Analogue audio memories (part 2): Reel-to-reel and 8-track

Image courtesy of Nicolas Nova/Flickr Image courtesy of Nicolas Nova/Flickr

This short series of posts takes a personal trip down memory lane looking back at my experiences with analogue audio. You can read part one here

Reel-to-reel tape

Reel-to-reel tape recorder (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

This magnetic tape system was the predecessor of the cassette, and essentially worked by spooling tape from one seven-inch reel to another.

I can trace my love of gadgetry back to the age of four or five when my dad used to entertain me by explaining the inner workings of a reel-to-reel system, which had the beauty of being both large and open enough to satisfy my young prying eyes and hands. Many a rainy afternoon was spent with dad demonstrating how the tape was brought into contact with the playing heads, how to clean the heads and threading a fresh tape from one reel on to another so we could start playing/recording on it.

Then we would make our own audio recordings onto tape with external microphones, where I grew to understand the importance of managing sound levels to prevent distortion. I can clearly remember recording and playing back conversations between the two of us, and also recording DJ-style voiceovers to introduce songs. Dad and I would then spend many painstaking hours editing these intros together with the actual music by taking the relevant sections of tape, marking them and then making precise diagonal cuts before splicing the tape back together. I could have been a film editor in the making.

As audio formats go, like records reel-to-reel tapes were satisfyingly tactile. Playing and editing music was very much an interactive experience, and one which still required an element of care to keep dust out of the system and to prevent damage to the tapes themselves, something that happened far too easily and frequently.

Perhaps even more so than with records, these are some of my most vivid memories of early childhood. I owe my father a debt of gratitude for giving me so much patient encouragement as I repeatedly spent entire afternoons turning his precious recordings into a scrunched-up mess of garbled tape.

I guess I do something similar with Isaac now. From around the time of his second birthday, he has always taken great delight in having me record audio, video or webcam clips of himself – usually singing or dancing, as those of you who know him will be familiar with – and then listening/watching them back over and over again. One of my favourite recordings is a short audio clip of him at about 18 months experimenting with saying the word ‘bamboo’ over and over again.

Zac is also adept at finding the YouTube app on my iPad and looking up his own home videos. And he has more recently shown an interest in being on the other side of the camera/microphone, understanding how a recording is made and edited. 37 years on, he and I are replicating with digital technology what my dad and I did with analogue. Like father like son, I guess.

Going back to my own childhood, even at that early stage of my life – the mid-1970s – reel-to-reel was already fast becoming a dinosaur, as more compact, robust, flexible and cheaper formats rapidly superseded it.

8-track cartridges

8-track cartridge player (image courtesy of Nicolas Nova/Flickr)

One early and ultimately unsuccessful pretender was the 8-track cartridge tape system, invented in 1964, which had the advantage of greater robustness and less fiddly handling by enclosing the magnetic tape in a sturdy plastic housing. Although more compact than a seven-inch reel, 8-track cartridges were still fairly bulky, having a footprint about three-quarters the height and width of a modern DVD case and twice as thick.

There were also a number of inherent inflexibilities in the format which counted heavily against its popularisation. For one thing, cartridges could be operated forwards only – they were on a continuous loop which could not be rewound. In addition, because the eight tracks – typically four separate stereo ‘programmes’ – ran in parallel across the width of the tape this created difficulties in splitting content across each programme, as this meant each programme had to be identical in length. In practical terms, an album recorded on 8-track often featured long gaps of silence between one programme and the next, or required tracks to be split in half.

2-XL was the height of toy sophistication in 1978 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

8-track enjoyed a brief spell of popularity among enthusiasts and automotive manufacturers, who developed it as an in-car audio solution. However, as the cassette grew in popularity in the late 1970s, the format was soon rendered obsolete.

I remember the 8-track format with a (slightly misplaced) fondness, not just because my dad owned a player but because of an educational toy named 2-XL which was the height of technological sophistication for a certain geeky young boy in Christmas of 1978. This was essentially little more than an 8-track player in the shape of a robot, into which you would insert various cartridges and be asked multiple-choice questions as if you were being quizzed by a real computer. You would then answer by pressing one of the four buttons on the front of the machine, and 2-XL would respond accordingly.

It seems terribly basic now, but back then it was positively space-age in the eyes of my younger self. Honestly.

Next post: The compact cassette

Analogue audio memories:

Vinyl records

Cassette tapes