mix tapes

#887: A Glimpse of the Future

RECORD STORE TALES #887: A Glimpse of the Future

Sometimes I like to imagine myself in my younger self’s shoes.  I think about me as a kid, sitting in the basement watching the Pepsi Power Hour on MuchMusic.  There I am, staring intently, VCR remote grasped in hand, and set to “Record-Pause”.  Waiting for the new music video by Kiss to debut.  Hitting that un-pause button to get a good recording as soon as the video began.  Could I even have imagined the on-demand nature of YouTube?  No, but I like to imagine what I would have thought if I could have seen a glimpse of the future.

I always felt limited by technology, even though I was spoiled enough to have my own stereo, my own Walkman, and access to the family VCR (almost) whenever I wanted.  Though I had all this stuff, I couldn’t make it do what I wanted to do without some improvisation.  Making a mix tape, for example.  If I wanted a live song on a mix tape, I had to fade it in and out.  My dual tape deck couldn’t do that.  To do a fade, I plugged my Walkman, via a cable in the headphone jack, into the audio inputs of my ghetto blaster.  This was done with a Y-connector, and an RCA-to-3.5 mm adaptor cable.  Then I used the Walkman’s volume knob to fade the song in and out while the ghetto blaster recorded.  It took trial and error and the end recording usually sounded a little hot and crackly.  But I didn’t have anything better.

If that highschool kid playing with cables in his bedroom could only have imagined Audacity.  Instant fades, exactly as you want them.  Precise digital replication.  I would have lost my shit.  If you had given me Audacity as a kid, I might not have left my bedroom for a week…and not for the reasons a teen usually hides in his bedroom!

I worked long hours on mix tapes back in those days, mainly because you had to make them in real time.  And you had to keep it simple too.  Making the tape in the first place was the challenge; making it creatively was the icing.  But the end results were always…disappointing?  Underwhelming?  The second generation taped songs never sounded as good as the first.  You’d get a little noise, perhaps a pop, between tracks where you started and stopped your recording.  Little imperfections.  Maybe one track sounds a little slow, one a little fast.  Volume levels are inconsistent.  All stuff out of your control.

The amount of control I have today over what I create is astounding.  Even visually speaking.  I don’t make tape cover art anymore, but doing so was a painstaking process involving sharp pencils, rulers, erasers, and scissors.  Everything had to be handwritten and hand drawn.  Sometimes I might be able to get my dad to photocopy a cover at his work, but usually I had to make my own stuff.  I was very limited when it came to to making visuals.  Even taking a photograph, it took days or weeks to get your picture back.  You had to use the entire roll of film before getting it developed, of course.  Now you have a phone that’s a camera and a computer.

Now that’s something that young me definitely couldn’t have imagined:  our phones.  Even science fiction of the mid-80s didn’t have anything like the phones we have today.  Imagine what I could have made with that!  It took months and a lot of clunky equipment for Bob Schipper and I to make a single music video in 1989.  I can throw together a clip in minutes today, thanks to computers and phones and ubiquitous cameras that ensure I always have raw photos and videos waiting to be edited together.

Computers — now there’s a quantum leap that young me wouldn’t believe.  We had a family computer from a very early time, decked out with a dot matrix printer and a monochrome block of a monitor.  But it wasn’t connected to anything.  We didn’t have the instant access to information.  We couldn’t look up a band’s complete discography in a moment on Discogs, much less actually buy those rare items and have them shipped to the front door!  Can you imagine how much that would have blown my mind?  I had a few hundred bucks in the bank at that age.  Well, it would all have been gone if you had given me access to Discogs for an hour in 1986.  The ability to actually complete an artist’s music collection today, was something I just could not ever do as a kid.  Very few people could.

We did what we could with the resources at hand.  We’d save our pennies, and take the bus down to Sam the Record Man.  We’d look around for an hour and decide where we would best spend our dollars.  “Don’t go to Sam the Record Man and buy something you can get at the mall,” was the motto.  That would be a waste of time and bus money!

Bob Schipper made far more trips to Sam’s, usually via bike.  But if he acquired a rarity, it was always a given that I could tape it off him.  A lot of my first Maiden B-sides were just taped copies of records he found at Sam’s.

What I was doing in those early formative years was absorbing rock’s past.  Collecting the albums, discovering the bands, learning the member’s names through the magazines and interviews.  But what if I could have seen the future of all this?  What would I have thought of things like a six-man Iron Maiden lineup with three lead guitar players?  I think tunes like “The Wicker Man” would have blown me away as an evolution without losing what made Maiden great.

I wonder what I would have thought of the Kiss tour with the original members back in makeup?  I know I would have been disappointed that they never made a proper studio album together.  One thing I appreciated as a kid was that Kiss put out something new every year.  Today, Kiss only put out an album when there’s a solar eclipse on planet Jendell.  I think the success of that reunion tour would have made the younger me feel validated for my Kiss love, but I know I would have been unhappy about the lack of new material.  However, if I could have heard albums like Sonic Boom and Monster, I also know I’d have been happy that Kiss dropped the keyboards, brought Gene back to prominence, and had all four members singing.  That would have impressed me.

I’m still working on my time travel powers, and I’m also wary of doing anything that could change the future.  Since The Avengers: Endgame taught us that you can’t change your past’s future’s future (or something like that), I’m going to continue to work on the technology.  If I can show my past self some of these amazing technological advances, I might…I don’t know!  Buy first print Kiss LPs and keep them in the shrink wrap?  I haven’t fully through this through, but trust me — it’s going to be awesome.

#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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