Sunday, February 1, 2015

All Mixed Up

I’ve been working on my mixes today.

By “mixes,” I mean music.  Sort of like making mix tapes, back in the day, except these days we don’t actually use tape any more.  Everything’s digital: digital playlists of digital music, bought digitally, or digitized from CD.  More and more the music we listen to was even created digitally, especially if you’re into electronic, or chill, or ambient, or new age, or any of several dozen other genres and subgenres.  So it’s all manipulating files on disc, which, as a programmer, I’m not that bad at.

Of course, most digital music these days is inside programs like iTunes, or up in the cloud in services like Pandora or Rhapsody.  So few people have actual .mp3’s (or other file formats, if you’re more of an audio snob than I am).  I would love it if I didn’t have to keep lugging around my digital files, which my handy dandy space checker script tells me now total 81 gigabytes.  But there’s still too many things I have that the cloud doesn’t know about (or care about, in the case of some of my older and/or local band music).  So it’s a challenge keeping everything backed up and whatnot.  Of course, these days, you can get 128Gb thumb drives.  So it’s not as painful as it used to be.

I started making mixes back when they really were mix tapes, of course.  The art of the mix tape is somewhat lost these days, I fear.  It’s mostly replaced by music discovery services like Pandora, which has algorithms for choosing music you want to listen to (even when it’s music you never heard before).  And Pandora is great, don’t get me wrong: I’ve discovered some fantastic music by listening to Pandora.  It’s just that I then want to buy my own copies of that music and mix it up in my own ways.  That’s what “music discovery” should be: I discover some music, explore it further (e.g., was it just one great track, or is there a whole great album lurking underneath? or maybe an entire great new artist?), then I buy it, if the exploration proves fruitful.  Using music disovery as a personal playlist doesn’t really appeal to me, although I know it works well for some.  I’m a little more comfortable with curated Internet radio stations, like Radio Paradise, but I still like to take away what I learn there and mesh with other stuff I already have.

Mix tapes have played important roles in literature and movies, like Hi Fidelity or Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, although in most of those (as in those specific examples), it’s all about making a mix tape for someone.  Which is fine.  For me, though, I make mixes for myself.  Or occasionally for parties, or other special occasions.  For instance, I made a mix for our recent week-long vacation in Las Vegas.  ‘Cause, I mean, we’re driving to Las Vegas for my eldest’s birthday, and I’ve just discovered the Weepies and their excellent song “Vegas Baby”, and how can you pass up an opportunity like that?  It’s practically begging for a mix.

But those are the minority.  Most mixes I do, as I say, are just for me.  I build mixes around a theme.  Generally, the themes are lyrical (all the songs have similar subject matter) or musical (all the songs have a common instrumentation or musical structure) or emotional (all the songs invoke a certain mood).  So then, when I feel like listening to a certain type of music, I just break out the appropriate mix.

How it usually works is, I’m listening to an album, and a certain song jumps out at me.  I think, hey ... that song reminds me of this other song, which is also like these three or four others.  That first song, that provides the inspiration, is what I call the “mix starter.”  It’s generally emblematic of the whole mix, for obvious reasons.  When I’m just starting out, I don’t even make a playlist yet: I just jot down the starting tracks in a text file.  As I stumble across other songs that might fit, I add them too, until the list is long enough to start working on in earnest.

Now, back in the days of actual mix tapes, mixes were about an hour long, and that was it.  Nowadays of course a mix is a playlist, and playlists can be infinitely long.  I have some mixes that are six or seven hours long, and still growing.  As I’m continually discovering new music (both new and old), I’m continually find more tracks that fit the existing themes, in addition to finding new themes.  So a mix can fairly quickly grow unwieldy—way too long to listen to the whole thing in a sitting.  So I divvy each mix up into “volumes”: about 60 to 80 minutes of music, which is, not coincidentally, exactly what can fit on a recordable CD.  I do sometimes burn volumes of mixes onto actual CDs, but usually not until the list has settled down a bit.

See, at the beginning of the life of a mix (or a new volume in an existing mix), I just throw songs at the list, constantly rearranging them according to rules (more like guidelines, really) that mostly only make sense to me.  Songs that sound alike go together, but not if they sound too much alike.  If I have multiple songs from the same artist (quite common, since some artists really embody certain themes in all their work), they have to be spaced out so that the mix doesn’t devolve into a greatest hits compilation.  It’s all about variety.  Likewise, not too many slow or fast songs in a row; in fact, I generally like to amp up gradually to a fast song, then back through a few mid-tempo tracks until I get to a slow song, then start over.  And one track needs to “flow” into the next.  Sometimes you get really lucky with this, like being able to butt “No One Knows” up against “Underneath It All”: if you use the album versions and you can manage gapless playback, you won’t be able to tell where the Queens of the Stone Age end and No Doubt begins.  Mostly you don’t get that lucky, but in this area I’m deeply influenced by Hearts of Space.  The first time I heard that show on NPR, I was blown away by how seamless the transitions were, and it’s been the goal I’ve striven for ever since.

Thus, I constantly fiddle with the ordering.  I keep little notes to myself in my text file about which tracks go together so perfectly they can’t be separated, which transitions are not bad but are still open to finding a better one, and which are mostly just wishful thinking.  As a result, none of my mixes are ever really “finished.”  But some I’m so happy with that it seems unlikely that I’ll change them.  For instance, 3 years ago, I presented volume I of my Christmas mix, entitled Yuletidal Pools.  That one’s pretty unlikely to see any changes.

Which brings me to the topic of mix naming.  All my mixes have pretty abstract names.  In fact, “Yuletidal Pools” is one of the more comprehensible ones.  The names are mostly two word titles, often with transposed syllables or other linguistic tricks, and they’re meant to evoke a vague feeling which might give you some hint about the theme of the mix.  So for instance, my mix which has songs which are not necessarily sad but a bit wistful-sounding is named Wisty Mysteria, which manages to wrap up “wistful,” “mysterious,” “misty,” and “wisteria,” with its associations with gothic architecture.  Or there’s my mix of songs whose lyrics are all a bit abstract and weird: that one’s called Bleeding Salvador, which is meant to make you think of Salvador Dalí, and perhaps picture some of his melting clocks dripping blood, for added effect.  Pretty much all my mixes have names like that.

On the other hand, the volumes within the mixes have names which are generally drawn from a line in one of the songs on that volume.  Typically not a line from a chorus—not a line that’s repeated over and over.  Just a single line, something that struck me while listening to the volume: a pretty turn of phrase that also seems to relate to the theme of the mix somehow.  For example, volume I of Rose-Coloured Brainpan (my mix that puts me in a nostalgic mood) is subtitled “Billion Year-Old Carbon,” which is of course a line from “Woodstock” that I always felt had a nice ring to it.  Sometimes I deviate from this general principle; the subtitle of Yuletidal Pools I is “featuring Michael Bublé,” which obviously isn’t a line from a song, but refers to “Elf’s Lament.”

So these are the things that I fiddle with when I fiddle with my music.  I like playing around with my mixes, and a lot of the time when I’m listening to music, I’m planning which mix to add the current track to, and what position to put it in.  Perhaps I’ll share a few more of my mixes here, from time to time.  I like talking about music.  And you, dear reader, apparently have nothing better to do.

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