The Thinking Man’s Take On: Making A Mixtape

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Twas two days before Christmas

And all through the house

Not a creature was stirring

Except for one certain person who forgot to get Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa Presents for the whole family!

What’s a music lover to do? We’ve all been there before – days, hours, minutes before an occasion – empty-handed and in need of a gift. Well, lucky for you, the Thinking Man is here with some Holiday support. Whether you’re in need of a last minute gift for weird Aunt Cathy or just want something a little more personal than usual for that sister who you never really got along with until she moved out of the house, a Mixtape is the perfect gift.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s December 23rd, you don’t have studio space available, and Lil Wayne’s not answering his cell. Rest easy – it’s not that type of mixtape. Although an album-length recorded mixtape of your own music would be a great gift (google: Passion Pit Valentine), the one we’re talking requires a bit less creativity, time, effort, talent, etc.

But don’t be fooled, future mixtapers of America, making the perfect mix is no easy task. Many have underestimated the time and effort needed to craft a smooth and personalized mix. So to aid those of us who need a little jumpstart on the giving spirit and like to follow recipes/directions/orders, here are 6 Easy Steps to crafting the perfect mixape. Bonus points if you sing the Steps in a cover of Daft Punk’s “Technologic”.

Step One: Aim It

Step One of creating any good mix is knowing the audience who’s going to be listening to it. If you’re making a mix for Dad, you’re going to want James Taylor and Paul Simon to be involved, but if the jams are going to your Williamsburg-dwelling hipster friend, you should probably put on some Animal Collective and something from a band that sounds like you just made it up (I’d recommend “Say Hi To Your Mom”).

I feel like aiming your mixtape is critical to putting together a successful mix. Often I’ll find myself including songs that I personally love, only to realize that the person I’m making the mix for will hate it with a fiery passion. Design your mix around their tastes, not yours.

Step Two: Theme It

Themed mixtapes are ubiquitous. And for that reason, I would like to qualify that Step Two is optional. If you’re reading this list at 6am on December 25th and trying to come up with Christmas presents, skip this step. In fact, skip to the end, give someone a blank CD, and then blame your “messed up CD burner” for the impending ruination of Christmas. Anyway, many people enjoy coming up with an overarching theme for mixtapes. About 90% of the time the theme is love, which – although a little lame – gives you about 80% of the world’s songs to choose from. 5% of mixtapes are break-up mixes, and the other 5% are a grab bag. That grab bag is full of great things, though. Some of my favorite themes – music from soundtracks, instrumentals, songs about New York City, Hip Hop and its Samples, and Covers.

Be creative with your theme – pick a word, pick a musical genre, pick a place, pick an emotion. But be willing to broaden that theme as necessary. I think one of my most promising but least successful mixtapes was based around handclaps. As much as I love handclaps – and believe me, I love handclaps – it turns out that an hour of them in a row is way too much. Similarly, don’t pick the name Eileen as your mix’s theme unless you want Dexy’s Midnight Runner on repeat for 12 tracks in a row. Let your theme guide the creation of your mix, but don’t let it overtake the reason behind all this – sharing great music.

Step Three: List It

Alright, now that you have your theme, it’s time to pick your tracks. Or, if you don’t have a theme, it’s time to…um…pick your tracks. Open up your music library, and start skimming. I usually pull out the tracks I know I want to include at the start and then scan my iTunes for anything that might flesh out the mix. Don’t be stingy here. If you end up with 30 songs, that’s great. Fantastic. If you end up with 1,000, you might want to narrow your search criteria.

Having trouble? Want more? If you’re not against cheating a little bit, try using iTunes’ “Genius” feature to suggest some songs that might fit with what you’re trying to put together. Or surf on over to Pandora and plug in some songs to create a radio station that will give you some suggestions. Sure, it’s not the traditional way of making a personalized mix, but in a pinch it can help.

Then, once you have your tracks, it’s over to…

Step Four: Cull It

I recommend that mixtapes stay in the 12-16 track range. Anything longer seems imposing and a little self-centered, while anything shorter seems like a weak effort. Nobody wants to get a Mix EP for Christmas. Culling your list down from 30-1,000 tracks can be daunting, but odds are that you’ll see some off the bat that just don’t fit, especially if you were liberal with your original listing.

A recommendation for culling – don’t have more than one song from the same artist on a mix (ABSOLUTELY no more than 3). Keep the artists varying and fresh, otherwise it’s an album sampler, not a mixtape. I’d also recommend finding a balance between long/short, male/female, new/old, etc. If you have two 7-minute tracks, cut out some other long ones. If you have 10 male vocalists already, cut out some of the others and concentrate on the women (unless of course your theme is male vocalists).

If you’re going free-form or have a pretty general theme, try to vary the genres to include some different flavors. Following Panic at the Disco with Fall Out Boy is basically the same as having multiple songs from the same artist. That’s cheating.

Got the list down to 15 or less? Great! Now come two of the most important – and oft overlooked – steps in mixtape making.

Step Five: Order It

I’m a stickler for order. I like to make mixtapes to be listened to from beginning to end, the way most albums should be heard. There’s a definite flow to a mixtape, and you – as the creator of said mixtape – are responsible for creating it.

Start with a slow song, or maybe rock their brain right from the get-go. Put a patch of hip hop here, a run of rock and roll there. Have the album build to a crescendo before slowing down for the last few tracks. Whatever mood you want to create, create it. Usually I like to start slowly, put my favorite tracks in the heart of the lineup (3,4,5 slots), and save a couple slower, softer tunes for the end. Other times, though, it can pay off to start with a bang, keep it bumping throughout, and finish with an abrupt exclamation point.

Pay attention to what songs are next to each other too. I go so far as to listen to the last 10 seconds of one song and the first 10 seconds of the one that follows it, just to be sure that it’s not a jarring or awkward transition. Smooth moves from one track to the next make an amateur mixtape pretty gosh darn close to professional.

Step Six: Dress It

The most important part of giving any mixtape as a gift is dressing it up. This doesn’t necessarily mean physically decorating your mix (Mixtapes make great long-range over-the-internet gifts too!), but it does mean making it seem spiffy. Give it a cool title, write a blurb about each song or about the theme. Be sure to include a tracklist, and if you want to go crazy, make an album cover. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Top Chef, it’s that presentation is important. If there were a Top Mixtape show on Bravo, contestants would be judged on how they plate their mixes. The finishing touch, this step shouldn’t be overlooked due to haste.

So there you have it – six easy steps to make an awesome mixtape. If it works out, you can make the same present for all of your friends. Or a special mix for that love interest in your life. Or give someone a Mixtape of the Month present and make them 12 over the course of the year. Show someone you were thinking about them, share what you love to listen to, and save money all at once! A last-minute, recession-proof present. Baller.

Gotta go, Lil Wayne’s calling about Dedication 4.

Let’s play a game, I’m going to give you 4 songs to use on your very own mixtapes (my inspiration was Pitchfork’s Best Songs 0f 2008 list). You decide what theme to go for, if it’s themed at all. Leave a comment with the mixtape you came up with.

TV on the Radio – Golden Age

Sigur Ros -Gobbledigook

Fleet Foxes -White Winter Hymnal

The Walkmen – In The New Year

You don’t have to use all four songs, but you can.

Chris Barth is a guest-blogger here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.

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