Listen to Your Elders
While track selection has long been wound up in the red AUX cable of history, the mixtape, a curated and focused selection of songs, is a relatively new concept. For many years the only way to listen to music was live performance, radio broadcast, or pressed vinyl records — all of which were outside the budget of creation for most folks. That is, until magnetic tape came around. Originally done Reel-to-Reel, they were wound up on massive film drums, eventually to form factor reduced to a compact cassette. Ease of recording, copying, and re-recording led to a boom in personal/small commercial use — anyone could make a shitty recording of a radio broadcast or live performances. People could rip from an album they bought, and it was a snap to copy them en masse. The real lightning strike, however, was the Sony Walkman, which made music more than just a home or car experience: you could take your music anywhere. With this perfect storm came the boom of the mixtape, a hand-selected, custom arrangement of songs and artwork to fit a mood, message, or moment. This practice continued through CD mass production, although recording to CD was harder, required software, and was not nearly as portable. As technology changed, mixtapes died on the steps to the altar of streaming platforms. Unlike our beloved mixtapes, however, digital music is impermanent, and many people have lost their music to the fickle winds of capitalism. Now that you know your history, let’s get down to brass tacks: Making your own physical mixtapes.
Go Hardware or Go Home
Tape Cassette — The OG, The Ancestor, The Unbeatable
- A-Side B-Side construction. Can play from end to end of the tape, flip it over and play it all the way back, no need to rewind.
- Finding one track can be a bit harder, but that difficulty led to a focused playlist worth listening to front-to-back.
- Can accept microphone jacks for recording from the radio, a computer, or a cassette player.
- Average lengths of C60: (30 minutes per side), C90 (45 minutes per side) and C120 (60 minutes per side) and it comes in literally hundreds of colour combinations.
- Despite what you might have heard, cassette tapes, cassette players, and cassette recorders are still broadly available, and you can get them on the cheap online or in physical stores.
CD — The Digital Breakthrough, The Compact King, The Flipbook Gallery
- A Single side full album and digital tracking for easy selection.
- Slimmer profile means you can bring an entire scrapbook of your favourite tunes, and they can be ripped right from the web.
- Creating a curated playlist for the CD was much easier, and the order of songs can be done without re-recording which means experimental and/or highly specific playlists can be laid out with ease.
- An average length of 72-80 minutes, depending on track quality. You gotta be sure it’s the right format for recording your tracks. CD-Rs are “burn once” but very reliable. The CD-RW is re-recordable, but may breakdown over time
- You might need to find an external USB CD-RW drive if you don’t have a desktop computer, but these can be acquired relatively reliably.
USB — The Young Hotness, The Size Queen, The Cyberpunk Gridstick
- Functionally infinite length, plug and play, infinite reorganization — anything you want can happen.
- They’re only really playable from specialized players or laptops, reducing general access, but you can include artwork and text inside the mixtape, so the level of artistic expression is only limited to your imagination
- You can literally buy a million times the amount of memory it took to land something on the moon for less than the price of a juggling lesson, just so you can clown on someone.
- Get these anywhere for a handful of change and song, but you better have a USB port on that computer of yours.
Placement and Tradition
Cassette tapes were originally designed with an A side and a B side, using one half of the tape for each side. This also provided a similar form factor as vinyl records, which started the trend back in 1910 withColumbia Records. In the 1960’s, as the modern concept of the album developed and we moved away from singles and compilation albums, the A side of an album became the home of popular singles, title tracks, and catchy bangers, while the B side became a refuge for weird songs — the experimental, and offcuts. The B side was for people already invested in the band, and this practice continued to cassettes, where the rewind factor turned the B side into a way to get back to the big hits without sitting in silence. When it comes to mixtapes, however, people often avoided putting the biggest bangers at the beginning, especially when sent as a gift, as it might lead to rewinding to hear the best song over and over. When you place a track, think about if it belongs in the A side or the B side, and if that facilitates the listener getting deep into the mix.
Do You Hear What I Hear? — Narrative, Flow, and Message
The practice of crafting a narrative across a mixtape starts with a few basic ideas of “What’s the point?” If you can’t tell me in five words or less why you made this mix, you might need to tighten your scope. Some of the most common concepts for a mixtape are things like “I love you, it hurts,” “summer time funner time jams,” “road trip indie film OST” or “get me through this alive,” Whatever your heart desires, whoever it desires, it’s all about the narrative and the message. When you pick a track, you should have in mind why it’s there at all; what emotion, what sound, and what point you are trying to make. Once you’ve picked a track that fits, think about how the song before it, and the song after, sound. If they don’t mesh — too loud followed by too soft, too pop-ish followed by too harsh — then you might want to move them, unless, of course, that fits the narrative.
If You’ve Got it. Flaunt it. — Aesthetic, Decoration, and Titling Your Mixtape
Once you’ve masterfully crafted your mixtape to have the perfect flow, narrative, and split it between A side bangers and B side beauties, it’s time to name it, cover it in art, and send it out into the world. When picking out a name, you can go as simple as pointing the five word description down, or as complex as a poem about a feeling you captured — whatever you can fit on the cassette/cd/usb drive. From, “Jock Jamz II: Return of the Summer Nights,” or “Heats Up, Beats Down: Songs to Rip It Up To,” picking the perfect title creates a mental space when you grab a mixtape to throw on.
Now you may be saying “You can’t draw on a usb key,” and that’s right, but I would like to introduce you to the now forgotten art of phone charms. People used to buy little objects on the end of a loop of string and affix them to a loop on the back of their Motorola RAZR cellular telephone to show off their sense of style, personal interests, and friendships. This practice can be extended to USB keys, which often have small loops for attaching to lanyards or such. Pick out a cute luggage tag for the title, find some nice beads or charms that encapsulate the feeling of the mix or make matching friendship bracelets for you and a friend. This is your mixtape world, go out there and put your heart into it.
Here is an example playlist of mine for you to get to grips with. This is done up to be exactly the length of a standard cassette tape, to facilitate that “flip and forget” listening format. I have done a bit of a twist on the A-Side B-Side format, creating an A-Side full of heartbreakers and songs to cry to in a big way, while the B-Side is largely numb, floaty songs for when you can’t cry anymore, but you don’t want to be real yet. On the A-Side I arranged the songs to be increasingly loud and raw, then on the B-Side I arranged them to go from most feeling to most numb, so that the transition between each side is as seamless as possible.
Title: You Know The End Is Coming And You Can’t Stop It
Concept: Let It Go, It’s Over.
Side A: Cry Yourself Dry
The Middle East – Blood
Said the Whale – Curse of the Currents
The Mountain Goats – Up the Wolves
Elliott Smith – Waltz #2
The Dears – 22: The Death of All the Romance
Immaculate Machine – No Way Out
Orville Peck – C’mon Baby, Cry
Magnetic Fields – I Don’t Want To Get Over You
Mo Kenney – On The Roof
Purple Mountains – All My Happiness is Gone
Side B: Drink a Glass of Water
Beach House – Heart of Chambers
This Mortal Coil – Fond Affections
Angels of Light – Dylan Pt. 2
Japanese Breakfast – Boyish
Cat Power – The Greatest
Mo Kenney – Pretty Things
Death and Vanilla – Wallpaper Pattern
Vanishing Twin – You Are Not An Island
Mr Twin Sister – Lady Daydream