Interview with Nathan (Dead Media Tapes)

Interview with Nathan (Dead Media Tapes)

Do you know Mini Disc? Or the very famous Digital Compact Cassette? Did you own a Super Audio Compact Disc - or even a Laser Disc Player? No? Well, then enter the world of dead (music) formats! When it comes to music, there will always be people who fell in love with a particular technology or sound formats that are (in their opinion) superior to everything else! While its successor, the Audio-Cassette, also went extinct when the CD got famous and was revived together with vinyl (especially in the metal scene), the 8-track had another fate and fell into oblivion.

  • von Ghostwriter
  • 23.09.2019

The format had its time way back in the 60ies and 70ies and is basically forgotten today. Probably it will never see the light of day again… or does it? We asked the operator of “Dead Media Tapes” to give us some insights of the state of 8-track in the year 2019.  

UG: Hi Nathan!

Nathan: Hi Grave!  

UG: How did you come up with the idea to found Dead Media Tapes?

Nathan: I found an old 8-track recorder and a bunch of tapes at a thrift store for $5 in 2006. I quickly became hooked on them and thought "Well… if I want to release my own music on this format, I'd better start trying to get others interested, too..." - incidentally, I have still yet to release my own material on 8-track or reel to reel, which is an even older format.
UG: Call the CDC, this might be the second officially recorded case of "8-tracks" fever! I caught mine two years ago when a colleague of mine told me about the format. When I bought an old "Kraco" player with a box of mixed cassettes, everything went down pretty fast. Out of all those "dead" formats, how come you did fall in love with 8-track?

Nathan: Well, most of the tapes I initially got were country, gospel, and easy listening. The most common and ill-considered genres by most who are into 8-track. Nothing that I would ever intentionally listen to. I think it was a Blackwood Brothers country gospel tape I put in and listened to with headphones. What I heard was something different than I had ever heard before. Nothing to do with the genre, music, song, engineering/mix, etc. No, it was more like I "felt" or heard a presence, maybe "ghosts in the machine". A different dimension than we are used to hearing music in. Those being frequency (pitch) and volume, which any digital music is only capable of. Also, the soundstage of the music seemed different. Like listening to a 3D map. Again, nothing having to do with recording fidelity or bandwidth etc. I popped in some more tapes to see what the deal was. I noticed some more differences. Some had more, a little less or none of these "dimensions". The ones that didn't have it for example were pre-tape big band collections where the sources were 78 rpm records. I quickly became obsessed and started down the path of madness with figuring out what this thing was.
UG: So it was not like the "ancient" technology itself that triggered it - like cramming in some dirty oversized cassettes into a maybe even bigger machine. But rather the unusual sound experience?

Nathan: Yeah. I dislike nostalgia, to a certain degree, and any excitement about gadgetry is secondary. I also dislike the reasons that most people argue analog vs. digital. That being that annoying phrase "analog warmth" or any argument having to do with it, which has a better frequency range. Both are sad, losing notions in my opinion. (laughs) I mean, you'll hear where I start sounding insane myself here, but in my perception those are lower form arguments that don't matter technically. Most of the audio gurus having pissing contests and can’t even hear past 12khz. So why are they worrying about much beyond that. Pretty much every format is capable of reproducing at least 16khz. So unless we think that evolving dog ears is a possibility in our lifetime, I don’t think any audio information past that point is worth it. Fortunately, that makes all formats relevant, as far as basic sound quality goes. So I ran across this older audio guy online who knew exactly what I was raving about. He "educated" me further, telling me about how tube vs solid state/IC chip electronics enhanced or translated this effect. So I picked up a stereo tube amplifier to run the 8-track player through. I definitely heard what he was talking about. I began experimenting, listening to the same album on LP, CD/Digital, cassette and 8-track to compare. Again, not about sound quality. Sometimes the 8-track had the best frequency response, most of the time the CD did. But the 8-track had an extreme reality to it the other formats didn't. That's when I began developing my own pseudo-science to explain it. 
Electromagnetic force is the weakest, but most pervasive force in the universe. It holds everything together. So I'm inclined to believe that that makes magnetic tape the most important medium to record and listen to music on. Made me ask the question, "Are the two basic dimensions of sound (frequency and volume) the only thing being recorded onto tape?" What about the musicians so-called "aura", psychic energy, or some kind of life force. Like, if we view ourselves as living objects that have a non-visible cosmic slime cloud surrounding us, can it be transferred by contact or basically shot from us like a bullet? If so, would some of this be captured on a magnetic tape recording? Ha! "Makes sense to me!" Anyway, that has been an off/on secret mission. To promote pure unfiltered tape recording where it is possible to allow the whole experience to come through. I say "filtered" tube electronics being like driving a car which represents an audio signal down the middle of a 10-lane-highway with no traffic. Tiny integrated circuit-chips being like driving through an one-lane construction zone with concrete barriers on either side and no shoulder. Both get you to the same place, but one is less restricted. Or less filtered. So what more would it let in? Owning a pure analog tape from the 70s and older is like owning one of the physical echoes of the band’s/artists’ performance. I find myself listening to and enjoying all kinds of music on 8-track immensely that I never cared for on other formats in the past. Okay, I'm done with that. Unless you dare to ask „Pandora's box“ another related question. (laughs)
UG: Actually, this sounds like stuff to form a cult around like "The Magnetic Masters Of Marshall Mastersound" - and you are the leader. But what's the difference between standard audio cassettes and the 8-track then? Or maybe playing it from an 3,5 floppy disk?

Nathan: Totally does. But "cult leader" is a responsibility I would shrug." (laughs) So, cassettes run at half the speed as 8-track. So basically less information is passed. Also, when cassettes actually became decent listening quality, the technology was IC-chip based. And digital masters started to be used. So many were the product of digital filtering. But I love them. I'm 46, so they were my main thing in the 80s until 8-track came along in 2006. Again, digital of course sounds great. My car only has a CD-player so I enjoy listening to them while driving. But whether it's floppy disc, minidisc, or flac, it's still digital and could never be capable of more than two dimensions. Very functional and enjoyable though. Oh, when I mentioned that I dislike nostalgia, I meant to put nostalgia/novelty. I have no use for novelty, either. Funny that all the things I dislike are heavily associated with 8-track, right?
UG: I guess when it comes to something that you dearly love, you are very picky with it as well - just like I love certain metal genres but hate everything that isn't "metal" in my own opinion. So no, I think that's natural! Are there genres that you feel are better than others on 8-tracks? Like -because of instrumental arrangements- Gospel vs. Metal, for example?

Nathan: As far as prerecorded vintage tapes go, my favorite to listen to is instrumental easy listening mood/exotica tape. Like, some guy "and his Orchestra", instrumental pop hits by 101 Strings or Mantovani, etc. Those recordings benefitted from having the technically best engineers, microphones, equipment and professional musicians doing live to stereo takes on high quality tube tape machines. And recorded on really nice soundstages with high ceilings and a well-built echo chamber in the basement. I just love the whole package - the songs, arrangements, performances, recordings. If you're talking about new releases, I think it depends. I think more natural recordings that aren't heavily processed sound very alive and conducive to 8-track. Well-produced but heavily processed/compressed recordings tend to come out more flat sounding on 8-track. Almost like the 8-track is asking for a more dynamic and lightly compressed source. There's a heavy sludge band from NYC called „Begotten“ that hired me last fall to make some 8-tracks of their new album. They're more of a local or regional band from what I can tell. Their stuff sounds really good on 8-track. I did their 8-track soon after finishing „Ghost“. I thought „Prequelle“ sounded great, but somehow this local/regional bands recording seems to jump out at you a bit more. I'm sure they didn't have but a tiny fraction of the budget. Actually going to be distributing the „Begotten“ 8-track, manufacturing them as they're ordered, very soon through the „Dead Media Tapes“ bandcamp page.
UG: So, you actually also produce new 8-tracks. First of all: Where do you get the blanks from? Are they still produced? And can you tell me something about the process of copying?

Nathan: Funny, people assume that you would use blanks, and most home tapers do use them. I hardly ever do. Mainly, I repurpose pre-recorded vintage release tapes. John Denver, Perry Como, Guy Lombardo, Readers Digest collections, etc. Stuff that old ladies bought tons of and never or barely listened to. Sold by their children at estate sales in near mint condition. That's mostly my starting point. No new 8-track shells, parts, players, graphite lubricated tapes etc. are being produced for the last 30 years... or should I say, being manufactured. I don't take any shortcuts with my process, so it takes between 1-2 hours (depending on how hard the label is to get off) to make one tape with all steps included. Sure, you could conceivably slap a new label over the old one. But I would know it's there. The shell has to be transformed to look like a polished blank new tape or it's cheating, in my opinion.
UG: That sounds like one hell of an effort! I can’t even estimate how much you need to take for one track to even break even... And are there still so much around in a decent shape? I went to Canada last year and asked around for 8-track but they looked at me like I was a german psychopath. (laughs)

Nathan: After the exterior is polished, I open it up, detail the inside clean and relubricate the hub posts. There are some parts that need replacing as well. I can eyeball whether there is enough tape on the reel but time it anyway to get the precise length, then cut the excess amount off. Occasionally I have to add tape. The tape is erased with a degausser, which resets it to a truly "blank" state. The recording is made, then it's labeled and packaged. The per-unit-cost is high, so that means that a label or artist hiring me needs to sell the tape for usually $30-40. Some people love to complain about the price of new release 8-tracks. The average factory/machine made 8-track in 1975 was sold for $7. If you plug that into an inflation calculator, it comes out to $34 „2019“ US-dollars. So it’s actually on par with how it felt to a 1975 person's wallet. Except that these were made in high volume facilities by commercial grade machines. None of those exist anymore. Believe me, people have been trying to locate just one for the last 20 years to no avail. So it's a by-hand process. Considering that it's a better deal today than back then.
UG: Just wow... I mean all the hype around Vinyl in the last 10+ years, there are already new machines built to match the demand. How would you estimate the demand of 8-tracks at the moment? Would it... Hell, I don't know, be enough to try to build a new one? Like not only one for new blanks but also for copying? If someone could achieve that he would be able to truly start a cult! (laughs) I guess the plans are there, companies who 3D print Metal and plastic?

 Nathan: At this point making new shells is nowhere near worth it. There would be a need for an ongoing public demand for at least 10,000 units per album worlwide to make sense financially. I checked into it 8-10 years ago. Rates may have slightly changed, but it was thousands of dollars to get a one-piece mold made for injection molding. There are two halves to the shell, so double that. 3D printing was like $20-25US per half. Costs are blown before the hour and labor has started.
UG: I see, so it will eventually stay a "nearly" dead format. You said, when you refurbish a cartridge, you also exchange broken parts etc. - are there enough spare parts for this step? I mean the blanks are one part, but where do you get everything else from? Harvesting "organs" from broken 8-tracks?

Nathan: I have several people who donate crappy titles and unpopular tapes to me. That’s the only way it will work at this point. The cost is 99.8% labor. I used to get 4 or 5 8-tracks per dollar, but even that was too much. Now I have really nice folks who would rather see their undesirable 8-tracks have another life vs. going to the city landfill. I just pay media-rate shipping, which is dirt cheap. Just a couple things to replace with new parts. The foam pad that gives backing pressure against the tape head. Available at the local hardware store as a roll of open-cell foam, sold for use as a window sealer product. ¼ inch sensing foil tape is available online. I rarely take parts from other tapes. Maybe replace a pinch roller or warped tape reel every once in a while. I try not to leave any waste behind. I enjoy the recycling nature of this. If there were newly manufactured shells available I wouldn't want to use them anyway... unless somehow I would be forced into it because I got way too busy in a consistent high volume situation. Even then I would miss recycling old cartridges. A textbook but semi-flexible luddite, I don't like newly manufactured products made from raw materials or people's fixation on it. Some exceptions. Underwear, toothpaste, etc. (laughs) 
I notice in many places online that when people discover that their "new" 8-tracks are recycled, they feel cheated somehow. On one hand I understand this, that they were raised in a society where corporations need and teach us to think that anything which isn't new is terrible. On the other hand, I wonder why they aren't thinking it through. Amazing how in love with the idea of corporations, factories and machine made mass produced products people are. To the point that they can't use logic to see past it. "If my plastic wasn’t made last month, what good is it?" Well, what do you need from it, to hold something together? If it's doing its job and looks nice, what is the practical difference if it's 40 years old? "They're just taping over old tape recordings over what was on it." Would you rather use brand new tapes and raise the price $5 vs something that works exactly the same, has stood the test of time as something that would have broken down at this point if it was going to and even will outlive you? Funny that something made by a human that takes a long time to do is somehow inferior to a product made quickly in a factory by robots. As if there are never flaws or defects in that process. But the bottom line is that factory made 8-tracks are not a possibility anymore. So, sadly, people will have to accept a product made by a human with care and emotional investment in the project. As terrible and highly functional as that may be.

UG: Oh no, I totally get that and actually - I love that idea to recycle shitty/obsolete music! I mean, as a "Metal-Extremist" who dislikes everything that is considered mainstream like Manowar, Myrkur or all those shitty core bands, I would love to take those tapes, destroy them with the biggest industrial magnet there is, peel of the label and use those for really great underground music. There is a certain beauty in this process and I would love the music on this even more! Also that you put in this effort and manual labour makes it even more worthy. How did you "evolve" your love towards 8-tracks to the point you decided to tell everyone else via FB?

Nathan: Well, after I found the 8-track recorder and tapes and got into them, I decided the best way to get other people interested was to start an 8-track-only tape label. I recorded the bands on tube or discretely wired electronics-based multitrack reel to reel decks, mix, then duplicate onto 8-track tapes with no digital step inserted. I bought up every 8-track player and tapes I ran across and refurbished them. At the band's release show I'd bring everything someone would need to start out. Set up on the merch table with a stack of 8-track players, the band's new release tape, and a few big boxes of vintage pre-recorded tapes (Heart, Led Zeppelin, Village People, Elvis etc) for sale. I did that for a few years, then was contacted by a label in Portland, Oregon in 2010 to make 8-tracks for one of their artists. This was the first time I was hired as a manufacturer. It snowballed after that and I didn't have time for doing local releases anymore... nor my own music. I called it quits in 2013 and put everything in storage. As the years went by I thought I would never do it again. Until „Ghost“ messaged me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse in march 2018.

After that I quit my waiter job and got this thing kickstarted again. When I initially started doing this, my wife and I were living in Little Rock, Arkansas. The reception and support was very good. We moved back to my hometown area of Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex a couple of years later. Started it up there and the reception was not as good. So when the manufacturer-for-hire w
ork started coming in I saw it as a good thing at first. But that was at the beginning of the US economic recession period. Also, people were still super hyped about digital. Vinyl was just barely starting to come back. It was a weird time. Now is a much better time. People are open to all things audio, for the most part. Anything goes. I am going to start adding in local release/label stuff again soon.

UG: Bold step! Imagine there is a band that reads this and they just decide to produce a small batch of - Let's say 100 pieces of their new album on 8-track because why the fuck not: How can they approach you, how long would it take, do you even take every order and of course the question of how much would it cost?

Nathan: 100 tapes would be $1600 at the cheapest rate, where I would use whatever color cartridge I had on hand that matched their album length, keeping their color preference in mind. $1800 guarantees the color they want. $4 more per tape for double length albums. $3 per tape for a cardboard slipcase which has another wraparound label on it with different or same info/art as the label on the tape. The best method of contact is through the FB-page. A 100 tape order would take around 3 weeks if I had nothing else going on. Otherwise turnaround time varies.
UG: That sounds reasonable for a "handmade" production! Now, you told me a lot about the cartridges, but what about the Audio Systems? My Kraco was kind of new, because it was sealed and found in some attic - and even insanely cheap! But I guess they also aren't produced anymore?

Nathan: Well, I'm not sure what's the state of the thrift shops in Germany. But in the US, it seems like finding 8-track players in the wild started drying up in the late 00s and the last player was manufactured in the 90ies. I guess the age of people who originally had them and died off reached the end of its range. Now it's more CD and DVD players you see. Occasional cassette deck or VCR.

UG: So I think there is a dire need of a FB Page called "Refurbished and nearly new 8-track players INC" aka „RANN8PI“ (laughs). Well, thank you so much for those insights and there is only one last and classic question left: Imagine you could go back in time and give your 20 year old self one advice - what would you tell him?

Nathan: Invest in Apple! Since I was 20 in 1993, that would have been a perfect time. When they were in a slump. (laughs)
UG: Hehe great advice. Thank you for your time!

Nathan: And thank you for your interest.
This interview features Nathan, founder of Dead Media Tapes. He was interviewed by Grave from Undergrounded.