photo (c) Piotr Lewandowski

Designing your record cover

A guide to producing your own cover, getting it printed, and making sure it looks good.

Viva le resolution!
You’ve spent months of practise and rehearsals, weeks of arguing and fighting, you’ve saved and scrimped to get to that studio, or to buy that digital 8 track with which to capture your unique vision. And now, after weeks of mixing, re-mixing and arguing about that flanger sound on the guitar in track two, you are finally ready to share your vision with the world…

So surely equal care and attention should be put into what will more then likely be the general publics first encounter with your masterpiece… the album cover.

Here is a guide to doing your own cover, getting it printed and looking good. Sure computers have made doing things yourself much easier, but in many cases it would seem standards have dropped at the same rate. It’s not always good enough to have a mate who has a PC that’ll do the cover.
The first thing I’d say to anyone is to get someone to either help you or do it for you!

Graphic Designers
Graphic Designers are by and large friendly people, and should be happy to offer advice or assistance, don’t be afraid to approach them with ideas or images you have found and like yourself, after all it is your music being packaged, a good designer should take these ideas on board and be able to offer practical advice on how best to use them (or not use them) to create a successful design. They can also explain why that orange and that pink are just not going to look good together, or why that picture nicked off the internet is probably going to be unsuitable for print… and quite possibly break some serious copyright laws and all.

Most pressing companies will look after the print as well, mostly offering decent prices too. The advantage of this is that they will know exactly how to set up your artwork for their own printing presses; the slight extra cost will be worth the peace of mind. If your anyway unsure about how to output your artwork for print then contact a professional designer, or the pressing company themselves, by and large the folk who look after the print are friendly folk who will be able to offer much advice, if you don’t understand exactly what is being said, ask them to explain in lay mans term, theirs a heap of jargon (new jargon seems to be invented daily in the print and design business) used that can get very confusing very quickly.

If you’re looking for something a little different, maybe a unusual type of paper (transparent, textured, metallic) to print on to, or perhaps an elaborate folding mechanism for the booklet which will drive the public barmy when it will never fit back in the case, it might be worth getting your print done elsewhere. It may save you money to.

Printers will look for your artwork on disc, CD, zip etc. They’ll most likely want it prepared in the DTP programme Quark Xpress. Most outputters want it in Macintosh format too so if you’re using a PC you may want to check it with the printers first. If you use Xpress 4 or higher there should be no problem giving them the artwork in PC format because they are fully compatible (the applications not your fonts, see later). Xpress (never refer to it as "quark") is used to layout all you prepared graphics and add the text.

Scans and other artwork can be prepared using a paint programme like Adobe Photoshop or a drawing programme like Adobe Illustrator. The most important thing to understand about the paint programme is resolution and image size. An image at 72dpi and one in 300dpi might print the same physical size but there’ll be a huge difference in quality and file size. For the web images get used at 72 dots per inch, for print they must be 300 dots per inch or higher. If you use a resolution too low, e.g.: a photo from your web site, it will print all pixelated (think sitting to close to the TV and seeing all the little squares that make up the image on screen). When you’re scanning use as high a setting as possible, accept the fact that the file size may be around 50 MB.
Graphics must be in CMYK mode or they’ll come out black and white.

At this point I’d like to recommend this website is a collection of amateur or semi-pro photographers who submit photos (at high resolution) for anybody who wants to use them. There is an excellent search facility and by and large the standard is surprisingly high. They allow you 5 downloads free and charge a measly 25 American cents per download after that.

With drawing programmes like Illustrator or Freehand resolution is not a problem. The same file could be used on a pen as the back of a bus. It great for producing logos. You can spend a while drawing it and you’ll never have to do it again. You could even import it into your paint programme and add fancy shadows and twirls, but probably shouldn’t.

Yuk! Avoid it!

When bands do their own artwork they can make a real balls of it. A few of my favourite bands have recently taken their design "in house" (they probably bought a PC for the studio) and the results have been disastrous.

Don’t! – Go mad with the fonts. NEVER use a different font for each song.
Ouch! – We’re not blind. Use font sizes below 10pt for lyrics etc.
Crap! – Don’t use Ariel. It’s a poor copy of the original, Helvetica.
Steady On! – Go easy on the Photoshop filters.
Puke! – Photoshop is brilliant for cleaning up scans and resizing but covers that are "done in Photoshop" are usually crap.

Look at album covers you like yourself and try identify what it is you like about them, abstract photos with simple text? big pictures of the band looking all hard with large spiky type and skulls?, try and see where you can apply these styles to your ideas. Try show as many people as possible your ideas, take on board what they say. The best rule of thumb is to keep it simple. A subtler approach, rather then trying to have your cover scream of the shelves of your local record shop, will be far more satisfying in the long run.

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