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The Art Of The Mix(tape)


Most discussions of the art of the mixtape lead to Rob Fleming, protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention ***, and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and… oh, there are loads of rules.

There is much mixing wisdom to be unpacked from that single paragraph. There is also the occasional misdirection. Most significantly — to paraphrase the equally fictional Captain Barbossa from the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy — the rules are more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Curating a mixtape is an art, not a science.

In practice, the mix curator’s first concern is common to artists across media: the audience. Some artists create with an audience in mind. Other artists actively try to block thoughts of an audience, although even creating purely for oneself implies an audience of one. As Rob Fleming suggests, the mixtape is often the audio equivalent of a love letter (or the expression of a musical bromance)… but it not need be. The mixtape culture portrayed in High Fidelity has been as affected by the information age as has the culture at large. Today, a mix may live anywhere — from a solely personal playlist on the mixer’s copy of iTunes to an audio file uploaded to a cloud with a potentially limitless online audience.

To be sure, old skoolers like Rob may contend that only hand-crafted cassettes, meticulously wound past their leader with the aid of a pencil and painstakingly compiled with the deftest of digits on the pause button, should be considered proper mixtapes. The ability to instantly shuffle an iTunes playlist, or seamlessly cross-fade songs as burned to a compact disc via software may affront older generations of mixers, much as bloggers affront traditional journalists.

There is something romantic about this traditionalist view of mixing; a well-crafted cassette bespeaks a labor of love. However, the democratization of mixing need not be viewed as a dumbing down of the form. Rather, the advanced ability to easily re-sequence and mix should serve to place the listener’s focus even more squarely on the quality of the mix itself. Moreover, these new technologies open new artistic horizons. Mixers may continue to think in terms of the halves of a cassette or vinyl album, but they are no longer required to do so. Today’s mixers have the option of considering the mix as a single unit, or mentally divide it as they wish (e.g., along the lines of a three-act play). New structural options thus increase the mixer’s ability to create and sustain a mood or message.

Mood and message are the most obvious and intentional artistic choices of the mix curator. The two primary methods by which a mix conveys mood and message — implicit in Rob Fleming’s advice — are song selection and flow.

Song selection is the vocabulary of a mix, which is why mixers tend to come from the ranks of music aficionados. Good mixing, like good writing, requires a rich vocabulary. There will be times when a mix cries out for not only the right song, but also the right version of the right song, which may be a cover version, a demo or alternate take. A mix comprised of nothing more than songs from the current Top 40 would be as interesting as spending an hour in the food court a suburban mall, listening to the ephemeral chatter of tweens. This is not a condemnation of Top 40 music; the ephemeral hit may be the exact choice to make in a particular mix. Yet someone making a mix as art should have a personal touch, including items not found on the menu at the food court.

Conversely, a mixer should exercise some degree of moderation. The line between music aficionado and music snob should not be crossed, unless the audience is fellow snobs. A mix can be a place to share the occasional big hits and guilty pleasures as much as overlooked minor masterpieces and cherished obscurities. The mixer who loses the spirit of fun or romance in a mix, simply feeds his or her ego and risks becoming the musical equivalent of a pedantic sesquipedalian.

What song selection is to vocabulary, mix flow is to syntax. Interesting words presented randomly rarely rise above the sum of their parts. A mix may, when first germinating in the mind, center around a particular theme. For example, a mix may focus a particular genre or period. Alternatively, a mix may focus on an activity, e.g., the workout mix, the road trip mix, etc. Even within these superstructures, song flow is the mixer’s narrative, the journey plotted for the listener. Flow is the value the mixer adds to a collection of songs.

The listening experience of flow is what Rob Fleming means when referring to turning it up a notch, or cooling it a notch. Typically, this means paying attention to the relationship of the tempo of the tracks, but it may also refer to the emotional intensity and mood established along the way. As a guideline, a mix of rock, pop, R&B, etc., may be heard as segments which end with the tracks which relatively cool things down.

Assembling a mix almost inevitably challenges the mixer. The song which sounded perfectly placed in the mind’s ear while planning a mix may not work and play well with others in reality.

Flow may also be affected by the production quality of the selected tracks. Obviously, the production quality of popular music has changed over time, generally becoming crisper and cleaner in the digital age. Dire Straits tracks like “Industrial Disease” or “Twisting By The Pool” owe a debt to vintage Chuck Berry tracks, but decades of technological evolution may increase the difficulty of placing them next to each other in a mix. This phenomenon may exist even within an artist’s or band’s catalog: Rolling Stones tracks from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties may all sound like the Stones, but they also bear the sound of the decade in which they were recorded. R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) (produced by folk-rocker Joe Boyd) does not sound quite like R.E.M.’s following LP, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) (produced by Don Gehman, who also produced John Mellencamp during this period). U2 sounds different produced by Martin Hannett, Steve Lilywhite and Brian Eno. The more eclectic the mix, the more likely it is the mixer will have to keep an ear out for such differences to avoid subtly discomforting the listener.

A parallel issue with eclectic mixes is at the core of what Rob says about black music and white music. Our fictional advisor is probably not expressing a desire for musical segregation. After all, rock ‘n roll music was initially and gloriously conceived by the musical miscegenation of country & western with rhythm & blues. Rather, Rob is likely noting that segues within a genre-spanning mix require sensitivity and creativity to maintain the flow of the mix. This particular transition can be eased in a number of ways. For example, when moving between classic rock or pop and R&B, perhaps the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers, Dusty Springfield or the Rascals, or a bluesier track from the Rolling Stones will serve. Perhaps the gap between R&B and alternative music may be bridged by deploying the Talking Heads’ version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River,” David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” or a selection from more recent artists moving into this gap, such as Fitz & the Tantrums, or Mayer Hawthorne. When modern pop is your departure or arrival point from R&B, perhaps Adele, Duffy, or Justin Timberlake will have your transitional track.

Assembling a mix almost inevitably challenges the mixer. The song which sounded perfectly placed in the mind’s ear while planning a mix may not work and play well with others in reality. At such moments, the mixer may draw on the breadth and depth of his or her musical knowledge in search of a suitable substitute. Alternatively, the mixer may choose to revise the flow or journey of the mix. After all, some novelists stick to their outlines, others do not outline or allow the characters to speak to them in dictating their narrative arc. A third approach is to deliberately interrupt the flow (such interruptions may also be planned into a mix from the outset). A track which opens with a bang (e.g., Cream’s “I Feel Free”) is one way of changing the musical subject. Another method would be to employ audio drop-ins, such as brief clips from movies or television shows to reset the listener’s attention and thereby start a new flow. The mixer may also reset the listener’s attention by recording their own commentary on or introduction to tracks on a mix. Indeed, for those seeking to make an art of their mixtapes, the personal touch of directly sharing what a song or its placement means to the mixer may provide the mix’s most memorable moments.