All week long, I’ve been in heavy CD-duplication mode, coming home every night and knocking out 5-10 CD-R's of my annual Christmas CD. (I send these instead of cards … I don’t like cards.) As much as I bitch about the process, I hearken back to the days of cassette tapes and realize it’s a cakewalk to spend six minutes per disc and have dozens of discs completed by week’s end.
This may be boring, but who knows, maybe people who weren’t familiar with the lugubrious process of making mix tapes will get a kick out of this. Making those things really was a labor of love. Compiling them took much longer than with a CD and relied on a well-structured stereo system as opposed to a computer.
As with CD’s, it would all start with a concept. I can’t even remember the first cassette compilation I did – had to be in college, mid-80s, when thanks to Walkmans, cassettes become the dominant media format. The Sony Walkman was a revolutionary piece of equipment. Before then, there was no portable device, save for transistor radios, that one could carry around and listen to music with. (Sure, there was the Panasonic Hand Pump Eight-Track, but those things were just as bad as transistor radios in terms of sound quality, and very few people had eight-track tape recorders. Even less mourn the “warmth” of eight-track tapes: the single worst product invented in the entertainment industry, and unfortunately one I bore full witness to along with millions of other music fans in the 70's.) There were car cassette players … but you had to have a car.
With the dawn of the Walkman, and having a car at the time with a Sparkomatic tape deck (for the uninitiated, that means I was sucking fumes financially), I dived headlong into creating cassette compilations. And at first, they must have really sucked. My breadth and knowledge of music was extremely limited, mostly to the more tasteful rock of the 70s and 80s, and only the obviously-great 60s acts (Stone, Beatles, Kinks, Hendrix, etc.). College kicked that door open, not just with the indie-rock scene entering its prime, but with my first indulgence in 50s Rock and 60s R&B, i.e., discovering music before I was of-age or even born. (Buying The Atlantic Rhythm & Blues series as each two-disc set came out was a monumental growing experience for me.) Getting into the requisite Dylan and Velvet Underground undergrad listening experiences was also key.
For awhile there, especially the late 80s when vinyl was being phased out, cassettes were it. I didn’t buy many store-bought cassettes, but there were a few dozen from that time period, and, man, did the quality of manufactured cassettes suck. I could make better-sounding cassettes with blank, low-noise TDK’s and a deeply average stereo. I’d buy vinyl whenever possible, eventually caving in and buying a CD player in 1990. (I think we’re in a similar phase now with CD’s giving way to MP3 files, or at least it feels that way to me.) By the early 90s, my music collection was an unruly mix of vinyl albums, CD’s and shitty cassettes.
These were my sources for the mix tapes I made. I’d need a lot of room, physically, any time I did this, because the start of the process was pulling all the albums, CD’s and cassettes from my collection and laying them all over the floor and furniture around me. The concept was to create the mix in my head, and when mentally choosing each song, pick up each piece of physical product with that song on it, thus creating an oblong stack of all three media formats. After awhile, I had the art down so well mentally that I knew when to stop a “Side 1” pile and when to start a “Side 2” pile.
Of course, there’d be a lot of juggling and switching as I realized one segue would work better than another. I was never too uptight about song choice. If an artist had two songs I wanted on the compilation, it happened. If some psychedelic song had a 15-minute drum solo at the end that I hated, I’d fade the entire solo out. The art of the segue is crucial in any mix – if you don’t develop some sort of feel for this, you’re wasting time, although this is not as big an issue with CD’s and “next track” buttons. Sometimes the segue is a nod and a wink to the informed listener or a thematic connection with lyrics, other times it’s similar-sounding songs leading into each other, or the hot/cold shock of loud and quiet songs together. There’s a beginning, middle and end to the mix, as with any story. It rarely pays to be too hip, unless all you know are hipsters, in which case, you need new friends and a swift kick in the ass.
And here’s where it grew into an abacus-style luddite process. I would take each album, or CD, or cassette, write the song title from the disc down on a notebook page and write the track time next to it, a circled number representing its place in the mix. I’d do this for each song, each side, and then sit there with a calculator, adding up the times, making sure to take the “seconds” total, always in the hundreds, and divide by sixty, then adding that number the “minutes” total, which would often be an extra 5-10 minutes. This was where I’d fine out I had 10 or 15 extra minutes to kill, a few songs to get rid of. I preferred using TDK SA 110s – 55 minutes per side. The reason I loved the TDK tapes was they always ran longer than 55 minutes – usually around 57 minutes, so I knew I had that two-minute cushion to play around with.
Song cutting time was always a pain in the ass – still is with mix CD’s. But I also found it beefed up the mix, got rid of also-ran’s and songs that, while I liked them, shouldn’t have been there. My notebook pages for these mixes must have looked like a track list from a recording studio – arrows everywhere, songs crossed out, or arrowed in. Anyone reading the page could have seen my thought process, from where my mind was going with the song selection, to the mild angst of whittling the mix down to fit the time frame.
The time frame involved up to this point in the process is at least three hours. Because in the process of trying to find which songs I wanted, I often had to throw them on the stereo to see if it felt right, which often lead me to listening to other songs from the album. And with cassettes, I’d have to get the tape set to the start of the song I wanted – a pissy process with a lot of Fast Forwarding and Rewinding. This is all leading up to the actual act of making the cassette.
Making the cassette tended to take another three hours: recording in real time, sometimes fading longer songs out 30 seconds early to make room, sometimes having a hell of a time getting a song (usually part of a medley or disc where one song flowed into another) at the right starting point. Three hours, at least. I’d be exhausted after doing this, feeling like I literally spent all day in a recording studio, because in a half-assed sense, I had. The whole process was six hours at a minimum: one of those Saturday afternoon/evening/night endeavors.
But I loved doing it and still enjoy doing mix CD’s. Luckily with tapes, I had a dual cassette deck and could dub another copy of the cassette in about 20 minutes. (I can dub about four CD’s in the same amount of time, and this with a slow laptop.) Looking back, I think 110 minutes was way too long and probably wore out the listener. I suspect a near-80 minute CD may be too long, too, but I rarely do a mix CD without running near that limit. The last step: writing in the song titles, which was a pain in the ass with mixes made up of shorter songs (like 50s rock, 60s Pop or 70s punk) – there were never enough lines on the cassette case insert to fit all the titles, so I had to write small and put numerous songs on each line. Again, programs like MS Word and PowerPoint made this much easier, but this was how it was done before we all had home computers.
Never got too fancy with artwork, although my options, again, are much more broad with even a basic design program like PowerPoint. I’m pretty good with design – don’t think I missed my calling, but I always did well in art class and have a knack for creating things from scratch with a real homespun vibe. I have friends who do graphic arts for a living, and one of them has told me I'm primitive, but effective. My favorite cassette design was one of my last, a Glitter Rock tribute from the mid-90s. I’d found a neat fan drawing online of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” face (with a star over the left eye), copied the image of a Gibson Guitar from that company’s website, put a plus sign between each, followed with an equal sign, and the image of a big blue star throwing off rays. For the cassette’s side panel, I went to Staples and found those little gold-star decals that elementary school teacher’s probably still use to put a “gold star” by a student's name on list to demonstrate a job well done. I put those around the cassette’s title. It looked like something a junior-high kid in love with glitter rock and on acid would have created circa 1974. In other words, it fit the project perfectly.
Why all the work? I guess for a number of reasons. On rare occasions, it was to impress pussy. (Hint: mix tapes do not impress pussy. Pussy doesn’t care that you have the Paper Lace version of “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.” Pussy will appreciate the gesture, but will also think you’re weird, hopefully in an endearing way.) The older you get the less you’re “showing off” when you bestow music mixes on people. It’s a cool thing when you’re 21 and at school, and I guess as we all get older, I tend to forward mixes to people who will “get it” in some sense.
The ulterior motive is to show I’m alive. I’m thinking about other things outside the context of my every-day life. I haven’t forgotten what it means to be 14 years old, hear a song for the first time, and be floored. A mix is a connection – to an earlier, more idealistic version of myself, to other people, to the ongoing river of music that keeps flowing through time. I make these things because they’re fun for me to do, and the people receiving them often let me know how much they appreciate getting them.
At this point in my life, I have it down, have a massive musical collection, enough knowledge to put together a deep, learned collection of material and am still curious enough about music that the spark of learning about it is just as strong as when I was a kid. Maybe stronger, now that I know so much more and am willing to branch out. (Music was like a chosen uniform as a kid, with all the social implications tied into taste. That constricted sense of regimen no longer applies.) I think the most attractive, interesting aspects of adulthood involve what people do with their spare time. I don't care what it is, so long as they have something they care about passionately. Sure, I feel like a dick doing these things sometimes. But I feel like a dick every day at work. I feel like a dick writing here sometimes. Feeling like a dick is an essential part of adulthood, so why not revel in it on occasion?