The time will come when you want to release your own CD. It has to be said that recording and manufacturing the CD is the easy part. Selling it is another matter altogether!
But you owe yourself the experience so why not plan ahead?
You will obviously have to provide the master recordings. You should also provide the artwork yourself. Some CD manufacturing companies offer an artwork service, but you would have to ask yourself whether you would be getting the personal attention you need. Artwork is a significant part of the package, so you really need control over this yourself. More on artwork in a moment.
You may provide the recordings as separate individual tracks. In this case your recordings will need 'mastering'. This is the process of combining the tracks into a continuous sequence, optimizing levels and EQ and making each track compatible with the others in terms of level and frequency balance.
Many CD manufacturers offer a mastering service. They will probably do the job well, but you really should attend the mastering. Unattended mastering can be cheaper because the engineer can get the job done more quickly. But you won't get the opportunity to express any preferences you might have. It's also a learning experience to attend a mastering session. On your first, you are advised to watch and learn, and say the absolute minimum.
If you are going to master yourself, or employ an outside mastering company, then you will need to know the specifications required for the master. Often an audio CD is perfectly adequate. Make sure that it is on a high-quality blank and kept in spotless condition. Keep another as a spare.
Back to the artwork. Your CD manufacturer will almost certainly have links with a printing company. It makes sense to use them because otherwise you will be introducing another variable. When you have made a few CDs then you might become more adventurous.
The printer will have very precise specifications for the delivery of artwork. It might be as Quark files, InDesign or possibly PDF. If you are not 100% up to speed on this, make sure you take good advice. Reprinting is expensive. (Best to know your CMYK from your RGB too - am I scaring you yet?).
It is practical to manufacture as few as 500 CDs (meaning proper CDs, not CD-Rs). However, 1000 don't cost much more, so you might as well have a thousand done. Some people say you can sell a thousand of anything, so why not go for it?
There are always tolerances in the manufacturing process, so you might end up with 10% fewer or 10% more. The cost will be adjusted appropriately.
Judging a CD manufacturer in the first instance is best done by seeing samples of their work. You'll only be able to assess their efficiency by actually having the work done. If they don't deliver on time, go elsewhere for your next release.
When the CDs arrive, open a box and check one immediately. If the manufacturer uses their own transport, it will save unloading if the CD isn't right. You won't have time to play the CD through before the driver leaves, but a visual check to make sure the printing is OK is certainly possible.
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Great home recording starts with a great home recording studio. It doesn't need to be expensive if you know how to select the right equipment for your needs.