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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 818-819

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Book Review

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

Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. By David Morton. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. Pp. xii+220; illustrations, notes/references, index. $50 (cloth); $22 (paper).

David Morton wants to explain why recording technology has "become ubiquitous in our culture" and why it is important as "an everyday technology." By examining "a few of the many small places where Americans use sound recording," he hopes to show the "profound cultural and economic significance" of the technology (quotes on p. xi). He expounds on this theme in five chapters covering the relationship between improving the sound of recordings and musical high culture, the role of recording in broadcast radio, the indifferent diffusion of dictation recording technology, AT&T and the answering machine, and the development of home recording.

This approach has one benefit. Morton avoids the traditional emphasis on phonograph records as a pop music format and fills in some holes in the history of recording technology, especially in his last three chapters. But he aims for more, and in a book of this length and this thematic breadth Morton asks too much of himself and his sources. He is interested not only in the diffusion of the technology but in "recording culture," or the evolving practices associated with recording. He explores this culture by evaluating "the history of sound recording technology, the business of making recordings and recorders, the relationship of technology to 'practice,' . . . and the significance of sound recording in American history" (p. 5).

In the first chapter, Morton combines "a brief history of sound recording" with a study of "the relationships between musical culture and the technology of sound recording" (p. 7). Here he raises several questions: what should recorded music sound like; how did musicians, engineers, businessmen, and consumers negotiate the changing nature of recorded sound; and what relationship is there between recording technology and musical high culture? He argues that "high fidelity and high culture played the most important roles in establishing the engineering basis of sound recording" (p. 17). He omits, however, demographic, economic, technical, and other cultural factors that help explain efforts to improve the technology. For example, record companies that made phonographs wanted to sell more expensive machines to older consumers less interested in popular music. High-culture records provided content with greater profit margins. The dynamism of symphonic compositions provided greater challenges in recording and reproduction. Efforts to sell these classical records comprised part of a midcentury interest in the genre, seen also in rising media attention and the number of symphony orchestras.

The analysis elsewhere is similarly problematic. In chapter 2, Morton tries to explain "how recording came to be so central in American radio, [End Page 818] but also why it had to remain so undetectable to listeners" (p. 49). After a useful survey of magnetic recording in Europe, however, he admits that "the question of whether audiences actually preferred live performances. . . never really came to be tested" (p. 72). Chapter 3, despite Morton's avowed interest in gender and labor issues, has better documentation for technical drawbacks. There is little tension here; women office workers "had little choice but to accept" the technology when managers decided to invest in it (p. 75). Chapter 4 builds on Mark Clark's work, and a discussion of AT&T's conflation of answering machines with concerns about wiretapping is left to the book's conclusion. The last chapter is perhaps the best, but, like the conclusion, lacks documentation for a number of references.

Throughout the book, Morton emphasizes the contingent nature of the technologies at the heart of recording cultures. Occasional use of the passive voice, the material reality of engineering, and his own judgments undercut his argument. Why should we privilege Edison's approach to fidelity over that of others involved with recording? How can there be "wrong turns" (p. 173) in a constructed technology? While Morton...


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