Sound in the home

Photograph of a gramaphone

© istockphoto.com/alengo

Throughout the 20th century as recording technologies advanced and the recording industry developed, recorded sound became increasingly part of the sounds of the home environment. In order to sell records the music industry needed consumers to be able to access playback technology. The mass production of gramophones began in the late 19th century. By 1900 the device was "a cheap, simple machine backed by a growing library of prerecorded discs" (Millard, 2003: 511). With the emergence of new technologies, new formats were brought onto the market and with them came new types and more advanced models of playback machinery. As recorded music became more widely available, items of playback equipment such as the gramophone became desirable consumer goods and for some people even a hobby. 'High fidelity' equipment was marketed largely to men in a way that associated it with high status and prestige. In this period, as Keightley (1996: 150-151) puts it,

"hi-fi connoted a sense of elevated class, cultural... (status) and prestige... 'high fidelity' came to identify a quality of sound, a sound reproduction technology, and a cult of (male) hobbyists."

Ever since the early days of sound recording, the main role of sound technology in the home has been to play back sound recorded elsewhere. Because it is sophisticated and usually expensive, sound recording equipment has usually been found in the recording studio. That division in itself has had many interesting consequences. But recording technologies have long had some place in the home, and by the late 20th century this became more commonplace. Initially recording units for use outside the industry were either aimed at a business market for dictation or sold as an expensive novelty item, but mass production and the subsequent decrease in price meant that by the 1970s recording technologies were available to the mass market. Listening may still be the main way sound technology is used in the home, but more ways have been opened up for technology to assist musical creativity. Recording equipment aimed at a domestic market has brought other possibilities for the production of popular music outside the realms of the professional recording studio. Indeed, the rise of affordable multitrack technology made available through home computing has meant that many more amateur musicians and producers are involved in recording music than ever before.

Follow the links below to explore the history and development of recording and playback equipment in the home: