How to Make A Good Mix-Tape (or CD, Playlist, or Whatever)
OK, the title is a bit misleading, because who uses tapes any more. I still remember as a kid racing to hit record on the radio when a song that I liked came on so I could listen to it without buying a CD. I think that was the last vestige of the cassette tape, but then the CD and the CD burner came to be. Nowadays, do people do that anymore? I guess you can make a playlist, but the playlist is easy, because there are no constraints. No constraints on time means that there is no need for editorial perfection, which was always the hardest part of finishing off a mix. I love making mixes for people. It’s incredibly cliche, but a well-done mix can do wonders. Music is one of the universal tools for expressing emotion, and the satisfaction of introducing a new song that someone loves is incredible. Whether it’s simply for discovery or the announcing of romantic intentions, the mix is a time honored yet incredibly hard thing to pull off correctly. From High Fidelity:
“The making of a great compilation tape…it takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch, but you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you gotta cool it off a notch, there are a lot of rules.”
All of the above is absolutely true, and here are a few more in no particular order.
1. Make It Personal.
Listen, let’s be honest, whoever you’re making the mix for is judging you. Music is personal, it reflects who you are and what you feel at any specific instant. You have to put that out of your mind, or else it becomes an exercise in vanity. Stop trying to seem cool, just put the tracks together for the other person. An inside joke can’t hurt, but you have to mean it.
2. Separate Your Artists
No tracks by the same artist back-to-back. Kinda obvious, unless you’re doing a specific thing with dual tracks, that’s the exception.
3. Always start with more than you can fit on the medium (CD, tape, etc.)
Go through your library, pull whatever tracks you think the person would like onto a separate playlist. Once you’ve gone through your library, which takes shorter time than you think, start paring down. Live by this quote:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupry
Once you strip it down to the essentials and you know that you can’t cut anymore, you have your track list.
4. Track Order Matters.
Listen, a good mix should flow together, one song should sonically guide you toward the next. You can’t have an old Sinatra track next to Zepplin, it just doesn’t work, which brings me to my next rule.
5. Limit Your Genres
I know you want to put as much good stuff as you want on there, but that killer Lil’ Wayne track probably won’t cut it on an Indie/Alt. Rock mix.
6. Transition Transition Transition
Like it was said above, you have to start off with a killer hook, but then you have to string the entire mix together. You can’t jump from high energy to ballad, you have to slow it down with some stuff in between, and then you have to work your way back up.
7. Silence is Golden
For me, I always leave a few seconds of dead time between tracks, usually 2, so you can clear your head of the previous song and get ready for the next. Constant audio is a bit too much sometimes.
8. Do You Like It?
Yes, I’m talking to you. You can’t just find some obscure track that makes you seem like a music connoisseur just to tack that into your mix. Stop trying to make yourself look cool. We all know you didn’t find that vintage live recording of Frampton playing lefty guitar in some dive bar so you can listen to it all the time. Don’t be a douche.
9. Don’t Play It Too Safe
Listen, I get it, it’s one of your favorite songs, and it’s an all time great, but not every one of your mixes needs to have four Beatles song on there. Mostly everyone knows them, and people want a mix to try to branch their own musical tastes. It’s fine to have a track or two that’s safe, they serve as a touchstone, but too much safe stuff and it just becomes boring.
10. Include A (Hand-Written) Note
Put down the track title and artist, and why you put the song on there. It helps if they know what they’re listening to. Also, chicks dig that kinda thing, especially the hand-written thing.
11. End On An Upswing
Ideally, you want to trend up, but this is the weakest rule. If it ends on a down note, just let it happen.
I love them, and a quality cover can really make a good mix a great one. And by covers I mean songs, not album covers.
Once you finish crafting, listen to it once through, see how it sounds. If something sounds off, feel free to re-work it. Also, try to convince the person it’s for not to speed through the thing. Have them listen to it’s entirety if you can. A mix should be an experience, not just a list of songs and sound-bites.
Anyways, those are my rules, they usually work. But, who knows, to each their own.
I just know that I’d take a mixtape or a CD over a playlist any day. Sometimes having a physical thing makes it that much better, y’know?