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Making the Perfect Mix Tape 
by T. Allen Merriman May 19, 2005

Advice on making the perfect mix tape.

Whether for your self or for a friend, making a mix tape or CD is one of the joys of owning a music collection. It's a way of guaranteeing you get to hear Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," without having to listen to any of his other music. Making a mix is also a good way of fixing that Michael Bolton tape your mom left in your car, the one the used music store won't take from you if you pay them. It can also end the age-old conflict between passenger and driver over what to listen to in the car. "Fine, you pick ten songs, and I'll pick ten songs."

Even the latter example can prove problematic when you try to resolve who picks the order of the songs. You can't just cram them on the tape any old way, lest the tape result in an awkward jumble of songs that don't sound good next to each other.

Certified experts in the field of music mixology are hard to come by no matter how ridiculous the curricula at accredited universities have become. A Google search to find such experts turns up a series of articles written by student journalists, some of whom are so convinced they know the perfect mix, they tell you what songs to put on it.

It's not an exact science, but three things are clear:

  1. Don't let sorority girls at the campus paper pick out your songs for you.
  2. Don't let Dave put the songs in order because he doesn't care about flow.
  3. With practice and a few pointers, you can create your own perfect mix tape or CD.

Be Prepared

Step one is easy. Go to the shelf. Look through your collection. Pick out your favorite songs.

If you're using a computer to burn a CD, you can arrange your songs in order onscreen and the time is calculated for you. Still, it doesn't hurt to work out your ideas on paper.

If you're working with a cassette, working it all out on paper first can save you a lot of tedious rewinding and fast-forwarding, not to mention the embarrassment of having the tape stop mid-song. You'd hate to have, for example, The Who's thundering eight-minute live version of "Magic Bus" click off two minutes in, just as it's building up steam. Conversely, you'd hate to have a lot of dead space where you must either sit in silence, or reach for the fast-forward button.

In short, plan your song selection according to the time you have on the cassette or the CD.

Start Strong and Finish Strong

The late comic Mitch Hedberg said, "You have to start strong, and you have to finish strong. Those are the tricks, right? You can't be like pancakes – all exciting at first, but by the end, you're sick of 'em." Hedberg was talking about the art of standup comedy, but the same principle applies to making a good music mix. You want the opening and closing songs to be strong, as those leave the first and last impression.

Trish Doller, a disc jockey in Sandusky, Ohio, applies this principle in making her own mixes. "I like to start with something that sets the tone and end up with the something that feels like an ending song," Doller said. "I don't like my mix tape to feel like it's open-ended, like there could have been more, but I ran out of time."

Andrew C. Merriman, creator of the web comic Gordon Universe, reviews all manner of pop culture as it strikes his fancy. He and several friends started the game of each picking an equal number of songs to mix on one CD to listen to on car trips. "I usually start with something that's got a quiet start, but is an awesome song," he said. "Or something that starts with one instrument like 'Shaft', or 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' or 'Locomotive Breath'."

Spoken word introductions to songs, such as those Parliament-Funkadelic is prone to opening its albums with, are also good for first track songs, he said, but you don't want them in the middle of the mix. As for endings, Merriman's philosophy is simple. "You gotta end with the big guns," he said, although, he added, you might add a tag song after the epic finale, as sort of an epilogue following your climax. The epilogue song is generally short and sweet and sometimes silly. On one disc, he wrapped up the entire package with a one-minute live version of the theme from "Super Mario Brothers 2."

Steve Mullett has made more than 400 mix tapes and about 150 mix CDs. He has no official music-knowledge pedigree, but he has lots of practice and he knows his stuff. If one of Mullett's big closer songs is particularly long, he said he will also sometimes add a short song, about two minutes or less, as sort of a bonus track. When working with a cassette, Mullett will work with side B first. "I will say that I generally try to have the best songs at the beginning of side A and end of Side B, starting with a peppy song or two. The filler, to the extent that there is filler on a mix tape, goes on the end of side A and on side B, I start building toward the fantastic finish, which is more often than not an epic-type song," he said. "I generally make side B first because it's hard to gauge exactly how many of the songs I have planned for the tape that I'm going to get onto side B, and I want to have the best songs available to finish up that side," Mullett added. That way, when I'm finishing up side A, I can throw any old thing on there and it's fine, because it's only the end of side A."

Go with the Flow

As for the order of the songs, one of the most solid pieces of advice comes from the movie High Fidelity starring John Cusack. He said you have to start off with something really good, and then with track two, you have to put something even better, but you don't want to blow your load too early in the tape, so you cool it off a bit for track three. After that, you might find yourself in a bit of a freefall. Don't panic. Just listen to your songs back-to-back and see if they sound good next to each other.

Sometimes You Can Pull Off Some Funny Things.

"The best transition we ever had was we had this nice quiet song with a sad ending, and then right after it, 'Do The Mario' played," Merriman said. OK, so the guy likes Mario.

Doller offers just a touch more advice then leaves you on your own. "The only tip I have is don't use the same band or singer back to back," she said. "Oh, and vary the tempo."

Mullett agrees with Doller and has a helpful tip on how to vary the tempo. "Almost all the mix tapes I've made have one overriding principle: Make each song very different from the last," Mullett said. "Therefore, I wouldn't have 'Strawberry Fields Forever' by the Beatles next to 'Journey to the Center of the Mind' by the Amboy Dukes, because they're both psychedelic. Instead, I would follow either song with, say, 'Angel of Death' by Slayer. Then I might put a Mozart piece on and maybe something by the Presidents of the United States of America or Camper Van Beethoven before looping back around to the other psychedelic song. "I just feel that it's boring to hear the same type of song twice in a row; far more interesting to have a juxtaposition."

He takes Doller's advice of not having the same artist back to back a step further. "Not only do I never put the same artist twice on the same tape, I try never to have the same musician appear twice on the same tape," he said. "Therefore, I couldn't put a Rainbow song on the same tape as a Deep Purple song, unless it's from one of the handful of Deep Purple albums that Ritchie Blackmore is not on. This rule requires some vigilance, as someone like Ritchie Blackmore or Jimmy Page played on quite a lot of 1960s recordings on a session basis, and it's not always easy to get that information, but I figure a mix tape isn't truly mixed if you've got two performances by the same person on it."

See? He's thorough.

Now What?

Have fun. Fill up time with your favorite songs. Follow your own instincts as to what songs sound good end-to-end. Soon you will no longer have to explain to your smirking friends what you're doing with that Michael Bolton tape. And soon, sadly, you will most likely get tired of listening to your "perfect mix" over and over again, no matter how good your choice of songs. What do you do, then? Relax, take a deep breath, and get ready to fix that Debbie Gibson tape you can't seem to get rid of.


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