Mix it up with mix tapes

Published 3:39 pm Sunday, March 8, 2015

When a friend recently asked me to make a mixtape, I wasn’t sure if I should be giddy or daunted.

Mixtapes are a great way to share with friends and get introduced to new music. I still have a mix CD of kroutrock a former bandmate made for me in college. I didn’t know a song on the CD, but it was still great.

Those of us old enough to remember the good old days of cassette tapes before CD burners, iPods and web-streaming music can recall sharing music with friends by the tedious, but often fun, method of recording CDs or the radio onto cassette tapes.

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But mixes are starting to feel a bit dated, or at least like a bit of a lost art. Spotify and MP3 players are pushing people away from mix tapes and toward playlists with hundreds, if not thousands, of songs.

But last summer’s biggest blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” shed added light on mixtapes — especially cassette mixtapes —thanks to Peter Quill “Awesome Mix No. 1.” It’s a great upbeat pop and funk soundtrack/mix mostly from the 1970s and 1980s that is perfect for the late winter, “why won’t spring just come already” doldrums.

Soon after starting this column, a coworker started talking about memories of sitting at a cassette player with fingers ready to record music off the radio for a mixtape. I did cassette mixing only briefly before my and my friends’ parents started buying computers with CD burners.

In high school, CD mixes were plentiful, especially since it was the early days of downloading and ripping music. Yes, I’ll admit we were far from perfect in that department, and I can still recall one friends’ piles of CDs he’d downloaded and burned. I still remember ripping my first CD: Fatboy Slim’s “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” courtesy of the Albert Lea Public Library. (Go 1998!)

I’ve kept many of the mix CDs I received in high school and college. Though they’re kicking around and getting scratched up in drawers and CD cases, it’s always fun to put them in and listen to them on long drives. I’ll be honest, some that I made in high school are almost unlistenable now since my musical taste is far from what it was in high school.

But many new computers and cars don’t come with CD players, so mix tapes are continuing to be pushed to online sites like 8tracks.com. Such sites are fun but lack the intimacy of a CD made specifically for a friend or for a road trip.

With the web comes the temptation for quantity over quality. The best mixes I’ve made or received thrive as much on content as they do on what’s missing.

Online playlists lose something in their expansiveness. Part of the fun of a mix tape is the limitations. In the cassette days, you had to judge the space left on each side, trying to limit the amount of wasted space from recording too soon or ending a recording too early or late. And if you were recording off the radio, you typically only had one go of it. For CDs, it became like crafting your own soundtrack or album.

By the time I finished this column, I had three-fourths of my friend’s mixtape done … and I was already plotting out my next one.