Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A bed time story: the big bad scary mix tape


Gather 'round children.

Once upon a time, when a person wanted to have a collection of music, they made something called a mix tape. In order to make a mix tape, a person needed a number of things, including (but not limited to) a cassette, a bunch of vinyl records (REH-cords), and a mysterious collection of electronic funkery known as a stereo, which had spinning things and dials and wires.

A person would put one of the vinyl records on a turntable, put a blank cassette in the cassette player, turn on the turntable, press a record (REE-cord) button, and then--using a number of levers and arms or (heaven help us) one's own trembling hand--place a tiny needle on the revolving vinyl record. The music that had been magically imprinted on the revolving record would transfer onto the blank cassette tape.

Any number of terrible things could go wrong during this delicate process.

There were tiny holes on the top of the cassette tape that are hard to explain, but had to do with whether or not you could record onto the tape. When a person wanted to record over a cassette that they were absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt was filled with obsolete content, they'd cover the holes with Scotch tape (not to be confused with the cassette tape) and that old cassette was ready to roll.

But sometimes, that person who was oh-so-sure of herself wasn't careful about using labels and always putting cassette tapes into their proper cases and she would make a mistake about the content that was on that cassette (usually when it was too late). Sometimes a person would say a lot of very bad words when they realized they'd just recorded over a cassette that was full up with the Pogues and the Band and Roxy Music instead of the Ray Coniff Singers.



Other things concerning the needle, something known as "pitch adjustment," and dial settings could go wrong no matter how hard a person tried to make sure all those things were properly adjusted. As with the over-recording, a person often didn't realize these mistakes until it was too late: they'd go to play their new mix tape only to be met with garbled muck, music coming from just one speaker, or a flat buzz. This was a very bad thing because recording a cassette tape took about a whole day!

Now you children run along and fetch your iPods and earbuds. Go curl up in bed.

What's that you ask? Why did we transfer the music from the revolving disc onto the cassette?

That's a good question. If you're real good, maybe tomorrow night, Auntie Erin will tell you about something called a Walkman.



* * *

35 comments:

jonas said...

You might be interested to know that Sony still calls one of their MP3 players a "Walkman." I own one...good rig. And with 8GB of space, it makes for one hellalong mix tape...

Erin O'Brien said...

Jonas!

Cleveland Bob said...

Holy cats! Sham 69, Chet Baker, The Cramps and Sonic Youth.

You rock, Ms. O!

Now, Aunt Erin, please tell us another story...puuuleeeeze!!

MostlyFlumxd said...

Thank you for this homage to mix-tapes. I mean, how do kids these days KNOW if someone likes them if they aren't giving each other mix-tapes? Of course, I used a double deck jam box to record my mix-tapes on, still tricky. But not more so than waiting for the radio station to play that ONE song...

Erin O'Brien said...

I remember waiting for that ONE song armed with a portable tape player and microphone, my hand trembling over the red REC button!

Bob, per the photo credit, those aren't my mix tapes. Shoulda prolly dug mine out ...

twinkly sparkles said...

Love love, Erin.

My mom had a Ray Coniff album and it was all covers. What I remember most was the song "The Windmills of Your Mind." I thought that album was cool and that song, the coolest.

I had a portable tape player and I would just stick the microphone up to the radio and record. This was even before Walkmans, obviously.

Good memories!

Anonymous said...

@Twinkly-I remember trying to record the King Biscuit Flower Hour using the mic-to-speaker method.
The fidelity was somewhat lacking.
Erin, thanks for the post. More incentive to buy a turntable, so my poor, neglected vinyl may run free.
PS, in your next post, explain to the kiddies the wonders of the non-LP B-side. xxoo
Mike R

Sean Craven said...

One reason I enjoy your web presence so much? You make me feel that I actually do come from a culture!

Joe said...

and somewhere in the middle of the mix tape -- every single mix tape -- you had to put in those few seconds from Skynard live where he shouts "What song do you wanna hear?" 'cause it was fun and never got old. And you had to rewind and work to make sure the recording was just right and you did not get any Freebird organ by mistake.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, the memories...a 120 minute tape with classical, tunes from King Crimson's 'Islands' and 'Lizard' LPs, slow Roxy tunes...'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'...if a chick made it to side two of the tape she was a keeper.
Mike R

danb said...

Oh... I love these comments!

Making a mix CD, while a lot of fun, does not have the same labor intensive glow that a good mix tape could muster. I don't listen to my tapes much any more, since I think they are prolly quite fragile, but, wow. Those were the days...

danb

Kirk said...

I place the mike right next to the speaker, then crank the volume all of the way up on "Paradise by the Dashboard Light". When I play it back on the tape recorder, it's no more audible than that Lennon Sisters song on the Fisher's Big Wheel loudspeaker.

Big Mark 243 said...

My mixtape days did not begin in full until the era of CD's, so I never had to run the gauntlet of mechanization that was the uneven transfer of vinyl to tape...

... and I thought I had an a collection of music..! And I know you still own this Ray Coniff joint, dontcha..?

David Zimmerman said...

Lady, you make me laugh

Harry Finch said...

It ain't a true mix tape without some Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

Anonymous said...

Jeez. Mitch Ryder. Roxy Music. King Crimson. The soundtrack of my wasted youth.
Twist one up and turn it up.

RJ

Leslie Morgan said...

All right, children, I'm about to show my age. I have owned some albums on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, MP3, iPod. And if your mix doesn't showcase some Wilson Pickett, you missed the mark.

True story: Ex and I had bought a new sound system and it had a turntable. Our daughter, a truly brilliant girl, was born late to us - 1990. We gave her a Reh-cord and asked her to play it. Hilarious! She wanted to insert that disk into a nonexistent opening. She never did figure it out and had to be shown by us dinosaurs.

Ray Conniff sucks eggs and always did.

DogsDontPurr said...

OMG..the memories! I had a great big gigantic boom box, known then as a "Ghetto Blaster." It weighed about three hundred pounds, and took about twelve million D batteries, but had a handle and was meant for carrying with you as you cruised the hood.

It was super deluxe, man. It had an equalizer! It had dual cassettes! A radio! It had special buttons so that you could record off that radio! It had Dolby Noise Reduction!!!!

I'm telling you, that thing was Bad Ass!

But the problem was, when ever that ONE song came on the radio, the damned DJ's would talk over the end or the beginning, so it was rare that you could get a clean recording.

I remember spending one whole day calling into a radio station, requesting that ONE song. I even had my sister and dad call in. Just in hopes of getting it played without the DJ interrupting.

I think they played the song once....then finally asked me to stop calling. Party poopers!

Oh...to only have the troubles of a teenager again...

Erin O'Brien said...

I thought the readership might enjoy this memory.

Erin O'Brien said...

Oh, and readership? You might want to review the Ray Coniff footage, if for no other reason than wardrobe suggestions: the sleeves in the guys' shirts fer chrissake!

Hal said...

Whenever I made a mix tape, I always tried seeking out the rare cover of a timeless classic.

Such as Lawrence Welk's rendition of "Sister Ray."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i48BP1PUoFI

Erin O'Brien said...

GAWD. That link is hilarious, Hal!

Contrary Guy said...

Why did we transfer it? For the boombox, of course... or the car stereo... no MP3 plug in the ol' cassette player.

Quite a scattered collection of music you have there. I threw away all my old tapes in the last house move... no longer had anything to play them on.

Hal said...

I've still got most of my old tapes from the cassette era. About 400 or so, I'd say. Can't toss 'em just yet.

alphadog said...

Man, all you cassette people are a bunch of candy asses. Reel to reel was the only way of true audiophiles.
Sony, TEAC, Pioneer and the monstrous Akai that a friends brother brought back from his time over there.
Patch cords, tuners, turntables, amplifiers and shared albums. How come sharing music used not to be a crime?
Still have hours of music that took hours to put together.
Still have hours of my late dads stuff, some of which was put together over beers and whiskey with other dads who are no longer here.
As I am now my dads age when he passed, how is it I have a greater appreciation for his music than he ever had for mine?

Anonymous said...

WHYYY when I was a boy, we had to walk uphill 3 miles BOTH ways in the snow to make a mix tape!!!! And we LIKED! We LOVED it!!!
Kiddin', Alph..I remembered the r-t-r stuff some older brothers brought home from Asia. Quadraphonic. All the greats. There was nothing like bustin' a new set of gear out of the boxes from Tokyo Shapiro or Audio Warehouse and seeing if it could sound as cool as it did in the show room.
I miss RCA cables.Life was simpler then.
Mike R

Ben said...

This is great, as are the comments.

My mom's Buick (the wagon) had an 8 track player in it, my car had a cassette, so we made both. On an 8 track, of course, you have to mix your songs so that you don't leave a lot of silence at the end of the track, or have to cross over, very tricky (and you can't rewind, you gotta go around the horn as Hamm would say)

It just so happens, I now have my reh-cord collection and a working stereo, and have recently had the joy of teaching the kids how to work everything. They LOVE it but don't like that when they dance too fast it starts skipping. There is a half-price books a mile from here so I've picked up a couple $3 treasures even.

Leslie Morgan said...

@ Alph ~ What, no pre-amp?

Vince said...

Mix tape = the giver (angsty boy in a darkened bedroom putting what he thinks the focus of his incontinence will like) x the recipient (lank haired girl and her posse parsing the contents with the intent of insurance lawyers)/ time (virginity)

danb said...

@Vince- absolutely spot on!

@Alphadog- I have accumulated quite a pile of stuff (four sets of speakers, four pre-amps, two tape decks, two amps, tuner, three turntables, a mountain of RCA/balanced cables... too much shit, basically) over the years, which is all basically getting preempted by the advent of computer audio/high resolution files/streaming/etc. I love my LP's and CD's, but I'm getting old and cranky and am running out of room to store the things. The sad reality is that a 24 bit 96K file is going to reside comfortably on a hard drive, well out of sight, and not taking up any more shelf space.

Having said that, I remember the giddy anticipation of heading back from Westgate Mall with a new LP, which I had scrimped and saved for over a couple of weeks (or more). Now, all I have to do is a download from HDTracks, or barring that, buying a CD from Half.com or something similar. Not much excitement there (remember when Hotel California was released back in 1977?).

Mix tapes were the supreme revelator. Giving a tape to a friend or a possibly future girlfriend was to offer a peek into the givers soul.

Erin O'Brien said...

Yeah, yeah, it's all true.

But for what it's worth, I still eff around forever with a playlist before I burn it onto a cd and send it along.

It's almost like a piece of writing to me. You start, then draft, then edit and rewrite. I start with a few songs, add some, take some out, listen to the segues. The tracks all have to fit together and each has to be great on its own.

As for the cd's I get from friends, I can tell the same rigamaroll went into them.

The mix tape may be a thing of the past, but it lives on in spirit!

ben said...

A few years ago (maybe more than a few) there was a blog thing where we would all make a mix CD and send it to the next person on the list (whom we did not know, it was all blog stuff)

I think I still have some, it was fun, we were given a theme each time like 'summer' or 'driving' or whatever. I wish I could remember more, but apparently alcohol does not preserve brain cells like they told me in college.

alphadog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thatgirl said...

I still have my tape collection too, mixes from friends and ten-cent thrift store finds for the car.

I love that they're almost indestructible until they snarl.

Erin O'Brien said...

Oh my, did they snarl! Remember using a pencil to manually wind the tape?

GAWD!