13 life-saving tips for supplying album artwork files for print

Singer partially decapitated? Your perfect photos pixellated? Your carefully crafted lyrics rendered unreadable?

These may be extreme examples, but they’re all certainly possible if you don’t pay attention when supplying album artwork files for print.

Just about all pressing plants give you some dos and don’ts – either on their artwork templates or on their websites – but many people don’t seem to understand them, or at least, pay attention to them. Both can lead to disaster!

Below I give you 13 tips (unlucky for some, but lucky for you!) for supplying your artwork files. Follow them to avoid nasty surprises later!

1. Use the correct artwork templates

Many people think that record sleeves and all the packaging options for CDs are all a standard size, but this is not so. Manufacturers have their own specifications, and there are subtle size differences between them.

A lot of bands preparing their own artwork for their records or CDs just search the internet for artwork templates and download and use any they find.

Although it’s tempting to think: “Oh; it’s near enough. If there are any problems, the pressing plant will be able to sort them out”, what will actually happen is that the pressing plant will reject your artwork and ask you to submit it again to the correct specifications.

This causes extra delay, over and above the already long lead times required for manufacturing vinyl records.

I’ve already published a post about using the correct album or CD artwork templates, which goes into more detail.

2. Include print bleed

This is possibly the thing which, in my experience, most non-designers who are designing album artwork get wrong. This crops (ha!) up time and time again when I’m checking and fixing people’s album artwork files. I’d estimate that 50% of bands creating their own album artwork either don’t include bleed at all, or don’t include enough.

See my post on print bleed for more information.

Double page spread with bleed
Double page spread with bleed

3. Keep important elements out of the safe zone

The safe zone is the area around all edges of each of the printed parts that must be kept free of text or other important elements. Otherwise, these elements are at risk of being cropped off if misalignment occurs during trimming.

Think of it as bleed, but in reverse.

If your design features text elements or photos of people used as design elements, it’s totally OK to have them in the safe zone and extended to the edge of the bleed area. But body text, such as tracklistings and lyrics, should be kept a safe distance from the trim line.

As with bleed, the safe zone in Europe is usually 3mm, and in North America, ⅛”. (This does vary between manufacturers, however, so check their specifications!)

4. Show what should be shown, and hide what should be hidden

Many manufacturers’ templates include one or more layers for guides or info, indicating trim boundaries, centre holes and other things you need to know.

But these guide layers must not be printed onto your final artwork. Be sure to hide these layers before flattening your artwork and submitting it.

Careful with crop marks!

Some manufacturers’ artwork templates are the actual size of the artwork you will be creating and submitting. You are responsible for ensuring that bleed is present, and the printers then set up your files so they print with the required registration marks and crop marks.

But other manufacturers supply their templates with these marks already present, in the area outside the artwork boundary. It’s therefore important that these appear on your artwork, so don’t hide or delete any such layers.

In short: If things need to be printed on the artwork, or are required by the printers to make sure your project prints properly (crop marks and registration marks), make sure these layers are visible in your artwork before supplying it. Layers which purely provide information for you (guides, centre holes and explanatory text etc) should be turned off/hidden.

5. Get the image resolution right

Record sleeves, CD packaging, books, magazines, flyers and other items printed using the standard CMYK printing process are printed at 300 dpi (dots per inch), unless specified otherwise.

Not only must the photos or other continuous tone images in your album artwork therefore have a resolution of 300 dpi. They must also be 300 dpi at the actual size they will be printed at. Otherwise, a loss of quality occurs.

Info

An exception to the above is line art, such as pencil or ink drawings. These should be 800 dpi at actual size.

This is another of the things that many bands or musicians don’t get right when creating their album artwork themselves. The resolution of a photo or continuous tone image and the number of pixels it contains are directly related to each other. By increasing the physical size (width and height) of an image, you’re either keeping the same number of pixels, but lowering the image’s resolution, or adding extra pixels. Adding extra pixels means instructing the software to ‘guess’ what those pixels should look like, based on the ones that are already there. This also lowers the image’s printable quality.

Of course, software such as Photoshop® is very clever, and increasing the size of an image slightly is generally perfectly OK.

But where a size increase is more extreme, such as taking some CD-sized artwork and making it 12″ vinyl-sized artwork, there will be a noticeable loss of quality. The extent of this loss of quality depends on the content of your image, but images enlarged like this often look terrible.

Here I’ve got a 300 dpi image in Photoshop®, which is 120mm wide x 120mm tall. Its measurements in pixels are 1417 x 1417.

Image at original size and resolution
Image at original size and resolution

If we go to Image > Image size and increase the size in millimetres to 300 x 300, with the resample box ticked, the image resizes to 3343 x 3343 pixels, still at 300 dpi. The number of pixels along each side has more than doubled, and the total number of pixels has increased from over 2 million to more than 11 million, while the resolution (ppi – pixels per inch) remains the same. Photoshop® has therefore guessed what these pixels should look like, and here are the blurry results:

What happens when you increase an image’s size
What happens when you increase an image’s size

What happens if the resample box is unticked? The image becomes 300mm square, and the number of pixels remains the same, meaning no pixels have been guessed, but the resolution has dropped to 119.973 dpi/ppi, which is no good.

So if you have to increase the size of a photo in this way, you’re better off using resampling. Just don’t increase the image size too much.

The best way to use raster (pixel-based) images in artwork for 12″ vinyl records is to choose photos or scans which are big enough at 300 dpi already.

6. Supply your artwork files in CMYK colour mode

This is another problem that crops up time and time again.

Colour modes and colour profiles are a comprehensive and potentially complicated subject that could probably fill a book. (Don’t panic: I won’t!)

The colours you see on commercially printed items such as books, magazines and yes, record sleeves and CD packaging, are created using the CMYK process. In this process, blobs of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink are mixed in different proportions to form the colours you see.

Info

CMYK? Shouldn’t that be CMYB, if one of the colours is black? K in this case stands for key. In printing, the key plate is traditionally the plate containing the most information (black text in a book, but also the definition in many images). For this reason, the cyan, magenta and yellow plates are aligned (‘registered’) with the key plate, which is therefore also the plate that bears the registration marks and crop marks.

The range of colours it is possible to print is smaller than the range of colours which can be displayed on screens, such as computer monitors. These use the RGB colour mode, in which different amounts of red, green and blue light are emitted by the dark-coloured screen. Because they work on the basis of light, the gamut (colour range) is greater.

That’s the (concise) theory.

RGB to CMYK conversion: bright colours become subdued
Bright colours become dull and subdued when converting to CMYK

If you create your album artwork in the RGB colour mode, you will almost certainly be seeing, and working with, colours which it is physically impossible to recreate in the printing process. Were you to print an RGB file, your colours would generally become much duller. How much duller depends on the actual colours used in your artwork.

The number of times I’ve worked with people who’ve set their heart on their album artwork being intense royal blue or vibrant bright red, only to be crushingly disappointed when I’ve shown them how murky and dull it will be when commercially printed.

If that sounds like a massive restriction on your creativity, think of it in this way: glossy, colourful magazines are still glossy and colourful, despite having been printed in CMYK. It’s just that the people designing them are working with colour correctly.

Tip

Before you begin creating your album artwork, check your monitor settings. You need to make sure your computer monitor is displaying colour as accurately as possible. Calibrating your monitor is probably overkill for non-designers, but make sure the brightness and contrast are set to neutral! If you’ve increased or decreased the brightness and/or contrast of your monitor, what you see on screen definitely won’t correspond with what comes off the printing press. Nasty surprises are the result!

7. Avoid ink oversaturation

Before you rush off and set up your graphics software to use CMYK colour mode, there’s something else to consider.

When working in CMYK mode, it’s possible to inadvertently create colours which would mean too much ink landing on a particular spot. This often occurs when working with dark colours in Photoshop®, applying filters and effects, and adding dark coloured text. The ink is then said to be oversaturated.

This means the ink takes longer to dry, which can result in smudging during the rest of the production process. This also means that, if any of the text colours are oversaturated, the legibility of the text will be affected.

How much ink counts as oversaturated? Different printers have their own specifications, but broadly speaking, the colour profiles used in Europe often have a coverage limit of 350%, and those in North America often 300%.

What do these figures mean? If a colour comprised 100% cyan, 100% yellow, 100% magenta and 100% black, that gives us 400%, so definitely oversaturated and definitely to be avoided!

How to prevent ink oversaturation

When working on the images for your album artwork in Photoshop®, work in RGB mode and always keep the CMYK preview function on as you work. To do so, choose View > Proof setup > Working CMYK. A tick now appears next to View > Proof colours. This way, you will only ever see colours on screen which are not only within the printable gamut, but which are also not oversaturated according to your active colour profile.

Tip

If you’re unsure about all this, work using the profile US web coated (SWOP) V2, which is commonly used in the USA. Its coverage limit is 300%, which means it’s safer to use this profile for projects printed in Europe than it is to use the European standard for projects printed in the US.

In Photoshop®, go to Edit > Colour settings and choose the above-mentioned profile.

When you’re happy with your creation, save a flattened copy of it (important!) and convert this flattened copy to CMYK.

This flattened CMYK copy is the file you then import into InDesign® or Illustrator®. You’re safe to add text over the top, as this text is vector text, not pixels which are part of the background image. The printer sets up the job so that this vector text interacts with its background in the way that provides the best possible printing results. Adding black text to a dark background no longer runs the risk of being oversaturated, as the file can be printed so that this text knocks out an area of the background image, enabling it to be printed directly onto the paper. (This is a simplification of the process, but is essentially what happens.)

If you need to amend your artwork for any reason, go back to your layered RGB file, make the amendments there, still with the CMYK preview on, then save another copy and flatten and convert that and update the linked file in InDesign® or Illustrator®. You will need to repeat this process every time you amend your design, to ensure that your inks can never become oversaturated.

8. Don’t leave a hole for the hole

While it’s true that records, CDs and other optical discs all have a hole in the centre, your artwork files shouldn’t. If they did, you’d run into the same problems as described under bleed and safe zone further up.

Supply your artwork as a continuous piece, without centre holes.

Of course, you’ll want to make sure that any important elements in or around the centre don’t get cropped off, but you can use a guide layer for that. Your artwork templates may already include one, but if not, make one yourself.

Info

If you’re creating artwork for a CD, bear in mind that different pressing plants have different sized non-printing areas around the centre hole. These can vary quite substantially. If your design is really detailed and depends on the centre hole being a particular size for the design to work, bear in mind that a later repress at another plant could mess it up!

Tip

In InDesign®, you can use an empty round frame with a white background to create a hole of the right size and in the right position. There’s no need to place it on a layer of its own. Just make sure it’s right at the top of the stacking order: Object > Arrange > Bring to front on its layer, then open the Attributes panel by choosing Window > Options > Attributes and ticking the Nonprinting box. Now, when you press W to enter the preview mode, your empty white frame, and therefore the hole, disappears!

Previewing a record’s centre hole with InDesign’s non-printing feature
Left with ‘non-printing’ selected and right, print preview view

9. Pure black or warm black?

Black is black – except when it isn’t.

There is one-colour black, which comprises black ink, without any cyan, magenta or yellow.

And there’s also four-colour, or CMYK black (‘warm black’), where different combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks are combined to make black.

Even then, there are virtually limitless combinations of inks which all lead to something we’d call black.

Does that make a difference? Yes.

Which black for scanned photos/continuous tone images?

‘Black and white’ photos and other continuous tone images scanned in greyscale, and therefore printed using only black ink, look like ‘black and white’ images, and can be quite flat and ‘cold’.

But if you scan black and white photos in colour, the results can be much more pleasing. Although they still look like black and white images, and the tones only appear to span white–grey–black, the images still contain colour information. The result is a much warmer ‘black and white’ image when it is printed using coloured inks.

Which black for text?

Small text, such as lyrics and copyright information, prints more clearly as 100% black than it does as four-colour black. Similarly, white text reversed out of black prints more clearly when it is reversed out of 100% black than it does reversed out of four-colour black.

This is because, as we’ve seen above, CMYK printing involves blobs of coloured inks all landing on the same precise spot, combining to form a particular colour. All four inks have to be perfectly aligned at all times, in all places. But some designs make it more difficult for the inks to be ‘separated’ in this way, and sometimes, misalignment occurs during the printing process.

By using one-colour black, there is only one ink, and this problem is eliminated.

Same black throughout, or always best type of black for the job?

In real-world examples, if your artwork features ‘black and white’ photos, ‘black’ text, white or light-coloured text reversed out of ‘black’ elements, or any other ‘black’ design elements, you will need to decide which black to use for which elements.

Remember that one-colour black is often the best choice for text, but that ‘black and white’ photos often look better when using the four process colours, CMYK.

In an ideal scenario, you’d be using Photoshop® only for working with photographic material or other continuous tone images, and creating text and other vector elements in InDesign® and/or Illustrator®. In these programs, it’s an easy matter to ensure that your text is 100% black, and not CMYK black.

But for reasons I can’t at all fathom, most bands and musicians whose artwork files land on my computer create their entire album artwork and layouts using just Photoshop®, which isn’t the best tool for the job – it’s photo editing software! They create, edit and manipulate their images and add their text all in Photoshop®.

This is often CMYK black text, because they’re not aware of the difference and of the importance of choosing the right black for the job. By doing so, they run the risk that the edges of their text aren’t as clear and smooth as they should be, which can affect legibility.

But even if working with InDesign® and/or Illustrator®, it’s still possible to get blacks muddled up.

If your album artwork uses a combination of different blacks, some of the more attentive pressing plants will flag this up as an issue when you come to submit your artwork to them. And the best way to avoid that is to think about which types of black to use when creating your design. A mixture of blacks on your record sleeve will sometimes be easily noticeable.

10. Inner sleeve right way up?

If you’re creating artwork for a vinyl record which also has an inner sleeve, make sure the artwork is facing the right way up. What do I mean?

Record sleeves (jackets in the USA) normally open at the right-hand side. Inner sleeves therefore normally open at the top. Otherwise, the record would easily roll out.

A common mistake people make is to create artwork for inner sleeves so that the artwork is the right way up as we look at it on screen. But because the ‘bottom’ of the inner sleeve is in each case the edge nearest the fold, the artwork elements on the front of it need to be rotated 90° clockwise, and those on the back of it should be rotated 90° anticlockwise.

Some record sleeves open at the top. If you’re creating your release like this, its inner sleeve therefore probably needs to open at the side, to protect the record. In this case, the artwork for the inner sleeve should be face up as we view it on screen.

Vinyl record inner sleeve, showing which way up the artwork should be
Make sure inner sleeve artwork is the right way up!

11. Barcode tips

Barcodes are sensitive beasts. They scan best when they’re vector artwork (for instance, Illustrator® files) rather than raster (pixel-based) files (Photoshop®).

For the same reason, they should also be 100% black, rather than CMYK (four-colour) black.

For best results, don’t create barcodes as TIFFs, JPEGs, PNGs, BMPs or any other type of raster files.

If you create/export them so they’re 100% black Illustrator® files, then add them to an InDesign® or Illustrator layout®, you won’t go far wrong!

Barcodes as RGB raster files are OK for general use in warehouses etc, but you’d hate to miss out on a number one chart placing because the barcode on your album sleeve doesn’t always scan reliably!

Supplying album artwork files for print: 100% black vector barcode
For best barcode results, use pure (100%) black vector artwork

12. Printing onto CD faces (the label side)

In graphics software such as InDesign®, Illustrator® or Photoshop®, white essentially means ‘do not print this’, as most items are printed onto white paper.

But CDs (and DVDs/Blu-rays) aren’t white, and nor are they made of paper.

If your CD face design has white elements in it, if you don’t take any further action, the surface of the disc will show through where those elements are. This may be precisely what you want, but it probably won’t be. Designs printed straight onto the reflective surface of CDs and other optical discs generally don’t look very good.

On the one hand, this is because the design isn’t being printed onto an absorbent background, such as paper. Instead, you’re printing onto a reflective surface, which means the ink doesn’t ‘take’ as well – it can’t soak in. The results are weak and partially translucent, rather than bold and opaque.

And on the other, this is because the discs feature banded areas, where their reflectivity, and therefore perceived colour, changes.

The way to fix that is to ask the manufacturer to print your design for the disc face on top of a white base (also called ‘flood’).

This is pretty much standard practice, and is really straightforward if, say, your design features white text on a plain coloured background. In your software, you specify your text as white – meaning no ink is used for it – and the white base, which covers the entire printable area of the disc, takes care of the rest.

Info

Where things get complicated is if you want to print white elements straight onto the disc’s surface, or if your design features elements you want to appear in white, and elements you want to be unprinted (for instance, copyright text around the edge of the disc). In cases like these, you need to create a custom white base. That’s potentially something for another post!

13. Font formats, smoothness and conversion to outlines

With PDF workflows, the days of sending bundles of files – including font files – via ISDN (remember that?!) or email, are long gone. Hooray! But even though fonts now cause fewer problems at the printing stage, there are still a couple of things to consider.

Font format

As with just about any other type of computer files, fonts are available in different formats. Some of these are current, but some are obsolete, or heading towards becoming obsolete.

In the past, PostScript fonts yielded the best printing results, and TrueType fonts were generally to be avoided in projects for commercial printing.

But the OpenType font format is now long-established, and now it’s PostScript’s turn to be heading for the exit. With effect from 2023, Adobe’s Creative Cloud software (InDesign®, Illustrator®, Photoshop® and all the rest) will no longer support PostScript fonts.

To avoid problems in future (such as when repressing your album after you’ve become massively famous), it makes sense to only use OpenType fonts.

Text antialiasing

Letters, numbers and other characters comprise straight lines and rounded parts, in various combinations. If you’re working with text in Photoshop®, so that it will be part of an image, you will need to check your antialiasing settings.

This complicated word just means ‘font smoothing’. Because Photoshop® creates raster (pixel-based) artwork, if no further action is taken, the rounded parts of the various letters and other characters appear jagged, because the pixels used are square.

This text looks awful. Photoshop® can therefore compensate for this by smoothing the rounded parts. Open the character panel: Window > Character, and a menu at the bottom right enables you to choose the type of antialiasing. Some are more subtle than others. Experiment to find which you think looks best. I nearly always use the strong setting, but if I’m not happy with the results, I try the others.

Antialiasing in Photoshop’s character palette
Photoshop® character panel with antialiasing settings, bottom right

To apply antialiasing in Illustrator®, the same instructions apply. Its character panel is opened from Window > Type > Character.

Photoshop text with and without antialiasing
Photoshop® text without antialiasing and with strong antialiasing

Convert text to outlines/paths

This final tip isn’t absolutely essential, but is still worth considering, as it can prevent printing problems.

If you’re creating your artwork files in InDesign® or Illustrator®, consider converting your text to outlines (paths).

To do so, in either program select your text, either with the text tool or one of the selection tools, and choose Type > Create outlines or use the shortcut ⌘ + Shift + O (Windows: Ctrl + Shift + O).

Your text has now been converted to vector outlines, meaning it no longer contains any font information, and therefore presents one less potential problem at the printing stage.

Of course, this also means it is no longer editable, so first copy all the relevant layers in your project, and convert the text on those. You then still have the editable layer should changes become necessary.

Converting text to outlines (paths) in InDesign
Converting text to outlines in InDesign®

13 life-saving tips for supplying album artwork files for print – summary

So: maybe unlucky for some, but lucky for you if these 13 tips on supplying album artwork files for print get you out of a sticky situation and prevent your release being delayed.

Ever been caught out by any of these? Let me know in the comments below!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top