How To Make a Killer Mixtape

In order to write this article, I decided to get on Facebook to see if any of my friends could help me out:

FB Question

I spoke to a handful of people, some of which considered themselves expert mixtapers. I casually interviewed them and their answers helped write this article. But I spoke to many more people who didn’t make or had never made a mixtape, especially in the physical sense (a cassette, CD, etc). It’s no coincidence that my “experts” for this article were all older, and those who had never even put together a few tracks they enjoyed were younger folks. This era of unlimited digital music poses a real threat to the mixtape as we know it. Why listen to a few select tracks when you can listen to every track, instantly? Don’t despair; if you aspire to discover the lost art of the mixtape, look no further.

I should clarify exactly what a mixtape is. For the purposes of this article, a mixtape is a homemade music compilation. It does not have to be on a cassette tape. The term “mixtape” has just endured since the time of cassettes and the meaning has been colloquially applied. A mixtape is a bunch of songs that you’ve put together on any medium for any reason. Most mixtapes in 2012 are probably playlists: iTunes/iPod, Spotify, Mog, or something similar; but it doesn’t matter how you make the mixtape, just why you’re making it.

There are lots of great reasons to make mixtapes. A vital part of any good mixtape is knowing why you’re making it. The mixtape you make to exercise to is going to be very different from the mixtape you make for the girl you have a crush on. Know your audience.
For your family road trip mixtape, leave off your more eccentric tastes. Think twice before dropping those bagpipe-laden tracks onto your iPod. If you’re making a mixtape for party, leave off the slow love songs. A good party mix has a mix of classics, dance tracks, plus with a dash of your own personality in there. Here’s part of a 4.5 hour mix from a party I had a few years ago:

mix ss

Making a mixtape for another person can be a real challenge. Just like with any other mix, you have to remember why you’re making it. Are you trying to introduce your friend to a band or genre of music you really like? Then try to pick a nice assortment that adequately represents that band or genre. You don’t always have to go with the hits, pick tracks that work well together and make up a cohesive mix.

Most people think of mixtapes as a gift from one person to another. For a shy highschooler, a good mixtape can speak the volumes you can’t. If you are making a mix for a love interest, keep your wits about you. I’m talking to you, 17 year old Corey. You are not, under any circumstances, allowed to use “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Avoid songs that really pile the mush on. Get your point across with some of your dignity intact. You can be a bleeding heart without being a dope.

A good mixtape has a good flow or rhythm. Regardless of genres or styles, the songs need to flow together. This might mean leaving some of your favorite tracks off the mix for the sake of the mix as a whole. You can’t end a mixtape with a raucous single, and you can’t start one with a long song. If you start with too long of a track you risk losing the person if that track doesn’t happen to be to their liking. Establishing a good flow is difficult, especially if you have multiple bands or genres. It doesn’t have to (and probably won’t be) perfect but get as close as you can.

Know your medium. If you’re going old school (high-five!) on a cassette, check your tape before starting. Look for writing that says “B60” or something in that format. The letter can be anything, and the two or three digit number after is the length of the tape, in minutes, both sides combined. So for example, an “A46” tape will be approximately 23 minutes per side. C46, C60, and C90 are three of the most common tape types. Sometimes, especially with older tapes, this number might not be exactly right. If you want to get it perfect, start the tape from the beginning and time it with a stopwatch.


If you’re burning a CD, you have about 80 minutes to work with. Most CD-Rs are the 700mb (80 minute) variety, but it can vary. It should be written clearly on the CD or the packaging.

For a playlist, the musical world is your oyster; but don’t let this go to your head. No one wants to get a 300 track “Bobby’s Best of 90’s Carolina Bluegrass” playlist. Keep it reasonable. My rule of thumb is to try to keep any playlist to about CD length. But unlike CDs, you can have an 81 minute Spotify playlist and be fine, where as CD’s are a firm 80 minutes. While CDs and cassettes do have physical limitations, they are also just that – physical. You can hand paint or design a CD cover or cassette. You can physically hand it to them. Or physically sneak it in their locker. That beats emailing any day.

Mixtapes can serve many purposes. They can set any mood, tell someone how you feel about them, provide a soundtrack for a trip or adventure, or remind you of better (or worse) times. You have to remember who is going to be listening to your mix while you’re creating it. And you have to remember the limitations and opportunities each medium provides. And if Susie rejected you after you made her that radical hand-painted cassette mixtape with “Song about an Angel” on it, then well, maybe Susie wasn’t right for you anyway.

(Cassette Tape Image Courtesy Stock Exchange)

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One Response to How To Make a Killer Mixtape

  1. Thanks for that awesome posting. Useful, and it saved MUCH time! :-)

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