I had to do it. I had to make some new “Virtual CD” playlists to enhance my enjoyment of music. I wrote back in February a piece “Lamenting the Death of the Mix Tape” that sang the praises of the lost magic of the mix tape. Now, I’m bringing it back into my sphere of music listening.

I have an iPod and I listen to most of my music on the computer so even though I still buy CDs I never listen to them in that form. I make MP3s and grove to the digital age. I have no idea when the last time I popped a CD into a CD player and cranked it up. I don’t even have a CD played hooked up to my receiver. Mix CDs were a thing of the past.

But shuffle play on an iPod or computer just does not work for me. In the context of a single musician it is fine. If I want to listen to some Tom Waits and don’t want to choose an album I will just click on his playlist and hit shuffle. But I have four hundred CDs or so encompassing a wide variety of styles. I have music ranging from the blues to rock to folk and tons in between. Hitting shuffle on that vast and varied a library does not make for a pleasurable listening experience.

First there is the problem of weak tracks. Every album, even by my favorite musicians, has weak songs. In the context of the ebb and flow of the quality of an album weak songs are okay. When listening to a CD if one of the songs that I don’t enjoy comes on maybe I don’t pay as much attention to it. It is just a slow spot on the record and I know it will pick up with the next song. No big deal. But when shuffling through a large library of songs the weak ones are in a new context. You never know what is coming up next and you could get three or four weak songs in a row. It happens often and is impossible to ignore. It can ruin the listening experience. Having to hit the skip button all of the time is not very convenient.

The second problem is fidelity. I have old blues, country, and big band stuff from the twenties through the forties. It is mostly low-fi because of the recording equipment of the time and to mix that in with hi-fi stuff from today can be quite jarring. If I am making a mix tape and that is what I am going for that is fine. But when it happens on its own it can be, well, jarring. Not to mention the volume levels on various hi and lo-fi recordings can be drastically different. Having to hit the volume button all of the time is not very convenient either.

All in all the shuffle mode on an MP3 player can be a fickle friend indeed.

So I recently made a some mix CDs for a couple of friends of mine. I haven’t done that in quite a while but is was how we used to share music. I had forgotten just how much work making one was. And it is considerably less work than it used to be. In the days of mix tapes there was physical effort. You had to pick out the tapes, records or CDs and get to the song and record it. That song had to be listened to as it was being recorded so that took time. With today’s dragging and dropping of music files there is no physical effort. Using iTunes or some such to make a mix is fairly easy. It is the thought involved that is the work. What songs should go on it? In what order? That sort of thing takes more effort than one would think. It used to be during the time spent in the physical efforts of making a tape that you could contemplate what song should be next and in what direction the tape should go. Now I just stare at the computer and think those things. Staring at the computer is never much fun. But still, the effort is worth it in the end.

I have taken to listening to the mix CDs as playlists in iTunes. I have recreated some old CDs playlists. CDs that I put together years ago are now resurrected on my iPod and have given me new listening pleasure. I’m telling you don’t stick with just what shuffle gives you.