3:43 p.m. - August 09, 2005
I’ve always been a music fairy-godfather. (Accused as such once, I plead guilty. But in no way am I the Godfather of Soul.). Back in the day I used to make mix-tapes all the time, from my LPs and my CDs. Now I use iTunes, and while it is easier, it isn’t as satisfying, or as sonically rewarding, as it was in the past.
Ah, but back in the day making mixes was a great event. Ask any girlfriend, roommate, or ask my wife about the times when mix tapes were being made. It was quite an event.
My halcyon days of making mix tapes was the early to mid 90’s (though after Liz and I got married I had spells where I made mix tapes for specific purposes, like the time I made tapes for all the Project Managers at Howard W. Sams because we all needed morale boosts as the ship was sinking before our eyes). I had a decent stereo system, a bunch of LPs and CDs, and a knack of stringing songs together that fit a mood, purpose, or theme. At my peak, I had over 400 LPs and over 1300 CDs (cut down quite a bit now thanks to iTunes and moving) so I had plenty of product to choose from.
When it came time to make the tapes, it usually happened like this. Some thought or power came over me and I felt compelled to express myself in songs. Usually it involved a relationship. (However, Moose is probably the greatest recipient of these mixes, especially when he moved to DC. And for him the only agenda was that I had a bunch of new CDs that I wanted to sample just in case hadn’t heard the new ones I just bought). And I love him to death but I ain’t kissin’ him!) And the relationships ran the gamut, as you can tell:
• I just met you and I can’t get you out of my mind. Here are some groovy tunes.
Obviously, not all the mix tapes were like that. I made some tapes for some co-workers, friend’s girlfriends, and a group of basketball players that I helped coach for a while. (At their senior banquet, I broke down because they were a special group! Talk amongst yourself, I’m feeling verklempt and all that…) But normally, they involved girls I was involved with in some sort of romantic tangle or escapade.
After I decided that I must make these tapes, I had to be sure I had the raw material. If I didn’t have tapes in hand, I trekked to the Target in town to make sure that I had the requisite high-quality 90 minute cassettes. Later, I switched to 100 minute cassettes when they became more en vogue. 60 minute tapes were too short and 120 minute tapes tended to break or get eaten. And the last thing you want is to have your perfect musical message get gnawed by a rogue tape deck just because the capstan didn’t like the 120 minute cassette. (Actually, that sends more of a message than you’d know. And the message would be to walk away from that relationship, because if the machinery doesn’t like you then you’re doomed. Next thing you know, her microwave and coffee maker will turn against you and then, THEN, you gots issues!)
The tapes had to be high quality. I wasn’t going to waste time on tapes that were going to be oxidized within an hour. They had to have the potential to sound great, even if they were being played on old, broken down boom boxes. Like the makers of a fine micro-brew, I wanted my tapes to exude quality workmanship, listen after listen, no matter what the situation.
Tapes in hand, it was time to start recording. I made sure that the start of the recordable tape was ready to go (minimizing wasted tape), cued up the CD player and with precise synchronization, hit the start buttons on both at the same time. If it was a song on vinyl, then it was even more of an art. You had to drop the needle then hit the start button (and hope that it didn’t catch a groove wrong and skitter a bit ahead or behind) with precise timing. Again, as always, timing is the key to life.
Usually, I had a few songs to start the process. They were the ‘message’ songs – the ones that I wanted to share with this person. But from then, I kind of winged it. After starting the recording process I went through the songs in my head, then started grabbing CDs and LPs left and right and started to assemble the rest of the tape right there. I had them in piles upon piles, set in a proposed order. Inevitably, this will cause the tape count to swell. What was once just a set of two or three tapes could grow into four or five or six. And that’s not counting special projects, such as the time I went alphabetical, by artist, picking one song each from almost every artist in my collection. I got to “L” for her before I realized that she just wasn’t that into me, mainly because she lived in Wisconsin and didn’t really want a long distance thing.
I was so much more involved in making the tapes than I am now in burning CDs. Because while I was making the tapes I was listening to the songs as they went along. This was not only to ensure the songs were being recorded properly but to use my ears to see if the were flowing properly. Flow is very important, and I either wanted a smooth transition between songs, or sometimes I wanted to be jarring and discordant to make a clean break (a paradigm shift without a clutch). Even using smooth transitions, I am able to navigate from the Jefferson Airplane to Husker Du in less than 10 songs. So I was constantly hearing the songs, hearing the music in me. The music was becoming one with me. And other such hippy-dippy clichés.
Periodically, during the recording, I always checked to see how much tape was left. If it was close to the end, the endgame of the tape side was nigh. Even though you had a specific flow going, you sometimes had to break the flow near the end of a side. You didn’t want to have blank tape where a song could go – that would be wasteful. Fortunately, bands like the Minutemen always provided me with perfect space fillers, since most of their songs were less than 1:30. But it was always a sight, me hunkered down by the tape player, listening intently to the song, calculating how much time was left and trying to translate that time to how much tape was left on the tape itself. Prayers were said, intonations chanted, “Please make it to the end of the side because I don’t want to resort to space filler right now.”
And if I heard the clunk of the tape deck shut off before the end of the song, I went into scramble / recovery mode. I tried to figure out how much song was left – and what other appropriate songs could fit in that space. Then I rewound the tape to the exact spot that the last song had ended, and tried again, hoping that this time, it would work. It was always a great feeling to hear the last note, followed in a couple of seconds by the clunk, because that means you stuck the landing. Beers for everyone! Well, me, at least.
I always made sure I tested the tapes at least twice or three times before they were deemed suitable for release. That meant I didn’t put away the CDs or LPs until I was satisfied with the results. The songs had to flow, and the recordings had to be pretty close to spot on, with no missed intros or cut off endings. This could have been a result of my OCD / perfectionist tendencies, or the fact I wanted to groove to these tunes in this order for a while. Maybe some of both. Then the tapes were labeled (with the appropriate funny title) and sent away with a note of explanation.
I didn’t do a lot of liner notes then – mainly because I expended myself so much into the making of the tapes that I was spent. (I don’t smoke, but the completion of good mix tapes are deserving of the afterglow cigarette, for sure). But now, with iTunes, I concentrate more on the liners than anything else.
My current way to do mixes is to start playlists for people a long time in advance and move songs into their playlists. At some point, when the muse strikes, I separate those playlists into sub-playlists that are CD length (usually by theme) and then try to assemble them in some coherent order. After a play or two through the iPod, making adjustments, I then burn the CDs. So instead of investing hours into crafting the product – all the work is done over time, gradually, and the CDs take little time to make.
But the liner notes are now where I get to shine. Except for Liz (who can hear me babble on about the songs whenever she plays her CDs if she allows me to and doesn’t shoot me THAT look) and Moose (who just knows…he just know) I write liners about the songs. Basically I either say something about the song itself, or if it is a more familiar song, then why I put the song on there. Sometimes both. And sometimes the liners just go….somewhere. Like this example from a mix CD I made for the Candidate:
My World Fell Down – Sagittarius. You want obscurity? I got your obscurity here. A group of LA session men, led by Gary Usher (who used to co-write Beach Boys songs) and Glen Campbell (who sang lead on the verses)(and no, I’m not kidding) and if you listen closely Beach Boy Bruce Johnston (who replaced Brian Wilson on the road) is there (he does the high parts) (wow, this is a lot of parenthesis) (are you still reading them?) put together this band trying to capitalize on the “Good Vibrations” type baroque pop. It did hit the national charts, even with that weird break in the middle. Ah, 1967. But if you notice (and I have, because I do notice these things. This is what happens when you listen to closely) after the first chorus the edit looping the music back to the verse is pretty rough. Not smooth at all. Probably ran out of time. Profound thought: “Wish I didn’t feel like winter, ‘cause spring a better thing I know.”
And sometimes you wonder if I really like the music I’m putting on there. Like this example from a set I gave to AJ:
Backwards Traveler – Cuff Link – Wings. Now this is why Mr. McCartney is irritating. This is a song made up of two distinct parts. Each part is great, but is only half a song. Instead of finishing each piece, he just welds them together and hopes we don’t care. Well, I do care, sir, I do care.
The most important part is the music itself. I always try to give lesser-known-yet-outstanding songs to people. Either the bands are kind of obscure, or the songs are buried on an album, or both. But I am careful. I tend not to put really outré songs on there, unless the mix just flows into it or it’s at the end of a CD for easy skipping. Also, I tend not to explore metal or hardcore punk that much. I do enjoy a nice Teenage Jesus and the Jerks ballad (heh!) once in a while, but not everyone is down with “Orphans”, and I realize that. (In case you wanted to know – the lyrics contain the lines “no more ankles and no more clothes / little orphans running through the bloody snow.” Ok, you didn’t want to know that.)
I also tend to avoid real campy obscurities that probably only appeal to me, like some Grand Funk tunes that I think are hilariously cool because they’re just so…Grand Funk. Of course, burning “My Wife and My Dead Wife” by Robyn Hitchcock on a mix CD for the wife isn’t a good career move.
So while the process isn’t as personally enriching, I still enjoy being Smed Musicseed, sending out tunes to those who touch me somehow, someway. And YOU may be next…just be prepared! You never know when I get the yearn to burn. (CDs that is – and sorry to close on a bad rhyme…these things happen.)