Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to make a mix CD.

I've written about this previously, but that was for a different blog and you can't even find the blog anymore, so this is going to be like new! For most of us, anyway.

I spent several years as one of those writers who really wanted to be a musician. I even put it in my bios when I found publication: "Mike Meginnis blah blah blah. He realizes, once daily, that he should have been a musician." The rare instance of success as a writer only seemed to make me feel more acutely my original mistake, possibly because it was in these moments that the reality no one would really read me finally seeped through. (And of course that isn't reality: people do read things, no matter what Franzen says.) I wanted to be a musician in spite of any lack of marked ability or natural talent, and also in spite of the rather sharply crooked pinkies that conspire to make most complicated manual tasks rather more difficult. (Come watch me type sometime: I invented a system!) It was my belief for a long time that I could, with sufficient effort, train myself to do anything. This is the strange, unwarranted confidence of autodidacts.

What I can do, however, is make mix CD's. I'm pretty good at it! In this post, we will discuss the art of the mix CD, and I will also demonstrate it, by way of some YouTubes. (YouTubes!)

If you're anything like me, you're making a mix for basically two reasons. First, you want to give your target an interesting, mind-expanding experience that feels tailored to them while also designed to introduce them to new beauties. Since I'm making this mix for all current and future readers of this blog, it's hard to do much from this principle: I've got some idea of what maybe half of you listen to and no particular idea what you don't listen to. The other reason is to show off your excellent music collection and taste. In the age of the Internet there's no real distinction between the two concepts, really: if you've got the good taste to like something, you can download it for free. So, when I make a mix for the blog, I tend to go largely for showing off how hip and with it I am. This means I mix a) stuff I'm currently really hot on and b) stuff that's stood the test of time.


The first song is important! You want to get off on the right foot. Using the first song from an album feels cheap, though -- in this case, I considered using "Arming Eritria" from the same album, Curses, but that's how Curses starts. If you by some chance have the album, at least this way starting my mix isn't exactly the same experience. I also like this song because it begins pretty nakedly -- one instrument playing one riff -- and then builds quickly from there. We've established a hook that will draw the listener through.

I decided to follow up with "1, 2, 3, 4, Guitars" because I feel like it builds on the first track nicely -- the Future of the Left song seethes with a sort of subdued chaos, and so does the beginning of the Blood Brothers track. Then it explodes.


But I can't develop the insanity much further without going for a momentum-killing Shit and Shine-style grindfest. A longer song doesn't seem like the way to go (if it's similar to the last two we'll feel our patience running out, if it's too different we'll wonder what the first two were doing there at all) so I cap the CD's first "movement" off a short little balls-out rock song that sounds a teensy bit like the last two tracks, maintains the volume, and echoes the previous track lyrically. Good times!

This track ends by wiping the slate clean, so I can go just about anywhere from here. Where do I go? It's a good opportunity for my favorite mix CD gambit: The unexpected cover of a familiar song! Here I go with Antony and the Johnsons covering Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." This also has the benefit of bringing the volume down and greatly modifying, but not entirely abandoning, the seething paranoia and violence of the previous songs -- dynamism in terms of mood, style, and emotion is essential to a successful mix.


I wanted something that maintained a feeling of reverence and roughly the same volume level but with a faster beat. The Patrick Watson song fits the bill nicely, and it also makes overt the subtle sense of humor in Antony's performance. The Sunset Rubdown track that follows reminds us that this section is, on some level, about love, and it turns up the volume a little without spiking it just yet. We've got one more song to get through before we do that.


Joanna Newsom brings the jams with another playful, energetic love song that pays a lot of attention to rhythm and evolution. This doesn't change in terms of volume quite as much as the Sunset Rubdown track, but it has a similar dynamism, similar builds. This one's a little long, though, and we've probably developed the idea as far as we can, so it's time to shift gears. It's time for a sad, regretful song! This sort of bookends with the Beyonce cover, and it tickles some parts of the ear we've largely abandoned since the first three tracks, without forgetting the emotional complications and dynamism they introduced. We're a little heavy on longer songs at this point, but sometimes that just sort of naturally becomes the basic unit of a mix.

Now, that last track ended quietly, but Modest Mouse is the kind of band you can always follow up loud. So let's do it! Born Ruffians' "Barnacle Goose" isn't the loudest song in the world, of course, but it's raucous and energetic and immediate in a way this thing needs right now. From here, it somehow seems obvious that Akron/Family's "Everyone is Guilty" is the way to go: sonically the pairing of these two bands is startlingly natural.

Now, in spite of being an opening track for another album, "Everyone is Guilty" has a really gorgeous closer that we could go out on. But it seems a little too easy, and there's something sort of obvious about it. It's good to put a track like this, one that suggests the album has been a journey that's coming to an end, second to last in a mix. But you don't want to stop there. One last surprise is in order. That's "Hotcha Girls":

I often like to leave a mix on a sort of plaintive note -- my way of saying, "I'll miss you!" This has the added benefit of being an Ugly Casanova song, i.e., a side-project of Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock. So we're echoing "Life Like Weeds" without repeating it -- the same voice shows up again, but it's in a duet with a new (gorgeous) voice. Often I'll repeat an artist once or even twice at the middle or just before the end of a mix in order to give a sense of structure and circularity, but it's even more fun to end on a closely related but very distinct song. That creates a lot of structure and movement all at once.

I use this one in a lot of mixes, largely because this is about the closest thing to a perfect song I've ever heard.

So, there you go! Some advice about mix CD's. Basic principles, for memory: Think of the listener's experience. Try to use a mixture of meaningful overlaps between songs and pointed breaks between them. Cluster songs into "movements" with particular attention toward dynamics that carry over and change from song to song, in terms of volume, mood, and style. Whatever you use to structure your mix, just try to make sure there's something the listener can pick up on, so they can feel your presence when they listen.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. Great post. I consider myself an above-average mix taper myself. However, I've been slow to adopt new technology. Do you have advice on what are the best mac-compatible software programs for cross-fading songs with assigned track breaks? And then the process of posting the mix to a blog mp3 player or fileshare site? Thank you!