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Doing It Yourself: CD Design and Duplication for Indies
By Queenie Sataro - 09/26/2004 - 07:09 PM EDT

Ever seen a really bad cd cover design? One where that screams AMATEUR where the text is tacky, tacky, tacky--there is a misspelling or the color is garish (think RED), or the text has been done in a juvenile font like Varsity and given a warp or twist effect? Even worse is the picture on the CD, it is of a beautiful landscape but unfortunately it is pixelated and little squares wink at you through every technicolor tree? You find yourself saying: "Monkeys on mind-altering drugs could design a better CD cover than this!"

Don't let it happen to you! There's one good CD cover in every one of us. To design a great one, you need one of two things: a decent designer or photo-editing software like Photshop Elements. Decent designers are easier and easier to find. One of the best ways of finding a great designer is by going to CDBaby/art and viewing the huge gallery of album art on the site. They compare it to "browsing the record aisle of a very cool record store." Browse. See something you like? Contact the artist via email. Ask them if they designed their CD or if they hired someone. CDBaby artists are usually indies just like you, not stuck-up celebrities living in zillion dollar mansions. Many of them are happy to share with you where their cover design came from, whether it was a friend or a pro designer. More sources for designers: any CD duplication website will likely offer design services for a fee. Another great place to look is Lulu.com, which does both self-published music and books. They can provide a stock cover or you can hire a designer. Or you could just ask anybody whose cover you like. I design covers for books and CD projects on commission--I have the software and I find it fun. There are a ton of people just like me that work on a project by project basis.
But if you have the most basic skills and a photo editor like Photoshop Elements, you could always design it yourself. That's what I did for my independent release, QUEENIE. I went with a simple black and white design. My insert was a single piece of glossy paper, folded in half. This is a typical CD insert.

For example, I will walk you through designing your own color-on-the-outside, black-and-white-lyrics-on-the-inside CD insert. You will design this "4 page" insert yourself and then take it to a professional printer such as Discmakers or the printer of your choice.


1) Get a photo or two.

First, you need a photo of something, preferably yourself. Most bestselling artist CDs have a photo of a person on the front, but you can always go with a nice picture of a landscape or an object. You can get the photo from almost anywhere, a friend, a photo CD from Best Buy (as long as it is legal to use the photos, check the copyright!), a sitting at the Walmart photography studio, whatever. The only place I'd suggest not getting a photo from is the internet, for reasons that will be explained in the paragraphs below.

2) Scan them into the computer with a setting of 300dpi.

Do you have to buy an expensive scanner? No. The market has been very competitive for years. Great scanners are now a hundred dollars or less. Make sure to scan the photos at 300dpi.

3) Go on the web and download a CD template.

I suggest the free CD templates at Discmakers.com, though CD insert design templates are often provided with a program such as Printshop or Coreldraw. In short, CD insert design templates are everywhere. You might try the free templates available from the publish-on-demand services CafePress.com or Lulu.com as well. Since those services are free, you may just end up selling your CD through their sites!

4) In Photoshop Elements or another photo-editing program, create a new image file from the CD template you downloaded. This is done by opening the template in Photoshop Elements as a Photoshop file. Make sure to set the new document with 300dpi and CMYK color settings.

Why? A truly professional-looking cover will be designed in a four-color format called CMYK and a resolution called 300dpi. Both of these things are a part of creating any new file on any basic image editing software such as Photoshop Elements.

The main choice is between the four-color CMYK and a three-color format called RGB. RGB is used for web pages, along with its companion, 72dpi resolution. So how come you are able to print out a very nice color picture that you downloaded from the internet on your home computer's inkjet printer? Doesn't this mean your CD cover will look great? No, your CD cover will suck if you use the RGB/72dpi combination that web pages do. Here is why: your computer's printer is designed to make printouts from webpages look better.

A printer that will print your CD insert is VERY DIFFERENT than your home inkjet. Number one, it is a printer that is loaded with the standard CMYK colors. Number two, it needs lots more dots per inch (dpi) than your home printer to get the job done nicely. Number three, the printer that will be printing your CD insert costs more money than your $70 inkjet and the colors will not smear under people's fingers.

4) Open your scanned photo as a separate file. Use Edit > Select All. Then use the little arrow button to drag the picture onto your CD template.

Now comes the fun part, playing around with the photo. Try to refrain from giving yourself a mustasche, beard, and large wooly eyebrows. There are lighting effects to play with, color corrections, cropping, you name it. I love to put things in photos that weren't there to begin with, like silhouettes of trees, gardens, the Loch Ness monster, etc. If it was a great photo, you could just leave it alone.

5) Add text. Please do not warp or twist! Remember the monkeys!

Here is where good taste comes in. Bad use of text ruins CD covers. It will give your CD the "cringe factor", diminishing the music inside for any potential fan. Refrain from using effects other than a light drop shadow. Never underline or italicize. This is a CD cover, not a Word document. Please stick to one font and only one font, and don't do something cheesy like BrushScript, Varsity, or Jester. Lastly, make sure to accomodate printer "bleed" by leaving a little room on each side of your text and not letting it run over the sides of the CD.

The thin sides should have the name of the CD so that way people can pull your CD from their shelf easily and already know who made it. Most of this stuff isn't rocket science.

6) Design the inside of your CD insert, most likely in black and white.

The inside of your CD insert is part of what they call 4 over 1 printing. If you want the inside of your insert to be color, it is just like designing the outside, CMYK and 300dpi. 4 over 1 is the term for CMYK on the outside and a single color of ink like black or blue on the inside. Even a postcard can be 4 over 1, as one side is CMYK and the other side is plain black ink. Lyrics are the best thing to go in there. I don't care how good your mike or your diction was when you recorded, darn it, I want lyrics.

7) Save, save, save, at least 2-3 copies of file under different names, like albumdsgn-1.psd, albumdsgn-2.psd, etc.

8) Put design on disc and give to printing house in format they prefer.

Sometimes this is high-quality JPEG, or TIFF, you never know. Mine went over as a Freehand document for QUEENIE, but that was a while ago. It depends on their equipment.


Duplicating CDs, at least for the time being, costs a lot of money. Short-runs are not economical. A short run is 800 CDs and under. Can you sell 1000 CDs? Because if you get 1000 duplicated, it will cost about $1400 dollars to get extremely professional results, the whole package, including the insert you designed and the CD plus case. Sure, somebody will write me and say that they found it cheaper, but you must understand that I'm talking about a product that looks exactly like it came from the shelf of a fancy store. I've spent days calling around Chicago, asking prices on CD duplication. The best price I was able to get for a short run of 100 CDs was about six dollars per CD, or $600. Not good! We're not even talking inserts, just printed CDs.

If you do short runs, your best alternative is to buy a CD burner/duplicator and make your own. Nowadays, these machines are available from companies like the afforementioned Discmakers, Condre, Microboards, Primera, and others and start at 300 dollars. This means that you will be burning the CDs, some machines as fast as 17 CDs per hour, at home with your own machine. The .WAV files or .AIFF files will go right from your finished, mastered CD to seventeen other CDs.

Then you will print a design on them yourself. There are two options for this, an inexpensive inkjet printer or a more pricey laser on-cd printer. Having limited money I own the inkjet kind. I buy special CDs made to print upon. They start out white and then go through my cute little on-cd inkjet printer, which cost under $100 on sale at the Apple store. The drawback with my cute little inkjet is that if you get it wet or put your fingers on it, it smears and ruins itself. To avoid this problem I use a clear polyeurathane coating spray normally used for artwork and carefully spray the the topside to coat.

Was any of this easy? No, but it is all worth it. Having a professional CD design to your name is the best. It is a sense of absolute accomplishment--you are now an artist with a professional CD! I hope that those of you reading this send me pics of your cool CD covers, because I'd love to see them before you hit it big on CDBaby. Happy designing!

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