Being broke last holiday season, I decided to make mix CDs as gifts. As I sorted through my compact discs, recorded songs onto my computer’s hard drive, rearranged them into the desired order, and chose “Create CD” from the file menu, a certain coldness and sterility separated me from the whole process. The problem? This didn’t feel like making a mix tape, something I’ve done hundreds of times over the past 10 years. Sure, it’s basically the same process–collecting songs from different sources–but somehow it felt different. I’ve always loved making mix tapes for friends, but try as I might, I just can’t warm up to the notion of computer-generated mix CDs, even though they sound better (usually), will last longer (maybe), and are cheaper than tapes (a blank CD, purchased in bulk, costs about 10 cents).

Making a mix tape has always been much more than just recording the songs onto it. There is sorting through vinyl albums and compact discs, scribbling down songs and lengths, and then arranging them in some order. I was so obsessed about getting the timing on a tape perfect–not too much dead air at the end of a side and definitely no songs cutting off before they were done–that I used to keep a log of the lengths of all the songs I’d ever put on mix tapes.

When you have selected all the songs, you put the stack of albums, CDs, and tapes in the proper order, pull up a chair in front of the stereo, and get to work. Making the perfect tape usually requires a long evening crouched on that chair, playing personal DJ for an audience of two–you and the person who will receive your tape.

Computerized mix CDs suck all the creativity and charm out of the process. Unless you’ve rigged up your turntable to the computer, or if you’ve sprung for a pricey CD burner, you’re limited to material from other CDs. A neatly stacked pile of small plastic boxes just doesn’t have the same warm feeling as a heavy stack of big vinyl albums.

Not only is there a sonic distance with mix CDs, there is a physical distance as well. No sitting in front of the computer, looking at old albums, remembering where you bought them, or looking at the old price tags and wondering if Green Onions, the Philadelphia Record Exchange, or Wazoo Records are still in business. No looking at old notes written on used albums you purchased. But the most glaring difference between the mix tape and the mix CD is that you can’t listen to the songs while you’re creating the CD! Creating mix CDs will never be as much fun as creating mix tapes. Why should I spend extra time with a computer? It feels like work. Next time I’m making my mixes in front of the stereo.

From the zine Low Hug (#5/6). Copies: $2 from Box 2574, Champaign, IL 61825.

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