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8 Track Recorders - A Brief History of 8 Track Recorders

tracks tape inch recording

Let’s be clear: this is a quick overview of 8 track recording in a variety of analog and digital formats, not a trip down memory lane to revisit the relatively brief life of the specific tape format known to car stereo enthusiasts of the late 60s and 70s as “8-track tape” and to radio DJs up to the 90s as “carts.” There was very little recording done on 8-track tape outside of radio stations (where carts were used to play jingles, promos and other short audio segments) and manufacturing plants (where vinyl LPs were mangled in an attempt to fit two sides of material into four segments of tape).
8 track recording made its first appearance in 1955, when Ross Snyder at Ampex put 8 tracks onto 1-inch magnetic tape. Guitarist / producer Les Paul paid $10,000 for the first Ampex 5258 and used “The Octopus” to record “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” and a whole series of hits with his wife, singer / guitarist Mary Ford. Although producer Tom Dowd convinced Atlantic Records to buy Ampex 5258 #3, most recording artists considered Les Paul’s use of multi-tracking as a gimmick. Phil Spector, among many other producers, preferred to gather an entire orchestra, plus a full rhythm section, in the studio along with a singing group, and record take after take live to 3 track recorders (usually with the backing musicians and singers in stereo and the lead singer in mono on the third track) until he had the sonic balance and performance that he wanted.
It wasn’t until the Beatles recorded Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band onto paired four track machines that multi-tracking started to catch on. Since few engineers outside Abby Road Studios were able to “bounce down” multiple 4 track recordings to the final stereo mix without excessive noise build-up, Ampex, Sony, TEAC / TASCAM and MCI competed to put more tracks on both 1-inch and 2-inch magnetic tape. As the tracks became narrower, so did frequency response and dynamic range. Ray Dolby and later David Blackmer invented noise reduction systems that lessened the problem. Dolby became the industry standard. The first mass-produced 8 track recorder was 3M’s M-23, introduced in 1966.
As engineers squeezed more tracks onto 1-inch and 2-inch magnetic tape heads for the professional recording studios where hits were made, they made it possible to put 8 tracks onto narrower tape formats. By the early 70s, TEAC was selling the 2340, with 4 tracks on ¼ inch tape, to home recording enthusiasts. About the same time, TASCAM introduced the Portastudio line, the smallest of which squeezed 4 tracks onto cassette tapes that were 1/8 inch wide. The quarter inch 8 track Portastudio became popular as a tool for making “demos” of new songs, and was even used to record albums for release, including Suck on This by Primus.
In 1991 8 track recording went digital as Alesis introduced the ADAT format. ADAT used Super VHS video tape to store 8 tracks of digital information, with much higher fidelity than other compact formats. As many as 16 ADAT machines could be synchronized, giving simultaneous access to 128 tracks. ADAT was a true game-changer, initiating the rise of the “project studio,” where CD-quality audio could be recorded and produced with much less capital investment than was required by the “big rooms” that had dominated the industry.
In the 2000s, digital audio took over the recording industry and 8 track recorders followed suit. Portable formats like Sony’s Minidisc were tried, but the computer hard drive became the standard.
Today’s 8 track recorders are designed to make multi-tracking easier and more portable than digital audio workstation software running on a personal computer. Solid state memory in Compact Flash and similar formats is becoming an affordable alternative to hard drives, just as in the world of laptop computing. For many, the advantage of a standalone 8 track recorder is in the user interface. Computer screens can display images of faders and knobs, but they are still controlled with a keyboard and mouse. Hands-on manipulation of physical faders and knobs is both faster and easier for many users.

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