoulder strap didn’t come with it, so he machined some clips out of steel and snapped on a strap. It didn’t have a headphone jack and he didn’t want to embarrass his kids too much, so he added one.  You can see that hack in the second video below, including how his repurposed jack automatically disconnects the speaker when the headphone plug is inserted. Personally, we think he looks pretty spiffy carrying it around wearing his Hackaday T-shirt.

While you’re still feeling retro, check out [Jenny List’s] full write-up on 8-track technology and a teardown of a player for a home hi-fi system.

 

21 thoughts on “Turning 8-Track Player Into A Walkman

  1. When I was in high school they were being displaced by cassettes. I was working for awhile in a small electronics shop during my senior year and a Sony Rep demo’ed a Walkman. It was cool, but was saving to install something decent in my car.

  2. Why did 8-track die in favor of cassette?

    As a teenager in the 90s I wanted an 8-track recorder and player. This was early 90s so.. no cheap FleaBay to fill that need yet. Anyway.. why? Because casette tapes hit the end and stop. 8-tracks just switch directions and play the next track. It was the cheapest way I could think of to have continuous music with no manual intervention pre-mp3. Ok, I know, there were cassette players with that feature but I didn’t have one and it was standard for 8-tracks. Or at least that’s what older people told me. Given that the format was already pretty dead I thought I might find a high quality 8-track player at a garage sale for a price I could afford. Nope.. never happened.

    I finally got one at a thrift shop in college. I mainly wanted it for the aux-in to use as an amp when playing MP3s on my computer but I bought a few 8-tracks too just because. They sounded like crap! But.. this was a thrift-shop player playing thrift-shop tapes. Did they always sound like crap?!? I think the motor was turning slightly slow on mine.

    1. “Why did 8-track die in favor of cassette?”
      The 8-track cart(ridge) is a self destruct mechanism. The tape eventually winds itself too tight around the hub and breaks.

    2. ” I think the motor was turning slightly slow on mine.”
      That is possible, sometimes the motor bearings would gum up and stall the motor, then we would clean and re-lube the bearings. But while the motor was stalled it would overheat, both cooking its windings and demagnetizing its permanent magnets, making it weaker. (Replacing the motor was the only real option). Or the belt would be worn (stretched/glazed) and start slipping. Another possibility was a buildup of tape residue and other dirt on the capstan giving it a larger diameter.

      Gee, you’d think I had some experience working on those things…

    3. 8-tracks always sounded like crap. They were the cheapest possible consumer tape technology at the time.

      The pinch roller is built into the cartridge, and of poor quality. There’s no mechanism to maintain consistent back tension on the tape. Wow and flutter result.

      Changing tracks was usually handled by electromechanically repositioning a 2-track stereo head (making a distinctive clunking sound), so head alignment was usually bad and high frequency response suffered.

      Tape contact against the head was maintained with a foam pad built into the cartridge which could detach or disintegrate, worsening alignment and transport issues. (Cassette tapes have the same problem.)

      The short loop of tape traveled slowly to maximize playback time, killing low frequency response.

      Cassette tape had many similar disadvantages, but benefited from advancements in miniaturization, electronics, and materials science.

      1. A clarification of the foam pad issue: cassette tapes typically use a felt pad bonded to a metal spring to press the tape against the playback head. The pad can still degrade or fall off. But 8-track cartridges relied solely on the compressibility of some cheap foam, which didn’t last long in direct sunlight on the dash of your Chevy Vandura.

    4. Everything the others have said and more.
      I spent my early teens listening to yard sale 8-tracks on my decent (believe it or not) 8-track stereo console. I had to take it apart pretty much monthly to clean the mechanical parts just to keep it from eating my precious but terrible 8-track cassettes.
      I enjoyed listening to my 8-tracks at the time, but they did indeed sound awful compared to other music media.

  3. I am SO glad this was not another, “It was gutted, of course, and a nano computor stuck into it’s shell.” I really expected that and almost didn’t read it.

    Cassettes soon got auto reverse mechanisms so auto-flip-play was no more annoying than an 8 track changing tracks… 4 times per tape versus 2 for 8-tracks.

  4. i remember 8 track to cassette adapters. then cassette to aux adapters…… then trying an unholy chain of adapters to get aux into an old 8 track car radio.. I dont think I ever heard a good qualtiy 8-track. but a high speed dubbed crome(somehting) cassete tape on a quality deck sounded amazing. as I recall.

  5. Oh, what a flashback!
    This post just forced a really dusty buried memory. And it was a teenage hack!
    I had an 8-Track cartridge of Leon Russel’s “Will O’ the Wisp” album, and I wasn’t overly fond of Leon Russell, so it was prime candidate for hack sacrifice. I carefully parted the seams of the shell, removed the tape reel and cut a short section of tape and looped it back around the capstan roller and the inner wall of the playback head opening and spliced it so that for all the world it would look (and play, briefly) like a normal cartridge. I left the label intact on the back end to act as a hinge, and left the single plastic tooth towards the playback end intact to act as a latch. So, now I had a normal looking 8-Track cartridge that would even play a few seconds of music that I didn’t like, but the rest of the cartridge was an empty void where I could hide my….uh…………..stuff…..
    Wow. Now that I think about it, those years inspired a lot of ingenious covert themed hacks. If I could tell you about the things hidden in my little Art Class tackle box, or what all those strange objects in my trumpet case ended up being once assembled……
    Oh, jeez, I’m gettin’ the giggles now. I should right a book. Maybe when the kids are older.

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