An off-and-on hobby of mine has been making mix CDs. The magic of the Internet got me into some mix trading circles, and I assembled a good 30 or so mixes for people, or just myself. Some of my earlier experiments found their way to artofthemix.org. Few of those were distributed, but they do show how I developed my style. Now that I have some free time on my hands, I’ve decided to get in on the mix CD thing again. In putting together my latest batch of mixes, I’ve thought about what makes a good mix. I think I’ve hit on a few key ideas.
The key thing that unites all of these ideas is that the creation a curated experience—not just hitting shuffle on your MP3 player. Mix CDs needs to do more than just be a collection of songs, they need to provide an experience, on par with the best albums in your collection. They need to stand on their own as individual works, not just as collections of parts; works that show off more than what songs you have. The best mix CDs show something about their creator, too. What follows can help with that.
Every good mix CD has, at its core, a theme, which will let you define the songs you put on your mix. If you’re just throwing songs on a CD willy-nilly, you’re not really making a mix. A theme doesn’t have to be anything complex or fancy. “Songs that make me happy” is a good, basic theme. “Songs about travel,” or “songs with funny lyrics,” might work as well. Some of my favorite mix CD themes have been “songs that have questions for titles,” “songs that are the first song on their album,” and “songs about food.”
It helps to have a theme that lets you cast a wide enough net to fill the majority of a CD, but is specific enough to tie things together. One of my most difficult mixes to make was a “days of the week” mix—with songs referring to each specific day of the week. I had to expand the concept slightly to songs that talked about yesterday, tomorrow, and the week as a whole, just to fill things up. In general, it’s better to err on the side of caution, and have a less specific theme that you can whittle down. It’s easier to remove songs from a mix than to add them if you’re out of ideas.
In this fancy-pants digital age, making sure your mix CD has “flow” is far easier than it was in the cassette tape days. ((Admittedly, those days were before my time, but when you recorded to a cassette tape, it was a damned time consuming process. The digital music revolution makes the process much easier, but also encourages laziness. The point of this essay is to encourage the art to go back into it.)) What is “flow”? It’s making sure your mix transitions from one song to the other in a way that isn’t jarring or disjointed. ((Of course, jarring and disjointed may be something you want to use for effect. It depends on the theme and structure of your mix. A quiet, slow tune leading into a high-energy, loud song can serve a mix well, when done right.)) If you’re putting your mix together in iTunes or whatever media player you use, you can easily rearrange tracks to make sure things match up nicely. While assembling a mix, I often play the last 20 seconds or so of a song just to make sure it matches up well with what follows.
Protip: Be conscientious of silence at the beginning and end of tracks. A song with 4 seconds of silence at the end can wreck flow. Some media players let you adjust the start and endpoint of a song. If yours doesn’t, you might need to actually edit the file. I recommend Audacity for this task. This is also useful for incorporating live tracks which may have commentary and other non-musical stuff that breaks things up.
“Flow” isn’t just on a track-by-track scale, either. It also can modulate the disc as a whole. Your mix can start quiet, slowly building in intensity and speed along the tracks, or it can be up-and-down, or anywhere along the spectrum. The flow has to be there, however, so it doesn’t just sound like you put an iPod on shuffle. Mix CDs require attention to detail. Of course, the flow of a disc as a whole is largely dictated by…
Structure is actually more of an intermediate tip, but if you’ve gotten good with themes and flow, you should be ready to tackle a slightly structured mix. Structure is intrinsically related to flow, and a mix with good structure has to balance the flow of the songs with the overall mode of the mix. A good example of a mix that would require serious structure is a Narrative mix. Here is a self-created example. Each song has its place in the overall story, and are structured to provide a narrative, while still providing flow.
On a less rigid scale, a structure for a Mix CD can help to reinforce the theme of the mix. Often, I like to start off mix CDs with a song that epitomizes the theme of the mix. A mix I created for a convention happening in my hometown of Philadelphia began with the theme to “American Bandstand” which tied together both the theme of songs by Philadelphians, or about the city, with the historical connection to Bandstand and the long tradition of rock and soul music in Philadelphia. ((This mix then switched into the sardonic “Philadelphia” by Atom and his Package, which pokes fun at this city in the way that only a local can.)) Another good way to add structure to a mix is to group related songs together, relating by subject matter, tone, artist, or any other criteria—making sure to pay attention, of course, to flow.
For lack of a better term, “filler” tracks can help strengthen a mix CD. They can reinforce a theme, provide flow between disparate tracks, or break a disc up into sections for structure. One of my favorite mixes, “Come On and Buy It”, themed around commercialism and business, used a selection of short advertising clips I had by Raymond Scott. Another mix, themed on science fiction, included quotes from the show “Futurama” to break up songs. Filler can be almost anything: comedy clips, audio commercials, very short songs from a CD. As long as it fits the theme, go for it.
Introductions and Conclusions
As a variant of filler tracks, it can help to start and end a Mix with unique and distinctive tracks. A mix CD themed around New York City, for example, may begin and end with different versions of “New York, New York”. ((I’m actually using this trick on a mix CD for an older friend who wants a disc of his favorite songs. As he asked for the two different versions of “New York, New York,” it made sense to do it this way.)) Short instrumentals, clips from movies, any sort of sound that matches the theme of the disk can help bring the listener into what your mix is trying to do.
Manually Editing Songs
Though alluded to in the section on Flow, actually editing songs can be a great tool to really take your Mix CDs over the top. You can utilize this trick to do all sorts of neat effects, ranging from simple crossfading, to creating medleys of songs. Manipulating the audio of your mix CD tracks is an absolute power tool. Use it wisely. I tend not to bother, but I know it has its place.
Please, please, please do not do any of the following:
- Ignore your audience. If your buddy Bob is getting into Japanese Noise Rock, then go hook them up with it. Your mom might not be so into it.
- Crossfade every song into each other, especially if they don’t crossfade right.
- Forget to include CD Text, or at the very least a printed track list for people to put into their media player.
Putting it over the top
If you follow all of the basics, you’ll have a great mix. If you do some of the advanced tricks, you can have an amazing mix. If you give it cover art, package it nicely, and deliver it, you’ll have an spectacular mix. ((If you’re making a Mix CD for your significant other, or would-be-significant-other, you darn well better at least package it nicely.)) A clever title helps too: I like to use lyrics from songs that fit the theme. Don’t just hand over a bare CD, either: get a jewel case or make your own packaging. If the effort shows, the impact will be there.
What makes a mix CD great is a combination of thought, style, and content. The entire point of the above is to force you, the mix CD creator, to think and to put effort into your creation—make it something of value. The ultimate mix CD is a statement, not just of musical tastes, but of creativity and mindset. The easier it is to do something, the easier it is to half-ass it, and such is the inevitable consequence of the otherwise awesome digital music revolution. ((“Digital music revolution” used here purely for lack of a better descriptor.)) If this screed convinces just one person to put some effort into a mix, then so much the better. Give it a try. Make a mix CD. Share it with someone. Enjoy the reaction.