Making Mixes

Quarantine aside, ordinarily in this column, I have the privilege of speaking with local bands, songwriters and music makers about their sounds and what inspires them. If you think about it, though, the makers of music are only a small percentage of the population for whom music is incredibly important.

We all have the song we play over and over because of the way it moves us into the proper levels of happiness or sadness. Throw on an old album and you are transported to another time or place. And even strangers in bars will join hands and sway and sing together when the music leads them (speaking strictly pre-COVID-19, of course!). We may not all have the same tastes in music, but nonetheless, our responses to music are pretty universal.

“Music is who I am. Music is my mood barometer. Music says all the things that words alone can never say. Music is what feelings sound like. Music reflects an experience or a time in my life. When I hear a song from that time, it takes me back and reminds me of some place or someone special,” Kristina Sherwood, a local businesswoman and music enthusiast, recently shared with me.

This is why there is not only art in creating music, but there is also art in curating music. I was delighted to receive an email in response to my Quarantine Soundtrack article from Sherwood. She had taken my recommendations very literally and looked up some of the music I had suggested, discovering some new-to-her sounds.

“I spent quality time enjoying finding and listening to the tunes mentioned in your article as I consider myself an audiophile,” she wrote to me. “Music has been important to me my entire life. In fact, I have 2,678 albums and 22,048 songs loaded on my iTunes that could play for 993 days straight!”

Clearly we shared a love of music, but what really caught my attention was the mention of how Sherwood funnels her massive library into special, personalized mixes, so much so that she’s known for it. “Everyone who knows me knows that for their birthday or a special occasion, they’ll receive a mixed CD with a custom insert listing the tracks and featuring the album covers!”

I’ll admit, I just missed the days of original mixtapes captured on a cassette recorder, trying to hit record the moment the radio DJ started playing your song, which was ruined if he was self-indulgent enough to talk over the opening notes. That said, I am definitely of the era of CD ripping and burning, which I understand suggests some legally questionable practices, but all the same, defined the way my age group grew up listening to and sharing music.

Sherwood has morphed her hobby across these timelines. “I started this passion long ago with cassettes. I am concerned about what happens once cars no longer have CD players and people no longer have boom boxes or stereo systems that support CDs.”

She’s right—when Sherwood offered to send me my own personalized mix, she thought to double-check if I had the means to play a CD at home. Truth be told, if not for my vintage-inspired Crosley system, which, believe it or not, spins vinyl, channels the radio, plays CDs and even cassettes, I would have received her gift in vain! (You can go ahead and congratulate me for being an old soul.)

Sherwood also draws on these more artistic tendencies when she works her magic on a playlist. “Many of my playlists reflect a sentimental longing for the past. Each mix has happy personal associations for a time or a special someone that brings the listener back, if only for a moment,” she explained. That’s a lot to achieve through a list of songs, so I asked her about mix-making best practices.

“The key components for a good mix are balance, frequency range, panorama, dimension, dynamics, and interest,” she said. That was a lot of words I wasn’t sure I understood, and then Sherwood suggested it’s as much intuition as anything else. “My intuition guides me in my selections. My mixes are based on what I like best and what flows well,” she said. “I group songs into a playlist and sort through the tracks, listening to the beginnings and ends of each to see how they fit and find the best match. Then I set the tempo.”

Even with that explanation, I gather it’s a skill that some have and others don’t. I, for example, could create playlists for you with weeks to think about it and the means to share song titles without real-time playback, but put me in a room and ask me to DJ, and I will freeze and ask, “What is music?”

Sherwood’s custom mixes aren’t currently available online. For now, she enjoys the practices of something tangible and told me that she still buys blank CDs by the sleeve. “But if anyone wants me to make them a mix, all they have to do is bring me a blank CD and I’ll be happy to do it!”