8-Tracks Are Back? They Are In My House

What was the worst thing about the 70s? Some might say the oil crisis, inflation, or even disco. Others might tell you it was 8-track tapes, no matter what was on them. I’ve heard that the side of the road was littered with dead 8-tracks. But for a while, they were the only practical way to have music in the car that didn’t come from the AM/FM radio.

If you know me at all, you know that I can’t live without music. I’m always trying to expand my collection by any means necessary, and that includes any format I can play at home. Until recently, that list included vinyl, cassettes, mini-discs, and CDs. I had an 8-track player about 20 years ago — a portable Toyo that stopped working or something. Since then, I’ve wanted another one so I can collect tapes again. Only this time around, I’m trying to do it right by cleaning and restoring them instead of just shoving them in the player willy-nilly.

Update: I Found a Player

A small 8-track player and equally small speakers, plus a stack of VHS tapes.
I have since cleaned it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an estate sale and I found a little stereo component player and speakers. There was no receiver in sight. I tested the player with the speakers and bought them for $15 total because it was 75% off day and they were overpriced originally. While I was still at the sale, I hooked it up to the little speakers and made sure it played and changed programs.

Well, I got it home and it no longer made sound or changed programs. I thought about the play head inside and how dirty it must be, based on the smoker residue on the front plate of the player. Sure enough, I blackened a few Q-tips and it started playing sweet tunes again. This is when I figured out it wouldn’t change programs anymore.

I found I couldn’t get very far into the player, but I was able to squirt some contact cleaner into the program selector switch. After many more desperate button presses, it finally started changing programs again. Hooray!

I feel I got lucky. If you want to read about an 8-track player teardown, check out Jenny List’s awesome article.

These Things Are Not Without Their Limitations

A diagram of an 8-track showing the direction of tape travel, the program-changing solenoid, the playback head, the capstan and pinch roller, and the path back to the reel.
This is what’s going on, inside and out. Image via 8-Track Heaven, a site which has itself gone to 8-Track Heaven.

So now, the problem is the tapes themselves. I think there are two main reasons why people think that 8-tracks suck. The first one is the inherent limitations of the tape. Although there were 90- and 120-minute tapes, most of them were more like 40-60 minutes, divided up into four programs. One track for the left channel, one for the right, and you have your eight tracks and stereo sound.

The tape is in a continuous loop around a single hub. Open one up and you’ll see that the tape comes off the center toward the left and loops back onto the outside from the right. 8-tracks can’t be rewound, only fast-forwarded, and it doesn’t seem like too many players even had this option. If you want to listen to the first song on program one, for instance, you’d better at least tolerate the end of program four.

The tape is divided into four programs, which are separated by a foil splice. A sensor in the machine raises or lowers the playback head depending on the program to access the appropriate tracks (1 and 5, 2 and 6, and so on.)

Because of the 10-12 minute limitation of each program, albums were often rearranged to fit better within the loud solenoidal ka-chunk of each program change.

For a lot of people, this was outright heresy. Then you have to consider that not every album could fit neatly within four programs, so some tracks faded out for the program change, and then faded back in, usually in the middle of the guitar solo.

Other albums fit into the scheme with some rearrangement, but they did so at the expense of silence on one or more of the programs. Check out the gallery below to see all of these conditions, plus one that divided up perfectly without any continuations or silence.

The second reason people dislike 8-tracks is that they just don’t sound that good, especially since cassette tapes were already on the market. They didn’t sound super great when they were new, and years of sitting around in cars and dusty basements and such didn’t help. In my experience, at this point, some sound better than others. I suppose after the tape dropout, it’s all subjective.

What I Look For When Buying Tapes

The three most important things to consider are the pressure pads, the foil splices, and the pinch roller. All of these can be replaced, although some jobs are easier than others.

Start by looking at the pressure pads. These are either made of foam that’s covered with a slick surface so the tape can slide along easily, or they are felt pads on a sproingy metal thing like a cassette tape. You want to see felt pads when you’re out shopping, but you’ll usually see foam. That’s okay. You can get replacement foam on ebay or via 8-track avenue directly, or you can do what I do.

After removing the old foam and scraping the plastic backing with my tweezers, I cut a piece of packing tape about 3/8″ wide — just enough to cover the width of some adhesive foam window seal. The weatherstripping’s response is about the same as the original foam, and the packing tape provides a nice, slick surface. I put a tiny strip of super glue on the adhesive side and stick one end down into the tape, curling it a little to rock it into position, then I press it down and re-tension the tape. The cool part is that you can do all this without opening up the tape by just pulling some out. Even if the original foam seems good, you should go ahead and replace it. Once you’ve seen the sticky, black powder it can turn to with time, you’ll understand why.

A copy of Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? on 8-track with a very gooey pinch roller that has almost enveloped the tape.
An example of what not to buy. This one is pretty much hopeless unless you’re experienced.

Another thing you can address without necessarily opening up the tape are the foil splices that separate the programs. As long as the pressure pads are good, shove that thing in the player and let it go until the ka-chunk, and then pull it out quickly to catch the splice. Once you’ve got the old foil off of it, use the sticky part of a Post-It note to realign the tape ends and keep them in place while you apply new foil.

Again, you can get sensing foil on ebay, either in a roll, or in pre-cut strips that have that nice 60° angle to them. Don’t try to use copper tape like I did. I’ll never know if it worked or not, because I accidentally let too much tape un-spool from the hub while I was splicing it, but it seemed a little too heavy. Real-deal aluminium foil sensing tape is even lighter-weight than copper tape.

One thing you can’t do without at least opening the tape part way is to replace the pinch roller. Fortunately, these are usually in pretty good shape, but you can usually tell right away if they are gooey without having to press your fingernail into it. Even so, I have salvaged the pinch rollers out of tapes I have tried to save and couldn’t, just to have some extras around.

If you’re going to open the tape up, you might as well take some isopropyl alcohol and clean the graphite off of the pinch roller. This will take a while, but is worth it.

Other Problems That Come Up

Sometimes, you shove one of these bad boys in the player and nothing happens. This usually means that the tape is seized up and isn’t moving. Much like blowing into an N64 cartridge, I have heard that whacking the tape on your thigh a few times will fix a seized tape, but so far, that has not worked for me. I have so far been unable to fix a seized tape, but there are guides out there. Basically, you cut the tape somewhere, preferably at a foil splice, fix the tension, and splice it back together.

Another thing that can happen is called a wedding cake. Basically, you open up the cartridge and find that the inner loops of tape have raised up around the hub, creating a two-layer effect that resembles a wedding cake. I have not so far successfully fixed such a situation, but I’ve only run across one so far. Basically, you pull the loops off of the center, re-tension the tape from the other side, and spin those loops back into the center. This person makes it look insanely easy.

Preventive Maintenance On the Player

As with cassette players, the general sentiment is that one should never actually use a head-cleaning tape as they are rough. As I said earlier, I cleaned the playback head thoroughly with 91% isopropyl alcohol and Q-tips that I wished were longer.

Dionne Warwick's Golden Hits on 8-track, converted to a capstan cleaner. Basically, there's no tape, and it has a bit of scrubby pad shoved into the pinch roller area.
An early set of my homemade pressure pads. Not the greatest.

Another thing I did to jazz up my discount estate sale player was to make a capstan-cleaning tape per these instructions on 8-Track Avenue. Basically, I took my poor Dionne Warwick tape that I couldn’t fix, threw away the tape, kept the pinch roller for a rainy day, and left the pressure pads intact.

To clean the capstan, I took a strip of reusable dishrag material and stuffed it in the place where the pinch roller goes. Then I put a few drops of alcohol on the dishrag material and inserted the tape for a few seconds. I repeated this with new material until it came back clean.

In order to better grab the tape and tension it against the pinch roller, the capstan should be roughed up a bit. I ripped the scrubby side off of an old sponge and cut a strip of that, then tucked it into the pinch roller pocket and let the player run for about ten seconds. If you listen to a lot of tapes, you should do this often.

Final Thoughts

I still have a lot to learn about fixing problematic 8-tracks, but I think I have the basics of refurbishment down. There are people out there who have no qualms about ironing tapes that have gotten accordioned, or re-spooling entire tapes using a drill and a homemade hub-grabbing attachment. If this isn’t the hacker’s medium, I don’t know what is. Long live 8-tracks!

53 thoughts on “8-Tracks Are Back? They Are In My House

    1. They were big compared to regular cassette of the time but didn’t make much difference with how much song it could hold. The manual rewind of cassette was an annoyance but the ability to skip forward and backward to replay your favorite bit was a major plus.

      My parent’s car had an 8 track and I used to have Alvin and the Chipmunk Christmas Special tape. Until it wouldn’t play anymore a few years later, the tape had broken. The write up on repairs were nice, I suspect it was the splice that failed on my old favorite tape.

      I haven’t had any 8 track player since my parents sold that car, we had cassette player for many years before CD player and right now MP3 player. I probably won’t get 8 track tapes or player ever again, other formats sound better anyway and I don’t have much nostalgia for those old tape tech.

  1. People scoff at and reject CD’s but go weak in the knees at the sight of the worst tape formats they can find.
    Simultaneously people talk about quality and ‘great music’ while not being able to tell when something is in mono.

    1. How good a piece of music is has little to do with the recording quality.

      I’d personally rather hear a bad recording of music I like than a good recording of music I don’t like.

  2. I didn’t have to go to such extreme measures to repair the tapes “back in the day” mostly because time hadn’t done much of the damage you have to contend with.

  3. Hmmm didn’t report trying to rewind one successfully, a lost black art.

    Scoff all you want, this was the only format Available for a couple of years between car phonographs and cassette players. The cool guys had their own music

      1. Boney M had a cracking 8 track, think my dad had a compilation 8 track with somebody’s “heart of gold” version too. Riding in a Triumph spitfire (on the parcel shelf as a kid), top down, 8 track playing, naughtily opening the fuel cap immediately behind the parcel shelf to sniff the sweet smell of leaded petrol. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing :)

  4. If you want to look like a hipster (do they listen to 8-Track, do they still exist, excuse me, Biden moment) why not just 3D print an 8-Track body, gut a car cassette adaptor for the head and build an MP3 8-Track “tape” with a Pi?

  5. Consumer 8-track tapes are descended from the broadcast tape cartridge, which was about identical in size and shape except that the broadcast cart didn’t have a pinch roller; it had a hole where the deck’s own pinch roller would swing into the cart. Also, the broadcast cart didn’t have foil tape; tones were recorded on a separate track, and were used to automatically stop and cue up the tape to the start of recorded program, ready for an instant start at the next play. These cartridges were a staple in N American radio and tv stations. I spent nearly a decade fixing cart machines and reloading carts with new backlubed tape.

    I’ve owned or worked with/on just about every example of consumer or pro audio format. There’s no value but nostalgia to the 8-track format as far as I’m concerned, but that’s a sufficient reason for many, I guess.

    1. Right out of college I started working for SMC (Sono-Mag Corporation – Bloomington, Illinois) building the Carousel (a player that had the cartridges in a rotatable drum) and the Cara-Stat that held 12 cartridges in a rack each with its own player. SMC made equipment for radio stations. These units were the size of dishwashers and were used to play 30 and 60 sec commercials. One unit had two cartridges that were 12×12 inches. One held the even time and one held the odd time for the OTA “at the tone the time is…”. The story I remember (true or not) is that William Moulic (owner of SMC) was instrumental in the creation of the capstan-less cartridge and the players that other companies (Harris Intertype) copied and produced for the broadcast markets.

  6. The worst rearrangement was The Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” a concept album about a day. Daybreak through to Nights In White Satin, with Tuesday Afternoon etc. What a mess a scrambled day!

    I knew about the lubed tape and having to sand the capstan with fine paper, each conspiring to mess with the other in order to barely function compared to reel to reel. All the tape sliding all the time against itself!

    I was at the right age and had an older brother with 4-tracks to know I had to wait for the cassette to mature and I told friends the same to skip over carts likewise for mini disc, dat, and all the other dead ones.

  7. In the late 70s early 80s I used a lot of 8-tracks. At that time they were going out and I could get a dozen pre-recorded tapes for a buck. I discovered a LOT of artists I knew nothing about that way. This was before the internet kiddies. I kept a lot of the pre-recorded tapes and the ones I didn’t like I recorded over. You have to bulk erase them to do that. I had (and still have) a Panasonic 8-Track recorder. With analog tape the faster the tape moves across the heads the better the recording quality. Of course formulation matters too Metal and Chromium oxide version normal is a caontributing factor. I really preferred my budget 12 8-tracks for a buck recording media as an alternative for a poor high school kid with a growing interest in music. 8-Track has many shortcomings though; cross track interference from miss-aligned tape heads, warble from pinch roller problems or tapes internally binding up on the internal hub and the odd blurps mid song when the program changes. It is a fun media to explore but frankly for me at this stage I MUCH prefer the convenience of MP3s.

    1. I forgot to mention 8-Tracks ran twice the speed of cassette tape so in essence they could sound better than a cassette (at least theoretically). In my experience they often did when compared to budget cassettes at the time. Cassettes ran at 1 7/8 IPS and 8 Tracks ran at 3 and 3/4 while open reel could often run at 7 1/2 and some pro units ran at 15 IPS.

  8. My era was cassettes, then eventually of course CDs. Now it’s your phone I guess as there is no cassette/CD players in a new vehicle…

    Neat to see the breakdown of the o’ 8 track though. The older kids were using them as I grew up.

  9. Whenever working with tape (whether 8-track, cassette, or other), it’s very important to make sure that nothing sticky remains on the exposed tape surfaces. So if you use adhesive foil or adhesive tape to make a splice, be sure that none of the sticky part of the foil or tape remains exposed. Otherwise, it can adhere to the capstan or pinch roller and cause the tape to wind around it, and result in a bad day.

  10. While restoring my 71 Chevy Nova a few years ago, I installed an 8 track deck to replace the dead AM radio. Bought a bunch of 8track lots for a steal. And found an 8 track recorder in case I wanted to make any of my own Mixtapes… Most of the tapes need the splice repaired but that’s no big deal with aluminium ducting tape. I even got an 8track> cassette adaptor for it so “normal” tapes play too.

    And these really coming back?

  11. Jerry Reed doesn’t have a single repeated track – it has two!

    The Friendly Family Inn on programs 1 + 3, and Caffein (SP?), Nicotine, Benzadrine on programs 2 + 4. Interestingly, they’re in the same spot (song #2) on those programs.

  12. In the late 80s I got a 8 track player and a box of 60s pop songs from my grandparents. Ran that for a couple years until the 8 track tapes got too hard to repair. Scotch tape could only do so much.

  13. 8 tracks sound way better than AM radio. As a 16 year old male in 1991 the choice between big band, Rush Limbo, or static. I chose an under the dash add on 8 track with a radio shack equalizer/amplifier screwed to a piece of wood hanging from the ashtray by a wire with the 3″ spark-a-matic speakers stuck to the dash by the magnets. My grandfather was kind of upset as he thought the AM radio in his old car work great and i didn’t need anything else.

    1. Generally AM broadcast is limited to 5KHz maximum audio frequency, 8-track is not, that alone could explain why they sound better.
      (Yes, I know there have been attempts to increase the audio range of AM, but not every station or radio has those capabilities)

  14. Thanks for reminding me that I need to repair my Dad’s Beatles 8-tracks. IIRC, the rollers had all turned squishy at least 20 years ago. They’re probably puddles of goo by now. :'(l

    Thankfully, my own cartridge of Bob Seger’s Against the Wind is still holding up great, physically. I just need to get my hands on a decent quality player.

    1. Stretched over several days, the first day is full price, and subsequent days are discounted. I find if it is something I want, others may want it also, and it won’t be around on subsequent days.

  15. Just looking at the picture of the player makes me feel old. I SO wanted something like that, but by the time I was old enough and saved the money, cassettes were clearly the way to go.

    Man I liked the feel of slapping an 8 track into the player. Really groovy man!

  16. I had that exact same Panasonic 8-track tape deck!
    Now I’m trying to remember if I got rid of it or if it’s stashed in a moving box somewhere in the basement.

    Great memories of driving down the road in my 1966 Buick convertible with the top down and listening to my 8-tracks blasting away.

    I could usually repair any broken 8-track cartridge. Radio Shack had splicing tape, the metallic tape, and even a jig to hold the tape while you spliced it. I think RS may have even offered empty 8-track cartridges at one time too, so you move the internals from a broken cartridge into a new one.
    One of the big issues with the cartridge, besides the ones mentioned in the article was the shaft the tape reel mounted on. The plastic the cartridge was made out of wasn’t as strong as the plastic the reel was made of. So if the tape was played a lot you would get wear on the shaft and plastic dust built up on the shaft. But you could take the cartridge apart and lift the reel off carefully, so you didn’t mess up the tensioning of the tape and clean the shaft. You could tell if this was the issue if the sound started dragging and banging the cassette on your leg didn’t fix it.

    Now that you’ve jumped back into 8-track tapes, you’ll have try and find the rarest 8-track format – Quadraphonic. It had 4 channels and 2 programs. The tape were longer so they could fit the same songs as what were on the regular 8-tracks. I had one in my Buick I mentioned earlier.

  17. The cartridge is ingenious when you consider that it doesn’t need motor synchronization. It also was twice the speed of the compact cassette. The graphite base was the problem , because it meant the head always needed cleaning. The capstan of player always needs resurfacing as well. It is simple to do using a loop of fine sandpaper.

  18. 8-track is such a weird thing to decide to start ‘enjoying’. It’s like deciding to get into VHS movies, but only for full-frame, pan&scan releases. It’s such an awful format.

    If I bought a stereo with a broken 8-track player built in, I’d say ‘Good. Nothing of value is wrong with it, and no one will play any 8-tracks in here’.

    1. I have a working VHS player, and buy tapes for a buck at Restore.
      Yeah the video quality is poor, but if you like the movie it’s watchable.

  19. A few years after 8-track tapes fell out of favor in the consumer world, I worked in our college radio station. There we used “carts,” 8-track form-factor tape loops (15 seconds to a couple minutes long) to play our public service announcements and other short, prerecorded content. One super downside of consumer 8-track tapes (the common 10×4 minute variety) is they would slowly tighten themselves onto their hub and eventually self-destruct. The commercial tape loops had the advantage that the tape could loosely float inside the cartridge housing. There was none of this foolish business of winding played tape onto the outside and extracting upcoming tape from the inside of the tape spool.

    I bring this all up because I bet there are still a few commercial quality cart players in the basements of radio stations somewhere, and since the heads, drive capstans, and other mechanicals are very similar, they might be useful for restoring or playing old 8-track tapes. I’m not sure the heads moved in our cart players, but the track spacing might be the same. Does anyone know for sure?

    1. In broadcast cartridge players, the heads don’t move and the track format is incompatibly different. Also, the tape speed of the most common broadcast cart systems is twice that of 8-tracks.

    2. “There was none of this foolish business of winding played tape onto the outside and extracting upcoming tape from the inside of the tape spool.”

      Actually, most broadcast carts longer than a handful of seconds had the same sort of internal tape platter, where the tape is pulled from the center and returns to the outside. This is why graphite-lubricated tape is required.

    1. Take them to the office and play them all day on Elvis’s birthday.
      Your company does set up an Elvis shrine for his birthday every year, right?
      No? Heathens!

  20. I actually tried respooling an 8-track tape using my reel-to-reel deck (because believe it or not, most 8-track tape hubs actually have the slits in the center to actually fit on a reel to reel deck). It sorta worked, but I also damaged the edge of the tape doing it because I wound the tape around really fast xD

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