#437: So You Want to Make a Mix Tape?

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GETTING MORE TALE #437: So You Want to Make a Mix Tape?

So you’ve decided to hop into your time machine and make a mix tape?  Good for you!  In the 80’s, making a mix tape was a rite of passage.  Today it is a fading art.  Congratulations for wanting to keep that art alive!  Here are some tips.

First of all, who are you making the tape for?  What do you want on it?  Prep all your recording materials in advance.  Get out the CDs and records you want to tape.  Are you doing a straight hits tape?  A mixture of artists?  Roughly plot out your track list, but only roughly, because you will probably have to make changes on the fly.

Get your tape ready.  What length are you using?  I recommend 90 – 100 minute tapes.  Anything longer than 100 minutes and you risk stretching the tape.  This length range gives you more room to play with than a standard 60 minute tape.

Clean your equipment.  Get your tape head demagnetized, and clean those pinch rollers with isopropyl alcohol or something similar.  Use lint-free cloth.  Since you’re making a mix tape, I assume you want it to sound as good as you can make it.  Use a decent quality blank tape.

Now, using a pencil or just your finger, carefully wind the tape so that the clear tape lead is no longer visible.  When you see brown magnetic tape, you are ready to hit “record”.

I used to add the little test frequencies that they put on the start of cassettes to open my mix tapes.  Don’t have one of those?  That’s OK.  Just download one from Youtube!

My recording technique involved having as short a gap between songs as possible.  I viewed a long gap as an amateur move, unless it was intentional, for effect.   To get a short gap, hit “pause” on your recorder immediately after the song stops, but don’t pause for too long.  Leaving that pause button depressed isn’t good for the tape, because on most machines, the tape head is still making contact with the recording tape.  Still, it’s better than hitting “stop” which tends to leave an annoying clunky sound between songs.

Now, the one irritating thing that amateur tapers do is let a song be cut off at the end of a side.  Don’t do that!  It’s very difficult to get exactly a side of music, so leave some space after the last song.  In fact, I suggest having a bunch of “standby” short tracks handy, to fill up any undesired blank space.  It’s also fun to end a side with a brief movie quote or skit.  It’s up to you, how you decide to end a side, but don’t cut a song off.  That’s annoying!  You may have to improvise, select some shorter songs, and re-do some things, but cutting off a song is just a rookie mistake.  You will have to be flexible with your track list when it comes to where the sides end.  Tape speed is anything but consistent, so even if you’ve clocked your side at exactly 45 minutes, if your tape is running fast then you’ll be out of space.

The beauty of cassette is the opportunity to use the two sides to your advantage.  Each side can be its own journey, with opening and closing tracks.  Yet it’s still part of a whole.  Perhaps you’d like to make a Led Zeppelin hits tape.  Why not make side one all electric, and side two acoustic?  You can have a killer electric opening for side one (“Good Times Bad Times” perhaps), and close it with a corker too (like “Kashmir”).  Then you can kick off side two with an acoustic opener, such as “Gallows Pole” and end it with “Stairway”.  The possibilities are endless, but the ability to create distinct sides is so much fun.

Finally, write those songs down on the J-card, or make some custom cover art.  If you’re artistically inclined, the cover art can be the most fun.

Making a mix tape is a time consuming process since you need to do it in real time.  It can also be a taxing job, if you’re a perfectionist trying to make your mix tape flawless.  The main thing is keeping it fun.  Have a good time with it!

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44 comments

  1. Keep the art alive! Great post, Mike. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and making it available to those wanting to indulge. I like your suggestions on content too: electric on one side and acoustic on the other. Personalizations and unique touches make them special.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I gave away a lot of mix tapes in my day. And speaking of gifts…every Mother’s Day, my sister used to make a mix tape called Mom’s Mix and give it to my mom. All the songs she liked from my sister’s collection — Rod Stewart, Blue Rodeo, Celine Dion, that sort of thing. My mom still has those Mom’s Mixes, even though she doesn’t have a working tape deck.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t think I ever made a mixtape. I’m more likely to do a CD. Any suggestions on how to make tracks segue into each other? That’s something that wasn’t possible on cassette but may be possible on CD.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So easy to do. If you use a program like Nero to burn a CD, just use the crossfade feature. But I prefer to create the tracks in Audacity (which is FREE and oh so EASY to use). Just load the two tracks into the program and move them around so they overlap, and then add the fades. So easy.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Now you got the memories flooding back! I made quite a few mix tapes back in the day. Unfortunately some say that I spoiled many of those by trying to be a deejay on them. I did all the techniques and mistakes you mention here so I can totally confirm everything you said, except for one. I found that you could record an ultra long song, in this case, “Pigs” by Pink Floyd at the end of side one and the beginning of side two without ruining the song. Great post for memories!.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved making mix tapes in high school, I would give to my friends, classmates and even sold a few for some pocket change….good days. Thanks to Iron Maiden I learned cover art was equally important and I would put my art skills to work on the J-card.

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    1. Hey Kester thanks for checking in. I never had the skillz to make cover art to compete with Maiden, but I did try. I remember painting the gargoyle from Savatage’s “Dead Winter Dead” album onto a tape. That was difficult but the finished product was amazing. I sadly don’t think I kept it. First and only cover I ever painted. Later on, I used cut-outs and pasted them on the cover more often. One tape has Mila Jovovich on the cover!

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  5. Was a national pastime fer this fan, never the left the house without one and was constantly making them fer mates and girlfriends… So long as the tape was healthy they produced such a GREAT sound in the car stereo!

    And the cover art was important. Otherwise yer handwriting needed to at least look neat and professional ;)

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  6. Back in my teenage years, my Dad used to make me “mix CDs” where he would a bunch of Jazz tracks on one CD…so it was almost like a mix tape…except modernised.

    I agree. The art of mix tape making is becoming a dying art.

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  7. Cool post. Time machine? Ha, I still make mix tapes sometimes. I am the dinosaur who never stopped using tapes, though.

    The mix tape is a real art. You make many excellent points. I have found a bunch of old mixes I made, and ones from friends. One has BEWBS all over it. Oh yes. I should do a post about them sometime.

    Cool stuff. And timely – remember, we’re trying to get the hipsters to think tapes are cool again because we want them to leave the vinyls alone!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Aw, man. This was great! The last mix I made on cassette was probably for an old ex. He didn’t appreciate it though – he didn’t share my taste in music. He made one for me and I loved it. I guess I have more diverse taste in music?

    I didn’t take as much care as you did with the prep-work (alcohol, cleaning, etc) and so my mixes probably sounded like shit. But I still tried to buy high quality cassettes (90-100 min). I don’t know if I still have any left from the purge of 2005…I’ll have to see.

    Liked by 1 person

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