Recently I took the plunge on an older cassette deck. I say “older” instead of “old’ because of relativity; I’m older than the deck, and am not young, so to call a mid-1980s piece of technology “old” seems a bit hypocritical, if not outright cruel. Like all older stereo equipment that makes it to the auction block, it’s been used by others and evenutally rejected. This one plays and records but has a mysterious problem with the meters on playback. I decided I really didn’t care what the meters said on playback- it really only matters when you record. I received it intact and it makes good recordings. I’m glad, because I’ve been itching to get back into making honest to goodness mixtapes.
I spent decades making mixtapes. Most were utilitarian- so I could play a record in the car, or to play instead of the vinyl so as to not wear it out. But over time I thought of the work I did on mixtapes a labor of creativity, and the humble mixtape itself as an artform.
Yesterday I resolved to make my first all-vinyl mixtape in many years on this new-to-me tape machine. I dedicated a vintage, new in box TDK SA-90 from my stash. Considering the options and limitations caused a flood of old instincts and decisions to return to my mind. Firstly, the creative aspect: What’s the theme of this tape? Who and what will go on it? Then the practical matters: Should I compose each side to leave as little blank tape as possible? Or should I just wing it? I decided to wing it and choose a starting track, each subsequent song I chose a reaction to hearing the previous selection. To set the levels, I queued up the first song- “Return,” the first track from Emma Ruth Rundle’s miraculous 2021 album, Engine of Hell- hit Record (some decks require choosing Record AND Pause for setting levels), and checked out the peak on the meters. It looked just right- only occasionally spilling over from green into orange. (LED meters- I much prefer the old fashioned VU needles, but LEDs will do)- hit Pause, lifted the arm, set it back on precisely at the beginning, and pressed Play, which on this deck sets the deck back into Record mode. Let Rundle’s beautiful mournful voice and spare piano fill the room with its solemnity- hit Pause when it was complete. And so on.
Miraculously, spontaneously choosing the tracks resulted in nearly filling up the first side. It resurrected an old familiar feeling- that rush of anticipation near the end, wondering if you’d have to fade out the last song because you’ve run out of tape. If you peer in the little window where you see the tape reels, you can see the clear leader tape which appears at the beginning and ending of a reel of tape. it gives you about a two seconds to fade the last song out as smoothly as your motor control allows as you turn the recording level knob back to zero. But I lucked out and the last song ended within seconds of the end of the tape! I felt a joy I hadn’t for far too long.
So what about the theme? I’m one of those who likes to set themes based on a representative track, something about the track suggesting the theme. For this one I picked a line from Broadcast’s “Black Cat-” “Curiouser and Curiouser.” As I choose tracks, I myself am increasingly curious about where this tape is going to go, so the theme seems fitting. And where that is, we’ll find out today, when I finish.
It’s a marvelous thing, an excuse to really sit and listen to your collection, make choices about transitions and sequence, to be the navigator, just like a well-designed Spotify playlists, but through a peculiar, specific, meditating activity, producing an artifact accessible only to the chosen few who partake of this arcane medium. It’s been a cleansing ritual, I highly recommend it.