The Art of the Mix Tape 2.0

Several years ago, a friend of mine named Matt Preira wrote a piece for the Underfoot webzine called "The Art of the Mix Tape." It was one of my favorite things I've ever read and inspired me to pick up a hobby I've been enjoying for roughly a decade now.  Mix tapes or mix CDs are always a fun little gift for someone special or even for yourself.  But they can't just be thrown together willy nilly in a random order of randomly chosen songs.  Great care and time should be taken both in choosing as well as re-ordering the songs and making them into a tape or disc.  Also, with the advent of digital music and portable devices to play it on, the concept of mixes has evolved into the concept of playlists.  But whether you're dealing with analog or digital music, there have to be some rules--or guidelines, if you will--that should be followed to get the best results out of your mixes.

Let's the beginning. An appropriate place to start because it's probably the most important part of the mix--especially if it's for someone else.  This is where what I like to call "The Golden Rule of Mix Tapes" comes in.  It's a simple formula, derived from a quote from the book/movie High Fidelity: "You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don't want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."  Over the years I've evolved in my understanding of this rule just a little bit--sometimes I will open up with two great openers and then will merely attempt to change the pace with the third song.  But generally "The Golden Rule" is a good rule to abide by.  A few varying examples:

Foo Fighters Mix
1. In Your Honor
2. All My Life
3. See You

Prius Mix 2
1. Coheed and Cambria - Welcome Home
2. Black Sabbath - Iron Man
3. Blind Guardian - Nightfall

Weezer Mix
1. Susanne
2. Holiday
3. Island In the Sun

Songs with intros or interludes can also work really well for openers:

Stoner Metal Mix:
1. Metallica - The Ecstacy of Gold (S&M)
2. Metallica - The Call of Ktulu (S&M)
3. Between the Buried and Me - Mordecai
4. Tool - Intermission
5. Tool - Jimmy

B Lon Mix (for my uncle):
1. Baroness - Ogeechee Hymnal
2. Baroness - A Horse Called Golgotha
3. Between the Buried and Me - Mordecai
4. Between the Buried and Me - Reaction
5. Between the Buried and Me - (Shevanel Take 2)
6. Blind Guardian - Nightfall

That brings us to the body.  There are several different ways to structure your mixes, a few of which can be seen above.  Generally, mixes fit into one of two categories: homogeneous (all songs by one band) and heterogeneous (songs by different bands).  Heterogeneous mixes can be done in a variety of themes: live songs, b-sides, happy songs, depressing songs, songs that remind you of a particular person/place/thing, workout songs, the list goes on and on.  The most important thing in assembling the body of your mix is to match the songs up with one another to maintain a good flow in the mix.  It's crucial to try to match up the end of one song to the beginning of another.  You may find that two songs you wouldn't necessarily have expected to fit together in fact do because one ends on the same note one begins on or one ends with screaming over no instruments and another begins with the same (Crestfallen - Scouring for Signs of Life -> Coalesce -  Some examples:

99% Mix
6. Leftover Crack - Gang Control
7. Thrice - Cold Cash and Colder Hearts

9. Thrice - Broken Lungs
10. System of a Down - Tentative

Prius Mix II
12. Sublime - Smoke Two Joints
13. Beastie Boys - Sabotage

As far as whether to make a tape or CD or whether to tape from vinyl or CDs (or even your computer), that really needs to be a personal decision.  I can't tell you what to do there.  What I can tell you is that if you're making a tape, taping from vinyl is probably ideal--if you're gonna go analog, might as well go FULL analog.  There are also ways you can hook your computer or iPod up to your stereo and record mixes from playlists on either of those sources.  Also, keep in mind that CDs are 80 minutes long while the average blank tape is 90 minutes (or 45 minutes on each side)--and, by the way, it's also good to bear in mind that the first few seconds of any blank tape can't be recorded on so don't press play on whatever you're trying to record until you've let the tape run a few seconds.  

Of course, all these rules go out the window in the case of playlists on your computer or iPod.  These can be as long or short as you want them to be and also don't necessarily have to be put in any particular order (specifically if you plan to listen to them on random)--although you may want to put them in some kind of order if you include a lot of songs that have interludes or intros attached or songs that are two or more songs put together.

While playlists are more personal (they can't exactly be transferred anywhere but between an iPod and a computer), mixes can often be thoughtful gifts so long as you consider your audience when making one.  First of all, consider what message you'd like to convey with your mix.  You wouldn't make a mix for your girlfriend with the same tracklist as a mix for a buddy.  If they're done right, mixes can tell a story.  You might even think of them as a sort of movie soundtrack for some set of events that has played out or that you would like to play out.  Once I made a mix based on a very detailed dream I had and it was one of my favorite mixes I ever made.  Unfortunately the computer I made it on died and the iPod I saved it on followed suit.  Also remember not to pick songs that are too diverse because you're going to want to maintain some kind of flow.

Finally, we come to the epic conclusion of your mix.  You want to send your audience (or yourself) off with a bang.  Tracks that close the albums they're on are a great place to start.  Some of my favorite mix closers include Weezer's "Only In Dreams", Thrice's "Beggars", and even the eleven and a half minute "Jane Doe" by Converge has squeezed its way onto the end of a few of my mixes.  Keep in mind how you'd like this mix to end also.  Sometimes an abrupt ending is appropriate whereas sometimes a gradual fade out or even an outro type track is more suitable.  Whatever it is, make sure it encapsulates the theme and message of your mix.

As a writer, theme and message are so important to me when I make mixes.  I want to take people on a ride every time I make a mix and while the songs have to go together, there also needs to be a natural progression between dynamic contrasts and/or stylistic contrasts to keep the listener's interest and engage them in some kind of compelling narrative.  As I said previously, it's good to think of them almost like movie soundtracks and go through and figure out what songs you want for what scenes.  And there are all kinds of lengths you can take this to.

Many times people include some kind of packaging and inserts with their mixes.  This is a good way of better articulating your narrative by including at least some liner notes if not a full fledged story.  I'm actually in the process of writing a short story that has songs written into the text that correspond to specific moments in the story.  I'd love to be able to include a mix CD of the songs with copies of the story but I dunno if that's technically legal.  Either way, it's always fun to personalize and in my opinion you can never make a mix too personal.  Well, ok, sure you can but you know what I mean.

So now you all have what it takes to make an awesome mix for that special someone (or for yourself).  I'd love it if people submitted tracklists of some of the mixes they make using the tips in this piece.  I'll definitely be posting them along with tracklists of some of my favorite mixes I make in the future.  MIX IT UP!


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