Label Enablers

In an ideal world, every musician would have professionally printed, slick-looking labels for the CDs and DVDs they record. But the reality is that when
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In an ideal world, every musician would have professionally printed, slick-looking labels for the CDs and DVDs they record. But the reality is that when you're producing only a small run of discs, it's often not feasible — either economically or logistically — to go the pro route for your disc labeling.

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FIG. 1: This CD was printed on a Primera Signature Z1, an inexpensive thermal-based disc printer that lets you print type and simple graphics on standard discs.

What other options do you have? You can hand label your discs with the ubiquitous Sharpie, but unless you're System of a Down, that won't make for a very professional presentation. You can also print out adhesive-backed labels. But even though today's color printers can produce great-looking labels, the tedious process of applying them one at a time, and the risk of them coming loose, renders that approach less than perfect.

Recently some new disc-printing methods have emerged for DIY disc labeling. They include inexpensive thermal and ink-jet printers that print directly onto discs, and a technology called LightScribe, which uses the same laser that burns the data to etch images into the disc's opposite side.

Going Thermal

Thermal-based printers such as the Primera Signature Z1 ($139.95) and the Casio CW-75 ($149.99) let you add type and simple graphics to standard lacquer-surface discs. Although it's only a one-color process, the print quality is clean (see Fig. 1). It's far better than the felt-tip look, and more reliable than a label.

Thermal printing looks acceptable on most off-the-shelf media but works best on blank-surface discs. Both the Signature Z1 and the CW-75 connect to your computer, and the CW-75 has a built-in keyboard for quick-and-dirty standalone operation. Both have ribbons that come in black, blue, red, and green. Signature Z1 ribbons cost about $20 each, and CW-75 ribbons cost less than $10. Blank-surface media sells for around $50 for 100 CD-Rs or 50 DVDs.

Here Come the Jets

Several manufacturers make ink-jet printers that print directly onto discs. You burn the data separately in a suitable drive and then feed your completed CD or DVD through the printer. You can print only one disc at a time, and the cost of ink cartridges can escalate quickly. This is especially true if you print full-color graphics that have high ink coverage (that is, that require a lot of ink per disc printed). Manufacturers usually rate their printer's ink usage based on 5 percent coverage estimates, which are much lower than those for typical CD-cover graphics. Therefore, you should expect to use more ink per page than what those estimates indicate.

The Epson Stylus Photo R200 ($99) prints up to 20 discs per hour (its “throughput”) at an impressive 5,760 × 1,440-dpi resolution. A special plastic caddie moves a single disc through the printer. (The R200 doesn't allow for unattended printing of multiple discs.) It features a 6-color ink palette (cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, and black), and cartridges cost about $13 for each color cartridge and $18 for black.

The Epson Stylus Photo R800 ($399.99) prints up to 25 discs per hour at the same resolution as the R200, using the same single-disc tray. The R800 features an 8-color ink palette (cyan, magenta, yellow, red, blue, black, matte black, and a gloss optimizer). The ink cartridges list for $15 each. This printer has a very fine ink-jet that produces stunningly photo-realistic output, and it's ruggedly built for extended, heavy-duty work.

Primera's Signature Z6 ($1,495) prints at up to 4,800 × 1,200 dpi in six colors (the same as the Epson R200) and uses two high-capacity ink cartridges that cost $60 each. The Z6 uses a tray similar to an optical drive to load the disc for printing, and requires manual intervention to swap out media. However, the Z6 can be part of an automated duplication system.

Seeing the Light

HP's LightScribe technology offers a novel twist. First, burn your latest opus onto a disc in a LightScribe-enabled drive. Once it's done, flip the specially formulated disc over, and the same laser burns your graphics into the label surface. Because you must burn and then print one disc at a time, extended runs are labor intensive. LightScribe technology is also not particularly fast. For example, HP estimates that a full label can take up to 28 minutes to print at Best quality.

The good news is that no ink is involved. Text and graphics are laser etched in gray scale using the color of the disc itself. Another bonus is that LightScribe discs can be preprinted and then added to later. For example, preprint your band logo on a bunch of discs and then customize them later with the disc's title and contents.

LightScribe-enabled optical disc drives (both internal and external) are available from companies such as Alienware, BenQ, HP, LaCie, and Medion. Internal LightScribe CD/DVD drives range from $90 to $160, and the HP 640VE external LightScribe CD/DVD writer sells for around $140.

The format requires LightScribe-compatible media that uses a microthin coating on the label side to absorb laser light and trigger an image-producing chemical reaction. Manufacturers BenQ, HP, Imation, Maxell, Memorex, Philips, TDK, and Verbatim all market suitable media. LightScribe costs about twice as much as standard media.

The Aleratec DVD/CD Copy Cruiser Pro LS ($429) is a single-disc LightScribe duplicator. The company's 1:4 DVD/CD Tower Publisher LS ($1,049) produces four DVD/CD copies simultaneously. Both models require manual intervention to load, flip, and unload the discs.

Duplication in the Nation

A few companies offer standalone disc-publishing solutions that combine burning and printing in compact, desktop-size packages. With CD and DVD options and ink-jet technology, longer runs are possible and more affordable due to automated, unattended printing on up to 200 discs.

Disc Makers' Elite2 ($2,490) uses two drives and has a 175-disc capacity with a maximum throughput of 24 CDs per hour and 15 DVDs per hour. The throughput increases if you're not filling up the disc. The company's Elite4 ($4,290) holds 200 discs and does 30 CDs per hour and 20 DVDs per hour.

The Primera Bravo II Publisher (CD-R, $2,195; DVD±R/CD-R, $2,695) uses a robotic arm to move discs between the burner and printer and has a 50-disc capacity. It combines the aforementioned Z6 printer and a burner in a desktop unit. The BravoPro Disc Publisher (CD, $3,495; DVD±R/CD-R, $3,995) holds 100 discs and burns multiple discs at once.

The Rimage 360i ($2,495) handles 25 discs, burning and printing them individually. The Rimage 2000i (CD, $3,495; DVD, $3,995) has a larger, 100-disc capacity and burns or prints two discs at once. It's designed for heavy-duty operation. Rimage claims that the 2000i can output 35 to 40 CDs per hour (assuming full 700 MB capacity and color printing) and 12 to 15 DVDs per hour (4.7 GB and color). Lower-capacity projects should yield higher throughput. (For links to the manufacturers mentioned in this story, see Web Clip 1.)

The Write Choice

So how do you decide which, if any, of these options work for your disc-labeling needs? If you're just doing short runs, such as for demos or for handing out or selling at gigs, then a single computer and either an integrated LightScribe drive or a separate ink-jet or thermal printer will serve you well. Your costs per disc will be reasonable, although your time investment may be rather high. You won't need a large cash outlay to get started.

When your quantity needs go up, the automated burner-and-printer combinations become more attractive. They are expensive initially, but your costs per disc and time invested will be less in the long run. What's more, in-house duplication could be a decent revenue generator for a studio.

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Taking the do-it-yourself approach has several associated costs. One is the cost of the media itself. Ink-jet-printable white or silver 525 CD-Rs cost in the neighborhood of 50¢ each in quantities of 100. The price goes down in larger quantities and with slower write speeds (for example, 485 discs cost around 35¢). White or silver 165 DVD-Rs typically cost between 80¢ and 90¢ each per 100. Then there's the often unpredictable and potentially high cost of ink when using thermal or ink-jet processes. You never really know what will be required until you start making your discs. Third, there is the cost of the printing device itself and its ongoing maintenance.

To those costs, add the fees for other packaging. CD jewel boxes cost about a dime each in quantity, and DVD-style cases hover around a quarter each for 100. Don't forget about the cost to print CD or DVD booklets and covers, CD jewel-case tray cards, and DVD inserts. Shrink-wrapping can add to the cost, too. And make sure you factor in the costs of discs that don't burn correctly or have printing errors. Finally, your time is valuable, and printing solutions that are more labor intensive cost you more.

Depending on the quantities of discs you're printing, you might forget the idea of burning and printing the discs yourself and instead get it done professionally. If your needs are in the 100- to 500-disc neighborhood, consider short-run duplication services. They give you a reasonable per-unit cost, great packaging, and a minimal investment of time and money. For example, at press time, Eastco Multi Media Solutions advertised a 100-CD package with a full-color cover, 4-panel inserts, and shrink-wrap for $249. ELS Productions offered a demo package with 100 CDs in jewel cases with monochrome printing (black, red, or blue) for $150.

Once your needs exceed 1,000 discs, it makes sense to go with professional CD replication, which typically includes pro-quality labeling. The per-unit costs plummet dramatically as quantities go up.