I am old enough to remember the era of the cassette tape and vinyl record, a time when CDs were unknown and the most mobile you could hope to get with pre-recorded music was by lugging around a portable cassette player. If you wanted to share the music, you brought a boombox – the bigger, the better – or if you just wanted to listen by yourself, you could use a walkman. During that era, the mixtape was invented and perfected. At its most casual, the personal mixtape was a willy-nilly compilation of favourite music recorded off the radio and records, and at its most disciplined it was a personalised showcase of musical preferences, used to express feelings, create moods or make statements.
I started making mixtapes when I was 11, and as a matter of fact I still have the first one I ever made. It is a motley collection of songs recorded directly from the radio with no thought as to how they fit together, but before long I discovered the joy of putting them carefully together. I started making more thought-out mixtapes after I discovered that my parents’ record collection actually contained some music I liked, particularly Beatles and Kinks albums and compilation albums of popular rock and pop music from the sixties. As my own record collection grew I was able to make even more varied mixtapes, and sometimes I would borrow albums from my friends to record songs I liked. When I got a dual tape deck cassette recorder with synchronised copying ability I was in hog heaven, being finally able to make mixtapes using my extensive collection of music recorded from the radio.
Making a mixtape – and by “mixtape” I actually mean any media unit of mixed music, be it a cassette tape, a CD or an iTunes/iPod playlist – is like being in the kitchen developing a new dish. You have to give some thought as to which ingredients meld well and which ones will enhance each other, and in which proportions they should be mixed to get the desired result. Just like with recipes, some mixtapes are a satisfying whole, others may be too sweet, too sour, too bitter, etc., and some are just impossible in every way.
I used to put a lot of thought into my mixtapes. As I was usually making them for myself, they generally were more about creating a mood than expressing feelings or making statements. I never expressed interest in a guy by making him a mixtape, nor did I ever give one to someone I was breaking up with. On the rare occasion I shared a tape with someone it was usually a party mix.
When I got my driver’s licence, I started making mixtapes with road music – songs that were chosen to keep me entertained and awake on longer drives, and I still do that, only now the tapes have been replaced with playlists on my mp3 player. I still occasionally listen to my old driving mixtapes, which is easy because my car has a tape deck.
Although the days when it took anything from hours to days to make a good mixtape are gone, it doesn’t mean a mixCD or mixlist can’t be a labour of love, and by ‘love’ I don’t necessarily mean love for the intended recipient, but for the process itself:
You start by getting an idea for a mix. It may be a theme (e.g. a break-up mix or a food song mix), to aid you to do something (e.g. a meditation or workout mix), or you may decide to make a mix focusing on a specific song or artist (e.g. a song and the songs it makes you think of, or covers of Beatles songs). Then you sit down to choose the music. These days you generally turn on the computer and open up your music library, while earlier you would have sat down in front of the sound equipment and surrounded yourself with CDs or vinyl albums. Being able to burn dozens of mp3 encoded songs onto a CD or make a playlist that is only limited by the storage capacity of your computer or mp3 player takes some of the fun out of making a mixtape, so I generally limit myself to a playlist equivalent to the number of .waw files I can get onto one CD, or approximately 74 minutes of music, which is a good length for a listening session. However, if I have a long drive coming up, I make a playlist slightly longer than the drive is supposed to take.
Then comes the fun part: the selection. I generally only have a sketchy idea of which songs I am going to include in the mix, so I may take an hour or more to listen to parts of songs to get a feel for how they go together. In the era of the cassette it took a lot of time to remove the albums/CDs out of the sleeves/cases and get them started and find the desired songs, and sometimes you had to go back and erase a song or a number of songs from the tape, but playlists have eliminated that part of the process and to tell the truth, I can’t say I miss it much. Listening and choosing is still an integral part of the process of making a good mix, and while it sometimes takes me days to create a playlist, it is good to know that I could do it in minutes.
The final step in making a cassette mixtape was to write in the songs on the box insert, or if you were artistically inclined, to make some artwork for the insert and write in the songs. Now I design jewel case inserts or decorations that can be printed directly onto the disc, but if I am making a playlist, the process of course ends with the final song. I do miss the artwork part.
I have two boxes full of audio cassettes in storage, about 80% of which are mixtapes. Some of the music I have grown out of, but some of it can send me on a trip back to the eighties and early nineties. I would like to digitize some of the mixes, but with the sound quality of the oldest tapes I’m not sure it would be a good idea, at least not without some sophisticated sound clean-up software. Perhaps I will just see if I can replicate some of my favourites as playlists and burn them onto CDs.