Monday, October 15, 2007

Mixed up

Starting in the late '80s I made more than my share of mix tapes, both for my entertainment and (ostensibly) that of my friends. And when I used to make mix tapes, I made them by hooking two CD players up to a mixer and doing live cross-fades on the tracks as the tape recorded, which required me to practice the transitions, making notes of at what point in the track playing to trigger the next track on the other player, and of what adjustments to the level were necessary to keep the overall volume as close to consistent as possible. And if I screwed up anywhere during the 45 minutes of one side, I had to start over. (Sometimes I’d split it up to two or three separate sets per side to relieve some of the pressure of keeping the flow for the whole side.)

Oh yes, I took it way too seriously. If only I’d been learning how to use serious equipment, rather than the Radio Shack schlock I had, I probably could have gone into sound engineering. And I would almost certainly have come to despise making the mixes.

(A friend once advised: “Never turn your hobby into your career; eventually you’ll hate both.” Sage words.)

When I bought a computer in 2000, I got the best sound card available, because I figured I’d be using it for a lot of music-related activities. Technology was going to make simple what I used to have to plan out through a lot of manual effort. Software would allow me to set up the cross-fades on screen, and balance the levels, and burn the result to CDs (the format in which I’d been amassing my collection for 14 years at that point). Hell, I’d be knocking out these things every week, I thought.

In the five years that followed, I made three compilation discs. Two of those were projects I did for my dragon boat team, as thank you gifts for the teams that hosted us at out-of-town tournaments, which weren’t even all that representative of my music tastes (but representing the team as a whole).

So really, one disc.

Making something easier through technology appears to be the kiss of death for me.

Okay, I need to clarify the terminology here: I’m talking about a compilation of songs where I plan it out, and cross-fade the tracks, and design a cover, and burn a bunch of copies with the express purpose of giving them to pretty much anyone I know (or meet) who I think may listen to it. I’m not talking about a disc where some of the mp3’s on the computer are selected (by me or by software) and converted back to the CD format for my personal enjoyment; it’s not that I haven’t burned more than just the one CD over the years. I’m alluding to something that turns into a serious project, done to shove my music tastes (or a portion thereof) down the throats of people silly enough to listen. That’s what I figured I’d do more of after getting the computer.

Turns out I got off on the difficulty of it, or something. Perhaps the acquisition of a home computer skewed some kind of cosmic balance, and that stripped the inspiration from the process.

Perhaps I came to realize that it was a lot of work to put into something that wasn’t going to further a career, and more than that, no one would listen to a new disc every week even if I could somehow find the time to achieve that kind of schedule.

[Does this piece have a hook? Certainly not. Are you still expecting that by this point?]

My friends already have their tastes when it comes to this stuff. By and large, the extent to which they enjoyed the disc revolved around whether I included tracks (or at least artists) they already liked (or were similar to songs/artists they already liked). I don’t begrudge them that; everyone does. It wasn’t like I was doing serious promotion of the tracks in question; they meant something to me, for whatever reason they did at the time I was assembling them, but I got nothing out of it other than whatever pleasure I could delude myself into believing there was from a job well done (whether it was appreciated by the listeners as much as I hoped or not).

Perhaps I grasped that it takes something of an arrogant prick to make such demands on the time of others with such ostensibly altruistic gestures, and I didn’t need to be that guy any more. These people either liked me, or "got" me, or they didn’t, whether they liked the disc or not. It was mostly me camouflaging a juvenile need (Look at me! Look at how cool my tastes are! Think well of me! Justify my pitiful little existence!) with a project that, at best, others would take as such: Oh hey, cool; something to listen to.

Perhaps I succumbed to the laziness that was inevitable. Technology does allow me to just get a bunch of random songs to listen to, without me having to go to the arduous process of overanalyzing them, reviewing how well the transitions between them flow (so one song is followed by another to achieve the proper effect, be it smooth or jarring), spending all that time putting the human element into the equation when it isn’t necessary. It may be appreciated, on some level, by some of the listeners, sure, but this is the time of the iPod; as long as Mozart isn’t followed by Motorhead (not that I'd have a problem with that, personally; I find classical and metal have something of a corresponding vibe in these transitions, but I concede such things are not for everyone)—on the off-chance that one has both Wolfgang and Lemmy in one’s iTunes—and it’s songs one associates in some way (probably in some banal fashion, like chronologically—e.g., songs from the 80s—or by genre—classic rock, hip hop, polka, etc.—then that’s good enough to be a playlist.

I can't get behind that, myself, but that’s part of why I don’t have an iPod yet; if I'm bothering with putting effort into organizing the music, I will turn it into a project. That’s not admirable, by the way; it borders on the pathological, but I gotta be me. However, if I don’t devote any effort to organizing it, I have no problem with just letting the musical chips fall where they may.

Unwittingly, I anticipated the future regarding what was to come regarding what people would consider important when it comes to music, and it was everyone carrying around their music in smaller and smaller devices. It didn’t matter whether they wanted or needed it; they could have it, and that proved sufficient rationale. What they wouldn’t need was someone else's music, cross-faded so there was no pause between songs. There’s no cover or liner notes with mp3 files on a hard drive; there’s just the tracks.

I suppose there's no way this can’t seem like a lamentation, but I had long abandoned what is ostensibly lamented here by the time the silhouetted figures with the white headphones gyrating to U2's "Vertigo" changed the landscape. It was only to me that it ever held any significance, but in years past there was at least that hint of cachet to handing someone a CD one had spent time working on, whether they listened to it or not; now it was just something that the CDDB couldn’t identify when they tried to rip the tracks (on the off-chance they did so). It’s not so much that the world passed me by—I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself to have been on the same path as the world prior to all this—but that what I prized (more in theory than in practice, admittedly) moved farther away from what the world valued.

Now, however, I have found some use in the software. (I’m not entirely sure why iTunes would have CD burning capabilities, as that’s going back in my direction rather than toward the portable mp3 device Apple got rich from, but perhaps it’s merely to act as a reminder of how archaic one is by bothering with CDs.) I can create a random “smart” playlist of as many songs will fit on a 70 MB CD-R in 128kb mp3 format (around 200), then burn all of them on a single disc and play that in the CD Walkman (Sony once ruled this world) for weeks before listening to all of them, and without having put more than maybe ten minutes of effort into it.

That’s all I wanted: to not have to decide what I wanted to hear, unless I was really going to decide seriously, as an artistic statement.

Not that the mix tapes ever really were art, but I fancy the notion they were.


  1. Not all mixed tapes are art...yours are.

  2. This is the second post you've written where you are concerned about coming across as "arrogant" to others.

    It's good to self-check yourself from time to time, looking at your personality from the outside in. But don't let this slide into complete self-doubt or you'll become an easy recruit for a secret society like the Illuminati. (Then again, the Ill have great health benefits.)

    So don't self-question yourself too much.


    PS: I'm more humble than you are.

  3. Wait. I've only done it twice? Really?

    Hmm. Guess in all the other pieces it was merely in the subtext...

    p.s. You wouldn't have contact info on this Illuminati, would you?

    Thanks Tracy & Ray!

  4. for the record, I loved your mix tapes and did indeed listen to them.

    And, the Illuminati isn't really all that bad. They have a shite PR guy.


So, what do you think?