the lost art of the mix cd

coming back from a long road trip — for which i threw together several mp3 cds for the car in under a half hour — got me thinking about something i will call “the lost art of the mix cd.”

i use the term “cd” fairly loosely because, before the mix cd, there was the mix tape, to which this “lost art” concept also applies.  the main underlying rule that defines the perfect mix cd is precisely what makes it a “lost art”: limitation.  ten years or so ago i discovered a web site that let you create a custom mix cd.  the idea was that you didn’t have to buy a whole album, you could just get the tracks you wanted, they’d put it on a cd and ship it to you.  today, the concept sounds a bit ridiculous — if i wanted single tracks, i’d get them on amazon or the itunes store; why be burdened by physical media? — but at the time, the idea was unique and cool and i used it a few times for myself and others (this was back in the day before everyone had a CD-R drive in their computer).

these are the days of mp3 cds, pre-loaded iPods and external hard drives loaded with music.  limiting any collection to 12 or 14 or even 18 songs when you can easily fit 3-400 on a CD-R just as easily can often be viewed as a waste of time.  and that’s the problem.  the limitations are what lift the act of throwing some tracks together to creating a perfect and timeless mix that can resonate for decades.  skeptical that a mixtape can have such a profound impact?  i shit you not: books have been written on the subject.  the fact is that i’ve received several mix tapes and a few mix cds and i value all of them as highly, if not higher than my favorite albums of all time.

a well-executed mix is like a book: it has an introduction, a middle, an end.  it tells a story (even if that story is: here’s a cool band i like), has a rise and fall and usually has some twists and turns you don’t expect.  compare that to a mix cd you put together for a road trip: my method is usually just to grab whole albums from generally-related artists until it fills 800MB, someone with a smaller collection might just dump everything — or a selection of everything — they have onto a cd.  the result is something which, even on a good day, lacks cohesiveness.  i was listening to a mp3 cd a friend made for me while he was in japan, and it would jump-cut from j-pop to aggro lo-fi punk to shamisen music to Weezer-influenced j-rock.  (said friend generously included a mix cd as well, which, i have to say, has probably gotten more listens than the mp3 cd — i look at the mp3 disc as a companion to the mix cd; a sort of, look here for more sort of thing.)  mix cds are also great ways to introduce (or discover, depending on which side of the mix you’re on) new artists you/your intended recipient never would have heard before.  one of the first mix tapes i received ultimately led me to buy (or otherwise acquire) almost all of the source albums from which the tape was compiled, and taught me about underground electronic music (via stereolab and autechre), early proto-punk (via iggy and the stooges) and shoegaze (via my bloody valentine and slowdive), and experimental rock (via the raincoatssmog and the magnetic fields).  my only regret is i have very little to play the tape on anymore, but i do still have the tracklist, which since became a sort of wish list.

i’ve been making mixes since high school (if not before) — for friends, family, myself and this website — and take a certain amount of pride in arranging the songs so they work as a composite whole and speak to the listener. so here are a few of the things that i think about when crafting a mix cd:

track one, side one

back in the vinyl days, track one, side one was often where you put your first single — so much so that high fidelity — the book/movie that, in part, inspired this blog post — features a “top 5 track one/side ones” conversation.  the first track on your mix is going to set the tone for the rest of the mix, so choose wisely.  you can think of this track as the thesis statement for the mix.

consider your audience

try not to think of your mix as “these are the greatest songs of. all. time.”  or, alternately “these are my favorite songs ever.”  instead, consider who you are making the mix for.  a good mix should be like a letter to the other person and it should play to their preferences and tastes.  so, it’s important to at least have some idea of the types of things they listen to.  once you have, say, a couple of bands they like, i try to generally avoid putting anything by those artists with the possible exception of rare b-sides or bootlegs.  instead, i try to find relationships between those artists and some of the artists i really like, or think they’d really like.  if you have a hard time cross-referencing artists or finding similar artists, there’s all sorts of sites out there that can help.  Pandora is based on a project that tries to find relationships between specific styles and patterns of music, so, if nothing else, that’s a good place for some ideas. and are both really good at suggesting similar and related artists, and AllMusic, in particular, also lists solo projects, side projects, and bands that inspired or were inspired by the artist you are looking at (if any exist). in the end, though, the mix is coming from you, not Pandora, AllMusic or, so let your own inspiration guide you.

don’t be predictable

the best mixes are the ones full of gems i’ve never heard before but love instantly.  it’s always a slight disappointment when there’s something i already know or discovered on my own mixed in.  you can avoid this by pulling from artists you are pretty sure the other person has never heard of or heard before and/or by picking deep album cuts and not radio singles.

remember left field

on one of mike skinner’s (of The Streets) “skinimixes” from the summer (i can’t remember which one, but i’m guessing it was on 1 or 2 — here’s a torrent with the first 6), he threw in a Johnny Cash song from the Live @ San Quentin album (pretty sure it was “A Boy Named Sue“, one of my favorites, and favorite performances of it).  this sort of quirky, out-of-left-field sort of inclusion keeps your audience guessing, shows off your musical knowledge (because, you know, that’s what this is about, right?) and can make the mix more fun to listen to.  but veering too far off into left field could make the mix unlistenable, or at least make that track fodder for the skip button.  again, consider your audience.

three acts

any observer of modern (and for that matter, not-so-modern) storytelling knows that stories are typically broken down into three parts: set up, conflict and resolution.  certainly there can be added complexities, internal struggles, smaller plot arcs, but the core theory was originally written by aristotle and we haven’t strayed much since then.  when i make a mix, i try to keep a similar structure; a rise, some conflict or action (possibly in the form of some left field choices or interesting juxtapositions) and end with some sort or conclusion.  this keeps the mix focussed and somewhat thematic and helps with the flow, which brings me to my next topic…

make sure it flows

it’s not enough to just have a list of songs and throw them together.  the real key to making a good mix is to make sure the songs flow together.  you’ll want to either know each selection intimately (so you can hear the flow of tracks in your head) or listen to your mix several times.  it’s okay to have something disrupt the flow — that’s part of adding conflict and off-beat choices — just make sure that when you do, it’s with intent, not just some totally random choice.  anything that doesn’t fit should get the axe — which is good, because generally when i start compiling tracks, i have well over the amount of time available on a single disc; this helps refine the song selections and make it more focussed.

leave them wanting more

you always want to leave your listener wanting more.  i tend to end with something mellow but it depends on what the rest of your mix was like — obviously you don’t want to end slow if your entire cd is full of death cab for cutie.  if the first track is your thesis, your last track is your closing argument or conclusion.

there’s of course different schools of thought and different approaches and other things you can do (like use a theme, tell a story, focus on a particular period of time, etc) and i’ve avoided getting all technical and into breaks between songs, burning software, podcasting and crossfading, but hopefully, these are some of the basics.  i truly believe it is an art form in itself and it will be a sad day if ever the practice fades away.

want more?  check out these links:
Lost Art of the Mix Tape
Art of the Mix
The Lost Art of the Mixtape
Mixtape (Wikipedia)
How to make the perfect mix tape or CD


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