Friday, December 9, 2011

The Art of the Mix Tape (A BS Special Feature)

This is a guide that will hopefully give you a better idea of how to create an enjoyable, fluid, and memorable mix tape/cd.

A good mix is a lot like a good fuck: not too short, not too long, engaging from start to finish, and most importantly, ultimately transcendental. A good mix, if created for the right person at the right time and under the right circumstances can even make someone fall in love with you. It is an art that takes a lot of practice to master, and every mix requires patience and complete concentration. The only good piece of advice my father ever instilled in me was an old cliché: if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. If you slap a dozen songs together haphazardly and without care, your mix will most likely not be ‘bad,’ but it will not be remarkable in anyway, thus, c'est une connerie. It will not achieve anything the radio or a podcast cannot and you are wasting the time of your audience (whether or not they realize it). All of the mixes I make generally take at least two hours to compile, some taking up to several weeks of scrutiny and consideration and until I feel it is polished and smooth enough to my satisfaction. Like any art there is an element of obsessive perfectionism if you want to achieve a good finished product. You can never put too much time into an endeavor - only too little.

This particular mix I’ve chosen to use as a demonstration is only one single method, and is my personal favorite template. For labeling purposes I will call it a M-type mix, as it progresses as such (ascend, descend, ascend, descend). It is divided into four distinct ‘sections’ (each with a unique style and mood, to create a diverse and compelling whole, and each transitioning naturally into the next, to create a sense of fluidity) but there is no one way to approach the process. Your mix can be genre specific, or have a wide variety of styles. I mentioned the symbolic ‘shape’ or progression earlier and there are many of these. There are mixes that are orbicular in nature, bell-like, unidirectional/progressive, and many more. A mix can be subtle and relaxing, or relentless. Your mix have can have one or multiple crescendos or climaxes or none at all. A mix can be constructed around almost any concept or theme, the trick is to be creative and learn to listen to what flows and sounds ‘right.’ Contrary to popular belief, pay no great attention to length as it is irrelevant. A 45 minute mix can be just as good as an 80 minute one. Try not to go below 40 minutes.

This is an old mix I made for a friend. I chose to this particular one as a demo because it is solid, yet flawed. I recommend downloading it before reading any further.

Title: Pretty Poisons

Part I

01) Max von Sydow - "Intro to Europa"
02) Mount Eerie - "Between Two Mysteries"
03) Kangding Ray - "Idle"
04) Cold Cave - "Love Comes Close"
05) Death in June - "Break the Black Ice"
06) Emptyset - "Aleph"
07) Television - "Elevation"
08) The Brian Jonestown Massacre - "Anemone"
09) Spiritualized - "If I Were with Her Now"
10) The KLF - "Build a Fire"

Part II

01) Flaming Tunes - "Restless Mind"
02) Nick Nicely - "On the Beach (The Ladder Descends)"
03) Holy Shit - "Hot on your Trail"
04) Sensations' Fix - "Visions Fugitives"
05) Felt - "Ancient City Where I Lived"
06) Robert Wyatt - "At Last I'm Free"
07) Iron Curtain - "Love Can Never Die"
08) Michel Polnareff - "Holidays"
09) Robyn Hitchcock - "Flavour of the Night"
10) Linda Perhacs - "If You Were My Man"


Start playing the mix and let’s break it down to better analyze its components. You’ll immediately notice that it’s divided into two parts. This structure is unconventional (and not recommended) but I felt that condensing it would ultimately detract, so I decided to be a little creative. If I were to create a graph of it's movement, it would look something like:

(note the 'M' shape)

There are a few different 'arcs' joined together by transitional pieces. The first track is a recording from the opening scene in Lars Von Trier’s Europa and features Max Von Sydow hypnotizing the viewer (or in this case, the listener). This is a good opening track for obvious reasons. It sets a tone and sucks the listener in. The next track is immerse and atmospheric as well and was chosen to further capture the attention and imagination of my intended listener(s). Tracks 2, 3, 4, and 5 compose the first arc, and are different styles, but are all similar in mood (mysterious, dark, yet hypnotic). The tempo is increased, but not drastically so; you will also notice the songs are more pop-ish. Track 6 was intended as a bridge between 5 and 7 because the two songs did not flow very well. In retrospect, I might remove this track completely. I wanted to create contrast between the almost silence lows of track 6 and the sharp highs of track 7 to give 7 more of an impact. The pace/mood/style transforms with the second arc, tracks 7-10. You should notice more guitar oriented 'rock' whose sound is narcotic, slightly psychedelic, and somewhat bluesy. The first half is not unlike a drug high, and I created it systematically to be so. The second half will continue with this concept.

The last track of part 1 marks a subtle, but distinctive decline. I set it up so the listener could take an intermission if needed or even listen to the two parts separately. The point of all these peaks and valleys, 'ups and downs' is to create titillation. To paraphrase a quote from High Fidelity, you don't want to blow your load too early, and to return to the sex analogy, you should tease, create anticipation in, and then deliver to your listener, repeating the process however many times you deem necessary. Tracks 11-14 make up the third arc, and this arc continues in the psyche vein, but is a little more experimental and the recording quality of the songs are noticeably different. Again, there is contrast between the end of the third arc, the transitional track (15), and the beginning of the final arc. The final arc marks a decline in velocity, but due to the haunting and sincere nature of its songs, is the heart of the mix. Despite once again the varying alternation of the genres in this last segment, the landing is smooth and easy and things come to a gentle close. I forgot to mention this earlier, but I'm doing so now (bolded for importance): Pay attention to how a preceding track ends and how its successor begins. As with everything else, avoid friction.

Do you always have to be so analytical/technical? No. Does it help? Most definitely. Again there are many ways to approach, so play around with themes and concepts until you find something that works. What I've outlined are only the basics. Feel free to go above and beyond by mixing your songs continuously with Audacity, create a custom designed cover art for them, et al.

One final thing that is equally important: you should keep in mind that there is also a discipline to follow on the part of the person receiving the mix. The listener must fully dedicate his/her attention in order to properly take in the mix. I like using headphones or driving around in my car, but all that matters is that you are focused and you have some decent speakers. For god's sake just don't put iTunes on shuffle and let it play as background music while you are vacuuming your house! That about wraps it up. I'll leave you with a little inspiration:

"The other day, a friend told me that she still listens to a mix that I made her five or six years ago, and that was a great feeling."

-Chris Piercy

Go forth and make good work!

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