Tuesday, 11 October 2005

C30, C60, C90, Go!

I embrace technology. I'm interested in gadgets. I work in IT... so yes, I'm a tech-head, geek, nerd, whatever. Somewhere in the dim and distant past I even worked in an independent hi-fi store. So you'd think I'd love the speed and efficiency with which CDs can be ripped and MP3s encoded. And, to a certain extent, I do. But there is one drawback, one caveat, one proviso, one bugbear, one problemo - the joy of compiling a compilation tape has been lost.

Tape? Cassette tape? Am I mad? Yes, I know that tapes degrade, oxidise and eventually wear out. Yes, I know that the sound quality does not stand up in our digital world (although a decent Metal tape with Dolby S noise reduction comes pretty close to a budget CD player - see, I told you I used to work in a hi-fi shop). But a compilation tape... a mix tape, if you prefer...

These days, burning a CD takes just a few minutes. With media-playing software, you can juggle MP3s into just about any order you like and quickly burn or transfer that playlist to the medium of choice. But with tape, everything was different. Building a playlist required a pen and paper. Putting the desired tracks in order was a complex balancing act that involved weighing up a pleasing or meaningful sequence of songs against the running time of each track, to make the best use of the 45 minutes you had on each side of the tape. Nothing worse than having to fast-forward to the end of a side before turning over, right? And even when you'd finally worked out a time-sensitive and aurally satisfying running order, you then had to invest the time in actually doing the taping. It might take ten minutes to burn a disc but recording a 90 minute compilation tape, with changing records, cueing up and releasing the pause button, could take three hours or more.

And what of splicing tracks, or fading out? Seguéing tracks together required careful use of the pause button, timing and a fair amount of luck - trial and error was the name of the game, but it could be done, and oh, how satisfying it was when you got it right. Fading out? How many times have I slowly wound down the Recording Level knob whilst counting to myself? Cross-fading though, that was always beyond the realms of domestic hi-fi. So hurrah for the digital revolution... these days, tracks can be edited with astonishing results using free software on a basic home PC, all at the click of a mouse. Any idiot can do it... but the art has been lost.

Because of the time and effort that went into making a really good compilation tape, giving someone a mix meant something. Making a tape for a friend meant "these are songs that I like - you might like them too because we're mates". Making a tape for a girl meant "I want you to think I'm cool" or "I want to seduce you with music"... or, most often, "look how obvious I'm trying to make it that I like you". And what pleasure could be gained from making a tape for yourself! Sometimes, with careful planning and a stroke of luck, the perfect compilation would emerge, and do sterling service on the car stereo for the next six months.

I still have a number of compilation tapes knocking about. I even keep one particularly good mix in the car "for emergencies", i.e. when I'm sick to death of the CDs in the autochanger. Others are gifts from people that mean so much. I'll never play them again because they're becoming so frail, but I'll never get rid of them. The sight of them with their hand-decorated inlay cards is enough for me to remember the thought that went into them, the emotional investment that was made. But I do recognise them for what they are: relics of a bygone age, the 20th Century. Nowadays the whole product can be done and dusted in minutes, digital inlay artwork included - some homespun discs could even be passed off as commercial products, which makes me a bit sad. I can't argue with the fact that technology has made compilations easier to make and more professional in quality but there's just no fun in it anymore. No more will I spend a blissful weekend planning and recording a perfect C90 and never again will I be able to give someone a compilation that says "this is how much you mean to me".

Footnote: Nick Hornby covers the importance and complexities of the compilation tape somewhere in the middle of his excellent book High Fidelity, whilst "C30, C60, C90, Go!" was a single by the short-lived and archetypical Eighties band Bow Wow Wow.


  1. I have finally joined the 21st Century, by the way, having had a crack at some podcasts, each one being enough music to fill one side of a C90. See what you think.

  2. Love this post, Martin, thanks for letting me know about it. You've summed it up so perfectly - all the aspects of it, the effort and thought required. Fading out!
    The timing of that pause button! etc. It was an art and a technical challenge but oh how satisfying, to both give and to receive.
    A short while ago a friend who lives on the other side of the country but with whom I used to swap tapes for many years was sorting through his attic and found a load of compilations I'd done for him in the late '80s. He sent me a photo of them - it was just amazing and surreal to see them again. All the hand-written inlays (some with little additional notes) and art covers I'd made from photocopying pictures and embellishing, hand-colouring etc, I'd completely forgotten just how much of a labour of it love it truly was. And the tracks I'd chosen too, of course. I'm grateful for the new technology as far as time and effort go but somehow those old tapes really suited my more youthful attitude to it all, actually finding that the creative process was as important and enjoyable as the end result; I had the time and energy too - fewer distractions!
    By the way, staggered to see the date of this post too. Not sure I even knew what a blog was in 2005!

    1. Thank you, C. I thought you might appreciate it! I too used to have a mixtape postal exchange going on with a friend in the US. Hard to imagine now, in this age of social media, but we used to write actual letters to each other and include carefully-compiled, hand-decorated mix-tapes! I became quite adept at collage covers, carefully cutting tiny snippets out of magazine images and assembling them into coherent 4"x3" pictures to fit the inlay card. Happy days indeed, and simpler times. Am getting a bit rose-tinted now...

      As for blogging back in 2005, I used to hand-code my blog on my own website (I've had one of those since 1998!), eventually also hand-coding my own RSS feeds and comments system. But that became quite a chore... since time is a factor in how much (or little) blogging I do these days, I reluctantly bit the bullet and ported the whole lot over to Blogger in January 2014. Life is easier, if less satisfying.