30 Jul 2010

Mix Tape

A few months ago Felix made me a mix tape. Actually, it’s a mix CD, pedantically speaking, but still, it’s a very nice compilation of music that she thought I’d like. The CD got buried somewhere in my office, and it took about a month for it to surface, but eventually I gave it a listen. I have been playing it almost daily since.

It’s a great mix. Twenty two tracks, some podsafe, some not, by artists I know, and artists that are new to me. Tupak Shakur took me completely by surprise. The track , Rose That Grew From a Crack in the Concrete, is heartbreakingly beautiful. (Confession: I never really got rap. Now that’s it’s becoming kind of vintage, I’m kind of liking it.)

Felix’s mix CD has had me thinking lately about the mix tapes I used to make for friends, and about the tapes that people used to make for me, and about the lost art of the mix tape, in general. Most of the people I know are, or were at one time, serious mix tapers. The fact that my mix tapes came with me when I moved to Wales is a measure of their importance. Of course I still have them. Wouldn’t dream of throwing them away. The mix tape is something of a lost art form, and those tapes are full of memories.

Tonia and I were talking last night about what it was that made mix tapes so special. I said it had to do with intimacy. For me, handing over a mix tape to the person I’d made it for said, “I know you well enough to know what you like.” Or, it said, “I’d like to get to know you better, here’s some music I like.” When someone you don’t know very well gives you a mix tape, and you like it, that’s a beautiful basis for friendship right there.

We both agreed that the key to a good mix tape is getting the order of the songs just right. You want to start with something upbeat, but not too upbeat, because you don’t want to peak right away. I liked to begin with a bit of spoken word just before the first track. Usually something offbeat. A bit of Emo Phillips, perhaps. He had this one bit where he said, in his high little sing-song voice, “I was driving down the highway, and I was trying to change the radio. And just when I got the old one taken out…” I’d lead with something like that and then cut straight to the first track, usually something new and obscure, by a band that had been featured in the soundtrack of a John Hughes film. But never the track that was used in the film. That would be too obvious.

And that’s how it went with my mix tapes. I’d lay in the next track, season the middle with odd pieces of audio, maybe a TV theme song, or a bit of Stan Freeberg, one track after another, creating a mood with the music; crafting a listening experience, each song meticulously timed, all the way to the final track on the B side. Here I’d usually end with something old and obscure; Roy Rogers, Bessie Smith, maybe some Dean Martin. That sort of thing. If the old albums were a bit popped and scratchy, so much the better.

All of this happened in real time, which Tonia pointed out is the other key ingredient of a making a mix tape. This is what we lost when we all went digital.

There was something about the process of recording track after track that put you right in the middle of the mix tape experience you were creating. It involved sitting in front of a tape deck and turn table, with the needle in the groove, one finger on the edge of the album, and one finger on the record button. You had to let the disk spin, and instinctively gauge the perfect moment to release the record button, getting the timing between tracks just so. After describing the process to Tonia, she said, “Gee, do you think you were born to podcast, or what?”

I had never thought about it in those terms, but yes, I suppose that’s true. Crafting an audio experience is what Cast On is all about. It doesn’t all happen in real time, but the process is very similar. And, especially in the early days, uploading a new podcast carried with it a lot of the same feelings as handing over a mix tape. It said, ” I’d like to get to know you better, let me tell you about my knitting. Oh, and here’s some music I like.”

All this talking about mix tapes last night left me wondering if there was some technology that would allow me to digitize my old mix tapes. Silly question. Of course there is.

I have everything I need to accomplish this task except, possibly, the Walkman, which may have gone during one of my we-have-way-too-much-stuff purges. Yet, having thought the matter through, I’m less inclined to pursue the process of digitization than I was during my initial Google. There’s a lot of good music on those old mix tapes, and I am looking forward to listening to them again, but I suspect the mix tapes have had their moment, and that moment is no more. I’m leaning more towards digging the tapes out of the attic, and simply listening to them in the car, while we still can. Listening until they degrade, or the player eats them, or I become bored with them, whichever comes first.

The mix CD, however, I am willing to embrace and, frankly, I wonder what’s taken me so long. The experience of pulling together a meticulous compilation, one that speaks perfectly of time and place and emotion, will have changed, no doubt. But, as Felix’s delightful mix CD taught me again, the experience of listening will always remain the same.

Draconian licensing laws prevent me from making you a mix a tape but, if I could, the track featured in the embedded video would be part of the mix. You have to be somewhat familiar with Welsh culture to get a few of the visual jokes, but the lyrics are priceless, and you don’t have live in Wales to get those.

Posted on July 30, in Blog


  1. “Draconian licensing laws prevent me from making you a mix tape but, if I could…”

    Ah, but perhaps you could give us a track listing for a mix tape (even for the mix CD you’re enjoying so much). Then we can investigate the bands ourselves, or possibly even listen to the “tracks” in order by searching YouTube.

    Posted on 7.30.10 ·
  2. adnohr wrote:

    You could always make a track list or a iMix in iTunes. Loved the video – that song is so catchy, there’s a parody from my home state (NH) that’s quite funny too.

    Posted on 7.30.10 ·
  3. Darci wrote:

    You should find Tupak’s book of poetry – amazing. I teach it in my 8th grade English class.

    And I would love a set list from the mix CD

    Posted on 7.30.10 ·
  4. GinkgoKnits wrote:

    Something I love about knitting is that it gives me an excuse to sit still and truly listen to music. When I actually pay attention, I realize the band that I was thinking of as an old cheesy lapse in music judgement actually spoke to me in some way. It’s not something you can catch when you’re not willing to sit still and open your ears. I think mix tapes encouraged this behavior and it’s too bad society has decided it doesn’t really have the patience for these things anymore.

    Posted on 7.31.10 ·
  5. Bells wrote:

    I was a mix tape fiend as well, for myself and for friends. At times, one or two friends saw it as me trying to indoctrinate them and that makes me sad. I was just sharing what I loved. I’m less likely to do that these days. Would hate to inflict my loves on people who rejected it. Musical taste is so personal.

    I’m more likely to make up ipod playlists these days than mix tapes. I love that it’s so easy but it does, as you say, lack that tactile edge that we once had.

    Posted on 7.31.10 ·
  6. Angeline wrote:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. My husband and I (when we were teenagers) would head off in our VW beetle to go surfing, the back seat loaded with “mixed tapes,” we loved them. There was something about the dodgy cassettes player in the car, the way the sound went a little wonky when the tapes were overheated (a regular occurrence in this part of the world). Ah the memories.
    These days the car has a iPod on board with playlists I have made, doesn’t have quite the charm, husband still doesn’t know how to make a playlist.
    Thanks also for sharing “Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind”, I had a great laugh.

    Posted on 8.1.10 ·
  7. Felix wrote:

    I am so glad you liked the mixtape and that it inspired this great post about the construction of the perfect mixtape!

    I think the mixtape is an amazing sort of interpersonal currency… I wrote about it a lot last year when I was working on the Cut & Splice TAPE podcast for Sound & Music and I really loved Rachael Matthews’ project – Analogue Amnesty – all about spinning yarn from old tapes.

    That track – the rose that grew from concrete – features Nikki Giovanni – I must remember to put some of her stuff onto another mix for you, as she has some really gorgeous poems and a really delicious voice.

    I first came across her through Donal Dineen’s radio show, and her track ‘ego-tripping’ blew me away! You might enjoy.

    I also agree with your structural notes for the perfect mixtape; you don’t want to peak right away, but you do want to GRAB the listener with something instantly engaging.

    I like to end on a very subtle and unexpected note, to leave something just wafting in the air at the end of the mix like musical incense…

    …I think the TAPE has a special, material significance. But if anything, the process of making a mix CD allows for more perfectionism and I spend just as long working out the order for the tracks on a mix CD as I ever did on a mixtape.

    I am all out of blank CDs, but when I replenish the stash you shall have more of my mixes!


    Posted on 8.1.10 ·
  8. Nina wrote:

    My step-son and DIL met online. At their first date they exchanged IPODS for the week to see what the other listened to. They are both into music so this was kind of important to them. Fast forward 2 years, 1 wedding and 1 baby. They must have liked each other’s music. Hope you are well.

    Posted on 8.1.10 ·
  9. BeckyinVT wrote:

    I first listened to all your podcasts in reverse order (I still don’t know why) but the episode with the song October Light was only the 4th or 5th I’d listened to. And when that song came on, even though I’d never heard it before, I knew I was going to enjoy ALL your podcasts.

    Posted on 8.3.10 ·
  10. Nic wrote:

    Brenda, your podcast acts like a mix tape quite often. I never would have discovered Slackstring without it and “Sun Again Will Shine” is now one of my most played tracks on my iPod. I do miss the whole time investment of mix tapes. Some of the best ever given to me remind me of a beautiful yet ultimately doomed love affair and the person involved spent a lot of time making them for me, the last person ever to do so. I treasure them, precisely because so much time was spent on them.

    I do love my iPod, but I still think vinyl is king – the size, the reverence with with they need to be treated…. *dreams back to lost youth….*

    Posted on 8.4.10 ·
  11. Molleo1 wrote:

    My sister-in-law kindly digitized some audio cassettes my aunt had saved that had my grandmother’s voice on them, as well as my own, my aunt’s, and other members of my family, most of whom are now deceased. The resulting CD is a treasure!

    I remember the days of making mixed tapes in college. I tended to let themes guide my selections. You know: unrequited love, absence, etc. Those were the days!

    Posted on 8.13.10 ·

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