Recording technologies in the home

Photograph of a cassette tape


Despite the domination of the home market by record-playing equipment, the industry never abandoned the idea of penetrating that market with recording devices. In the late 1930s domestic disc recording consoles were produced. They used a disc-cutting system equivalent to the process used in professional studios to enable consumers to record radio programmes, original musical performances or speech. The discs produced on such systems tended to produce a lower audio quality to those produced within the recording industry and were very expensive to purchase. Despite these failings, companies such as Wilcox-Gay claimed to have sold 25,000 units in 1939-40 (Morton, 2000: 137) but the popularity of disc recording consoles was fairly short lived.

In the mid-1940s another device arrived, the wire recorder. Developed during the war by the Armour Research Foundation (Illinois Institute of Technology) and the Brush Development Company, these recorders were licensed after the war for production for home entertainment or as office dictation recorders. Their heyday was also a short one however. By the early 1950s wire-based recording systems were being superseded by the advent of commercially available tape recording systems which did the same job to a higher standard.

Although musicians were enthusiastic early users of these domestic recording technologies, most of the usage in the late 1940s and 1950s was to document domestic life in the same way as families would use a photo album. Reel-to-reel tape recorders were used to record family occasions, such as the development of a child's vocabulary, although music enthusiasts would also often use them to record music off air. The impact of reel-to-reel tape on the domestic music scene was minor however, compared to that of its successor, the compact cassette. Cassette tape became the first truly mass recording medium, eventually peaking in popularity during the 1980s.

The compact cassette tape was developed and introduced by the Dutch electronics company Philips in 1963. The magnetic tape was enclosed within a plastic casing and as a result the tape units were extremely portable and playback technology became much smaller. The design became widely adopted due to Philips' licensing of their cassette patent for free. This move, which allowed numerous other companies to manufacture cassettes without paying Philips a royalty, eventually led to blank cassettes being an extremely low-cost medium. Like Edison's phonograph, the format was originally conceived as a dictation and documentation tool, but went on to become one of the major formats for recorded music selling 900 million units a year, 54% of total global music sales in its mid-1980s peak (BBC News 2005).

A primary use of compact cassettes by consumers was to make copies of existing music. Yet this use had not been fully anticipated by the industry in the 1960s and it became the cause of some concern because it was seen to harm legitimate music sales. In the 1980s the BPI (the trade body for UK record companies) launched a campaign with the slogan 'Home Taping is Killing Music'. A logo made up of a silhouette of a cassette incorporated into a skull and crossbones alongside the slogan appeared on the inner sleeves of vinyl records in order to raise awareness about the supposed consequences of copyright infringement.

Home recording at this stage found many creative uses, perhaps the foremost of which is the mixtape. The mixtape is a compilation of recorded music recorded in real time onto a cassette tape. Mixtapes were often used as a display of musical taste between friends or acquaintances, configured around moods or lyrical and musical themes. Songs might be placed in a particular order to give the feel of a journey or variation in mood. Mixtapes were also sometimes sold commercially (albeit illegally) and were often very important in dance music scenes such as hip-hop and house music where they were used to show off the prowess of DJs. Even when compact cassettes declined as a format in the 1990s and 2000s the mixtape remained as a powerful and fondly remembered activity.