I think I'm going to give this a shot and impart my knowledge and experience in this matter (besides, this gives me something to do while making a tape for a fellow Everythingian and another friend in Boston). I've been collecting records since high school and have made countless tapes for friends, lovers, and random people. The most common comment I get is: "Great tape!" I got my masters in tape mixology.
So, as the popular children's classic goes...
In the beginning...
As is explained in "High Fidelity", the most important part of a mix tape is the first three songs. You need to be able to grab the listener and keep their interest without, as it's so eloquently put, blowing your wad. A good formula to follow is "start slow, take it up, bring it down." While this seems like a major limitation, there are a couple of ways to have a good beginning on every tape you make.
- You're going to want to set aside five hours per tape. Yup. No, really. I'll break it down: on a 110 minute tape, it typically takes me the length of the tape, plus thirty-five minutes per-side (to allow for album fumbling, sample searching, equipment hitting, and the like), and then you have to make the tape case and listen to your piece of art. YMMV, and I'm paying more attention to the cassette deck counter than the clock, but it takes longer than one would think.
- Always use high quality tapes. Always, unless you hate the person you're making the tape for. I usually use Maxell High Bias XL-II 110s, but I've gotten good use out of the TDK CD Power series. Fuji makes shit tapes. Sony's all right, but makes weird cases. The longevity and quality of the tape is worth the few extra bucks.
- Before you start, reset the counter on your tape deck and then fast forward through the tape. Make a note of what number the counter ends on. This is especially necessary on old style rolling counters that typically have no relation to how much time has passed (some measure feet, others meters. Both mean bollocks if you're trying to figure out if you can fit in that doubleplus cool live bootleg Wedding Present cover of Lou Reed's Satellite of Love), but you can never really trust tape measurements (sometimes I've gotten about six or seven extra minutes past what the outside packaging of a tape has told me).
- Begin a tape with a sample from a movie or a spoken word record. One of my personal favourites is "Charlie, remember what happened happened to the man who got everything he asked for..." bit from the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
- Use an upbeat opener, followed by something with a faster tempo and a driving bass line, then lead into the rest of the tape with something more similar to what the majority of your tastes are.
- Starting with a pleaser or a radio hit isn't selling out -- it's good advertising. Pretend your music taste is on trial, and the tape you're making is your legal defense. Play to the jury by starting with what they'll like and slowly introducing your more unique elements later on. Of course, if you don't know what someone's particular tastes are, anything goes.
- Make sure your songs lead into each other. You're not trying to throw curveballs here -- you're trying to get someone to bop their head like they're an extra in a Volkswagen commercial.
- Allow yourself at least seven seconds of trailer silence at the beginning and end of each side of a tape. It's really more like three, but give yourself the safety of seven. Only losing your family to a pack of wild animals sucks more than having a song start in the middle of a beat or cut off in the middle of a final crescendo.
I'm using an "up, up, up
" technique with the opener on the tape I'm making now. This isn't something I normally do, but I've had a couple of songs in my head that would go well near the beginning of a tape and now just seemed like the right time to use 'em. So here's a look at our tape so far:
I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong -- David Byrne
King Deluxe -- Bows
Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer -- Morphine
I've done better, but I'm happy with it. Let's move on.
This could also be known as the "general tips" section, since from here on out there aren't any set rules. Here are some things that I do to keep things interesting or make my task as a tape maker easier.
- On a piece of scratch paper write down your playlist, including song title, artist name, and what time the song ends (which is helpful if you screw up somewhere and need to make some adjustments for the sake of time). Don't make your tape insert as you go: spend time on this after the tape is all made, otherwise it will look sloppy if you make a mistake or omit a song. I'll get to making the case later.
- Don't put the record level too high or too low. Try to avoid hitting peaks too often. Between -6 and 0 dBs is optimal, but don't worry if it peaks on bass hits.
- Go back and listen after the first few songs to make sure the recording level is okay.
- Take full advantage of your equipment. The best kind of system to make tapes on is a component system because all-in-ones usually don't have a record level and have shite for extra inputs. If your CD player has a fader, use that instead of the record level knob. If your tape deck has a mechanism that tests tape bias, use it. My setup includes a Technics turntable, Technics RS-TR575 dual stereo cassette deck, Sony CE525 CD player, and a Sony DE945 receiver, plus assorted Frankensteined components that've been found and repaired and broken again over the ages, and I have no complaints whatsoever about my system's performance.
All right. Enough with the boring stuff. On to aesthetics.
- Vary the mood. This is the most important thing to remember. Bring things up as much as you bring 'em down. Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away. Explore the full range of your collection. Live free or die. Don't justify someone tossing your tape out the window of their car because it bored them. Just remember that a weirdly balanced tape can be just as hard to listen to. Do your best to swing your tape's moods in a calm and orderly fashion.
- The two sides, two tapes theory: there's a school of thought that likes to treat the end of a side as the end of a tape, which is largely a remenant from the pre-auto-reverse days. Most folks nowadays treat the entirety of a tape as a very long album. I meet these two schools of thought somewhere in the middle and give side A a decent ending, so as to entice the listener to venture forth into the musky jungles of Side B, and then give said Side B a punchy beginning tune.
- Never put the same band back to back. There are very few instances where this really fits, such as creating your own personal "best of". I'm all for peppering a current favorite band throughout a tape, but it just seems tacky to me to even have two songs off the same compilation or soundtrack next to each other on a tape, let alone two songs by the same group.
- Try to keep about three to five seconds between each song, unless you're trying to pull off something extra super cool like merging two different songs (one mix-tape moment that I was very proud of years ago involved leading Rusted Root tribal-type drum song into Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's "You And Me And The Bottle Makes Three Tonight (Baby)". This was in high school and done with no professional equipment, just a good sense of where the tape was positioned under the recording heads. Unfortunately, the tape itself is lost to the ages.) In no circumstance should you have more than seven seconds of dead air (except, of course, at the end of a side).
- A lot of mixers use a signature song or group. One friend of mine always put at least one Black Sabbath song on a tape because "chicks dig it", another friend puts tons of Guided By Voices on his tapes because "GBV fans give good head." Whatever. I usually try to include as much of the Athens scene as I can, but I usually get distracted by other records with shinier covers. I almost always remember to put on some REM, Vic Chesnut, or Japancakes, though. I'm also fond of using a little Lambchop to add a healthy bit of hazy twang to a mix. Basically, I like to hick shit up because, um, chicks dig it.
- This may seem kind of obvious, but cueing up an actual, vinyl record can really suck. A lot of the times, especially with 45's or seven inches, you have to worry about the annoying pop that occurs upon the needle's initial contact with the record. Nicer turntables have a cool servo-type mechanism that smoothly lowers the arm, but you have to have a pretty good eye for where the needle is going to land. I recommend playing through the last seconds of the song before the one you want to record and then begin recording once your desired song begins. It's a pain, and you can't do it at the beginning of a record. If anyone has a better idea, let me know.
Okay. So, continuing with side A, we have:
Johnny The Horse -- Madness
Strange Attractors -- Poster Children
Bewitched -- Luna
Sweetness Follows -- REM
Down Colourful Hill -- Red House Painters
Tracy (Kid Loco mix) -- Mogwai
Brand New Order -- Seaweed
C'mon, Let's Spawn -- Make Up
The Fool -- Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Electric Fence -- Califone
Up With People -- Lambchop
M.O.R. -- Blur
Man Made of CO2 -- Man... Or Astro-Man?
1000 Pounds -- Superchunk
Workin' On Leavin' The Livin' -- Modest Mouse
Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) -- The Wedding Present
Help The Aged -- Pulp
Nothing Much Happens -- Ben Lee
Simple Things -- Belle And Sebastian
That's it. It's over. I'm taking the children with me.
The last three songs are almost as important as the first three. You want to leave the listener with a haunting feeling, one that will prompt a moment of reflection before they start the tape over again. I usually prefer long songs like Mogwai's "Mogwai Fear Satan" or Spiritualized's "Cop Shoot Cop", but this time I kinda screwed up. I still have what I believe is a decent final song, however, and it leads back in pretty well with the beginning, so I'm happy.
Anyway, I find it's usually best to bring the mood down around the last twenty minutes of the tape, have the second to last song be an intermediary, and then wrap it all up with an emotional grand finale. Save your big fireworks for last. Now's the time to really wow your audience.
So here are my last three songs:
Fade -- Calexico
The Official Ironmen Rally Song -- Guided By Voices
Naomi -- Neutral Milk Hotel
When you're all finished, be sure and take the tape on a test drive. If you find yourself paying more attention to the music than the road, consider it a successful tape, despite what the recipient will say. It's now time to move on to making the case.
I'm usually pretty straightforward when it comes to tape labels. Song names and artists are usually enough for me, but a lot of folks will include collages, bits from the Weekly World News, drawrings, nekkid photos, or whatever. Stick this stuff on the glossy side, and use the rough, papery side to write the song titles on. Your pen will be happier.
My one creative saving grace, aside from the tape itself, is the title. A simple one-liner is a lot cooler than "Bobby Joe's Mix Tape." My favourite has been "Second-Hand Smug". I'm calling this tape "Grok over London" in honour of Wesley Willis.
The best tape case I've seen used a cool picture from some horrible CD, some gears and bolts, and some hot glue. The end product is something that looks very cool and just screams "PLAY ME!" Unfortunately I'm not that artistic, so the bare bones aesthetic will have to do.
There are, of course, many ways to make tapes. Listed above are just the steps I follow. They've never let me down, and I hope they're of some use to some budding record collector out there just dying to justify all the time he spends in front of his stereo system. If you think you're up to the Everything crew's high standards, be sure and check out The Great Grand E2 Mix-Tape Lotto.
the Chihuahua Grub mix-tape hit list:
• icicle (completed 09.11.00, disintegrated sometime in november of 2000, remake pending)
• ideath (pending)
• stand/alone/bitch (completed 05.02.01)
• Lost and Found (pending)
• karmaflux (pending, commissioned through ransom)
• aphexious (pending, remuneration)
• jessicapierce (completed 06.13.01)
• Crux (completed 12.08.01)
• flamingweasel (pending until he sucks giant doodies)
• drunk coconut (completed 05.11.01)
• Phyllis Stein (pending)
• perdedor (pending, heroism and driving above and beyond the call of duty)
• briiiian (pending)
• junkpile (completed 06.12.01)
• Katyana (pending, it's a Wedding Present)
• impishlaugh (pending, ever so pending)
• the gilded frame (pending, remuneration for letting me be a part of weekend sound track)
• dem bones (pending, editorship bribery)
• heyoka (pending, jaffa cakes... mmm...)
• beauvine (pending, make yourself comfortable)
• lawnjart (completed 02.19.03)
• (your name here)