I just had to interrupt our usual Sunday posting schedule to share this with you. I was clearing out a bottom drawer this morning when I got a massive jolt of nostalgia, as I came across one of the very first mixtapes I ever made! It’s a promo for a club night I co-founded – “Tangled” in Manchester, England – way back in 1995.
It brought a flood of memories back. I remember how it was recorded using a Realistic mixer that was powered by a nine-volt battery, and a pair of very cheap belt-driver turntables. (I got so used to DJing on those belt drives that I was worried when I finally got some Technics direct drive turntables five years later that I wouldn’t be able to DJ on them!)
I recorded it using a Fisher cassette deck bought from Richer Sounds (UK heads will know!), using Dolby C noise reduction, which I remember was far superior to Dolby B for removing tape hiss. (I remember if you turned Dolby C noise reduction on when listening to any cassette it seemed to remove a lot of hiss!)
I vividly recall unwrapping the BBC chrome-bias cassette, and experimenting with the volume level of this particular tape brand to ensure the very highest level possible, because the higher the level, the lower the background noise – a major problem with mixing on cassette tape.
I also recall the endless “takes” due to mixing errors, the care taken to ensure there was no tape “click” on pressing the record and play buttons to start the recording, timing the mixes so my fade as I reached the end of the first 45 minute section (a side was actually slightly longer than 45 minutes, so you had to allow for that) finished just as the tape ended – and the utter pride with which I ran off copies onto more humble, cheaper cassettes to share with my friends, promoters, and other DJs.
Was it any good?
After retrieving a cassette deck from the garage to listen to it, I can report that the recording quality actually isn’t that bad (I remember copying one of these recordings onto DAT, which back then was the “pro” tape format used in radio stations and studios, because a radio station wanted to play one of my mixes, and they didn’t complain about the quality when they used it). Listening to the mixing now it was adventurous and it all flowed nicely – although I was far more liberal in my tolerance of out-of-key mixes than I am nowadays (as was everyone, to be fair to me; key mixing has only become the norm recently due to the advance of digital techniques).
The one thing I remember the most, though, was the utter pain of getting mixes to the finished standard that I was happy with. No wonder I only ever managed half a dozen or so a year – all that recording and re-recording, and the myriad reasons for “starting again”: volume too low, unacceptable accidental differences between volume levels on individual tracks, accidentally making the mix too short (felt unprofessional) or too long, so it “cut off” before ending (again, too unprofessional for me to allow)…
Probably the worst disappointment of making mixes this way, as I recall, was just the feeling that your finished, perfectly loud mix wasn’t artistically good enough (a couple of badly chosen tracks, maybe some tracks “went on too long”, etc.). Close, in need of just a bit of editing, but not close enough – and of course, editing your finished mix on cassette was impossible back then. When it was done, it was done.
Making mixtapes today
Oh, for the developments DJs enjoy today! Any DJ controller today – any at all – is streets better than my gear was back then for making mixtapes (of course, they’re “tapes” only in name nowadays as they tend to be shared on USB, uploaded online, or on CD, although even that is dying out). Digital recording means no worries about your tape running out or too much background noise. And of course, it is now possible for any DJ to correct volume levels, equalise volume changes, increase volume for a loud, noise-free mix, edit out mistakes (no starting again!), and even re-edit the whole mix to make it tighter and more professional after its finished.
And while I agree there’s a certain romance and purism to doing it the way I did, the memory of the old way was enough to make me so glad for how things are today! Of course, you still need good ideas and good mixing in the first place to make a decent mixtape nowadays – but once you have those, the technology can shorten the process and improve the results immeasurably. I’m glad DJs today don’t have to do it like I had to over 20 years ago. I’m certainly not planning on ever going back to that way of doing things in my own DJing. (And no, I’m not sharing. My DJing youth is for me and those who remember only!)
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Do you have memories of making mixtapes “the old way”? Want to share your stories of how you used to do it? Feel free to comment below!