The Evolution Of Personal Portable Sound

1970 to 1979

Inside 8-Track Cartridge
File 8track_inside is licensed
under CC by 3.0

We're Rolling

As America fell in love with the automobile, it also fell in love with music and needed a way to take the music along for the ride. Radio had existed in automobiles since the 1930's when the first "Motorola" was introduced but as home stereos and hi-fi systems became popular, people wanted the same choices in music while on-the-go. It was no mistake that the first automobile to make it possible was the Ford Mustang. Ford Motor Company first offered factory and dealer installed 8-Track players in 1965 and so began the evolution of personal portable sound.

Stack Of 8-Track Tapes
File Flea Market by Rick Harris
is licensed under CC by 2.0

The 8-Track

Early attempts at a portable audio format for automobiles were quickly abandoned including an attempt by Chrysler to install turntables in cars that played proprietary, seven inch records. The 8-Track format was the first viable portable audio solution and really took off in the early 70's with Billboard Magazine adding the tracking of 8-Track sales to their sales statistics. The format marked the first time that a listener’s choice in music, was portable as well. The 8-Track player created a new frontier in music in which the listener could not only choose their music, but listen to entire albums of their favorite artist while on-the-go. An unthinkable luxury as previous album listening was left to the world of phonograph records. The format was based on the design of a single, endless loop reel of quarter inch tape, enclosed in a rectangular plastic case. What the user did not see was that the transport pulled the tape from the center, or hub of the reel and feed the tape passed the playback head, then rewrapping the tape to the outside of the reel. Two staggered stereo tracks played in two directions and then repeated the combination after the playback head flipped. In all, it facilitated 8 tracks of audio spanning the width of the quarter inch tape. To the listener, there were four programs of music, usually composed of two to three average length radio cuts.

The Downside

Unfortunately, the 8-Track format had it's faults. The tape transport and cartridges were prone to mechanical failure leaving a trail of mangled tape as the listener retrieved the jammed cartridge from the deck. Even when the player was working fine, the preset program times caused a few missing seconds of audio if the tape happened to switch direction in mid-song. Imagine the anti-climatic effect of having the song fadeout then fade back in, just as your favorite guitar solo was approaching.

Compact Cassette Tape
File Compact Audio Cassette by Orion 8
is public domain

A Better Mousetrap

The Compact Cassette tape format had been developed around the same time as the 8-Track but took a little longer to creep into car audio systems. It had it’s advantages and disadvantages. The tape transport was more reliable but required the user to manually flip the tape to change sides. The playing time per side was perfect as far as the record companies were concerned because it allowed the entire side of an LP phonograph record to be recorded on each side of the tape. Eventually, the tape transports were designed to automatically switch direction. Sometimes, rearrangement of track order was necessary to minimize dead time at the end of a side. The most important feature of the cassette format was that, using a home hi-fi deck, the listener could make their own custom “mix” tapes, that they could play in their car system. According to the RIAA U.S. Sales Database, as the 1970's drew to a close, cassette tape sales dwarfed that of 8-Track tapes and started to surpass even LP vinyl record sales. Proof that Americans loved their portable music and they would embrace better and more convenient ways to get it.