Does RTB2 Sound Better on 8-Track?

Nathan Brown squats over an open 8-track cartridge, quietly nursing Marty Robbins’ No. 1 Cowboy back to health.  The tape is a gift of appreciation for my having driven to Fort Worth to retrieve my 8-track player, which he has also just refurbished.

The player was a rescue, a relic from my days as a janitor.  The family of a deceased orthodontist had placed it among the other detritus from the vacant office in the expectation that I toss it in the dumpster with the rest.  Alone in the night outside the building of dental offices, I stashed it in the trunk of my hulking Crown Victoria until, unbeknownst to me at the time, it should be placed in Brown’s caring hands.

I had the player restored to working condition specifically because RTB2, with Nathan Brown’s help, released We Are a Strange Man on 8-track and only on 8-track.  The move befits the persistently, if congenially, iconoclastic duo.  Moreover, the 8-track era, encompassing half of the ‘60s and ‘80s and all of the ‘70s, has always been held in penultimate regard by Becker as the moment of crystalline rock, roll and soul on which all else pivots.  I imagine his band’s name on a black, bulky, plastic tape cartridge elicits no small amount of Becker’s delight.

The front of RTB2's release.

The nascent resurrection of the 8-track format is, I think, a concerned minority’s last grab at tactility in a world that is surely drifting toward the immaterial — images that never quite become people, pages that rarely become paper.  It is a world in which possibility holds tyrannical sway over actuality.  So there is a certain pleasure in Marty Robbins become incarnate in ferrous tape beneath a plastic sarcophagus.

Nathan Brown asserts 8-track as a format whose quality surpasses all others, and the endearing thing is you can tell he really believes it.  This includes vinyl, which he says demonstrates a dipped equalization, and CDs, which he says have an equalization, like 8-tracks, that is flat, but flat “in the wrong way.”

I have always been vulnerable to suggestion.  If someone says my coffee tastes like citrus, then, I’ll be damned, it tastes just like citrus.  If you tell me my wine has a hint of Tuscan strawberry, then I taste it as sure as I have tasted anything.  (I neither know nor care if strawberries actually grow in Tuscany.)  It is little surprise that I sat listening to We Are a Strange Man on my newly restored player and I could hear it: perfection, just like Brown promised.

Releasing an album solely on a nearly obsolete medium is a move only a band like RTB2 could accomplish well.  Singer Ryan Thomas Becker’s evolutionary theory of song – a title so intriguing it should be an actual book someday – lends itself to the act of producing music to which few will have access.  Becker’s ethic is based on the belief that a song is never finished.  In Becker’s world, a song can grow, morph, have mood swings, throw a tantrum, stop and think.

The back of RTB2's release.

While three new songs comprise the tape’s first program, the majority of songs on We Are a Strange Man are remnants from Becker’s back-catalog of solo – Uncomfortable Index Fingers, Neighborhoof – and RTB2 releases – In the Fleshed.  Nevertheless, I can testify, that is of trifling reassurance to RTB2 fans without an 8-track player.  Those songs are recognizable, but grown and turned into a new light with new contours, new faces.  They include a soulful rendition of “Sarahs in Cars” that would make Sam Cooke weep and the “musical masturbation” version of “When Hammer Hits Stone,” a once-criticism that Becker owns and, strangely, in which he takes a cheeky pride.

The album bears the marks and crags of its haste.  It is rangy and dirty and entirely suited to RTB2’s nervy grit.  Becker’s guitar threatens feedback on every pause.  Grady Sandlin’s drums scatter off the walls of his living room, where they staged the recording.  No attempt has been made to polish, no doubt an intentional act of negligence.

RTB2 plans to release an album in the “normal” manner in the near future, and many may be tempted to pass over We Are a Strange Man as a novelty release between projects. But the material is original, unrepeatable snapshots of songs on a particular day and in a particular mood.  Nathan Brown, who released the album on his 8-track label, Dead Media, is clear.  He is not interested in creating novelty, but in recreating a customer base for a format he sincerely enjoys. RTB2’s album plays like a vigorous justification for Brown’s enthusiasm. So scour your parents’ closets. Beat the bushes of Saturday yard sales.  Get a player and get an 8-track before every last molecule becomes a pixel.

RTB2 – We Are a Strange Man (2011 – Dead Media)


  • Benj

    Nice piece. I remember hearing Ryan (or maybe it was Grady who expressed it then) talk about this evolutionary song theory and I’m always reminded of it when I hear him (them) play.

    So 8-track is absolutely the only way to hear this? No digital downloads anywhere?

  • here’s a short clip off the 8 track of the song “goon” that has been digitized for promo purposes. will be uploading a few more clips, but this is as digital as it gets. we are focusing on preserving/capturing real energy that oozes from the musician when they play. recording/listening to all-analog music on tape stores life energy from the musician along with the sound information. digital music depicts the sound and volume of music consistently and conveniently, but technically isn’t real. the dead media believes this takes away from and degrades our musical “ecosystem” in the short and long term. much like our oil-based economy eating away the ozone layer that protects us. our musical life-energy should be recycled and preserved not ejected as waste heat into space, which digital conversion does. all-analog tape music = sound+volume+life energy. digital music = sound+volume. this creates a hunger that we have but may not notice due to our busy, excessively convenient lives.

    sorry, now i’ll stick a sock in my mouth, or perhaps as ryan states frequently, i’ll “piss in a socket”.

    enjoy –

  • Benj

    Thanks. I guess I will have to find an 8-track player now.

  • Greg

    the dead media-I think it’s cool that you want to release your music on analog formats, and on 8-track format to boot- more power to you!, but your arguments that digital music does not have what you call “life energy” and analog (specifically tape?) music does have “life energy” are totally bogus. So .mp3 files that most folks listen to these days have absolutely no life energy? With CDs for example, analog music is converted to digital data on the disc, but it has to be converted back to analog before we can listen to it as “music.” At that point, you are listening to an analog signal. Comparing analog tape to our planet’s ecosystem and ozone layer, etc. is the probably most unscientific, pretentious bologna that I’ve ever heard from folks griping about the whole digital vs. analog debate. Yes, the formats have very different means of transduction and analog tape offers non-linear response, but it’s not some kind of mystical “life energy” that you’re standing behind. It’s either tape magnetism inducing voltage or digital data getting converted to voltage. When it’s all said and done, either way it’s alternating current/ voltages. Honestly, if you want what you call a music “ecosystem” to be preserved, I can’t think of a worse format than 8-track tape. Tape degradation and the machines falling out of alignment are just a couple things that come to mind when I think of the problems with preservation of music on 8-track tape. And this is why no company in their right mind would make 8-track machines in this day and age. I think this release falls into a category of “musical collector’s item” that not many people can actually listen to. Not sustainable *music* in my humble opinion.

  • greg, this undertaking wasn’t born yesterday and it’s difficult with such an elaborate plan containing many aspects that affect each other to briefly summarize in a blog comment. i have had my ear/computer screen filled with plenty of nay-sayings over the years. most of which are from emotionally charged vets of the industry and assume that no research, testing, experience, or creative modification is used in this process. they do help to illuminate misconceptions and items that i might not have mentioned or been clear about.

    i’m afraid that the life energy issue isn’t bogus. once an analog or digital recording has been through any digital process, the life energy is filtered out of it. this due to the differing natures of the mediums. an analog tape machine transfers electromagnetic energy onto magnetic tape linearly. electromagnetic energy is the most pervasive form of energy in the universe next to gravity. it’s what identifies and holds molecules together and how they communicate. we eject electromagnetic signatures as we live and exert ourselves. call it vibe, aura, mood, whatever, it’s picked up by magnetic tape and stored along with the music. digital conversion takes samples of sound and volume then converts it into a binary software program to be stored indefinitely. this method does not accept storage of electromagnetic signature. it discards it saving only the samples of sound and volume. even though music stored digitally on mp3 or cd is converted back to an analog audio signal for listening the “energy” doesn’t automatically return. an example of this energy would be like someone jolting their body toward you making you flinch. they might stamp their foot, so if it were recorded on tape in it’s purest form, the sound of the foot plus the energy wave they projected making you flinch would be recorded. when converted to digital. just the sound of the foot would remain. although that energy is no longer there, your mind/body may sympathetically recreate it. this gives digital recordings the illusion of life energy. like a mock up of an old west town for a movie set. it looks real and our minds fill in the gaps, but it’s really a flat wood facade with 2x4s supporting the back.

    “life energy” is recorded to varying degrees based on the analog method. the greatest amount recorded when higher speed tape, wider track width, and all tube electronics are used in the recording and listening. the least amount when lower tape speed, thinner track width solid state and more complex integrated circuit chip technology is used.

    about tape degradation – not really a concern. some manufacturers made worse tape than others, but that doesn’t reflect on tape’s potential. rather on manufacturers stunting it’s potential. i have crystal clear reel tapes from the 1950s that shame any modern digital recording. also have 40+ year old crystal clear sounding 8 track tapes. yes, they will degrade sometime given an indefinite period, but i’ve had much worse experience in my life with digital loss/degradation (as the soda stained cassettes that have been on the floorboard of multiple vehicles since the late 80s still sound great). i started out my “serious” musical recording life in the mid 90s with digital, and moved to analog for relief on my ears and peace of mind that the music was safe. plus, in the physical sense we were born to die and so was our music.

    about 8 track alignment – some decks stay in alignment better than others, but can always be adjusted. having a job, children, significant other is way more inconvenient, though. plus, within reason, the more effort and struggle you put into something the more you appreciate it (music). it’s not the 8 track’s/deck’s fault or reflection on it’s potential that it goes out of alignment. it’s the people who made them. a stationary head with electronic track switching would correct this issue.

    the release is definitely a musical collectors item as every release should be.

  • Greg

    the dead media, do you have some scientific articles (AES journal, etc.) that you could point me to that discuss this “life energy” phenomena that you are describing in more detail? I am still skeptical. As a fellow engineer, I can appreciate that you really care about your process of making music. In the end, I believe that is what really counts, regardless of format.

  • Ryan Plummer

    if you guys would like to see the official music video for goon than head over to youtube at
    the song is definitely a favorite of mine!

  • greg, there are no scientific articles regarding audio storage of “life energy” that i am aware of. somehow i think you knew that, though. perhaps you could be the one to author it. i have a scientific method laid out for the research and experimentation that i would be happy to put at your disposal. however, i lack the time, money, or interest in going through with it myself. i instinctively know that the storage of “life energy” on tape is valid and would rather spend time helping musicians preserve all that they produce rather than wasting a measure of it digitally.

    “the music is what really counts” – is a statement that gear manufacturers are counting on consumers/studios biting down on so that they can continue making money selling gadgets to salivating engineers/recordists, and intimidating the music listening public into “upgrading” their formats lest they be “behind the times”. the music does really count when it’s performed live at a venue for an audience only. when a format is introduced, the statement must be modified to include that the format responsibly preserve as much of the live energy that is present.