Monday, January 31, 2005

Mix Headroom

Mix 101

Just because I get all OCD about these things, doesn’t mean you should too.

Because, if I’m to stick to my belief of mixing as an art form, then who the hell am I to tell you how you should do it.

However, for those looking for some good basic rules on the making of a mix tape, grab a notepad and watch High Fidelity again.

The most important of these, in my opinion, is simple: Do not repeat artists on the same mix. The idea here is that a mix should represent a variety of your musical tastes. Also, repetition can denote laziness ("they didn’t even bother looking for something else"), or indecision ("they couldn’t decide which was the better song"). So, regardless of your intentions, it comes off as kind of tacky.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and every rule is meant to be broken. The most obvious of these is if you’re making a mix of songs just from one artist. Another is if the two songs are so disparate from each other that they sound as if they’re from different bands. This last works better on tape than on CD, but the principle’s the same.

Hip-hop artists have made the repetition thing a little easier. In the first of the three mix CDs I made, I have two songs from the Black Sheep. You’ll see what I mean when I tell you that it’s really one song and an interlude (those little “humorous” vignettes that litter the bulk of rap albums). On the track listing, these vignettes are listed separately, and without the artists’ name.

Getting Started

Okay, so, you’ve got the basics. What now?

Personally, I break it down to three elements: Subject, Theme, and Format.


This one’s pretty easy. Who are you making the mix for? A group of co-workers? That barista with the glasses? Your family? No one in particular?

This is important in that it helps you decide how to steer your music.

Which takes us to…


What mood are you trying to convey to this person? Romantic? Probably better not to include anything from the Guns and Roses Use Your Illusion double album. Upbeat, goofy times? Nix on the Phillip Glass. Actually, do not use any Phillip Glass, ever.

The second to last batch of mixes I created were initially meant for one person, which I then later ended up giving to friends. But while in the experimental process, I was thinking solely of her, what I knew of her, and what I thought she’d dig.

Also, it helped me to have a title for the mixes. I already mentioned that the last batch (intended for no one in particular) is named Women v. Men. The previous batch had two names; the private one, and the public (for friends) one: Him & Hers.

It’s best, with these, as well as song selection, to keep the word "subtlety" in mind. I’ll expound some more on this later.


This last of the Basic Elements of Mixing is usually the one that’s ignored, especially in the age of CD-burning. And this is fine, I just prefer to give myself some options on this, though.

For example, I like to create mixes as if I was still dealing with cassettes tapes, so I usually plan on a Side 1 and a Side 2. (The break is delineated using seven seconds of silence taken from CDs that have secret tracks.)

On WvM, I use three different formats: Cassette, Act, and Pell Mell.

In Act, I basically use an act structure, like in a play: Act I, Act II, and Act III. Pell mell is exactly what it sounds like, just tossed the songs on there (song selection and sequencing still took a part in the process, but I didn’t delineate at all).

What I find in the cassette and act formats, is the ability to keep things condensed, ability to have multiple peaks and valleys (or crescendo and decrescendo), and the ability to start establishing a mood over and over again, in case I musically paint myself into a corner (how does one follow Yo La Tengo’s Tired Hippo?).

This is something that I feel the Pell Mell approach lacks. Take a look at this fragment of the 3rd WvM disc:

Provider -- N.E.R.D.
Inevitable -- Carolyn Mark
Tongue -- R.E.M.
My Favorite Plum -- Suzanne Vega
It's Over Now -- Dan the Automator/Kool Keith

Provider is neo-soul lark from N.E.R.D., Inevitable is Neko Case-style folk-country from Carolyn Mark (my future bride). From here, we go to the minimalistic sensuousness of R.E.M.’s Tongue, then minimalistic Tom Waits-tinged Mitchell Froom-produced weirdness from Suzanne Vega, and finishing out with the laid back hip hop beats by Dan the Automator.

In no way do any of these songs mesh, stylistically. In a way, that’s part of the fun and charm of the Pell Mell approach.

The Pell Mell approach tends to drive me batty.

Next Installment: The Vaguaries of Song Selection.

[Click here to go to the next entry in the series.--tbo]


At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No Philip Glass? The HELL you say! I'll do my tapes my way, Boy-o.

-the Rude 1.

At 12:41 AM, Blogger the beige one said...

All I'm saying is, ain't no one gonna love you, you put Philip Glass on their mix tapes.


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