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The Freedom of Music: Return of the Eight-Track?

April 25th, 2010


One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

I’ve discussed the return of the LP in this feature before. In fact, this feature could almost be called “The Return of the LP,” some weeks. The music industry looking backwards in order to move forward comes up a lot, it seems. This week, for instance, Foo Fighter’s drummer and Dave Grohl pal Taylor Hawkins released his second album with his non-Foo’s band, Taylor Hawkins & the Coat Tail Riders. The album, Red Light Fever, is available in the usual sources: iTunes download, CD and LP. What’s new in the last year is, the LP sales are featured prominently on the bands websites. Buy it today on…, and LP is right there with the other two getting front billing. There was something else, something different and entirely new to me at the TH&TCTR web site: mention of eight-tracks. There was a twitter contest were you could win an eight-track of Red Light Fever and they would throw in the 8-track player. You could also listen to a streamed version of the album by taking a virtual eight-track and putting it in an virtual eight-track player.8track So are eight-tracks back?

In his self-proclaimed classic rock manifesto, I Hate New Music, Dave Thompson argues the eight-track was the best delivery method of music ever devised:

…Vinyl? Scratchy, warped and needs too much cleaning. Cassettes? Hissy, fragile and they look like crap. CDs? Coasters with a superiority complex.
MP3s? Great! I’ll happily pay ninety-nine cents for nothing whatsoever. Eight-tracks, on the other hand – you know you’ve got a pocketful of something with an eight-track. Plus, they have the greatest sound reproduction you’ve ever heard.

I’ve never owned a pre-recorded eight-track. I had an eight-track player/recorder as an adolescent, and used it to turn my brothers LPs into something I could listen to without pissing him off three times a day. Pirating they call it now, which it was in as much as I had to gain access to his room and leave again, with an album I wanted, without getting caught. Making an eight-track and getting the album back in less than an hour was survival more than piracy, but pirates had to survive too.

So while I learnt all the words to Bat Out of Hell, and had my introduction to Led Zeppelin IV – the greatest album of all time – off of an eight-track, I have never owned a store bought one. Never had Houses of the Holy with the fade-out-click-and-fade-in during No Quarter, may be the only person of my generation not to have owned Frampton Comes Alive on the format and certainly never had Venus and Mars on the format – which Thompson claims is the greatest aural experience a human can have, or something like that. No, I owned all that stuff on album, and made eight-track mixed tapes of the best of it.

Taylor Hawkins, however, apparently agrees with Dave Thompson about eight-tracks sound reproduction. The web site that streams his album brags of being in “eight-track quality.” It’s a cool page, where you place the eight-track tape into the animated deck, and it plays. You can’t skip songs, but you can click through the tracks the same as with a regular eight-track player. Nice.

But does it mark the return of eight-tracks? To answer, an observation: they don’t sell eight-tracks on the web site. It’s possible Taylor Hawkins is waaay out ahead of a trend, however, he doesn’t have enough faith in the trend to actually sell eight-tracks. Furthermore, I could find no other artist making their music available in the format, no stores specializing in it, not even any one selling new eight-track players. There are some web sites that specialize in eight-tracks, but they are nostalgic in nature.

Eight-tracks inherent strength in it’s day was it’s portability. When the car companies started putting eight-track players in cars in the mid-late 60’s, a time when AM radio was the norm, they created a drive around music system where you could chose what you would listen to when you drive. It created a demand, and eight-tracks took off. With in car entertainment systems that include DVD players, CD/MP3 players and iPod connectors, modern cars have no need for eight-track players.

It seems unlikely that any real demand for eight-tracks will be forthcoming, which means it seems unlikely eight-track tapes are about to achieve any kind of renaissance. Sorry Taylor Hawkins.

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  1. Joe
    April 25th, 2010 at 11:17 | #1

    Are you sure you are talking about the same 8 tracks I grew up with? They were a continuous loop tape in a plastic case with the tape exposed on one end. You inserted the case exposed tape end first and waited for the music to start. Usually in the middle of you favorite song the sound would stop and you would hear a loud clunk as it went on to the next track. Shortly the music would start again missing those seconds of the song it took for the player to switch tracks. The beauty of the 8 track was it fit nicely in a car and in a car it had a great sound. The greatest drawback was the durability of the tape as after a while the player pulled the tape from the case. You could get the tape back in the case if you quickly pulled and released the tape. That is assuming the tape had not broken.

  2. real conservative
    April 26th, 2010 at 18:16 | #2

    Thanks for this post a subject dear to my heart. In my prior career I worked in the electronics field and had quite an involved technical job. Won’t go into details but this did afford me technical knowledge and fed my love of music. In the 80s I was a definite audiophile and I really loved vinyl. Like Joe says the 8-track had mechanical problems but was a good format in that the tape was wide and capable of good sound quality. Problem is that most players were of low grade quality and cassette decks easily eclipsed them because companies invested in good quality playback mechanisms and good quality electronics. A good cassette deck is a good investment as they have good noise reduction technologies. I own a couple Nakamachi’s for example. Vinyl will even today tonally beat any CD player. Now the ultra-high end CD I don’t know about but I know even a modest turntable setup, well cared for and tweaked will beat most CD systems. You are a musician right? Do you think tube amps sound warmer than most solid state? Of course they do, mind you some of the combo amps these days sound pretty good. While tubes are voltage devices, transistors are current devices and we use current to drive speakers primarily. Someday they will perfect a hybrid amp that sounds like a tube amp, is efficent and reliable and cheap like solid state. Anyways, nice 8-track players sell like hotcakes on ebay btw.

  3. April 27th, 2010 at 06:40 | #3

    Hey RC. To answer your question, my amp is an old Fender Twin Reverb, so yea I like the tube amps. The solid state stuff always seems cold to me, however, I have never spent a lot of time with one, week in week out putting it through real life paces, so I can’t really comment too fairly on how they play/sound.

    I have commented here before how much I like vinyl, the warmth of the sound being a big part of the reason.

  4. real conservative
    April 27th, 2010 at 07:45 | #4

    Hey Brian, nice amp the twin reverb, highly sought after. The solid state amps have definitely improved but tubes still sound better. Yeah vinyl is nice, a lot more work but if you love the music it isn’t work is it? Looking forward to your posting on the twin. 😉

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