While it’s become a bit of an ‘80s and ‘90s trope, the mixtape lives on, albeit in a different form from its original version, in the 21st century. One could argue the basic concept has never been more popular.It’s certainly more convenient now in many ways. Modern technology, however, still can’t replace the basic principles of mixtape creation. It’s a craft that is deceptively simple but takes great skill to execute properly. The premise is pretty straightforward, of course: Assemble a collection of cool and meaningful songs to give to someone else, usually a significant other or potential significant other.
Such a thing became possible starting in the ‘70s when the cassette recorder became a standard component in even the least expensive of stereo systems. Being able to record onto a blank tape opened up all sorts of possibilities for music fans, including the ability to enjoy one’s collection in a vehicle or via a portable cassette player. It also allowed for the creation of best-of collections and compilations, or mixtapes.
Choosing a tape
The preferred type of cassette for a mixtape was a 90-minute, high-bias tape. The latter term simply meant higher quality than a standard cassette tape, while 90 minutes was the longest you could safely go without taking the chance that your tape would be gobbled up by the receiving parties tape player. Back in the day, blank tapes longer than 90 minutes were made of thinner tape and were, therefore, less durable.
A 90-minute tape had two 45-minute sides. That allowed for about 12 songs per side, or a total of 24. When CDs and CD burners became widely available in the ‘90s, and subsequently the preferred audio format, the available time dropped to 80 minutes or about 20 songs.
Choosing the songs
The two sides also gave the mixtape producer two “power cuts.” That’s music biz slang for the first song on either side of an album. The rise of CDs, not to mention streaming music, reduced that by half, of course.
The first song, not surprisingly, was the most important. Depending on the purpose of the mixtape, it was either the best track or the one that set the emotional tone for the rest of the collection. From there, it was just a matter of keeping the tempo steady. For example, not dropping from a fast song to a ballad back-to-back. Flipping the tape over, again, presented the opportunity to place another power cut.
The next challenge came at the end of each side. One could leave a few seconds or so of blank tape at the end, but that would rob the mixtape maker the satisfaction of packing the tape with music. The solution, of course, was to time out each track to ensure the tracklist on each side came as close to 90 minutes as possible. That might mean choosing songs to end each side with a tune that wasn’t the very best fit mood-wise but did satisfy space requirements.
The concept today
Today, of course, streaming playlists have no time limit. The list of songs can go on almost forever. People can collaborate on them. That’s fun. And while that’s certainly handy, it can also water-down the impact of a carefully curated collection.
It’s nice to see, though, that, overall, the mixtape idea lives on and hasn’t been ruined by technology. A contemporary playlist doesn’t have to have tons of songs and there’s no obligation to collaborate. You can still say to that someone special, “here is a collection of about two dozen songs I think you’ll enjoy.”