The Mixed Tape

In our current era of music downloads, iTunes, etc, creating a playlist is just a few clicks or drag and drops away. Much like ordering a burger from your neighborhood fastfood chain, multiple playlists of different classifications/genres/themes can be done with so much ease. Another facet that epitomizes our present plug-n-play lifestyle.
But not so long ago, producing an hours’ selection of your favorite tunes may take a good part of your day.

I am talking about the lost art of the Mixed Tape.
Yep, that’s the one. – that humble cassette tape where you might squeeze in a measely 10 to 15 songs per side of the tape.
That mixed tape may appear simple at first look – but when I get to think about the labor of love that went into crafting it, the numerous playlists I have in my present iPod just pales in comparison.
Creating that mixed tape is much like a chef cooking that Smoky Iberian Chicken dish which has to simmer slowly to be able to satisfy the expectations of his taste buds – no shortcuts here.

Below was my recipe for the mixed tape (and the corresponding time it takes per step).

1. Newly washed vinyl records ( LPs and 45s)
2. Cassette tape – My personal preference was the TDK SAX 90. It was easy on the budget unlike those
ultra-expensive metal tapes. But for the purpose of this recipe,the 60 min. SAX 60 would do.
3. Headphones – Those big, clunky, ear-enveloping ones are recommended to isolate background noise.
4. Pocket calculator – No need for that fancy, scientific stuff. We don’t intend to find the square root of a 3-minute song.:)
5. A few cotton buds
6. Alcohol- Rubbing and not the drinking kind . . . but what the heck! You might include it as well.
A shot or two might come in handy in step 6 below. 😉
7. Tape Head demagnetizer – optional . . . only because I didn’t have one.  🙂
8. Half a cup of water – tap will do
9. Bic ballpen (any color will do) or Mongol pencil (any number will do)
10. Typewriter – Olivetti or Underwood, but Corona and other brands will do just as well.
11. A ball of cotton
12. One five centavo coin
13. A small pinch of your kid brother’s modeling clay from his science project (any color will do)
14. Several pitchers of patience

1. Choose your theme – Choosing a mish-mash selection is the simplest theme to do.
A selection by genre is also an easy way to go.
All instrumental? -walk in the park!
All male vocals? – piece of cake!
But a theme for a specific purpose was, hands down, my preferred choice.
Some favorites then were Roadtrip Music, Party Tracks, Lazy Sunday Afternoon Tunes, and that oh so popular “Impress-that-girl-this-Saturday” selection.
That last one every so often manipulated the mood. ;)
Jim Messina’s “Seeing You For The First Time” segued by Tower Of Power’s “Below Us, The City Lights” while parked in Eagle’s Nest managed to elicit a few ooohs and awwws even from convent-bred colegialas.
But just to set the record straight – those oohs and awwws were manifestations of cute admiration and not ooohs and awwws I know some of you might be thinking of. ;)

2. Lay out your records – Ok, once you have your theme of choice, it’s time to thumb thru your records and pick the specific tracks that would make the shortlist to the tape. Be careful though. You don’t want the Bee Gee’s “Jive Talking” to accidentally land on that “Saturday” tape. Your intentions might be too obvious and put a damper on the intended mood.
“Jive talkin, you’re telling me lies. . . .” (approx. time 20 min.)

3. Wash records – Having chosen the records, time for some elbow grease since RCMs (record cleaning machines) were non-existent then, well at least for me. Cleaning ingredients may vary but soap and water was the general option. I don’t recall where the urban legend originated, but Perla laundry soap was highly recommended then. So it came as no surprise why my mom wondered how the laundry soap keeps appearing by the stereo system. :) (approx time 1 hr)

4. Make a temporary list – From the washed records you have chosen, make a temporary list of the candidates to make the cut. This is an important step wherein you choose the order of the selection.
Rule 1 – choose a good song to start the selection but begin that build-up in accordance with your theme.
You don’t want Billy Cobham’s drums in “Busy On The Line” to kick off that Roadtrip selection.
Maybe Mason William’s “Classical Gas” would be more apt as the opening cut.
Let Cobham smack those skins when the Saturn 1600 engine growls 120kph at the expressway.
Rule 2 – Unlike a 45 where the B-side is the less popular cut, side A and B of the mixed tape is of equal importance. You’ll never know when you’re flipping either side of the “Saturday” tape and don’t want the intrusion of having to rewind to a preferred side while “jive talking” your date. :) (approx time 20 min.)

5. Compute your time – As mentioned above, this recipe is for a 60-minute tape.
Time to bring out that pen-light battery powered calculator and divide 60 minutes by 2 sides and you get 30 minutes . . .
oh, you knew that already?
Good for you!
I don’t know why, but my numbers are kinda messed up a bit now.

Ok, I lied and took a few swigs of that alcohol (not the rubbing kind) even before step 6. :$

Anyway, now that you have your shortlist written by that Bic ballpen (any color will do) or that Mongol pencil (any number will do), it’s time to calculate the total minutes of the songs you have chosen per side.
It would be great to fill up one side with only about 10 seconds of blank space left. 30 seconds  of blank space may be tolerable but more than that would send me back interchanging songs in the list to achieve shorter blank space time. (approx time with calculator -15 min. / without calculator – forever. . . did I ever mention failing first year Algebra . . . but that’s another story :) )

6. Preview list – Now that you have your list on hand, it’s time to listen to the selected songs just to make sure they fit the chosen theme. “Go Mickey” or “Disco Duck” might have unintentionally intruded that Party playlist or worse, an Air Supply song might have accidentally slipped in that Saturday selection – a sure formula to dampen the intended mood. :)
Previewing also gives you a chance to note down the peak levels of each song which will come in handy when you do the actual recording.
Now, there has been some debate here. Most manuals tell you that peak levels should not reach red while some say that a flick of red (on a VU meter) or a notch of red (on an LED) is favored. I adhered to the latter.
Previewing also gives you a chance to take more sips of alcohol (not rubbing, this is step 6, right?) as you enjoy the music.
Be careful though, music & alcohol has a tendency to make you forget the time and the primary objective of this endeavor.
(approx time without alcohol – be done in about 45 min / with alcohol maybe next Thursday :) )

7. Prepare tape deck – Make sure your deck heads are clean. So assuming you did not mistakenly consume the rubbing kind in step 6, dab the buds in alcohol and clean the heads, capstan and other parts you see fit to clean. Make sure you don’t leave fibers of the cotton on those parts.
If you have a tape head demagnetizer, refer to the manufacturer’s manual and zap away those meanies.
(approx time – 15 min)

8. Prep the tape – Another urban legend I picked up was prepping a brand new tape before use. This is where the Bic or Mongol comes into use. Insert the pencil into the hole of the cassette and give it a whirl for a few seconds simulating a fastforward motion. Flip the tape and repeat to rewind. This supposedly loosens the inner mechanisms of the cassette for a smoother run.
So why not use the fastforward/rewind of the deck? I really don’t know. Gullible me just did it. :$
Anyway, before you plop that cassette tape on the deck, adjust the lead of the tape.
Failing to do so will make you miss out on the first few seconds of your intro song. Your older brother will give you the “eye” for not including that acoustic guitar intro of “Stairway To Heaven”.
Again, use of the Bic ballpen or Mongol pencil for this task is suggested although your pointer finger will do the job as well. :tmi: :)
(approx 2 min)

9. Recording – Having checked your turntable for the correct speed/pitch and freeing your cartridge of any fuzzballs, it’s time to record.
Place the selected record on the turntable and adjust the recording level as per your notes on step 5.
Start the table, cue the selected track and release that pause button.
Repeat for each song until end of tape (approx 2 hours)

Zero Second Gaps -We always took pride in having zero second gaps between songs in our mixed tape.
There are several methods in pulling this off.
The cumbersome “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three . . .” counting was the practice before the advent of direct drive turntables.
Counting the “seconds” between tracks in the record gave you a reference, albeit an inaccurate one, when to release that pause switch.
Inaccurate and almost impossible if the song happens to fall on the first track on either side of the LP or
one on 45.
The coming of the direct drive system enabled one to counter-rotate or hold the platter to a stop.
With the use of the headphones, play the selected song and hold to stop the platter once you hear the first note. Backtrack from that first note (like a DJ scratching) while making a visual mark (usually on the record label) when that first note hits the cartridge. Counter-rotate the platter about a revolution and a half.
Release the platter and just before that visual mark reaches the cart, hit that pause switch – Exacto!

There was a ”wax paper” technique which I heard about but never got to use.


Skipping – Skipping due to scratches on the record surface is not uncommon.
Causes of scratches range from accidental mishandling of records due to excessive alcohol (not rubbing) intake to premeditated intentions (my mom must have hated that Led Zep album!). :D
There are two kinds of skipping.
The first is when a track skips a note, like a hiccup.
But the other, more irksome one is when the skipped portion repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself, repeats itself, . . . (see what I mean?). :)

No commercial cure has yet been found to remedy skipping.
But recent research by CRAP (Cancer Research for Polyvinyl) and VOMIT (Vinyl Overlords of Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have come up with a vinyl extract from a yet highly classified mixture of old Perry Como  and Black Sabbath albums. Findings have shown that a minute dab of this extract on the scratch adheres to the groove and clones itself to the original track.
Unfortunately, this research has been shelved. CRAP and VOMIT have both run out of Mr. Como’s albums. :)

But for this recording recipe, the venerable “five centavo” remedy does the job.
Place the coin on top of the headshell before playing the track with the offending skip. The weight of the coin forces the stylus of cartridge to keep on track with the groove.
Take caution when doing this. Horror stories of the coin slipping out of the headshell, landing on the record, and wrecking the cart have been known to happen. :(
So we need a temporary adhesive.
Now it’s time to slowly creep into kid brother’s science project and take a pinch of clay off Jupiter from that solar system model. Place that fragment of Jupiter on headshell to keep the coin in place.
Return fragment at your own risk. :)

Pops and Ticks – Though not as annoying as the Skip, Pops and Ticks can cause some minor irritation. Remember this was 1975 and digital’s promise of ‘perfect sound forever’ was still a few years away.
So how do you eliminate, if not lessen vinyl’s pops and ticks?
A technique I used with some success was the “water glide” method.
Dab a ball of cotton on water (tap will do – oh yeah, this was 1975; no bottled water yet. No choice, so tap it is!)
Let the tip of the wet cotton lightly touch the tick-riddled track as you play. This will leave a light streak of water on the groove.
So how does it work? Some theories below – from the web, not mine.

Floating Dirt -Dust, dirt, and other crud that is normally in the record grooves is suspended and will thus not impede the trekking stylus.
Dampened Stylus – Vibrations from low-volume noise transmitted from the vinyl to the stylus are muted.
Aquaplaning stylus -The stylus is riding on a thin film of water.
Vinyl Spackle – The liquid acts as a filler, buffering heavier scratches and eliminating minor surface noise.

My personal theory is that the O2 (oxygen) in water blows the dust particles at a speed of 125mph –fast enough for the Hydrogen to chemically react with the dust particle producing a vapor that when expelled to the ambient environment . . .

. . .Ok, I lied again.
But I figured if Shun Mook can make some believe in their “sympathetic resonance” hypothesis, I thought I’d peddle a few bottles of snake oil in this recipe. ;)

By now you would have finished your mixed tape. . . or tired of reading this article.
But hold on just a bit. We’re about to wind up.

10. Finishing – You now have that perfect mixed tape –free of gaps between songs, free of pops and ticks, and most importantly- free of Air Supply. :)
Packaging your creation is the final step.
If you have lousy handwriting like me, it’s best to ditch that Bic ballpen (any color) and bring out Senor Olivetti that has helped me thru various term papers – one of which was “How Blues and Jazz Influenced Modern Music “.  I got a “D” for that paper, but that’s another story again. :tmi:
1975 remember? No PCs, no Microsoft Word, no copy-paste, no printers. So the best ally of one, who flunked grade 2 handwriting class, was the typewriter.
It was a pain aligning the letters between the lines printed on the cassette cover so I made a marker on Senor Olivetti specifically for this purpose.
(approx – 1hr. . . . I type with two fingers. ok?) :$ :)

11. Listen and relax.


Amidst the multiple terra-byte servers, high definition downloads and other digital gizmos around now,
the mixed cassette tape may seem like a piece of junk.
I was even thinking of throwing them all away during our second move. I’m glad I decided otherwise.
I now realize that those guys have been with me thru thick and thin. – late night cramming for the Physics finals, out of town sem-break trip with friends, class nights, or just plain lazy summer afternoons with nothing much to do.
In some ways, they tell a story of my youth. Each tape representing a part of those early years :
that singer-songwriter selection of early high school, Jazz fusion tracks from college, 80’s New Wave during early married years.

I still have the mixed tape I made for that first date with my wife.
And up to now, I can still distinctly recall the excitement and anticipation for that date while recording on that 3-head sendust ferrite Sony.

For those of you who had the opportunity of making your own mixed tape, pick up a few now and try to remember the laughter and tears behind them.
Each mixed tape is a chapter in my story just as your own story lies within those.
So hang on to those tapes.
Hang on to those memories.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy them. . .

. . . and that’s no lie.

Cheers :)

2 Responses to “The Mixed Tape”
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