Music mixology rules

” To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.”  Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

I’m sure most people who put any kind of thought into their mixtapes/mixdiscs/playlists have rules they follow when making them. Since the purpose of most of my mixes is to keep me awake and/or entertained while travelling, my general rules are loose and made to be broken, but I also make mood and theme mixes that follow stricter rules.

My rules, as far as they are conscious and not intuitive, are as follows:

1. Find a theme and stick with it.
This can be as basic as “songs to keep me awake”, or more complicated like “soundtrack of my life” (I am beginning to jot down ideas for such a mix), or “reasons why I love you” (for a loved one).

2. Don’t be afraid to do something unexpected with your theme.

3. The mix must open with a song that gets the listener’s attention.
It can be something that gets the blood pumping and/or the feet tapping, like any number of tunes with snappy intros followed by a fast tempo and strong beat; something that stirs the emotions, like a soaring power ballad or a powerful classic piece. However, it need not be something with a fast tempo or a strong beat – it can just as well be something slow but intense that creeps up on you, like Chris Rea’s The Road to Hell (part 1), which begins with about a minute of static and atmospheric sounds that intensify until he begins speaking (it fades perfectly into part 2, which is the hit song). Songs I would not begin a mix with unless it was meant for meditation or to put me to sleep, are, for example, electronic mood music and slow classical piano tunes (unless I want song #2 to come as a shock). If you’re using an actual tape to record the music, select an attention-grabbing song to begin each side.

4. The first song, while attention-grabbing, must not be the focus or anchor of the mix.
If every song that comes after the first one seems anaemic in comparison the listener will lose interest and the mix will be a failure. Better to tuck the focus song somewhere around the middle or even near the end of the mix.

5. Ideally, the second song should seem like a natural progression from the first (unless you’re following rule no. 2,   but if you’re creative, you can use both this rule and that), and so on, but only adjacent songs need fit together, i.e. song #1 and song #3 don’t have to fit together any more than song #2 and song #9. Any number of musical similarities can be used to achieve this, like a similar rhythm or tempo, similar sound, the ending of one song blends perfectly into the beginning of the next, etc. This does not necessarily have to be musical in nature, but can be a matter of using songs with the same words in the title, question and answer titles, titles that tell a story, artists covering each other’s songs, similar themes (for example, you can show a male perspective in the first song and a female perspective on the same thing in the second song), etc., but it’s easier to get a good fit with musical similarity.
If you can make the whole mix form a chain where every song seems like a natural link in the chain, you are good. If you can make the last song link with the first song so the mix can be played in a loop and no-one can tell where it starts, you are a master mixologist. (Hint: As easy way out is to use two songs where one segues into another or a prologue and a the song that follows it, and have the first as the last song and the second as the first song of the mix, so that if you put your CD player on continuous play or your iPod playlist on repeat, you get a loop rather than an ending).

6. Break things up every now and then.
When making a structured mix, I generally chain together 3-4 songs by the same or similar criteria, and then use different criteria for choosing a song so that it still fits into the chain and theme in some way but at the same time breaks up the sound (don’t know if I’m making sense, but I’m trying). This can be achieved by retaining the tempo but using a different rhythm, keeping the rhythm but choosing a tune with a different lead instrument, by keeping the sound but varying the theme (e.g. insert an instrumental song into a chain of sung tunes), etc.
If every song is in the same tempo, they all start to run into each other. You must change the tempo before that happens. One of my favourite tricks when making a mood booster mix is to begin with a slow tempo and make it faster and faster over a number of songs (which also get progressively happier), then break it up somehow before it gets monotonous. The same method can be applied to control the “mood” of a party, to convey changing moods or tell a story.

7. Don’t put two songs by the same artist one after the other, unless one is a cover by a different artist.
I don’t take it as far as to forbid myself the use of more than one song by an artist in a mix, I just try not to put them close together and try to make them different from each other in some way. (I know I am not in agreement with many mixtapers on this one, but these are my rules, developed over a couple of decades and they have stood me in good steed).

Rule that I should follow more often:
8. Decorate the insert and give the mix a good title. (Provided you’re making an actual disc or tape, and not a playlist, in which case you only need to worry about the title).
I am not good at this. None of my actual tapes are decorated and only a handful have titles other than the usual “mixed music”. This is because I rarely give away mixes. If you are going to give one away, take the time to decorate and find a title that implies what you want to say with the mix.

9. Break the rules if it suits your purpose. Mixtaping is supposed to be fun.

Here are some mixtape rules used by others:

How to Make a Mix Tape Vol 1: Ground Rules

Art of the mixtape rules – Note: there is a pop-up ad. Avoid if you hate them or don’t have a pop-up blocker.

Reading this one hurts the eyes, as it fills the screen. I suggest copying it into a word processing program for ease of reading. How to Make the Perfect Mix Tape –  Note: This one also has a pop-up ad.

How to Make a Perfect Mix Tape or CD

This one is even more precise than I am: The Rules of the Mixtape, part 1; Part 2.

Travel and driving mixtapes


The most common mixtapes I make have always been travel mixes. Before I got my first car I travelled by long distance bus a lot. For 9 years I made on average one monthly return trip by bus during the winter, and I estimate that I made at least 4-5 travelling mixtapes a year during that time. After I moved away from Reykjavík and got a car I continued to make occasional mixtapes for the hour long drive to my parents’ home, and now that I again live in Reykjavík I visit them 4-5 times a year, 3 ½ hours away by car, plus I occasionally take long weekend pleasure drives during the summer, for each of which I make a new mix. I also make mixes for flights abroad. The only difference is that now I am making mixdiscs (and just recently, playlists) with mp3 files, so one disc can last all or most of a trip.

Not all of the mixes I made during my bus travelling days have survived, as I sometimes re-used the cassettes, but I have enough of them left to get a pretty good picture of my taste in music and how it has developed over the years. But enough nostalgia. Here is how I choose travelling music. I hope someone finds my method useful:

First I consider the nature of the journey:
Am I going by bus/train, aeroplane or private car?
Will I be travelling alone, with people I know or with strangers?
How long will the journey take?
If I am going by private car, will I be driving or will I be a passenger?

Then I choose the music:
I have two types of mixes for bus, train and air journeys. One type is a collection of music I want to listen to, while the other is music I can use to tune out my surroundings while I read or take a nap. If I read in a moving car or bus (I am fine on trains and planes) for more than 10 minutes I get motion sickness, but by putting on the earphones and playing music I am able to read without getting nauseous. When I travel by bus I am usually by myself and often when I fly, so I always bring a book to read on such journeys. Books and private stereos are a great way of avoiding getting forced into conversations with strangers without looking rude when you are not in the mood for talking. Combined they create a nearly impenetrable “leave me alone” shield around you.

If I am going by private car as a passenger or as a driver with passengers I know, I try to satisfy the musical tastes of the passengers and make a mix that for the most part will play in the background while we talk, with the occasional song that can be turned up on high for a sing-along or listening session. These are usually what could be termed “radio mixes”, i.e. a blend of new and recent hits and old favourites with no particular theme or genre, such as you might hear on a radio program where the host is trying to please every listener. If I have time I try to make them meld nicely, but if I am in a hurry I just slap together some songs I know will go down well. Whenever possible, I try to include some songs that somehow relate to the journey, e.g. songs about the type of travelling we are doing (wilderness travel, road trip, camping trip, etc.), and I try to use both relaxed and upbeat music.

For a journey with strangers when private listening would be rude (e.g. if someone is giving me a lift) I don’t make a mix. I did have some successes with making such “cold” mixes during my early school years when everyone pretty much liked the same music. Mostly it was a matter of balancing how many Wham! and how many Duran Duran songs you included in the mix, so as to keep both camps happy (see my previous post). Now I would rather spend the drive getting to know my co-travellers than inflicting my musical tastes on them.

When I have no one to think about but myself when I am travelling, I let it all hang out. I include novelty songs my family and friends don’t get (alas, not everyone appreciates the finer points of Weird Al), songs I would be embarrassed to admit that I like (like sappy love songs and Modern Talking tunes) and music I can sing along to. Sometimes I even add sound effects or movie sound clips (the one from Blues Brothers about the distance to Chicago and the sunglasses is a good starter for a driving mix, even if Chicago is not on the itinerary). Most of my driving mixes have strong rhythms and relatively fast tempos, intermixed with slower, more relaxed songs (never two in a row), and include music of various genres, like rock, punk, country, pop, folk, Indian movie music, Latin rhythms and electronic dance music that needs to be played loudly, i.e. songs selected in order to keep me alert.

For a listening travel mix (i.e. for when I’m not driving and don’t need to keep myself awake) I try to choose a mix of music that I want to listen to more closely, interspersed with old favourites.

Mixtape nostalgia

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.