4-track tape cartridges from the late 1960s

The beloved 4-track tape cartridge was a rival to 8-track tape cartridges in the late 1960s; they are almost exactly the same size, with the same quarter-inch tape and endless loop system, but the space used for each track across the width of the tape was twice as wide. So, to play a whole album you’d play through the entire length of tape twice (each time with a left and right channel, making four tracks), whereas an 8-track would play through its tape four times.

The pinch wheel

The main difference between 4-track and 8-track tape technology was that each 8-track had a pinch roller inside, which pressed the tape to the player as it passed by. In 4-tracks, there was an empty space here instead, and it was the player that provided the pinch roller. As you insert a 4-track tape in a player, a lever is pushed and the pinch roller swings into place.

A few 4-track tapes were marketed as 4/8-tracks — that is, compatible with both. What that really meant was that they were 4-track tapes designed to accommodate a pinch roller adapter.

Although short-lived, the 4-track era included some great music, including The Beatles, Frank Zappa, all five albums by The Seeds, and many others. 4-track cartridges are much more scarce than 8-tracks, but there are always a few for sale online. To actually play 4-track tapes, you’ll need a 4-track player. Units were made for the home and car, and some units could play both 4-tracks and 8-tracks.

BEWARE! Some online sellers confuse 4-track tapes with quadraphonic 8-track tapes, either of which may have a large “4” printed on the label. Look carefully when choosing.

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