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Retro Format War

29 January 2008
Tuesday, 10:37 AM

I was recently involved in a music exchange with a handful of friends, in which we each put together a compilation of songs, and everyone involved got a copy of all of the compilations. Aside from giving me a good excuse to put together a fun mix, it allowed me the ever-cherished opportunity to do some unsolicited philosophizing, and I thought both were worth sharing with a larger audience.

Here’s an excerpt of an e-mail I sent to everyone early in the project:

I want to weigh in publicly on the Cassette vs. CD thing, because it is my understanding that the idea of using Cassettes for this exchange was met with some consternation. The simple fact is that for me, Mix CDs never even came close to being as cool as Mix Tapes. There are several reasons. A Mix Tape is more laborious to construct; it takes more thought and effort. Its receiver is more likely to experience it as one linear organism as opposed to an arbitrary collection of tracks within which she is free to skip around. A two-sided format introduces possibilities for thematic dichotomy, as many proponents of AOR realized in the ’60s and ’70s (for better or worse). A Cassette has moving parts, dozens of feet of tape, and rattles proudly when you carry it around. What do you want more in a handmade gift: the homogenous Modernist simplicity of the CD or the excessive Victorian complexity of the Cassette? For more trivial arguments, I refer you to Thurston Moore’s awesome book, Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, an excerpt of which can be read here.

Now, I know Cassettes have pretty much gone the way of the technological dodo, and some people don’t even own Tape decks anymore. I think this scarcity makes the Mix Tape that much more of a treasure, much like some of you find writing on a typewriter so much more rewarding than writing on a computer. I welcome you to throw a bunch of stuff onto an iPod and use my old skool stereo to put it all on deliciously low-fidelity Tape, then pick up a cheap Walkman (they still make them) to listen to the fruits of this exchange. Or just pick up a cheap Tape deck of your own at a thrift shop.

I implore you to consider the inconvenience, if only to nourish my inner 13-year-old, whose distance grows with each fast-moving day of adulthood.

I managed to convince all but one person to put their mixes on cassettes, and the lone dissenter made up for his refusal by creating beautiful custom art for each CD.

The music exchange had a theme of “Kitchen,” which was free to be interpreted however each participant saw fit. I decided to fashion my mix around the concept of a menu. Side A is a collection of cover songs (Classic Recipes, Unexpected Chefs), and Side B is the soundtrack to a dinner date.

For me, the challenge in a mix tape project of this sort is to assemble a track list whose songs and chronology respond to the theme, offer a decent variety of sounds, flow well, and leave a minimum of blank space at the end of each side. Obviously, it’s no simple task. Did I succeed? You be the judge. The whole thing is available for download, which includes an MP3 for each side and a PDF of the carefully-typeset cassette liner. And it should go without saying by now that this mix is best experienced in cassette form!

On the Menu (108.6 MB ZIP)

A: Covers Cookbook
Classic Recipes, Unexpected Chefs
The Fucking Champs: Air on a G String
The Plugz: Hombre Secreto (Secret Agent Man)
Baby: Miss You
Crooked Fingers: When U Were Mine
Les Thugs: Moon Over Marin
The (English) Beat: Tears of a Clown
Cornelius: Brazil
Hangedup: New Blue Monday
Low: Back Home Again
Van Halen: Ice Cream Man
The Little Willies: Gotta Get Drunk
TV on the Radio: Mr. Grieves
B: The First Date
Opening Fanfare
Andrew W.K.: You Will Remember Tonight
Cocktail Hour
The Police: Peanuts
The Gourds: I Like Drinking
Meanwhile, in the Kitchen…
Arab Strap: Gourmet
The 8-bit Construction Set: Saucemaster
Dinner Is Served
They Might Be Giants: Dinner Bell
Deerhoof: Dinner for Two
First Course
Shudder to Think: Automatic Soup
Second Course
Minor Threat: Salad Days
Main Course
His Name Is Alive: Brown Rice
Jucifer: Lambs
Combustible Edison: Short Double Latté
Fred Schneider: Coconut
DAT Politics: Pie


If you downloaded the mix tape shortly after this post was published, the MP3sID3 Notes field gave the wrong URL for this post. I’ve corrected the problem, and I apologize to anyone whose download may have been disrupted when I replaced the ZIP file with a corrected one.

Filed under: Music, Technology

Comments Closed (16)

1. Jared says…  |  29 January 2008 / 11:18 AM

That B Side is genius, man. I'm hungry now.

You don't have to press me too hard to get me going on how the experience of enjoying music has changed with the advent of digital media. Needless to say, I'm with you 100%; mix tapes have a charm and handcrafted quality that you won't get with a mix CD or iTunes playlist. I still have mix tapes from 20 years ago. Not sure I'd hang onto a mix CD for that long.

2. Christopher Fahey says…  |  29 January 2008 / 11:52 AM

Ah, I fondly remember my own mix-CD club from the early 21st century. I would do awesome crossfades and transitions and stuff. I've been meaning to post my mixes, now you've lit a fire under me to do so.

You can see some of our work here (it went on for a few more rounds, and only about 1/4 of the folks uploaded their info here).

What made the project most fun, and different from a dumb playlist, was (a) the continuous-mix production, and (b) the increasingly complex CD packaging.

3. Rob Weychert says…  |  29 January 2008 / 12:29 PM

Chris: I used to do crossfades and transitions in real time while making mix tapes using a six-channel analog mixer. Man, that was fun. I might have to bring that back for the next tape I do, though I’ll probably mix it digitally.

4. Andrew says…  |  29 January 2008 / 1:02 PM

Very cool. I haven't made a proper mixtape in years, but I loved finding making them back in the day. I still use the same techniques when making a mix CD.

Have you seen Out of 5? It's a weekly 10-song themed mix that Naz and I founded and I curate.

5. Keith says…  |  29 January 2008 / 1:23 PM

Man, I do love mixed tapes. Fuck podcasting! :)

Back in the day I used to do all kinds of tapes and I'm hoping to dig out my old records and turntables and do a real old school mix tape one of these days.

I've also thought about maybe getting some of my old cassettes digitized, I used to spend hours coming up with the perfect beat-matched fades and I still have some of those tapes lying around somewhere...

And then there was the time I dubbed my own mix on to a copy of Fantasia. I actually have that VHS tape right here, I just need to figure out how to digitize it. :)

6. Rob Weychert says…  |  29 January 2008 / 2:10 PM

Andrew: Out of 5 is very cool, but you guys really need an RSS feed! I’d love to keep tabs on it, but I don’t think I’m even capable of regularly following non-syndicated sites anymore, and I know there are plenty more like me. :)

7. Khoi Vinh says…  |  29 January 2008 / 3:19 PM

I was in the same music exchange group with Chris. It was fun. However, I rarely listen to the many mixes I got from my cohorts. Worse, I now have a stack of mixes that aren't uniform in size and aren't all labeled properly. I don't know what to do with them. I've thought about doing an exchange group again via MP3s.

8. Rob Weychert says…  |  29 January 2008 / 4:28 PM

Khoi: In situations like these, I probably spend more time crafting my own contribution than listening to everyone else’s, which is a shame, because those other tapes are almost always a rewarding listen. I need to loosen the monopoly I have on my own ears more often, and customizable online radio stations like those on are helping me do that, albeit in a much more controlled way than listening to a mix tape.

9. Christopher Fahey says…  |  29 January 2008 / 7:05 PM

I have two stacks of A-List and B-List Mix CDs from the mix group Khoi and I were in (don't worry, Khoi, you're in the A-List!). The B-List is far, far bigger than the A-List (maybe 90% of the lot) and frankly is on the fast track, as of this week, towards the garbage.

And I am with you, Rob: A few of us, including me and Khoi, spent ages working on our packaging and production. Seeing a stack of 25 mass-produced but hand-crafted limited edition finished products felt great.

10. mai-ling says…  |  30 January 2008 / 1:07 AM

I understand what you mean from the tape vs CD. What is lost is what I call "The Art of Track Listing." I wrote up a journal entry about this when I released 'chronology.' two years ago.

The thought of clustering a group of songs through a thought provoking and yet seamless sense of audiological sequence is a lost art.

Today just slapping 10 songs in any order with out the thought or conception is why people don't buy whole records or for that matter physical CDs and rather they focus on the singles that are released on digital distribution or heard via main stream.

Hence why I value physical CDs and won't allow my music on digital distribution sites (like iTunes). So I take more care in the thought of the track listing, the theme, the order and the artwork to coincide with each other.

What made tapes so valuable was the accesability. Everyone who had a tape player who could record. The idea that 5-6 songs had to flow on one side and while continue to the next at the same flow as if you listened to all in a row was a challenge in a different respect.

Tape players aren't as prevalent. But oh well, it take time to physiclaly put together an actual mix tape and yet at the same time.

There's nothing like the buzz quality of analog on a mylar.

I'll download your mix when I am at a WIFI spot too.

OK, I can go on and on...

I'll shut up now.

11. Rob Weychert says…  |  30 January 2008 / 10:52 AM

Chris: If your garbage-bound B-List of mixes is that much bigger than your A-List, it sounds like you need to be a bit more selective about who you’re exchanging music with. :)

Mai-Ling: I’m not sure the art of track listing is necessarily in worse shape than it ever was. After all, in spite of the rise of the digital singles market, people are still putting out great, deliberately paced and sequenced albums. Though I’ll admit your guess is as good as mine how much longer that will last.

In any case, I don’t think the value of a collection of tunes is ever tied to its format. I just celebrate the cassette for its refusal to allow a listener with a short attention span to subvert my mix’s intentions.

12. jane says…  |  04 February 2008 / 3:42 PM

At the risk of groveling, I have to say this is one of the most fantastic ideas I've ever heard. I have a sick obsession with making mix CDs, but mix tapes? Something I haven't done since I was fifteen. Not to mention, I'm super-impressed with the idea of creating a mix tape around a keyword (kitchen?! wtfantastic!) and your execution of it. Wow.
Okay, that's all. I just wanted to sick your praises.

13. jane says…  |  04 February 2008 / 3:44 PM

..."sing your praises" probably would make more sense.

14. Rob Weychert says…  |  04 February 2008 / 3:50 PM

Jane: I will gratefully accept your sick song of praise. :) Let me know if you make a themed mixtape of your own publicly available.

15. Andrew says…  |  04 February 2008 / 6:43 PM

Rob -- we hand update outof5, and the previous week's content is gone forever (except for the cover), so an RSS feed seems both tedious and unnecessary. We do provide update notices via Twitter -- follow us!

16. Paul Annett says…  |  10 February 2008 / 8:26 AM

There's little as satisfying as recording the songs to tape with mere seconds to spare per side, and with the minimum of record/pause click. Simple pleasures destroyed by the convenience of CDs.

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