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Forgotten Formats: The unspeakable joy of the 4-Track cartridge

To celebrate the recent revival of both cassettes and, slowly, 8-Tracks in the world of collectible modern releases, Goldmine goes up to the attic to unearth a few more “forgotten formats” that we might well see turning in a box set soon.
The 4-Track of Iron Butterfly's "Heavy" album

The 4-Track of Iron Butterfly's "Heavy" album

The 4-Track cartridge, for a short time, regarded by many as the future of portable music. No, they are not especially well remembered today; and yes, when encountered in a thrift store (*or the attic), they are frequently regarded as a bizarre (or even faulty — what is that big hole in the top where the roller should go?) variation on the 8-Track.

But the 4-Track not only preceded its better known cousin, it actually inspired that format to be created.

However, whereas 8-Track aficionados can look back at their hero's demise at the hands of the cassette and say, the smaller tape was victorious because it was cheaper for the record companies to produce, the war with the 4-Track was won fair and square. 8-Tracks really were superior — at least for the purpose they were designed.

The fact that 4-Tracks offered marginally better sound quality, were less prone to breakage and, due to the (quite deliberate) absence of an internal roller, were easier to maintain, does not even enter into the equation. 8-Tracks offered more music, and that’s what it’s all about.

One Earl Muntz developed the 4-Track tape specifically for use in automobiles. Utilizing the endless loop technology already familiar from aircraft black boxes and a variety of lesser necessities, too, Muntz developed a process by which two "tracks" of stereo sound could be lain side-by-side lengthwise on a piece of tape, to be played on tape decks which read each one in turn.

It was slow going. The technology was in place as early as 1956, but it was 1963 before Muntz began marketing it, initially in California. And with a handful od record companies showing interest, the Muntz Stereo-Pak received immense publicity when players were installed in vehicles owned by such stars as Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, James Garner, Lawrence Welk and Red Skelton — and even more when an order was placed to install them in the newly developed Lear Jet.

A view inside the cartridge

A view inside the cartridge

Purchasers had a considerable range of choice, too. Capitol was one of the first major labels to strike a licensing deal with Muntz, in 1964, and issued their first Beatles 4-Tracks that same year. Thereafter, every Beatles album through to Let It Be (Apple X434001) would appear in the format, together with such early Apple releases as the Lennons' Two Virgins (Tetragrammaton/Apple TNX 45001), Mary Hopkins' Postcard (4CL 3351) and George Harrison's Wonderwall Music (Apple 4CL 3350). Paul McCartney’s soundtrack to the movie The Family Way (London LFX 17136) also made an appearance. The last Beatles-related 4-Tracks to appear were the debut solo albums by all four members, during 1970.

Other key 4-Track releases include Cream's Disraeli Gears, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (released across two tapes), the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed and the Bee Gees' debut album, while the 4-Track's early start also saw a number of classic British Invasion albums appear. Even better, they did so in stereo — the most common LPs from this period are, of course, the mono issues.

Neither was Muntz’s ingenuity exhausted. Aware many of his collectors might also be interested in singles and EPs — at the time available only on vinyl — he launched the Mini Pac. Holding up to four songs and compatible with all existing 4-Track players, it should have been a success. However, the format seems to have survived for a matter of months, and tapes today are exceedingly rare.

Meanwhile, the 8-Track continued its inexorable rise and, by the beginning of the 1970s, the 4-Track was finished. Neither has the format excited much attention since then. Partly, this could be because there are even less working 4-Track players in existence today than there are 4-Track collectors.

Little in-depth research into releases has been undertaken either. Beyond The Beatles, there is very little discographical information available; collectors simply find what they find, and they are grateful when they do.