The Art of Making a Mix Tape

We just finished making a mix tape at Gig Harbor Audio.  That’s right: an analog tape of our favorite songs.  Tape is a great format for arranging a song-list, and we’ll get to all the reasons later.  For now though, the Trader Vic's Macadamia Nut liquer is within arm’s reach on a mahogany table at Gig Harbor Audio.  Let’s push play.  The 10.5 inch black master reels on the Akai GX-625 reel to reel cast spinning shadows onto the shag rug.  The first notes of Enoch Light’s Persuasive Percussion bounce from the left speaker to the right on the Harbeth Compact 7-ES3s, powered by a 100 watt per channel Exposure 3010-2SD integrated.  The transition from Black Mambo by Glass Animals which was recorded from vinyl to the Tidal music service selection of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Passenger is dead quiet.  The last song that fits on the second side is the 2013 vinyl release of Steve Albini’s uncompromising recording of Nirvana: “come back as fire and burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground…”   Forty-two artists become one piece of art that we call a mix tape.   
At 7.5 inches per second we recorded from 3 sources:  (1) a GHA turntable (The Sunken Living Room), (2) a GHA computer holding about 3 TB of FLAC files, and (3) the Tidal music service.  The GHA turntable uses an Acoustic Research t-bar suspension, a Rega 303 arm, a Hurst 300 motor, and a Denon DL103R cartridge all atop a custom bamboo plinth.  The phono stage is a Musical Surroundings Phenomena II set to low output moving coil. The second source, the computer, is a mini chassis with an AMD a8 APU processor, and it is controlled through J-River on an Apple IPAD.  It goes out via AudioQuest diamond USB cable to a Chord Electronics 2Qute digital to analog converter (DAC). The Tidal service is played through a Sonos Connect streamer which also runs into the 2Qute DAC via AudioQuest Diamond optical cable.  About half the tape is recorded from vinyl, and each of these cuts are apparent because we recorded the drop of the Denon stylus as each song begins.  The combination of these three sources allows for playing the best cuts from the GHA LP collection, adding the best digital files from our library, and finally giving total creative freedom with the ability to play any song by any artist through the Tidal streaming service. The files on the GHA computer are large FLAC files (up to 192 kHz). Tidal files come through as CD quality (44.1 kHz).  All three sources go direct to the Akai reel to reel via Shunyata RCA cables.

As always, we shoot for the best bang for the buck sound.  The AR parts used in this turntable cost $20 (by gutting a non-working AR-XA from Ebay), the arm cost a couple hundred, the new Hurst motor cost $59, and the Denon cartridge retails for $379.  The bamboo plinth cost roughly $10 in materials (strips cut from bamboo plywood).  The time to glue it and set it was about 1 hour.  The phono-stage is by far the most expensive part of this source at $750, but that is a pretty good place to put funds.  The second source, the GHA computer, is about $600 in parts (not counting our installer’s expertise to put it together). As for the streaming, the Tidal music service costs $19.99 per month for the “lossless hi-fi service.” With that, one can play practically any song through a Sonos Connect ($349).  The Sonos actually has a pretty good DAC in it.  It’s easy to compare the Sonos Connect DAC to any other DAC by going out RCA from the Sonos at the same time going out optical to a stand-alone DAC of your choice.  Compared to many $500 DACs the Sonos was not far behind.  It might not be quite as good as the Parasound ZDAC or the Jolida FX (if putting in new ElectroHarmonix 12AX7 tubes), but we were not convinced that spending an extra five hundred to slightly improve the sound was worth it.   The DAC that did feel worth it was the 2Qute from Chord Electronics which retails for $1795.  This DAC is considerably more expensive, but presents music on the same playing field as a good vinyl set-up: full, great timing, musical, much wider and open soundstage.  Granted the AudioQuest optical cable used from the Sonos and the AudioQuest USB cable from the computer are quite pricey at around five hundred bucks each, but we used them because they are worth it.  There was an audible difference in the fullness of bass and richness.  We are slowly learning that without good cables, it would be like watering a garden with a hose that is too thin for the amount of water needed to grow big sweet tomatoes. The Akai reel to reel itself was purchased for $250 and had another hundred or so put in with cleaning, calibrating and cosmetic upgrades.  The ATR tape stock with 2 matching black reels was provided by J-Corder for $120.  The result of all this is that the three sources combine seamlessly and all saturate way into the red without distorting on the ATR tape stock. 
What was so exciting to us about making this mix tape was not only the choice of songs, but the transitions between the songs and the way each song creates a context for the next.  Artists like Man Ray, Mapplethorpe, and Picasso extracted resounding meaning from objects by simply placing them next to other objects.  When a mix tape is played at a party, with the revolutions of the metal reels, each individual song is listened to.  Like in an anthology of literature, a poem by Richard Wright is understood as it should be: as important as one by John Keats.  Union by The Neurotic Outsiders is the 5th song on side 2.  Steve Jones, the former guitar player for the Sex Pistols steps right into your living room. This catchy, tragic song hashes out Jones’ difficult relationships with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten.  When this composition is placed between the bookends of Walking the Cow by Firehose and Train’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker the 3 Sex Pistols’ personalities receive a deserved second look like placing a rotten apple next to a diamond in a Damien Hurst art show.

An analog mix tape feels more like a roll of Kodak film with 24 exposures than a digital camera.  Each exposure feels important because film is expensive and it needs to be developed.  Each shot is framed and set up to ensure that it carries its’ own weight.  This is a far different process than using a digital camera and shooting as many shots as you want and downloading them immediately.  Perhaps it is Biblical.  We reap what we sow.  Making a digital playlist on an IPAD takes 5 minutes.  The time, energy, and memories that go into making a 44 song mix tape on a reel to reel last a lifetime.  Each song is checked individually for meter level. Each song is recorded in real time which means that all the activities like enjoying a glass of wine or playing backgammon with friends while making the recording are triggered upon playback.  By carefully cleaning the record heads with rubbing alcohol, choosing good RCA cables, and squeezing the most out of each song through the cartridge, phono-stage, and DAC, we felt like we took ownership of each of our favorite songs.
The Zoo by The Scorpions, the 19th song on the first side, is a Japanese pressing.  As we understand, this means a couple different things:  in the 60’s Toshiba apparently used various techniques on their vinyl production that proved superior.  Also, they had lower production runs with the master stamp, thus the chance of getting a hot-stamper LP was much higher than the larger production runs usually done in the U.S.  This Scorpions LP is definitely a hot-stamper.  We have 5 copies of Animal Magnetism by The Scorpions at GHA, and none are particularly engaging except for this Japanese pressing.  It is stellar. The driving guitars are mesmerizing and rich.  Klaus Meine is on fire. The next song on the tape, following these German rockers, is a track either despised or loved: Fancy by Iggy Azalea.  Seriously.  Recorded from a hi-resolution FLAC file, it is as phat as a hard-lead synth-bass played directly to the board from a Roland Juno-106 synthesizer. This song is defined as expropriated attitude, jacked lyrics, and questionable swagger or it is sung along with and enjoyed because it is very simply: a good hit.  The Zoo and Fancy could not be more different: vinyl and digital, guitar rock and synth pop, prophetic lofty lyrics and jaded fronting rap.  It is however the transition between the two songs on a spinning analog reel that tells the actual story, dead black noise-floor and saturating bass.  They are now two well recorded compositions included in the ongoing GHA Canon.    –GHA

Side 1

Pack of Cigarettes –Vopli Vidaplyasova (Ukrainian, 1994)
Sunrise – Larry Carlton (2006)
Its My Life (Extended Analog Mix) – Talk Talk (1982)
Only Tongue Can Tell – The Trash Can Sinatras (1989)
Spirit in the Sky – Doctor and the Medics (Norman Greenbaum cover, 1986)
Iskala – Zemfira (Russian, 2000)
You Ain’t Me – Black Francis (Frank Black, 1996)
In a Big Country- Big Country (1983)
Betty Davis Eyes – The Moon Loungers (Kim Carnes cover, 2016)
Luminol – Ryan Adams (2003)
A River has Two Sides –Shura (Шура, 2000)
Paradise – New Order (1986)
Horse Doctor Man – Jesus Lizard (1998)
New York – Cat Power (2008)
The Table – The Beautiful South (1998)
Swamp Thing  – The Chameleons UK (1986)
Black Mambo – Glass Animals (2014)
The Passenger (extended version) – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1987)
The Zoo – The Scorpions (1980)
Fancy – Iggy Azalea (2014)
Believing is Art – Spoon (2001)
Naïve Melody –Talking Heads(1983)

Side 2

Bond Street – Enoch Light (1969)
Eddy’s Ragga – Spoon (2007)
Flip Switch – Enoch Light (1970)
Walking the Cow – Firehose (1983)
Union – Neurotic Outsiders (1996)
Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin cover) – Train (2016)
Proud to Fall – Ian McCullough (1989)
Trance – Enoch Light (1972)
Fine Time – New Order (1989)
John the Revelator– Depeche Mode (2005)
Gimme Shelter – The Frank (2010)
Ask – The Smiths (1988)
Little Red Corvette (extended version) – Prince (1982)
Sidewinder - Lee Morgan (1964)
Marigold - The Ocean Blue (1991)
I Want Candy - Bow Wow Wow (1981)
One Thing Leads to Another - The Fixx (1983)
Slinky Thing - Donald Fagen (2012)
Forget It - Blood Orange (2011)
Cantaloupe Island - Pancho Sanchez (2009)
Making Plans for Nigel - XTC (1979)
Echos - Pink Floyd (1971)
Goodbye to You - Scandal (1982)
Frances Farmer Revenge on Seattle – Nirvana (1993)