Interstellar 8-Track: The Not-So-Low-Tech Data Recorders of Voyager

On the outside chance that we ever encounter a space probe from an alien civilization, the degree to which the world will change cannot be overestimated. Not only will it prove that we’re not alone, or more likely weren’t, depending on how long said probe has been traveling through space, but we’ll have a bonanza of super-cool new technology to analyze. Just think of the fancy alloys, the advanced biomimetic thingamajigs, the poly-godknowswhat composites. We’ll take a huge leap forward by mimicking the alien technology; the mind boggles.

Sadly, we won’t be returning the favor. If aliens ever snag one of our interstellar envoys, like one of the Voyager spacecraft, they’ll see that we sent them some really old school stuff. While one team of alien researchers will be puzzling over why we’d encode images on a phonograph record, another team will be tearing apart – an 8-track tape recorder?

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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.

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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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