The Art of the Mix Tape!

The mixtape as a valid form of (self) expression, Alan Jacobson (aka Mix-O-Matic 2000) demystifies this highly personal process.

You cannot get away from these things! Take a look at High Fidelity - a book and film essentially hinging on them; This American Life recently aired a how-to by Sara Vowell; even my old college radio station now has a program called something like, "the ultimate mixtape"; and hell, artofthemix.org just about says it all for this article!

Mixtapes are everywhere these days. More accurately, people keep making them and talking about them. This is exactly what I am about to do.

Quick sidenote: I will not be discussing mix CD's in this article. CD's are OK, but your control over the congruous, continuous sound of the mix will invariably be off. A laborious process, generally CD mixes take me at minimum 5 attempts to perfect. Also, segues are not do-able, it is hard to tell what songs sound like together until the mix is burnt, and flaunting that record collection is difficult, if not impossible.

A mixtape is like a symbolic, highly personal, richly-textured aural photograph. Appropriating and recontextualizing others' work to create something new, the mixer creates a synthesis of his concept and their expression„a good semi-creative outlet.

The well-planned mixtape goes perfectly with a letter, perhaps used to express feelings the mixer is too chicken to make plain; "Let's get married today," croons Al Green for you!

On a more mercenary level, DJs use them for marketing.

Also, normal people like you and me accompany and sonically describe books with the well-planned tape. On an amateur level, I have a mix entitled Dear Fascist Bullyboy which musically explores Ellis's American Psycho; and I know several books such as Like Water for Chocolate come with supporting soundtracks.

Then there is the hipping factor. This has been done for me, I've done it for others. Let's say you have a nephew that really digs Nick Cave. Well, for better or for worse, Cave obviously really dug Scott Walker. So, include some of that.

But be careful not to make negative statements about the mix recipient, like including the White Stripes and other albeit worthy choices, but potential box-store purchases. Hipping is done not to insult, but to help, to introduce musical sophistication (and a lifetime of music nerd-dom) to someone.

The Mechanics of the Mix.

Use type II, high bias tapes of a good lasting brand, and a high-quality deck with soft-touch controls, if you can find one. Make the sound as true as possible or your messages will be obfuscated„who will be able to marry you, if they don't understand, cannot feel what you're laying down for them in words and sounds expressed inadequately, because they've been filtered through crappy equipment?

Adjust bass/treble/loudness/presence dials to make differing songs more level--overproduction on a new tune can both blow an adjacent old song out of the water and make said tune sound very tacky by comparison.

Always be aware of what you are laying down, especially the intros and outros of each song. The more that goes into the mix„say, you know your stuff and profoundly love the music„the better and more weighty the mix will become. It's all about fidelity, "true sound" in so many ways...

Two styles of mixing exist with plenty of grey matter in between. Copy either "on the fly" or arrange your mix. Copying on the fly is just what it sounds like. Do it quick, almost like DJing. Here you have to count more on clues, like the Watchers used Sly Stone's production equipment, so mix the Watchers into Sly & the Family Stone. If you can get a mixing board, don't pause the tape„make one continuous, spontaneous soundtrack.

But KNOW YOUR MUSIC either way. Arranging your mix is usually a better way to go. Listen to your records and CDs for a week. Take notes. Pull these notes together. Record the mix: listen to segues, re-record if you have to. Listen to it when it's done. Take notes. Re-do parts.

But don't overdo it. Go by "feel." Note, you don't really want to rerecord the mix due to a segue that may sound a bit "off" because, it may sound OK to the recipient and when you tape over something, the fidelity degrades a bit each time.

A chef cooks for his guests. A mixer mixes for his audience. This is not just appropriation expression. Know and hip your audience, but don't play it too safe. Let's say you are a really big Earth Wind and Fire fan. That is fine for you, but don't push it on someone who is really into Radiohead. You're better off knocking some Grandaddy, Kraftwerk, or even Syd Barrett their way (or even the Talking Heads song from which they derived their moniker). Remember, you want the intended to listen to this mix over and over (and over) until they finally understand that they should: hire, fall in love with, or just make a mix for, you.

Using blends and segues is important, but don't overdo it. It is very difficult to blend songs without the aid of a mixing board. Besides, a dignified pause can give your audience room to breathe. Avoid bad synthesis; program songs that strengthen each other, thematically and sonically„and always be sure that the end of a song sounds great with the beginning whether you're blending them, doing a cold cut, or adding a space between.

Be clever: similar titles, motifs, juxtaposing a cover with its original with a great feel can be very cool. But be careful, if you go too cute, it ends up feeling wrong...you end up cloying and saccharine. Show you care. But be cool, humping the listener's leg isn't good for anyone.

Don't be ashamed of your sources: beg, borrow, and steal (burn) to get tunes w/good enough variety...Built to Spill's OK, but don't make an all "BTS & bands what sound like 'em" mix.

Avoid the trendy. Sorry, no Jesus Jones, Presidents of the USA, Fannypack, or Junior/Senior. You want this mix to be contemporary, but also have legs! You need for it to be an eternal expression of your love for someone that'll hold up just as eternally. "Cameltoe" will not do this for you.

Also, avoid "sonic Formica". Formica was once a brand. It became a type of countertop after everyone used the term. As a result, Formica lost its trademark. In other words, "Lust for Life" used to be a great tune, a deft blending of punk and Motown. But can you hear it without immediately thinking of Trainspotting, Nissan, or Carnival Cruise Lines?

Don't bother using songs from albums filled with long, powerful, insular tunes. Masterpieces usually don't work so well for mix fodder. Avoid the suicide suites in particular, Closer and Pink Moon. Albums with too much weight will weigh the mix down. Sadly, these are often personal loves.

On the flipside, do not dismiss best-of's. For indy bands, these are often not just radio singles, but what they really hold to be their best material. And the rarities usually included because of this are simply made for mixtapes. Speaking of putting a cover by an original..."I Wanna Be Your Dog", Uncle Tupelo side by side with the Stooges at last!

Be aware of moods and manipulate them, but don't mix too self-consciously. For example: Eleanor Rigby flows into the Kronos Quartet which in turn plays up to Tom Waits which all adds up to a nice voyage from morose to gruesome to pulling out via cabaret.

Or a mixer can manipulate by precedents: Beatles to Nilsson, then blend this with anyone else with a great rhythm section (like the Smiths). Or how about Chuck Berry to early Stones then some NY Dolls and finally The White Stripes? Or the Velvet Underground to anything, really. After all, it was Lou Reed who once said, "the possibilities are endless".

"Filler" has bad connotations, but wedging in a dirty sax tune or transcendental Chet Atkins instrumental can elevate your mix while giving the recipient a little room to breathe.

Side note: the "Terrible Mix" can work. Years ago, my friend tried to make the most careless, shitty mix possible. The entire tape's contents were to be a function of whimsy. Glen Miller followed Shonen Knife followed VU followed The Psychedelic Furs. And you know what? It was one of the best, most textured and variegated mixes I have ever encountered. But don't count on luck; in mixtaping a certain amount of precision is indicated.

Towards the end of their career, The Beatles became the best mix-tapers ever; even those lofty concept albums were just goofy collections of excellently arranged, yet perfect tunes. Take Revolver. The whole album kicks off with "Taxman's" reel-to-reel wackiness. What follows is a perfectly arranged mixtape bursting with tunes which flow together in both an inspired and augmentative fashion, each clamoring towards the peak in creative potential: Art.

A Grasping Towards the Artsy-Fartsy

The slip cover. Ahh, yes. This is where, if you are a fine draftsman of letters or an artiste sans outlet, you can truly, purely express yourself. Here, there is no filter...just you to the intended. Perhaps you have truly fine lettering skills. Your printing is divinely crisp. Show this off. This is excellent, but there is plenty more potential for that 4" x 5" space.

I have seen mixes lettered with white-out on black paper. The entire mix, painstakingly dripped on dark paper in white fluid. This person has also written on white out. Thank god for Michael Nesmith's old man, no?

Not only was the lettering and concept fascinating on this next one, but some personal audio was added as well. A gifted and prodigious mixer once made a tape for my brother, named Dan, voicing interludes from mock radio station WDAN between sets containing artists as diverse and equally brilliant as Public Enemy and Mojo Nixon.

Of course, there is the art side of creating a good slip...photo montages, paint, markers: expression! On the digital flip, clip art with unique fonts, backgrounds, paint shop...I don't really swing with computers all that often if you can't tell. But my good friend made me a Britpop mix entitled Common People, brit pop a go-go! that not only featured a great shot of the Who at their moddest, but it also had a really nice background and sharp sense of design.

Creation, Watch it Happen.

Yours Truly will be discussing the in's and out's of the mixtape way up north at Mess Hall, 6932 North Glenwood Ave. Chicago, IL 60626 'MORSE' Stop on the Red Line on Sunday, March 7th at 8 pm. Bring a mixtape for show and tell and take part in creation; or just watch and have fun.

Also of note, DJ Jump Cut (aka me) spins live at Danny's on Tuesday, March 2 Yes, this musical blowhard occasionally shows what he's made of. Drop by and request a song or two at 1935 W Dickens (at Damen). I will begin around 10 pm.

But in the meantime, look around --and within-- for inspiration. Need to propose to someone or just get a gig at the boards? A mixtape is a powerful tool of manipulation when wielded responsibly.

Alan Jacobson makes mixtapes a bit too often, apparently...
The Art of the Mixtape, published 2/27/04 in Citylink