Help Me Avoid The Suck
August 8, 2006 9:25 AM   Subscribe

What makes a good mix CD, in general terms?

Lots of tracks? A few well-selected tracks? Genre-hopping, or themed? Music that might have been on the radio before but that I think is good versus music that hasn't been anywhere but college radio yet? Argl.

When you get a mix CD, what makes you say "this is AWESOME" versus "this sucks"? I'm doing my first MeFiSwap, and I don't want to be that guy. You know, the one whose mix sucks.
posted by scrump to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you should just fill it up with your honest to god favourite music and damn the consequences.
posted by dydecker at 9:31 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: I have always thought that the flow is one of the most important things about a mix CD. I loathe mixes that just jump from track to track without any real connection. Put songs that work with each other together (i.e., the beginning of one has a similar sound/tempo/etc as the end of the one that came before it).

I don't know what kind of mix you're going for, so I can't recommend what you should do with it. If you're looking for a theme, I'm very partial to the idea of a 'quintessential now' mix--those songs that for whatever reason you cannot stop listening to right now. Chances are, that if you have an mp3 player or some similar set-up, you have such a playlist and it's a mish-mash of things.
posted by monochromaticgirl at 9:35 AM on August 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

but having said that, I always figured people on Metafilter don't really like the music I like (dance music) so the likelihood of them appreciating a mix made by me is pretty low.

I think if you like a lot of pitchfork indie your chances of it being appreciated are higher.
posted by dydecker at 9:35 AM on August 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Man, don't be so neurotic about it. Put songs that you like on it. Maybe come up with a theme, and use songs that go with that theme.
posted by boo_radley at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2006

See the first few chapters of Nick Hornsby's "High Fidelity" for a good primer.

For me, it's all about imagining where people are going to listen to it. Because of the iPod and the nature of my life (not a lot of opportunities anymore to listen to whole albums), I usually expect that it will be either in their car or amongst friends on a Friday night at home. So you don't want to be abrasive with transitions from soft to metal, and you want to be lively enough to be interesting without being dominant.

But if you're making this for strangers, go with dydecker's advice.
posted by andifsohow at 9:43 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: Make your playlist and then listen to it before burning it to CD. Make certain that it flows well and that the volume level on the songs is relatively OK.

If you're making it for somebody else, be sure that it has a nice mix of songs by artists they like and songs by artists they may not have ever heard of.

The art and packaging is really the big thing. Handmade booklets and clever cases go a long, long way in the appreciation of a mix CD. This harks back to the day of the mixtape...when slaving over the tape deck and then obsessing over the tape's case were all major points of pride, and signs of the yadda, yadda, poured into the process....yadda, yadda...flirting via tape....etc.

Anyway. Packaging gets you major kudos.
posted by kaseijin at 9:44 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: Resist the urge to fill up the entire 80 minutes. Remember that Exile on Mainstreet was a sprawling double album masterpeice, and it clocked in at under 70 minutes. Unless you've got a great vibe going, or are making some kind of functional CD, I think 45-50 minutes is a good limit.

(By fucntional, I mean a dance mix, or sleep mix, or anything where the music will fade into the background).

Here's a little formula I follow: first song must kick ass, and be short. Two has to somehow top that. Track three should be the best song on the mix, and follow naturally from two. Track four is your chance to bring it back down, using a longer song. After that, you're on your own.

posted by Bookhouse at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2006 [7 favorites]

I neurose about my mix CDs far too much, too.

In the end, I put an eclectic mix of obscure, old and brand-spanking new (a lesser known Little Richard I love next to a track from TMBG off the brand new album that actually doesn't suck). Also, I do play to my audience. That won't keep me from throwing in a Suicidal Tendencies track, but I'll buffer it with, say, New Buffalo and The Bravery almost as an apology for people that hate that song.

The best mix CDs I've gotten have a good ebb and flow. I'll like anything if I've been led up to it, but don't put, oh, Elton John smack dab next to Tape Beatles. I'm a fan of indie whiny pitchfork crap, but I loved the CD of French dance pop a friend made for me, so don't sweat it too much, yeah?
posted by Gucky at 9:48 AM on August 8, 2006

Flow between tracks is important, but I also make sure that the mix opens with a bang. That first track has to grab the listener's attention -- it sets the mood and feel of everything to follow.

Be sure to listen to the mix in its entirety before the final burn. Try to imagine yourself as a listener who has maybe never heard these songs before. Don't be afraid to cut some songs, even if they're your favourites. The mix isn't for you, after all. And don't feel you need to fill all 80 minutes of the disc, as tempting though it may be.

I usually finish a mix with a closing track that is a little slower, quieter, sweeter, or slightly funny. It's the dessert, after all.
posted by Robot Johnny at 9:57 AM on August 8, 2006

Per andifsohow's comment, here's what Rob had to say at the end of "High Fidelity," the movie:

"You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

One of the greatest mix CDs that I made for a friend, one that I continue to listen to myself, has a mix of new, unheard-of indie pop/rock with solid tracks from established artists that haven't been overplayed on the radio. Like any regular album, don't fall into a groove of downers, but don't overstimulate with up-beat catchy pop. Most importantly, though, as people have already said, make sure it's music that YOU love.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 10:01 AM on August 8, 2006

Pick your absolute favourite songs ever (or of right now) and then sort them in a manner that is smooth and not jittery. By smooth I mean that you should not jump from fast to slow and fast again. Go low to medium to high tempo (or vice versa) making stops in between and mixing it up a little bit. This is by no means a formula, but a loose framework that is begging to be altered in some small or big way.

Oh, and I very rarely include two songs by the same artist. But sometimes I do.
posted by travosaurus at 10:02 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: Things I like in a mix-tape:
-One song that's pure nostalgia
-One song that's unexpected
-At least two songs I've never heard before
-At least one song that's radio-popular
-One lesser-known song by an artist I like

Assorted other to fill.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:09 AM on August 8, 2006

I'd like to support those who have said flow is important.

The best way I could put it is that the mix is the soundtrack to some sort of party. The theme of the mix should also be the theme of the party. During a party, if you were the DJ, you wouldn't jump from big band to gangsta rap to TMBG to Metallica. The differences in songs adjacent to one another must be subtle.
posted by LouMac at 10:10 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: A principle I use is: For the first track, never use a song that was also the first track on the release you’re taking it from. That way people won’t think you’ve put on the referenced album and adopt the frame of mind that they’re going to be listening to that through. Also, don’t use a song that you’ve only just got into – it might be one that you’re totally over after about a week, so only ones you’re sure keep giving. Other than that, what everyone else said, especially about not feeling like you have to fill the disk, this isn’t a Jumbo Music Bucket.

Super bonus points if you include songs that reference each other in some way.
posted by ed\26h at 10:11 AM on August 8, 2006

Put songs that work with each other together (i.e., the beginning of one has a similar sound/tempo/etc as the end of the one that came before it).

...except when the opposite is true. Sometimes contrast is good, even stark contrast; but don't overdo it. Use it to break things up a little.

And play with transitions; sometimes a sudden switch between two songs (no pause) works really well; sometimes it may need up to 10s. And don't be afraid to crop songs and mix things together, if you're that gung-ho (I tend to take mixes very seriously). Audacity can work for rough mixing if you're willing.
posted by poweredbybeard at 10:22 AM on August 8, 2006

What makes a good mix CD, in general terms?

posted by cribcage at 10:42 AM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: Must include Haddaway's "What Is Love."

I'm...kidding. What I have done in the past is to tell a bit of a story through the songs...or create a sequence of moods. Themed cds tend to hold up better over time than "here is a bunch of music which I like!" mixes.

See Tiny Mix Tapes for some excellent themed mix ideas.
posted by Wavelet at 10:49 AM on August 8, 2006

or create a sequence of moods. Themed cds tend to hold up better over time than "here is a bunch of music which I like!" mixes.

posted by poweredbybeard at 10:58 AM on August 8, 2006

Check out Art of the Mix for some ideas.

I find that themed mixes that jump between styles and genres are somewhat hard to sit down and listen to, even if the theme is really clever.

My favorite CD that I received in the MefiSwap was called "Let's Go Bonus Stage" and it was a chronological mix of music ripped from classic video games. (Wish I could give credit for that one but I don't have it in front of me). I appreciate mixes of unusual or obscure styles of music (i.e. Bollywood for the Skeptical.)
posted by Otis at 11:19 AM on August 8, 2006

Not sure if you doing the type of mix that may involve beat matching ... if so, then this is important: if you can't cleanly beat-match the songs in your segues then don't even try. There have been plenty of great mixes without beat-matching, but there are no great mixes with sloppy, 'shoes in the dryer' beat-matching.
posted by General Zubon at 1:27 PM on August 8, 2006

Best answer: If you really want to make a mix cd that's a moving, whole experience, and not just a collection of songs, you need to tell a story, and I don't mean with words. Making a songs about 'x' mix cd is too easy, and too cute.

Don't load overload your mix with vocals. Try and find tracks that are more atmospheric to break it up - use dance, dub or instrumental mixes if you have to. For the tracks that do have vocals, try to choose songs that have vocalists that sound similar. If the vocalists sound too different from each other, it makes the whole thing sound schizophrenic and random.

Load up the beginning of the cd with slower tempo songs and gradually increase the tempo as the CD goes on. In addition, you need to pay attention to 'energy levels', which i'll loosely define as how much 'stuff' is going on in the song, which may or may not be related to the tempo. You generally want to increase the energy level as the cd goes on, but you can vary that, if you like.

Use contrasts in structure. If you have a song that goes a long time without a drumbeat, play a non-stop banging tune directly before it to build tension. If you have a song that's really complex melodically, play something that's very simple, even monotonous in front of it. This is where the story of your mix comes from.

Use contrasts in mood -- Don't make your whole cd happy or sad, or entirely discordant or 'pretty'. Mix it up, if you want to end on a happy note, make sure you mix in plenty of melancholy and minor keys before you get there.

Use similarities in sounds-- Try to find tracks with similar sounds next to each other-- tracks with heavily reverbed noisy guitar together, or tracks with plinky acoustic guitar together. It kind of places your cd into a single psycho-acoustic space instead of being a collection of random bands (even if they were all recorded by different bands, in completely different times)

I always like to start and end my cds on very similar notes, even sometimes the same song. Think of it as a question and answer, or as leaving home and coming back to home after a journey around the park. If your first song is about someone wondering if they'll ever fall in love, the last song should provide some kind of resolution to it.
posted by empath at 2:12 PM on August 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

More cowbell.

Is "neurose" a verb?

Me, I like the clever stuff mentioned above, and specifically: no train wrecks in the segues.

I'm not sure if anyone explicitly *said* "You have to decide whether you're just sequencing, or crossfading, too", so I will. If you're crossfading, and your CD mastering software is *good*, you can actually track the start points even though you're fading under them; this usually requires building a manual cue sheet.
posted by baylink at 2:12 PM on August 8, 2006

Thank you so much scrump. This is my first MefiSwap too and I badly don't want to be that guy either.

For what it's worth, I took an arch approach: take three way-point tracks for the beginnining, middle and end. One and three have a common theme, two is utterly different. Fill in the gaps with cohesive tracks. Aim for 60 minutes and expect to overshoot a tad. Spend many, many hours slaving over inlay and booklet design, continually frustrated by lack of self's own ability. Postpone posting until the last possible minute with feelings of utter self-loathing.

Here's a very mundane extra AskMe though. Should one send full-fat files or user-friendly mp3s?
posted by dogsbody at 2:41 PM on August 8, 2006

My first swap also! I can't wait to see what I'm going to get.

Sssh don't tell my swapset:
I was pleased/annoyed to see someone had sent the "BW for the Skeptical" mix -- annoyed, because someone stole my thunder maybe a little, as BW is what my swapset is getting, but pleased because my mix kicks ass over that one, and at least someone liked that...
posted by Methylviolet at 3:34 PM on August 8, 2006

I recently made several cd's for my sig other. This is how it worked out and I think they came out right well. I put all the songs he likes and all the songs I like, the songs that we liked but have not heard for years, but appreciated together. I put that in an itunes playlist...about 200 songs or so. Then I set a theme for the first cd...I think of this first cd as easy going, some classic, some 90's, some more recent....I put 20 songs on a playlist I think will work....l listen to it for about a day, and then take off about 5-6 songs that don't work in....that's kind of what works for me.
posted by jamie939 at 4:30 PM on August 8, 2006

Should one send full-fat files or user-friendly mp3s?

Full fat definitely, we can always make it into an mp3 if required. Once cut down though, you can't go back.

scrmp: don't worry too much,. After reading about the care and attention everyone takes with their mixes it sounds lke I'm gonna be that girl *grin*. I made a list of all the local music from the last few years I just totally love (none of which matches at all), threw it together randomly, listened through once and moved around the obviously jarring ones then hit burn. Listening through the mix in full even once will show you straight away anything that really doesn't work, so I second listening to your mix before burning.

But then I also listen almost exclusively on shuffle, so the careful order goes out the window.
posted by shelleycat at 12:50 AM on August 9, 2006

Well, I've given up on the MeFi/MeCha/MoFi swaps because in doing about five of them, I only got one CD back worth listening to more than once.
A kickass mix is hard to find. So instead of giving you a bunch of dumb rules, and polluting your askme, I posted on my blog (you can find it through my profile) a bunch of great mixes that either I've made or have been made for me, to examine what makes 'em so great. They lean toward the indie rock, but as I got older I branched out. Take a look if you want.
posted by klangklangston at 1:55 PM on August 9, 2006

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