Once your record is mixed, edited and mastered, you may want to get it pressed professionally with proper artwork. But what's the best way to go about it?
While the audio is one aspect of producing a CD, if you're wanting a finished product then there's also the artwork to consider — the booklet, the inlay card and the CD graphics. I enjoy producing the artwork almost as much as the recording and mastering, but if this isn't your cup of tea, then most pressing plants have a reprographics department which can do it all for you, for a fee. I routinely use the professional Adobe Photoshop, Quark Xpress, and Acrobat graphics and DTP (deksktop publishing) software for my authoring work, and files produced using these programs are universally accepted by printing houses. However, I have also produced equally competent artwork in the past using the far more affordable Corel Coreldraw and Microsoft Publisher suites, but the number of pressing plants that can accept material supplied in these forms is rather more limited, so check before you start.
In many cases, and certainly in the case of the production I've been writing about over the past couple of months (a recording for the band Jig from Cheltenham College) the requirement was for a standard jewel-case presentation. This common format requires three sets of artwork: the rear inlay card (with spines); the front cover booklet; and the disc on-body design. The text for the booklet was supplied by the college, along with front-cover graphics and a couple of photographs of the band in their stage costumes. I had taken some session photos which were also included. The photos and graphics were scanned using a good-quality and properly calibrated scanner, with sufficient resolution to ensure at least 300dpi (dots per inch) at the size they would appear on the printed artwork. Most scanners generate artwork in RGB (red, green and blue) format, but for printing, each scan needs to be converted to the four-colour CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) format — and life is much easier if this is done before you start importing pictures into page layouts.
With all the text and artwork loaded into the computer, it's time to start designing the layouts. The simplest booklet for a CD jewel case is a four-page design — basically a single piece of paper folded in the middle. Larger booklets can be produced in multiples of four pages by inserting additional folded sheets and fixing them together with staples, a process known as stitching in the printing trade. Alternatively, you can design the artwork onto one large piece of paper which folds up, usually in a concertina fashion. The pressing plant will be able to advise you of the various options.
The most important first step in designing the artwork is to set the page size correctly in your DTP program — and different replication houses have slightly differing requirements so always check before you start. A lot of pressing plants publish their print sizes and templates on their web sites, but if not then a quick phone call will supply the necessary dimensions. I used a company called SFH in Wembley for this particular project, and its web site specifies a booklet size of 242 x 119.5mm, plus a 3mm 'bleed'. If you want pictures or graphics to go right to the edge of the paper it is necessary to allow the picture to 'bleed' over the edge (by at least 3mm in this case), so that when the printed booklets are cut to size, any inaccuracy in the trimming process doesn't reveal unprinted white edges.
For a four-page booklet you need to design two sheets: the first carries the front and back page and the second carries the two inside pages. An eight-page booklet requires four sheets: front and back; pages two and seven; pages six and three; and pages four and five. The SFH website has templates of the necessary page pairings for booklets up to 24 pages. A lot of CD pressing plants specify the cheapest booklet option as a '4/1 booklet'. This refers to the number of colours on each side of the booklet paper. Full-colour artwork requires the four CMYK colours, that means that the 4/1 booklet's front and back covers are printed in colour, while the inside pages are printed in a single colour only — usually plain black. For this project I required a '4/4 booklet', with full colour on both sides, because of the session photos were placed on the inner pages.
The inlay card, which is trapped inside the back of the jewel case, requires another bespoke page size, in this case 151 x 118mm with the 3mm bleed again. It is also important to mark a folding line for the spines 6.5mm in from the left and right edges. Most plants will automatically specify the inlay card in full colour, although some may print in monochrome at reduced cost. A lot of companies specify the spine labels to be arranged in a mirror image of each other, the base line of each label being towards the inside of the paper. However, I prefer to have both spine labels with their base lines facing the left-hand side, which seems to be the way most commercial CDs are printed.
The labelling on the CD disc itself is referred to as 'on-body printing', and the dimensions and colour options vary considerably between pressing plants. Most can now offer four-colour printing, usually with the option of a white base layer, which helps to maintain accurate colorimetry. The available print area on most discs is between diameters of about 36mm and 118mm. However, some plants can print closer towards the spindle centre, which can be useful if you want to print a large graphic or photo on the disc. In this case you might be able to print down to a diameter of 15mm, but some plants insist on an ink-free region between 33mm and 36mm to accommodate separation rings which hold the printed discs apart while the ink dries. Again, check with the pressing plant before creating the layout template. For this project, SFH were able to accommodate a continuous CMYK photograph printed on a white base layer from 19mm to 118mm diameters without a separation ring gap.
As with the audio work, the completed provisional artwork layout was dispatched to the College for approval, and after a couple of small amendments it was deemed ready to send away to the plant, along with the approved master audio disc, which I discussed the preparation of last month.
The CD pressing process is very simple in principle, but complex in the detail. The first stage is to use the data on the CD-R audio master to control a laser beam recorder which copies the data to a photo-sensitive layer on an optically flat glass disc — this is the 'glass mastering' process. This special disc is then developed in much the same way as camera film to leave an etched surface carrying the microscopic pits of data. These glass discs are expensive to produce, the recorder is an expensive precision instrument, and the whole process has to be performed under scrupulously clean conditions, hence glass mastering is an expensive element of CD replication.
The etched glass master is not used to stamp discs itself, but is used to create a metal stamper through a process called electroforming. A layer of nickle is effectively grown onto the disc, transferring the etched pits on the glass into bumps in the metal disc to produce a 'father' disc. For very short CD pressing runs, this father can be used as the direct stamper, but it is more common to produce one or more 'mother' discs from the father, and then several 'sons' from each mother. The sons are used as stampers to produce the raw plastic CD discs. The stamped raw plastic CDs are first metalised to produce a reflective layer, and this is then protected with a lacquer. The lacquer layer is then printed over and the finished discs are loaded into jewel cases, wrapped and boxed.
The father disc is usually stored for up to five years at the pressing plant to avoid having to create a new glass master should a second pressing run be required — although it may still be necessary to produce new mother and son stampers from the archived father, a process which is usually chargeable.
Next to the original audio recording, creating the master CDs is perhaps the most critical stage of the entire process. It sounds very obvious, but if any element of the audio master disc or artwork is flawed in any way, it will either cost money to have the pressing plant fix the problem, or will cause production delays while they contact you to sort it out. According to SFH, delays because the source material or artwork are flawed are very common — and frequently stem from people using the wrong artwork template sizes or incompatible DTP programs. So, before you start work check with the plant you intend to use that you can supply artwork in a compatible format, with the right parameters, and that your audio master is produced in the correct way.
The most cost-effective audio master format for replication is the standard CD-R, carrying Red Book-compatible audio produced in the disc-at-once format. The track IDs should adhere to the standards, with a two-second lead-in to the first track and with the indexes offset slightly in advance of the start of the audio (12 frames is typical). Most CD burning software sorts this all out automatically if you tell it to produce an audio CD. If you send a data CD-R carrying WAV files, or a DAT tape, you will have to pay an extra fee for the pressing plant to convert your material into a format they can use to drive the pressing machinery.
I always create the master audio disc in real time using high-quality, name-manufacturer blanks. Make sure that the disc surface is absolutely clean — no finger prints, no polystyrene particles, no dust, and no scratches. Remember, the error correction on an audio CD is not particularly sophisticated and if the data isn't burned correctly in the first place, it can't be reconstructed later. After burning the disc, play it once in a good CD player (one that won't scratch the disc!) and check that all the tracks are present in the right order and that the track IDs work properly. Label the disc clearly as the audio master with a soft-tipped water-based marker, and include the title of the project, the catalogue number, your name, company and contact details. Place the disc in a jewel case or plastic sleeve to protect it, and then burn a second identical disc and mark it up in the same way.
Occasionally one disc may become damaged in transit or may be found to be unusable because the error rate is too high. In this case, having a second copy immediately to hand at the pressing plant can save a lot of time in getting a replacement shipped over — and it's well worth the effort given the very low cost of CD-R blanks.
The artwork is also best supplied on CD-Rs, although this time formatted as standard data CDs — again, supply two copies in case one is found to be defective in some way. Mark the discs clearly as artwork masters, and include the same label information as listed above for the audio master discs.
Probably the best artwork file format to use is that of Adobe's Acrobat, because it is completely platform independent. However, the full Acrobat program with the Distiller application is expensive, and configuring the press settings correctly can be a bit of a challenge! Once again, the pressing plant will be able to advise on any specific points, but the essential elements are as follows.
- All fonts must be embedded.
- Graphics and photos must have a minimum resolution of 300dpi (400 dpi if using small type within the images) and be in CMYK format.
- Black and white images and line art must have a minimum resolution of 800 dpi for black and white images and line art).
- The PDF file must be saved as CMYK colour separations.
All pressing plants will accept Quark Xpress files (but not all can handle files produced using the PC version of the program), and many will accept Microsoft Publisher, Corel Coreldraw, and sundry other DTP programs as alternative formats — but you may incur a handling charge if the pressing plant has to spend time manipulating your files into their preferred internal format. Whatever DTP program you are using, make sure that, in addition to the completed DTP files, you also include all the component artwork files, clearly labelled and ideally organised in a sensible folder hierarchy for each element of the project (booklet, inlay card, and disc on-body). You should also include copies of all the fonts used in the artwork, because the pressing plant may not have access to the same typefaces.
It is vital that you also supply colour print-outs of each page layout, complete with crop marks if possible, so that the pressing plant can make sure that the artwork files are being handled correctly. For example, a missing typeface may be substituted automatically, but the replacement may be completely inappropriate. Without a paper proof copy to check, the error may not be discovered until 1000 discs turn up at your front door, by which time it is far too late! Some plants will accept a PDF proof copy, but I would always recommend sending paper proofs as the universal safety format.
The colorimetry of inkjet printers is not usually that accurate, so if any print colours are critical — perhaps a logo, for example — it pays to specify them in terms of the standard Pantone colour sheet. Art shops can supply a Pantone Colour Formula Guide swatch, which, although quite expensive, is a very handy reference if you do a lot of accurate colour work.
Finally, pack the two audio master discs, the two artwork master discs, the colour proof printouts, and a letter detailing what you are expecting the pressing plant to supply, along with any special instructions, a cheque, and your contact details, into a plastic wallet to keep everything together. You may also need to include a copy of the MCPS licence. Some plants will ask you to sign an MCPS waiver form for short print runs if you have not applied for an MCPS licence, but it is worth noting that the pressing plant is obliged to supply the MCPS with details of every disc or tape it produces, regardless of the size of the print run, along with the contact details of every customer. So the MCPS has the information to track you down very easily if you are having discs produced without the appropriate licence. You have been warned! In the case of the Jig project, where we were only producing 500 discs for sale to parents of the Cheltenham College students, we were able to use the MCPS Limited Product Availability Licence, which is very easy to complete and costs just £70.50.
About ten days after shipping all the paperwork and discs off to the pressing plant, a courier will hopefully bang on the door with several boxes full of CDs for you. Most plants pack CDs in boxes of 25, with four of these boxes contained in a larger case for more convenient shipping. Hopefully, when you open the boxes you'll find everything in perfect order, with crystal-clear printing exactly as you expected, and with a fantastic-sounding CD inside.
You may also find an invoice for a small number of extra CDs. This will be because it is not possible to stop the CD pressing machines after producing a precise number — discs are produced on an automated line which takes a certain amount of time (and discs) to run up to full speed and then run down at the end. These surplus discs will be shipped to the customer and have to be paid for — in the case of this project, I ended up with 24 extra discs.