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Mar. 31 2010 - 9:16 pm | 2,974 views | 8 recommendations | 15 comments

The lost art of making a mix tape

I’ve been hearing rumors that the cassette tape is making a comeback. First vinyl, now this. Can 8-tracks be far behind? Probably not. 8-tracks are like Betamax and ET for Atari: things that newer generations only know of as punchlines to jokes.

I can almost get behind a cassette comeback, for purely nostalgic purposes. Because  if you’re like most people who spent any amount of time sticking pencils in the holes of a cassette to wind them up after the tape came loose, just looking at an old cassette can make you pine for the days of the mix tape.

The art – and make no mistake about it, it is an art -  of making a mix tape is one lost on a generation that only has to drag and drop to complete a mix. There’s no love or passion involved in moving digital songs from one folder to another.  Those “mixes” are just playlists held prison inside an iPod. There’s no blood, sweat and tears involved in making them.

There was a certain ritual to making  a perfect mix tape, one that could take hours to finish. Maybe even days, depending on how much you wanted to impress the recipient.  While the songs had to have a common theme (“I hate you and hope you die” was as common a theme as “I would like to get to first base with you”), it wasn’t good enough to just take a bunch of love songs and throw them on a tape. It was about so much more than grouping some tunes together. They had to segue. They had to flow into one another. Each song needed to be a continuation of the one before it, as if all these disparate bands got together and recorded a concept album based solely on your feelings for the guy who sits in front of you in English class.

There would be albums strewn about the room. There would be painful minutes spent starting and stopping and restarting a song in an attempt to hit the record button at just the right time so as to eliminate the clunks and hisses. But even if you didn’t time it so perfectly as to not have even a millisecond of space between “Don’t Cry” and “Jamie’s Crying” it was ok. That hiss became part of the mix. Upon the third listen, that sound would no longer be a piece of imperfection, but part of the flow of the tape; the two seconds of dead air was a metaphor for the silence in your relationship.

When the mix was completed, you’d sit back and admire your handiwork. You’d play it a couple of times, making sure the theme stayed intact, the segues were perfect, the message came through loud and clear. Then you’d painstakingly write the track list on the card provided with the cassette, squeezing in the long titles, making sure you got the artist’s name spelled right, obsessively checking over and over again that the track listing was correct. The next two hours would consist of you sitting on your bedroom floor staring at the tape while you tried to come up with a brilliant title, one that at once spoke of both the awesome music contained in the cassette and the feeling you were trying to convey. It didn’t matter if the cassette was a subtle gift to a would be lover, an offering of empathy to a newly single friend or a morose reminder to yourself of the dark abyss that was your life – you had to have the right title.

Does anyone put such loving, tender care into making a iTunes playlist? Will the kids of today ever know the pain and anguish of finishing a mix tape only to realize that the first song skipped and to record it over would ruin the entire tape? Will they ever know the fear and anxiety that comes when you slip a mix tape into a crush’s desk or the thrill when your phone rings later that night and it’s him saying something like “Wow, I had no idea you even owned any Yes albums. That’s totally cool.”   They’ll never understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a mix tape, to run home and listen to it on your headphones trying to find the message within, anticipating the next track, swooning when a song about friendship segues into a song about friends falling in love and then dying a little bit of embarrassment when the last song is the crush himself singing Toto’s “Hold the Line” to you.

For the beauty of the mix tape alone, I’d love to see the cassette make a comeback.  My days of crushes are long gone, but I do have a recipient in mind for the mix called “It would be nice if you called your mother once in a while.”

Brand New – Mix Tape


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  1. collapse expand

    Days. That’s the measurement one would have to use to account for the amount of time I spent making mix tapes and enjoying tapes that were made for me.
    You nailed it, as usual.

  2. collapse expand

    No one nailed Mix Tape Artistry analysis quick like Nick Hornby in High Fidelity. A little taste…


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    I found a shoebox full of mixed tapes with an old walkman at my mom’s house. Some of them I had made, some had been made for me. Most had silly titles like “daydreaming” and “thinking of you”, but one was titled “espionage”. It was a great tape.

    Now I keep all of my current favorites in a playlist with that title.

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    I miss the days of the mix tape as well. I have lamented its demise to many of my friends over the last decade or so. I think you nailed it–the time and effort spent to find just the right songs and sequence them in just the right order so that the recipient might pick on the “theme” you had in mind. I recall one tape I made of love songs, creatively titles “Various”, that mixed together everything from They Might Be Giants to Journey to Peter Gabriel. It was so popular among my friends that I had to dupe a copy for almost everyone of them. When my best friend was in college I made him a mix of punk and alt-rock songs. To mess with the hippies in his dorm I titled it “Dead in D.C.”. I imagined some stoner sticking in the deck and getting the surprise of his/her life when Dead Kennedys came blasting out instead of Hairy Garcia and his band of crap music makers. I got a huge laugh when my buddy came home for a break and told me that my vision had actually come true. Wish I had been there to see it!!

  5. collapse expand

    I had made a dozen or so mix tapes in my youth, mostly for my own consumption (yeah, sad). On one occasion did I actually try to splice tape to create a perfect, dead-air free tape. Some actual blood was spilled in this endeavor (razors are sharp, after all).

    My skill at making them increased 10 fold when I was I joined the college radio station. Suddenly, I was segueing songs the way they were supposed to be! But after making 2 in a studio, the desire to make tapes was waning. The old-school method was more cathartic than doing it with two turntables and noise reduction.

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    Oh the mix tape is not lost, not lost at all. It’s merely taken a new form, you need to look no further than mix DJ’s to see the passion and love for music and creating that perfect mood is still alive and vibrant.

    There are people mixing every style of music you can think of into mix sets. They’ve evolved sure, but isn’t that a good thing?

    Some people still record to cassettes too, and while the methods of which the songs are mixed has changed into something alot more complicated, it’s still the same basic principles. Creating a mood, selecting the right music and putting it in at the right moment, and of course, the passion for the music is still there, and that’s the important part.

    It’s easy for people to idley consume music, never really enjoying it past the mainstream, never putting in any effort to interact and find it, but I can tell you that’s definately not the case for everyone. If the mix tape represented anything to me it was passion for music, and that’s still around, and the mix tape lives on in mix sets.

    Also, check out 8tracks.com, it’s the old format of mix tapes, but online.

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    Good point about mix DJs, Ben., Also, I’m on 8tracks.com as inthefade.

  8. collapse expand

    Fun post.

    I loved making mix tapes, and getting them. I made one for my ex-husband when he lived four hours’ drive from me, to make that commute more fun; made road trip tapes for friends; made one filled with Canadian songs for my mom when she became a Canadian citizen. I met a handsome young doctor from Newfoundland while covering a medical conference and he sent me a great tape filled with bands I’d never heard of, and some of which became favorites as a result. There was the math of each track’s length, minutes and seconds, and would it go too long? Some of my mix tapes are so firmly in my head that the other day I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” on the radio and automatically awaited the song that, on the mix tape I;d made with that in it, came after it…

    I miss the whole thing.

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    Caitlin, you hit on the thing I really miss about mixes: knowing them so well that you anticipate one song after another every time you hear it, even off the mix.

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    You know I am right there with you seeing as I still give away mixtapes, ..er… CDs on my blog every month. Yeah, it’s not the same as cassettes, though.

  11. collapse expand

    MC you hit a homerun, as evidenced by reader comments. Caitlyn’s right, good mixes would become hard coded into the memory. Personally,I never left vinyl (Todd Snider has a partial inventory of my albums) and agonized over perfect transitions that could make or break the mix. Sadly, looking back, I made more than a few that were just God awful. Maybe it’s best for the world, or at least my friend, if cassettes don’t make a come back.

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