A lot has been made recently of the so called ‘vinyl revival’. I am all for this and, like any music lover of a certain age, could harp on about the beauty of an LP; the feel of it in your hands, the crackle of static as the needle hit the groove, the warmth of the sound quality…etc,etc…
What you don’t hear a great deal about is the poor relation of the recording medium world; the cassette. Cassettes were great. In a small (3″x4″), lightweight (2oz) package of plastic and magnetic tape you had the world of music at your fingertips. For here was the thing: you could record on them.
Ok, so the sound quality wasn’t perfect. In fact, even the more expensive chromium dioxide tapes with their convoluted noise reduction systems (“you don’t do heavy metal in Dobly…”) would still sound like a bike tyre deflating in a pit of snakes. What you did get was manyfold. You could tape your LPs and listen to them in the car (or any other place with a tape player), or make a compilation of your favourite tracks or artists for your own pleasure, or you could create a mixtape for somebody else.
Record companies really didn’t like the idea of this. They thought that everyone would tape their favourite songs off the radio, no one would buy vinyl singles and they wouldn’t be able to ride their gravy train anymore. They all got together and mounted a campaign with the slogan “Home taping is killing music”
I particularly like the little “and it’s illegal”, at the bottom, said like a 6 year old would say “and you smell of wee” at the end of a playground hissy fit. The campaign was pretty ineffectual and what actually happened was that people would tend to buy more of the stuff they liked after hearing it on shared cassettes. You would have thought the record companies had taken this on board but history kind of repeated itself in 2000 when various (rich and established) artists took Napster to court for sharing their mp3s between users (does anyone else feel the urge to punch Metallica’s Lars Ulrich in the face whenever he pops up on tv?).
The advent of portable tape recorders also allowed the art of live bootlegging to flourish and with it the survival of some great music (and some historic musical moments, such as the heckling of Dylan as a “Judas” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 as he went electric).
The emergence of affordable multitrack recorders by Tascam and Fostex in the late 70’s / early 80’s allowed bands to be able to record and distribute their own material using cassettes without the need for a recording contract or access to expensive studios.
We accidentally blew one of these up during a recording session once
This was vitally important in allowing musicians to get their music heard and gave rise to a so-called ‘cassette culture’ or ‘cassette underground’ in the post-punk era which utilised fanzines and mail networks to distribute the music. This was the way I first was recorded as a musician in a band and I still treasure those tapes today.
The Lost Art of the Mixtape
What is a mixtape? Wikipedia defines it as ‘the generic name to any compilation of songs recorded onto any audio format’. The wider meaning encompasses recorded club DJ sets, digital playlists or hip hop remixes of various tracks. The mixtape I am talking about is a collection of songs recorded onto an audio cassette for your own, or others, pleasure.
I used to make mixtapes for myself and for others. There was always a theme, be it a particular artist, mood or genre of music. Compiling a mixtape for yourself was a form of self expression, it mirrored your mood at the time and was at hand at a later date to turn to, if you felt in that same mood. Making a mixtape for someone else was almost like opening up your soul, saying “this is who I am”. There was also an unwritten law that if you received a mixtape then you would return the favour and compose one in return.
So, how do you go about compiling a mixtape for somebody else? Well, you have to ask yourself a few questions first. What do you think they would like to hear? What do you think they should hear? Are you making the tape purely for someone’s pleasure or are you trying to tell them something? As a socially inept teenager (as opposed to the socially inept adult I am now…) the mixtape was a way of trying to make a connection with the fairer sex. It was far easier to pour your heart into a great selection of songs than to try and actually talk to the girl and express your feelings (there, I said the ‘f’ word).
The sequencing of songs is very important, like a good live set list or the order of songs on an album. The idea is to take the listener on a journey, or to create a mood. We now live in the age of the shuffle and I am guilty of this myself; having my iPod or phone set up this way allows me to access my 7000+ song library in a unique way which will often surprise me and unearth long forgotten tracks. But there is something to be said for sitting down and listening to something which has been expertly sequenced. The first track is very important, you are making a statement and setting the scene for what is to come. The middle section allows you to stretch your legs and say what you want to say. At the end it is vital to leave the listener with a lasting impression with as little ‘dead space’ as possible before the tape runs out. I used to have a selection of short songs to fill in any two or thee minute gaps that might arise. Then I would re-record the last few songs again, putting the short track in earlier so that I could end the side with a storming finale. This all sounds a little obsessive, I know, but I think that the nature of mixtapes and their creators are probably a little bit on the OCD spectrum anyway (check out Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity for the perfect example of this).
The actual process of creating the tape was very physical and ‘hands on’. You wouldn’t be reclined in an office chair, mouse in hand, dragging and dropping audio files on a computer. This was a labour of love. You would be hunched over a hot tape deck (and boy, did my old Akai tape deck get hot), surrounded by LPs (and later, CDs as well) and sheets of paper with lists of prospective tracks, half of which were scribbled out as the mixtape took shape. The sound levels could vary vastly between different records, so you had to take on the additional role of mastering engineer, ensuring the overall sound of the tape was homogenous and even. The dreaded ‘pop’ at the start of the recorded track as the pause button was released (with record and play already pressed) was to be avoided at all costs.
Once you had your finished tape you had to enable the write protect mechanism (ie. snap the little plastic tabs off the top corners of the tape with a pen nib). The final stage was to write the track list on the inlay card and, if you were feeling particularly adventurous, design some cover art. This could be drawn by hand, or (if you were like me and terrible at drawing) you could raid the magazine rack and go for it with a pair of scissors and glue and create a form of mini collage.
So there we have it. I, for one, really miss cassettes. Having dragged my old ones out and blown the dust off them to write this piece I’m very tempted to create a mixtape right this minute. Ok, now where did I put my tape deck?