A recent dig through my vinyl collection yielded some wonderful memories of mixes from the past. They were not mine. In fact I don’t even know who did them in most cases. They weren’t on CD and they weren’t the iconic mix tapes on cassettes. They were called “disco mixers” – a term that has fallen out of use in the nomenclature of dance music in the years since then.
I don’t mean the piece of equipment that is at the center, usually, of a DJ’s set-up. I don’t mean the generic term for DJs – “Mixers! You know, people that mix!” – either. I mean disco mixers, the disco medleys that were sometimes on acetate but nearly always available as a white label 12″. If you’ve never seen, heard, or owned one of these “mixers,” it’s going to take some splainin’ to describe these often anonymous mini-masterpieces.
The simplest way to describe the mixer was that it was a short (six to fifteen minute) medley of songs edited/mixed/produced together and many times using just the hook, break, intro or other familiar or popular components. Using the familiar Chicago term, these were often “hot-mixed” for both effectiveness (energy) and efficiency (on vinyl so there were limitations to the length).
Initially these mixers were done in acetate form by DJs for their own use. What is an acetate? In making a vinyl record, the first step is to develop a “master.” That record-like product was also called a “reference master” or even a “lacquer” – due to the process and look. Believe me, acetates are much heavier than a vinyl record. They are also very delicate and wear out quickly, so you can’t play them nearly as much as a standard piece of vinyl.
In the ’70s, for edits or medleys, usually anywhere from one to a few dozen were produced but if word got out, several hundred may have been made. In standard use since then and today, the acetate is not shared or reproduced itself but rather used to produce the vinyl records we used to love and now people young and old are loving (and buying) again.
DJ/producers like Walter Gibbons, John Morales, Francois K. and many others used acetates (7″, 10″, & the familiar 12″) as a vehicle for their own edits in a similar way to how reel-to-reel tape edits were used during that period. Reel-to-reel editing preceded acetates but then continued in parallel through the late ’70s.
“Ironically, the late ’90s and definitely since ’00, the same cohort of the public would probably never buy a mixer in any medium, even if they still existed. The proliferation of mix CDs, then Mixcloud/Soundcloud, and finally DJs in every lounge/bar/retail store/open space has made the mixer but a memory.”
Eventually, some of these DJ/producers also decided to create short “mixers” on acetates. Some were based on one group or artist (see the discography) and others contained numerous hit songs or other songs to break in the club. To be clear, though: most “star” DJ-produced mixers (and especially those produced on acetate) were not the major source of mixers for the general public. Bootleg 12″ vinyl records, made by unnamed DJs or producers, and sold in record stores were the source of 99% of the mixers.
This brings us to a critical question. What was/is the utility, value, and appeal of these mixers? Most DJs I knew found them, at best, interesting to listen to but a waste of time at worst. No real (read – professional and skilled) DJ played them in a club, with the exception of the acetate versions since a specific DJ created that for their use when they played in a club. (I wonder what the response was to the “quick-mix” style back then… It would probably work better today!)
But for the average buying public (club heads, music lovers, and dancers) mixers were a means of getting a pseudo-DJ mix cheaply since access to mix tapes was rarer and definitely costly until the mid-late 1980s.
(Ironically, the late ’90s and definitely since ’00, the same cohort of the public would probably never buy a mixer in any medium, even if they still existed. The proliferation of mix CDs, then Mixcloud/SoundCloud, and finally DJs in every lounge/bar/retail store/open space has made the mixer but a memory.)
In fact, even most of my “digger” friends who buy the craziest, most obscure records don’t find much appeal in the mixers.
The last forty years have really seen a progression from our need to consume music from its singular song state to a perfectly beat-matched-mash of sound… not even necessarily SONGS. The debate as to whether that is growth, stagnation, homogenization, or something else in the music industry can wait for another day (or column!)
What is great to see is that DANCE MUSIC – broadly defined – is growing even if the definition of “dancing” may be loosely used for solely “raising your hands in the air!”
And a unique but rarely remembered milestone in that progression came in the form of a piece of acetate or vinyl, chock-full-o’songs, “mixed” expertly or otherwise, by unnamed DJ “mixers”, and into one giant ball of aural energy… the MIXER!