A satirical 4 step guide to making a mixtape

By carefully mixing songs from your music collection into a consistent whole, you can convince your 3 friends of your impeccable taste. Not only will they enjoy your mix, if you didn't tell them in advance that you made it, they will also be surprised by the quality of your work (once your done with this tutorial).

In the past, music was recorded on tape that had to be rewinded and fast forwarded to reach a specific song. There was no possibility to quickly seek to a song at the end of the tape. Everything had to be listened too. In order to make the music experience more enjoyable people would select their favorite music and place it all in sequence. This was labor intensive but gave the music also a personal touch.

Creating mixtapes is fun and useful, because once they've served their purpose you still have them laying around and can use them on any occasion that fits. On the train, in the car, on the plane. Some people even make them for jogging and aerobic classes.

Some people even go so far to say that: 'Mixtapes are excellent gifts' ... Don't know what to think of that... In my experience, making tapes for other people results in a 'thank you' and a look at the garbage can. So, whenever you make a mixtape, keep it exclusive. Your work is expensive and too good to just give away.

Nowadays, mixtapes don't need to be created since everything is directly accessible on phones. However, not everything is mixed well. And that is something BpmDj allows you to do. Therefore we thought it useful to focus a bit on the strategies of creating a mixtape.

There are a number of stages involved in creating a mixtape:

  1. scheming and plotting - in this phase you plan the style of music, investigate tempo requirements and reason d'etre of your mix.
  2. preparation and selection - aggregating and sifting through music
  3. mixing - putting all tracks together and beatmatching them
  4. listening and refining - finally, the mix should be tested and refined as needed.

Step 1: Scheming and plotting

Purpose

First of all: what is the purpose of your mix ? In what venue will you use it ?

As a mix for

In all these cases, the music better be mixed properly, fitting the environment.

A second question is where you see your mix on the scale from: 'I made it purely for myself' to 'I made it so others would enjoy it'. Keep that in mind when selecting music. If you are somewhere in the middle you should choose music most people know or might appreciate, while throwing in some selfish song selections. I guess most mixes end up like this.

In case you might want to select music that everybody likes: this is not an easy task. On the contrary: if the group is large, you will always have people that are not 100% satisfied. You will likely also have people that are 100% unsatisfied 99 % of the time (ignore those fucks). The biggest problem you will face with this task is finding and selecting music that is neutral and hip enough at the same time. So if a song is 'acceptable' by the group and 'popular for two or three people' then it is a good choice.

Is it a gift to someone ? In that case select music they like.

Once the purpose of your mixtape is known, you can decide on style.

Style

Deciding what style of music can be a no-brainer. 'if only I had such a mix' Well, that's the style you might want to try.

Other times you might want to choose a style in function of the purpose of your mix. Given a venue and purpose, try to figure out what style is ordinarily used. Or, if you know your audience quite well, just try to figure out what music they listen too. At other moments it might be appropriate to be a bit pushy and let people listen to your fine taste in music. If they complain, lock them up in the toilet (make sure it has loud speakers :).

It is a good idea to stick to one style throughout the mix. It is of course possible to go from one style to another, but often that is not perceived very well because people want to be 'in the mix', they don't want to be dragged around too much. I mean : you don't want to start with minimal techno and end with heavy metal. Or start with RnB and end with folk music. If you really want to experiment with style changes, maybe best to set out a type of arc, as J. M. Straczynski does with his stories. Start at style A, go to style B and then back to style A.

Tempo and Length

Think about the tempo of the mix.

When the mix is to be used for aerobics purposes, very specific requirements can be set out. E.g: we first need 12 minutes 175BPM (to get the blood circulation going) then 16 minutes at 240 BPM (to induce that cardiac arrest) to then cool down again to 150 BPM (chill if you skip a couple of beats).

To get people dancing you might slowly bring in the tempo, or if it is a mix for the end of the evening you might slow down and decrease the tempo.

During the mix you could specify that all songs should be played at the same tempo (makes for perception of a rock solid set, if the music is chosen correctly), or maybe a floating tempo, in which the tempo changes as the songs require. The last of course involves some tricky pitch-shifts if the software cannot perform time modification without pitch alterations (like most software).

Also consider the length of your mix. How long should your mix be ? How often do you want to select a new mix ? After how much time on average do you switch a mix ? Want a 2 hour mixtape of Madonna ? (Or would 1 hour suffice ?) How about a 3 hour dance tape, well-mixed with all the songs you like ? Do you have enough music to make a 2 hour mix of Dark Soho ?

Length of individual songs. Before starting to mix, it is also worthwhile to consider how long each song should be playing. If you want a set in which the audience relaxes and gets into the groove then song segments of 5 minutes could be worth it. Other times, if people want to dance you might reduce the song segments to 2.5 - 3 minutes. This obviously affects how many songs you will need to select.

Step 2: Finding Music & creating an Outline

Once the scheming and plotting is behind you, you know the style and tempo requirements. Then you should check whether you have enough songs of that particular style. A good heuristic is to have at least 10 times more music than what you will put in the mix. Now it is time to explore your music collection. Actually, selecting music is the hardest part of making a good mixtape. After all, from your thousands of songs, you might only present 15 to 30 songs in a mix. Better make that choice worth its effort.

Stick to the concept... but change things

Stick to the concept - you want to stick to the style of music you choose. Of course, when creating a mix one can be easily tempted to 'go with the flow' and end up with something completely different. This should be avoided. You really don't want to start with dubstep and end with a tango.

But change things - On the other hand, if you have a lot of music in the same style, it might very well be that you can easily create a mix that has exactly the same tempo, sound color and loudness profile for many hours. That is something that should be avoided as people will lose interest. You don't want to have the exact same bassdrum/rhythm during an entire mix. Having a bit of variation around your planned concept is useful.

Once in a while - When deciding on a new song you should have a choice between songs that are 'very close' and songs that are 'somewhat' close. Once in a while it is useful to choose the song that is a bit further away. That will change the mix and keep the listener listening. In a sense you should aim for an inter-song distance that behaves as a normal distribution.

The above picture plots the probability that you choose a follow-up song that is a certain distance away from the target song. At the left of the horizontal axis we find songs that are exactly the same. At the right we find songs that are far away. On average we should select songs that are 'close but not exactly the same'. Once in a while you should choose songs that are somewhat further away. Thereby of course always staying true to the general style and concept.

...and when you change things, change different things - When you select new songs, change different things each time. E.g: A -> spectrum change -> B -> loudness change -> C -> rhythm change -> D -> spectrum change -> E. You could rotate through changes in

With these general ideas under the belt, we can start selecting songs. In the discussion below we will focus mainly on BpmDj, since this is after all BpmDj's website and the software is well suited to create mixes.

First of all, go through all the music you consider useful and kick out all the crap. The remainder is what you can use. Upload this to your tablet/phone and let BpmDj analyze it. Once the analysis is finished, navigating your music collection is easy. There are two modes to browse your collection.

  1. One mode browses your library, sorted according to tempo.
  2. The other finds nearest neighbors that are either close to the previous song, or close to the flanking songs (when you insert new song between two other songs that are already in the mix).

The latter distinction makes it possible to set up some interesting strategies. We will discuss first a strategy where we simply add songs to the end of the mix. After that we will discuss a strategy where we only insert songs in the mix.

Strategy 1: Create an outline by appending new songs.

This is a common strategy to create a mix outline. You start your mix with a song representative of the genre you want. When selecting the next song you choose a 'near song' that is neither too near nor too far and still close to the overall feel of the mix. Let me repeat that

Some extra restraints that might be considered

When you browse through the nearest neighbors, many songs can be skipped, and only a handful of songs might fit the criteria. From those, choose the song you think will fit the best.

If you use this strategy, the biggest problem is often sticking to the overall concept. Also, if you find that you can't find a 'next' song, just replace the previous one and see whether you can break through that impasse by selecting another one.

Strategy 2: Create an Outline by intersecting the mix

Because 'sticking to the concept' is fairly hard with strategy 1, a different method can be used. Thereby we go multiple times through the mix. Each time we intersect each transition with a new song. Initially, at level 0, we start with song A and song B. Both as close to each other as possible.

At each new iteration we insert a song between each pair of songs. At iteration 1, we go to the first (and only) transition and insert a song between A and B. BpmDj will now find songs that are near to both songs and sort them in accordance with how close they are to the center between the two songs. Choose a song that is

Once you are finished inserting at iteration 1, you will have three songs A, C and B.

At iteration 2, you insert again a song in each transition. This will lead to 5 songs: A, D, C, E and B.

You can continue inserting songs at each transition until you are satisfied. This strategy makes it somewhat easier to create a consistent whole. This strategy also makes style changes possible. In that case choose A and B different and simply refine the stuff between A and B.

Hubbiness - Often BpmDj will suggest to use the same song across multiple mixes. We call these songs 'hub' songs. These songs are just a bit closer to most songs. After a while you will automatically recognize them. There is of course no need to include them in each individual mix. They do however open up an interesting possibility. Namely, you could favor hub songs at early iteration. This will leave open a wide range of possibilities when selecting songs at later iterations.

Strategy 3: Create an Outline by prepending the mix

This strategy is the same as strategy 1, except that we prepend songs in front of the mix. At first sight there is no difference between these two strategies except that the variation of a mix tends to increase as time progresses. After all, many 'good' and 'wanted' songs are already taken, so you need to go a bit further away from the concept. That means that if you solely append songs, the mix will have the largest variation at the end. On the other hand, if you prepend songs, the mix will start out with a large variation and settle down on a specific style.

Tempo Requirements

In all strategies you must deal with tempo requirements. BpmDj makes this possible by offering three modes.:

Step 3: Mixing your Songs

Once you have an outline of which song you want located where, you can start beatmatching the shit out of your mix.

BpmDj makes it fairly easy to mix your tracks, at least if the songs you choose have a steady rhythm. The section on transition editing describes how this can be done exactly.

A transition between two songs is the area where the old song ends and overlaps with the start of the new song. During a transition crossfading is typically applied.

During the creation of a transition, make sure to

The selection of crossfader type depends on whether the songs can be crossfaded simply based on their volumes. If that is not possible you might need to select which frequencies come in first/later:

A transition can be positioned in several ways:

Below we give some examples of such transition techniques.

End to End

  1. Select two high energy regions.
  2. Align their ends.
  3. Set the correct length of the transition (maybe a start in a break somewhere)

Begin to End

  1. Select two high energy regions.
  2. Align the beginning of the region in the new song to the end of the region in the old song.
  3. Take care to make the transition sufficiently short, otherwise unwanted volume modifications might occur.

Variation: A Similar approach could be used to align the end of an incoming block with the beginning of the old block. That does however feel a bit unfocused. Suddenly we bring in energy that we promptly fade out again.

Begin to Begin

In this technique you align the beginning of two blocks and slowly fade from one song to the next.

Break to Break

  1. Select a break in a high energy block in the old song.
  2. Select a break of similar size in a high energy block in the new song.
  3. Align the breaks.
  4. Place the margins somewhere around the breaks

Intro over Outro

With this type of mix you select the intro of the new song and place it over the outro of the old song. Take care to allocate a correct amount of bars, so that the new beat drops in at the appropriate moment. This technique also works for ambient passages.

Variations: positioning an intro over a high energy block doesn't often work very well because somehow you are taking away that what people are listening too. Likewise, fading an energy block into an outro feels a bit artificial as well.

Step 4: Refine your mix

Shorter and longer cuts

Once you have created a mix, create two versions of it. One with song segments that are 3 minutes and another one with song segments that are 4 or 5 minutes. This changes the overall feeling of the mix much more than you would expect. Select the mix that feels best to you.

Listening

When you are finished with the mix, listen to it a number of times in different settings.

When listening to your mix, you should turn it just a bit louder than normal speaking level. At that volume, our ears are most sensitive to modifications in volume.

Also listen to your mix at the actual level it will be played (e.g: very densely packed guitar music is something you don't want to play too loud when the neighbors are near. They might think someone started drilling.).

And listen to it once when it is playing loud in a nearby room. Sometimes you will perceive the mix totally different then. 'My god that thing shakes walls...'

Fixing problems

When listening to your own mix you might find a variety of errors:

Beta test it on some friends

Let some friends listen to your creation. They could give valuable feedback on the quality of your work and music choice.

Finalizing

Finally, your mix as a WAV file to an USB stick. During export BpmDj always applies a limiter, so don't forget to set your volume at an appropriate value before starting the export.

If necessary you could remove DC offset (anything below 20 Hz)

Do not put a 'Made by DJ strap-on' in front. People hate that and if you don't have that sexy voice you think you have, it will be a major turn-off. It makes it cheap and commercial. Just give your mix a unique name that can be easily found on the net. That is all that is necessary to tag the mix.

Compress it to an MP3, with any software you like. Decide on a unique title for your mix and set the meta information of the MP3 correct.

Create some kick ass artwork and add it as cover. Add a track list as separate file, or if you are advanced mark the various track positions in the MP3 file.

Finally, be done with it and ram it through your friends throats; upload it to your FB stream, your 180 spam-followers at G+.