Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Lost Art of the Mix Tape

Back in the day when the primary sources of music were cassettes and LPs (records, vinyl, etc.), I used to make mixed tapes for friends. Unlike the primary character in the book/movie "Hi Fidelity", however, I did not make these tapes only for the fairer sex. I suppose my reason was two-fold: 1) I wanted people to understand that I had a very huge interest in music, and by giving them a mix tape, they would possibly "get me" better, and we would thereby have something in common; 2) It was a way to perhaps influence someone into buying more of my favorite band's albums, thereby helping out the bands I loved.

Over the years, I probably made over 100 mix tapes for people, sometimes multiple mix tapes for one person, usually my closest friends. It probably started when my dad brought me back a mono radio/tape player from Saudi Arabia, on one of his trips for the government. The thing was basically a boombox with one speaker. I'm not sure it was mono, but for some reason, I feel like it was. This was somewhere around 1978, I'm sure. I didn't even have a cord for the thing at first, I was using batteries. Dad told me that the tape deck would use up more juice, so when I recorded a song off the radio, I only recorded a snippet of it. Usually, this meant that I never got the beginning of a song, and barely got the end of the song. This was annoying to my friends I shared the tapes with, but didn't really bother me all that much.

Then my dad went out and bought a multi-component stereo, and laid out a concept for me: If you make a tape of your records, you can play this $1 tape over and over until it collapses, and save wear on your records. Pure. Fucking. Genius. At the time, I had a collection of 7" records, all Top 40 stuff, so I began by putting my favorites on tapes. Some people would stick to the hits, or A-sides of these records, but I was always willing to give the B-side a chance. I really liked Pat Benatar's "My Clone Sleeps Alone" and Heart's "Pilot". While "My Clone" was actually on Pat's first album, "Pilot" as far as I know, was exclusive to the "Barracuda" single.

Here's the thing about mix tapes: Anyone can slap together enough songs to fill 90 minutes. The key is trying to make them flow, which can be tough, especially if you're mixing genres like Top 40, album-oriented new wave, and metal. Which, at times, was what I was doing. To add to that, if you're only using a turntable and one tape deck, it's going to take a long time because if you're going for quality, that means you actually have to clean each record, cue it up perfectly (so as not to have too much dead air between songs - aim for 2 seconds, less if you're going for "aural assault", or one song right after the other, BAM-BAM-BAM; NOTHING BUT HITS, BITCH!)

I would start out by trying to figure out what to put on the tape, usually planning the first 6-10 songs. After that I started getting excited and impatient and would begin the process. While the first 6 or so are recording, you're listening, pulling out more material, and then trying to get a preview in your head how the next songs will flow. If you have two tape decks, and a turn table, then you can try to go record-tape-record, so you can speed the process. What's even better? When you add a CD player into the mix. Now you're cooking with gas. You can get a 90-minute tape done in about 120 minutes.

When you make a lot of these things, you sort of start taking it for granted. You think, "Everyone makes mix tapes for people." Only they don't. My friend, Andy, the Inhuman Eating Machine, was conducting an interview with Dave Crider of Estrus records for the Ersatz World 'zine we had in Ames. He was discussing his frustration with people's music knowledge, and Dave pointed out, "Not all people share the same love of music as you." I think Andy had an epiphany. I know I did.

What cracks me up is that with the internet, I'll find people from my past, or they'll find me, and you have the "I don't know if you remember me" conversations. Sometimes, people will say, "Hell yes, I remember you. You made me that mix tape back in ..." Honestly, it blows me away.

The other day, my wife called me and told me that I had a package from Amazon. She was wondering what I had ordered, when she opened the box to find a book that was sent to me from P Mart's little brother, Sam. Sam put a note in there saying that the book was written by Dr. Frank (Frank Portman) from the Mr. T Experience (MTX). Sam said in the note that I had put some MTX on a mix tape for him when he was in high school, and he had been downloading a lot of MTX from eMusic. Again, I'm amazed.

I would still love to make mix tapes for people. I've made mix CDs but the art is not the same. Drag and drop songs, move them into an order, and you can maybe fit 70 minutes of music onto a CD. CD is done in 10 minutes. Where's the love in that?

My man, P Mart, does a good job, only he does "themed" CDs, which are eclecta-cool. He did one with Falsetto songs, one called Black, which all the songs have the word "Black" in them, and he didn't choose obvious ones. I've discovered a lot of great music from those, including Modest Mouse's "Black Cadillacs" and "Cattle and the Creeping Things" from the Hold Steady off the "Best of 2005" CD he made.

Cassettes were never the greatest media for quality sound, but they sufficed, you could let people borrow them, or throw them in the car for a road trip. I miss being able to do quirky things at the end of the tapes, like throwing a comedy skit on there.

CDs are just as good, only shorter. But even CDs are dying out. People have iPods. I guess it would be cool to pass along Songlists, if that could be done.

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