The manufacturing and replication process requires the coordination of a seemingly overwhelming number of details and can be a challenge for anyone trying to get a finished product by a certain deadline. The manufacturing details are often handled for an artist by their record label or distributor if they are signed to a recording contract. Indie musicians will have to coordinate all the details themselves. Below are some manufacturing best practices indie musicians can follow to help ensure your CD’s are produced to your specifications and delivered on time.
The first step in the manufacturing process is to obtain a final copy of the master recording with the sequencing, spacing, EQ and levels exactly as they will be on the replicated copies. Because replication is a complex, high-speed process, the data the master must be organized in very specific ways in order to ensure exact, error-free finished copies; for this reason (and many others), securing a professional mastering studio to turn the final mixes into a production master will result in a much higher quality finished product – though there are several professional-grade consumer mastering software packages that will work in a pinch. The manufacturer will want a sealed, production master CD (”PMCD”) copy of the master (or lacquer masters if they will be pressing vinyl). Typically, other master formats are acceptable, and most manufacturing plants will provide a list as part of their overall specifications. It is crucial to thoroughly test and approve the master before delivery to the manufacturer; the manufacturer’s only liability is to create exact, technically accurate replicas of the master, so they cannot be held responsible for content imperfections that also appear on the delivered master. The extra time and expense required to create a perfect master is far better than the potential cost of producing thousands of imperfect CDs.
Using an experienced graphics professional to create the artist’s artwork including folders, booklets, fonts, graphics, photos and CD label silkscreen can make life much easier. Manufacturers usually make their requested art specifications readily available and prefer to receive the final art files on CD in certain formats such as Adobe Illustrator or QuarkXPress. It’s best to have a “folding dummy” or exact replica created of how the finished product should look, including the fold pattern of the insert, to help avoid any misunderstandings with the manufacturer about how the finished product should look when they are finished.
A UPC Code, commonly referred to as a bar code, uniquely identifies a CD’s manufacturer, label, artist, catalog number and format. A UPC code must be obtained and attached to the CD’s packaging if the release will ever be sold through retailers. UPC codes along with artist name, title, label, distributor, genre and retail price information, should be registered with Nielsen Soundscan so sales can be tracked and reported. UPC codes can be obtained directly from the Uniform Code Council but can also be provided by the manufacturer, distributor or record label.
ISRC Codes are unique identifiers or digital footprints for each track on a release and are used by digital retailers to track and report digital sales. ISRC codes are typically either encoded into the recording during the mastering process or on the physical products during manufacturing.
Artists or record labels will often times want to include music videos or footage of live shows with their CD as an added value for fans or sell at separate DVD of a live show. Manufacturers can bundle video with the CDs as CD-ROM content or produce separate DVDs as requested. The CD-ROM or DVD master should be professionally authored and include the menu and software functionality desired by the artist. As with the audio content, the artist should thoroughly test this master for functionality before approving and delivering to the manufacturer.
When shopping around to get price quotes it’s important to compare not only the price of the replicated CD’s but also the overall cost of the finished product. Price variables can include packaging (Jewel Case or DigiPak), printing of the artwork, assembly, shrink-wrap, turnaround time and quantity. Fees vary and decrease on a per unit basis the larger the order. A basic 1000 piece order would typically run around $1.25 to $1.50 per unit or $1,250 to $1,500 in total. Manufacturing at least an anticipated six-month supply of inventory is a good method for estimating how many units to have produced at a time.
It’s common for the manufacturer to charge half of the cost up-front and collect the other half plus shipping on delivery of the finished product. Turnaround times vary but typically take around 4 weeks from the time all the needed information is submitted in the required specifications.
Creating a checklist of items to complete and turn in to the manufacturer can help organize the process. A manufacturing checklist should include:
- Approved master in CD format with final sequencing, spacing, EQ and levels.
- Master is clearly labeled with artist, title and catalog number
- Tracksheet with track titles, lengths, start & stop times and ISRC codes
- A CD for the print art, graphics and pictures per the manufacturers specifications
- A hard copy print out of each file to be printed
- An exact replica “Folding Dummy” of how the booklet should look (including fold pattern)
- A CD for the CD label art and graphics per the manufacturers specifications
- A hard copy print out of each file to be printed
Once a manufacturer has been selected, the price has been negotiated, a delivery date established and the master, print art, cd art (per the requirements) have been turned over for production it is time to request a hard copy proof of how the final product will look. A hard copy proof may cost an extra $20.00 but can help catch mistakes or problems before going to full production. This is also the only reliable method for verifying color – though many manufacturers will offer to provide a PDF or other digital file as a proof, the wide variances in monitor calibration prevent digital files from accurately representing finished color. The graphics professional who created the original artwork can review the proof and submit any changes if necessary. Reviewing the hard copy proof should not be left up to the plant where the proof was produced. 48 hours is generally expected to be enough time to review and approve a proof, so timely approval is crucial to helping the manufacturer meet the target deadline.
If corrections are necessary, expect the designer to provide them to the manufacturer. Most manufacturers can make small corrections to text and layout, but because the design and approval process is subjective, any color corrections or complex layout and graphics changes are always best left to the original designer. To avoid delays, make sure the designer will be available for at least a week or two after the order is submitted; helping to see the project through to completion is an expected part of the graphic designer’s role. Expect additional charges for any corrections made, whether those corrections are made by the designer or the manufacturer; request approval on all costs before moving forward with any corrections – a small typo or alignment tweak may not be worth the cost in the long run.
It’s a good idea to request approval of a finished sample of the printed parts of the package before they are assembled with the CDs into finished product. That way, if a quality or printing issue arises, it can be caught and reprinted before disc pressing or assembly takes place, which will save both time and expense.
It is important to establish a ship date of the final product with the manufacturer and stay in regular contact with them to make sure the process is on track to meet that target. If possible, build extra time into the schedule so that it can remain flexible if issues do arise. For example, if artwork corrections or technical problems with the master delay the project by five days, most manufacturers will add those five days to the requested delivery date unless other arrangements are made, sometimes involving a rush fee. A four week turn time will typically cover most simple delays, but the more time available, the more likely the target delivery date will be hit.