Becoming a young adult in the 1980s gave me a front row seat to a unique and short lived societal phenomenon – the mix tape. Typically 90 minutes on two sides of a cassette. 20 to 30 carefully chosen songs. Each side a unique theme.
In an era of digital music where playlists are created in a matter of minutes, where an 80 minute CD can be burned with minimal effort by any 10 year old, and individual songs are readily available for purchase (cheap) or for swapping (free), the mix tape concept loses its short-live glory. Or, maybe it doesn't.
In the mid-eighties through the early-nineties, tape mixing was an all evening affair. It would often take 2, 3 hours or more, lots of planning, erasing and re-recording. Because of the time investment, much more thought went into the song choice and order than a playlist of today. The mood of an entire side of music could be scuttled by a poorly chosen song. A sloppy recording job – missing an intro or cutting off a fade-out – could take a brilliant tape and turn it into a hack-job.
By the mid-nineties, most adults' music collections had not transferred completely to CDs, and certainly not to MP3s. Songs were often recorded off of LPs (now referred to as 'vinyl'). Because individual songs were not readily available, one needed access to the entire album that contained the wanted song. This usually entailed borrowing albums from friends, buying 12 inch singles, and in some cases buying entire albums to record one or 2 songs to tape.
In movies made after the 1990s, there are from time to time disparaging references to mix tapes. They are viewed as a relic of a bygone era and seem worthy of disdain. In truth, the mix tape was at times a modern equivalent of a suitor writing poetry. A several hour introspective commitment scouring your music collection, looking for songs that demonstrate where your relationship is now and where you want it to go. The songs must be ordered to flow well for listenability and of course there needs to be the perfect blend of pop & edge.
Prior to the mid-seventies, the fidelity of cassette tapes just wasn't up to the task of capturing the music in a form worth recording. As a result, the length of tapes available for purchase was generally more geared to other activities. Being an early adopter of the mix tape phenomenon, I first started packing my favorite Beatles and Doors songs on 60 minute Memorex tapes. Initially, my motivation was to cut out the 'clutter', simply flooding the tape with my favorite songs, the hits. But quickly, I learned that 20 hit songs in a row becomes boring. Carefully chosen clutter improves the tape immensely. Eventually, my tapes would include only a handful of favorites. These songs became the pinnacle, the apex. The rest of the tape was the art. The intentional backdrop required to elevate the pinnacle songs to soaring new heights.
As I became more adept at tape mixing, I began to record a brief snippet of a song to enhance the tape. My most impressive tape introduced Sonic Youth's "Youth Against Fascism" with Frank Black's brilliant and bizarre "you f---ing die" diatribe, and I plugged Public Enemy's "You're Quite Hostile" refrain into the silence after Fugazi's "Waiting Room" introduction. The power of the mix tape. You engineer the music better than the producer. And then you listen to it so many times that 20 to 25 years later, the songs still seem to belong together.
I have a paid hobby as a spin instructor. Because of this, I still have the opportunity to mix 60 minutes of music twice a week. Obviously, this is all done digitally now, and decorum requires that I avoid phrases like "you f---ing die". While I still pay attention to song combinations, I'm often looking for contrast in addition to flow. Where my mix tapes would be rolling hills of sound, mood and energy, my spin mixes are much more likely to resemble plateaus and valleys. Slower, more mellow songs often followed by fast, angry songs. The idea is to shake up the workout with the music. Irony helps lighten the mood. I'll throw in an odd, old pop song – Afternoon Delight or Summer Loving – just to get a laugh and give people a break after a long segment of hard-driving beat and tempo.
The shuffle features common with digital music, first with CDs and now MP3 files, have made us desensitized to music flow. I suppose the radio has always been guilty of throwing disjointed songs together, but the artists' LPs were often carefully crafted to create a mood, to tell a story. Unlike the hours of effort to create a mix tape, the ease of working with digital music has made us lazy. While taping, the time investment made us want to be sure we got it right the first time. When burning a CD, or simply dumping music onto an MP3 player for a run or a workout, it is so simple and cheap (free) that if a song doesn't fit into the mix, we can either re-burn the CD or delete the song from the playlist and get it right second time around.
For years now, I have wanted to learn the ins and outs of music engineering. Essentially giving myself a skillset that I had with cassette tapes. There are so many things that I want to do, so many
songs I want to blend, trim, edit. Fade-outs & fade-ins, eliminate F-Bombs. Here's one of my "things" – I am almost completely incapable of reading directions to learn how to do something. I either need to work through trial and error, or someone needs to show me how to do it.
I've downloaded DJ programs and tried to work through the process of engineering a song, and I just can't do it, I can't figure it out. And as a 50ish adult, I don't know anyone who can show me how. Because my kids are almost teens, in a few years they will likely possess an innate ability to navigate these software programs. If I can just hold off a couple more years, maybe they can show me how. But without this skill, I will never fully recapture the music mixing style of my early adult years.
Like so many of the conveniences of the modern world, something special is lost when activities become too easy to do. Tape mixing was truly an art form, and it has become lost to all but a few – including me.
Possibly, I'm overthinking this – a habit of mine. In the eighties, cassette tapes were the best technology available. The Sony Walkman was the iPod of the time. A few years earlier, we were still listening to AM frequencies on transistor radios. Tape mixing was our attempt to control the flow and order of music – something only a DJ could previously do. But the medium grew. Tape mixers truly cared about the final product. And to this day, I've yet to hear a home-crafted CD that comes close to the top five tapes I’ve mixed.