Forgotten Formats: The Unspeakable Joy of the 4-Track Cartridge


The 4 tracks from Iron Butterfly’s “Heavy” album

The 4-track cartridge, for a short time, considered by many to be the future of portable music. No, they are not particularly well remembered today; and yes, when encountered in a thrift store (*or the attic) they are often seen as a weird (or even faulty – what’s that big hole in the top where the roll should go?) variation on the 8-Track.

But the 4-Track not only predated its better-known cousin, it actually inspired the creation of this format.

However, while 8-track aficionados can look back on their hero’s demise at the hands of the cassette and say that the smaller tape was victorious because it was cheaper for record labels to produce, the war with the 4 runs was won evenly and square. The 8 tracks were truly superior – at least for the purpose they were designed for.

The fact that the 4 tracks had slightly better sound quality, were less prone to breakage and, due to the (quite deliberate) lack of an internal roller, were easier to maintain, didn’t even go in in the equation. 8-Tracks offered more music, and that’s what it’s all about.

A Count Muntz developed the 4-track tape specifically for use in automobiles. Using the already familiar endless looping technology of airplane black boxes and a variety of necessities, Muntz also developed a process by which two “tracks” of stereo sound could be laid side by side lengthwise on a piece of tape, to be played on tape recorders which read each in turn.

It was slow. The technology was in place as early as 1956, but it wasn’t until 1963 that Muntz began commercializing it, initially in California. And with a handful of record companies showing interest, the Muntz Stereo-Pak received immense publicity when players were installed in vehicles owned by stars such 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 new Lear Jet.

Buyers also had a considerable choice. Capitol was one of the first major labels to enter into a licensing agreement with Muntz, in 1964, and released their first Beatles 4-Tracks the same year. Thereafter, every Beatles album up to So be it (Apple X434001) would appear in the format, along with early Apple releases such as the Lennons two virgins (Tetragram/Apple TNX 45001), Mary Hopkins’ Post card (4CL 3351) and George Harrison Wonderwall Music (Apple 4CL 3350). Paul McCartney’s film soundtrack Family Way (London LFX 17136) also made an appearance. The last 4 Beatles-related tracks to appear were the four members’ first solo albums, in 1970.

Other key 4-track releases include Cream’s Israeli gearsby Jimi Hendrix electric ladyland (released on two tapes), the Moody Blues The days of the future have passed and the Bee Gees’ debut album, while 4-Track’s early debut also saw a number of classic British Invasion albums appear. Better yet, they did it in stereo – the most common LPs from this period are, of course, mono issues.

Nor was Muntz’s ingenuity exhausted. Aware that many of his collectors might also be interested in singles and EPs — at the time only available 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 hit. However, the format seems to have survived for a few months, and tapes today are extremely rare.

Meanwhile, 8-Track continued its inexorable rise, and by the early 1970s, 4-Track was over. The format also hasn’t garnered much attention since then. This could be partly because there are even fewer working 4-track players today than there are 4-track collectors.

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


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