Behold the humble 8-track, a sandwich-sized plastic portal to the days before compact met disc. This cartridge was the first truly portable version of tape, the masterstroke that 40 years ago shrank reel-to-reel to a size that would fit in your dash.
It's also a fossil, a faded flea-market filler relegated to the same media dustbin where old Atari cartridges and Beta home movies decay, an afterthought, if that, to a generation raised on Napster and 10-disc changers in the trunk. Today some Kelly Clarkson-infested iPod Nano docked in a piece of Korean fiberglass purporting to be a car is considered superior to the noble, unrewindable tape that back in the day let your uncle blare “Led Zeppelin IV” out of his third-hand Charger when he smoked grass before football practice. Some world this turned out to be.
If the 8-track is dead — and it has been, essentially, for a solid quarter-century — then Nathan Brown is running a morgue. On a recent night, the lanky, mustachioed 34-year-old musician and producer welcomes a visitor to the Stifft Station two-bedroom he and his wife, Tara, share with a little black dog named Cricket and a new kitten named Sneaky. He apologizes for the clutter: speakers stacked in a corner, 8-track decks on the floor. An open closet near the dining room table reveals a wall of hefty cardboard boxes labeled in tiny letters on Post-Its. “I work at Vino's, so I get the cracker boxes for free,” he says. “It just happens that they hold 52 8-tracks perfectly.”
That's untold hundreds of corpses in one closet alone. For Brown, one of Little Rock's certifiable audiophiles known best perhaps as the solo act Browningham, the 8-track is such an object of obsession that he's hoping not only to repopularize, but almost literally to resurrect it. This year he has recorded and engineered releases by two local bands — the Crisco Kids and San Antokyo — solely on 8-track, with plans to do the same for The Thing That Always Explodes, Magic Hassle (release show slated for Sept. 4 at Sticky Fingerz) and the Evelyns (release show July 19 at the White Water Tavern).
If he succeeds in stirring interest in analog music, he'll of course have a corner on the market for the cartridges and for the machines, which he buys used and restores to a condition less likely to eat your tape. As for the 8-tracks themselves, you almost don't want to know. To recycle the old cartridges (and there are only old cartridges available), he rebuilds them individually, cutting the tape to fit the duration of the recording, and duplicates them one by one.
“Everything I'm using,” he says, “people basically are setting out for the garbage.”
It's a pursuit both time-consuming and quixotic. (And maybe, one day, commercial, though for now he estimates, “If I had to guess what I'd be making an hour, it would probably be less than an Indonesian factory worker.”)
It's also highly stuff-intensive. The clutter exasperates Tara — “I love the man's brain, but sometimes I look around our house and think we are stocking up to sell homeless people some real estate,” she writes later in an e-mail. But she also accepts some of the blame for his obsession. It was about three years ago, on a tour road trip without a working stereo in the car, that she, a photographer, began discussing the differences between film and digital shots.
Film, she told him, is a physical mirror image of a scene. Digital, however, is a computerized simulacrum of the same. To her, the colors are askew; the details, fudged. The result is flat, she said, except in the most costly digital photos.
Nathan, she recalls, lit up “like we had uncovered some secret nobody knew about.” Analog music relies on actual iron oxide molecules and their magnetic fields to hold its sound. The wider the tape, and the faster its playback speed, the more molecules are used, and the better the sound. In Brown's view, a digital recording shaves off so much detail that it comes out glossy and bland. To him, digital doesn't imitate the human ear the way tape does.
“Sometimes,” Tara continues, “it seems like Nathan and I are trying as hard as we can to go backwards, while everyone else is running into the future.”
Brown began his quest for 8-track decks and tapes around the same time. He bought 8-tracks on eBay from collector Charles Nudo, and struck up a friendship. Nudo, 46, remembers being a teen-ager, washing dishes for $3 an hour to buy an 8-track or two per week, at about $9 per. As hammy as it may sound, each one meant something. Eventually the proliferation of lower-quality cassette tapes (“To us, cassettes were junk: They were half as big, and played at half the speed”) and later, the antiseptic sound of CDs (“the biggest farce we've ever been fed in the music industry”) spurred him to horde 8-track tapes.
The idea that people would abandon high-fidelity tape on the way to compressing thousands of songs into tiny hard drives strikes him as borderline offensive to music.
“I don't know of any bands that get up on stage and want to play the maximum amount of songs,” Nudo said by phone from his home in Drums, Pa. “They don't get up there to do a six-hour set with the cheapest equipment possible.”
Brown named his production outfit the Dead Media as a nod to this sort of thinking. At the Crisco Kids' 8-track release show in May, his production assistant and bandmate in a project called Meager Bop, Daniel Craig, vented with an aesthete's disdain about mp3 players and earbud headphones. “It's about availability, not quality,” Craig said. Listening to the tiny speakers, “I couldn't tell anything but who it was. Music used to be more precious.”
“Now,” Brown replied, “we just devour it.”
(These guys really are old-school. The MySpace site for the Dead Media touts among its influences: “iron/chrome oxide particles glued to a 1/4 inch wide polymer,” “rubber belts and pinchrollers,” “multicolored buttons, knobs, levers,” “clicks, whirring, humming, hissing,” “ker-chunk,” “panasonic, revox, teac, sony, akai,” and “wood grain.”)
Informed that Brown is producing new music on 8-track, Nudo responds with astonished pride.
“That brings a smile to my face,” Nudo says. “He's going to have a good sound. It's going to sound like a reel-to-reel, which isn't bad. The only drawback is, it's definitely a labor of love. I don't think he'll be a millionaire doing it, but he'll get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
For it to make any short-term sense, though, you have to hear music through Brown's ears. In the rear corner of his house, he maintains an audio workshop that outlines his obsession: guitars, keyboards, drums, 8-track decks, soundboards, even an old Disney-themed toy piano, all enclosed in padded walls.
He hooks up a tube amplifier (better for analog sound, he says, than a solid state amp) to a pair of 65-watt speakers and plays a couple of albums as CD, vinyl and 8-track: “Van Halen” and Stevie Wonder's “Talking Book.”
As the sound swells and fills the tiny room, Brown intimates: “I feel like an upright bass string,” he says. “I feel like I'm being plucked along with the music.”
When “Superstition” comes buh-boun-boun-boun-THWOUNing out of the speakers on the record, it sounds perfectly awesome, but of course, with that vinyl feel.
“Vinyl sounds good, but there's an emptiness, to me,” he says. “It's missing something in the punch department.”
He switches the system to play the CD, and it also sounds perfectly respectable. The highs are crisp. Stevie sings like a fallen angel. All appears right.
Then he switches to the 8-track, and it takes just a moment, but a depth appears to the music. The drums arrange themselves at the back wall, the horn section shrieks from just in front of it, and guitar gushes into the middle of the room like a severed water main, electric, menacing, slathered in sex and heart and funk.
With that, Brown demonstrates a little-known principle. Evidently there's only one thing in the universe powerful enough to make a Stevie Wonder CD sound like an exercise in neutered timidity. That force, it so happens, is a Stevie Wonder 8-track.