The Art of the Mix Tape
This is not intended to be a comprehensive post, nor do I claim to be good at making a mix, or good at the technical aspects of recording one. I’m just hopeful this can be a kicking off point for more discussion and ideas. And if you are interested in sharing mix tapes feel free to send me a PM. I’m more inclined to work in MiniDisc format these days but I still have a few blank cassettes laying around.
I’ve been making and sharing mix tapes with a couple friends for a few years now. We used cassettes for the first couple of years, but it’s been getting harder to get good media at reasonable cost. No one makes anything but Type 1 tapes these days and even then quality is hit or miss. I haven’t had major issues myself beyond generally frustrating low fidelity, but a friend has ended up throwing away way too much media for basically being unusable garbage. Maybe things are sitting too long in storage anymore.
Because of this we transitioned to using MiniDiscs about a month ago. I ran into one issue with bad “new old stock” media, but the larger lots of used recorded discs I obtained have all worked fine. Even though we are using discs now, I’m still going to use the mix tape term for simplicity.
With cassette tapes the key challenges (for me) have been related to media quality, recording levels, and deck quality. My late model but low end Sony deck works well for playback but has relatively high levels of wow and flutter compared to their really high end units. That combined with my absolute inability to get recording levels right has led to fun but kind of noisy/overdriven tapes. And it’s probably good I don’t record too much piano. I could do some service on the deck like replace the belts and rollers, but it will never be a high end unit.
I’ve been looking at nicer decks including the late model Sony units with Dolby S noise reduction, or similar era Nakamichi decks (no, not the Dragon, too expensive), but anything in good condition is quite expensive for the benefit I would get.
With MiniDiscs the recording quality issue becomes less about the tape formulation and the quality and precision of the deck, and more about the features of the deck and which version of ATRAC compression it supports in hardware. The simplest choice for quality as it relates to the deck is to choose one with a late revision of the ATRAC encoder (ideally one with Type R or S, which have the latest revision of the ATRAC encoder).
Since the recording is compressed digital audio, media quality is less an issue, as long as the media isn’t damaged. Recording levels for analog sources pose a similar challenge as cassette recording. Recording levels for digital sources are (at least on the surface) simple.
With the transition from cassette tape to MiniDisc, another consideration includes the ease of titling, as that is a basic part of the specification. Almost all recorders include provisions for title editing of varying convenience. A portable recorder such as my MZ-N505 has cryptic and difficult button based input. My MDS-JE530 deck uses a rotary encoder which is much easier to use, but still slow. My preferred method is to title using the MZ-N505 which has a USB port for NetMD use, along with the Web MiniDisc software. I’ll record a disc on the deck or portable (depending on source) and then load it into the software to title tracks.
Recording Levels, Noise Reduction
I mentioned my problems setting good recording levels in the technical challenges. For cassette recordings it can be a debate between using the auto level control or setting things manually. Although auto levels can be easy, and with highly dynamically compressed music works well, it can do weird things to music with large dynamic range swings. As such I prefer to manually set recording levels.
But this leads to the challenge of settings the levels and then finding partway through a recording that the levels are way above optimal levels. At the point do I give up and try again or assume it will mostly sound OK? I’ve gone with the latter approach but been criticized (probably appropriately) for it.
Also of question is which noise reduction scheme to use. For the lowest common denominator, assuming some people are buying the brand new garbage cassette decks, it would probably make sense to use no noise reduction at all. Which drives you to record at high levels to reduce tape hiss in quieter sections. It may be more sensible to use Dolby B noise reduction, which almost any older deck supports. In addition to Dolby B my deck supports Dolby C, which is technically superior but much less common, and doesn’t really play great with a Dolby B decoder. One friend records everything with Dolby S, which is the latest and greatest scheme, and more compatible with a Dolby B decoder. I think the most compatible choice overall is Dolby B and that is what I use.
For MiniDisc recording the challenges are a little easier. Recording from analog sources (tape and LP) has similar challenges to recording a cassette, but given the clipping/no clipping aspect is a little more clear cut when issues arise. And since re-recording doesn’t incur a quality hit it’s easier to justify. Recording from digital sources is – on the surface – even simpler. You can feed any digital source that isn’t clipping into the recorder over SPDIF (optical in my case) and it will record fine without clipping.
The next debate is whether to record digital sources at the original levels, or to use volume leveling for the mix tape playlist. I’ve mostly recorded at original levels, but received some criticism for “hot” recordings. More importantly, when mixing overdriven/overcompressed tracks with higher quality recordings the perceived levels can vary even if peak levels are the same. Given this I recently transitioned from recording the original digital levels (sample rate conversion is required either way for high res tracks) to using volume leveling set to -14 LUFS. The results have been good, and philosophically speaking I’m already feeding the audio into a (pretty good) lossy compression algorithm so additional manipulation isn’t really an issue.
Art and Titles
I strongly believe that a good mix tape has a title and artwork that goes with it. Even if it’s simple, I think a good mix isn’t just called “good mix volume 3”. And I enjoy making art for the mix as well, which I print on vinyl stickers for MiniDiscs or on J cards for cassettes. Most of my titles are either based on the theme of the mix (discussed below), though some are simply descriptive or just fun phrases.
Why Not Just Share Playlists?
We do share playlists as well, but no matter how much work we might put into it no playlist really gives the same hit or sense of creativity as sharing physical media does. There’s something to be said for the time constraints we usually use (60 minutes for a cassette or 74 minutes for a MiniDisc) along with the physical object itself that carries more emotional weight.
The Mix Itself
I saved the art of actually making a mix to the end. This is the most subjective and honestly most difficult part of the process, at least when preparing to title and share the result with others. My early mix tapes could easily be described as “tracks that I like”, and had no real theme. This isn’t really a problem, but it can be less engaging than a tightly themed mix.
It’s more fun to think of a theme and start building a mix that goes along with it. One of my early tapes, called “Murder” was based on an LP I bought, which featured heavily, along with tracks similar in feeling. Another was built around the idea of an American (or Canadian) road trip, featuring long, lonely highways and trips to Colorado. Some are themed more loosely, like a recent mix that is musically light but occasionally lyrically heavy.
Other mixes of mine have been gimmicks, which I think are fun even if less musically coherent. One was music I loved that was not in English. One was a bunch of tracks recorded directly from LPs that were pressed before I was born. Another was tracks whose titles started with “Don’t”. If you check your music library you’ll probably find you have a few dozen choices as well.
One mix is simply the 16 track playlist I built a while back that I use for almost all of my gear impressions at some point.
But I still don’t feel like I know the “right” way to build a mix. I get discs from friends and immediately feel like I’m terrible at it compared to what they’re doing. But honestly I think that’s much like the difference between seeing my own photography and looking at theirs. And it’s part of what makes this fun.
And then sometimes I start a mix and it takes weeks or months before it feels ready. My latest felt nearly finished so I recorded it to a MiniDisc and got ready to title it and make some artwork. But on repeated listen a few of the tracks, though excellent on their own, just didn’t fit well with the mood or pace of the overall mix tape. I took some more time and dropped four of the tracks for not quite fitting in and found three that worked much better. And now I need to choose a better title and make some artwork.
Posted on 12 September 2022