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Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (Paperback)

By: Professor David Morton

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When, in 1877, Thomas Edison and his associates invented the phonograph, he thought that it would be used primarily as a device for making home recordings, not as a tool for listening to recordings produced by others--a development, John Philip Sousa complained in 1906, certain to spell the end of "talent and taste."

In the more than a century that has passed, new technologies have come to make it ever easier for both the mass and individual production of recorded sound. David Morton traces the development of these audio-recording technologies, from wire spools to eight-track and DAT tapes, paying special attention to those that are available to the individual consumer. He notes that many of these technologies evolved to improve the quality of "highbrow" music despite the fact that most listeners used the resulting flood of audiophile goods to listen to anything but classical. He also follows the fortunes of voice-based recording devices such as the Dictaphone, which met with curious resistance (middle managers felt that the use of the machine was beneath them, while stenographers saw it as a threat to their specialization). Morton''s sweeping survey ends just shy of the new era of MP3 and home-CD recording technologies, but fans of the new formats will doubtless be interested to see parallels with standards introduced in earlier years. --Gregory McNamee

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"The most fascinating aspect of Off the Record involves tracing the complex paths by which devices that are now commonplace originally came into being, gained markets, and slowly evolved. Each chapter is filled with brave hopes, false starts, mistaken social assumptions, and solutions that were almost, but not quite, right. Morton does a fine job of demonstrating multiple contingencies in the by-no-means-certain evolution of now-familiar technologies." --Jeffery L. Meikle, American Studies, University of Texas at Austin David Morton examines the process of invention, innovation, and diffusion of communications technology, using the history of sound recording as the focus. Recording culture in America emerged, Morton writes, not through the dictates of the technology alone but in complex ways that were contingent upon the actions of users. Readers will learn, for example, that the equipment to create the telephone answering machine has been around for a century, but that the ownership and use of these items was a hotly contested issue in the telephone industry at the turn of the twentieth-century. As a result, its commercial development was stifled for decades. Morton illustrates his broad-based approach to sound technology with five case studies: the phonograph record, recording in the radio business, the dictation machine, the telephone answering machine, and home taping. Each of these case studies dispels the popular notion that recording is all about music, and they tell a much more complete story of sound recording technology and history. David Morton is research historian for the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University.

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