Ready, Willing, and Label

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the compact disc has become the undisputed hard-copy distribution medium for music. Just look at your

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the compact disc has become the undisputed hard-copy distribution medium for music. Just look at your favorite music store: rows and rows of CDs bristle from gleaming bins, while the cassette tapes languish in a corner. So why are you still sending out your demos on cassette tapes? With the prices of CD-R drives dropping like June bugs in a frost, the time is ripe to join the "big boys" and make the transition to compact disc. CDs have many advantages over cassette tapes, but one important advantage is often underestimated: people perceive CDs as classier and more valuable than cassettes, so CDs offer the opportunity to make a great first impression when you present your demo.

It's important to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, however, by sending out a great-sounding demo that looks like a remnant from an industrial accident. No matter how good your music is, you won't make the best impression if your CD arrives in a cardboard sleeve with program notes written on a scrap of paper and the disc labeled with an old laundry marker. Fortunately, professional-looking CD packaging is no longer reserved for corporate music distributors and large-scale CD replicators. If you have a computer and a color printer, you have all the tools you need to upgrade your image with professional-level CD packaging.

To give you an idea of the tools that are available, we'll look at four popular CD-labeling kits: the CD Stomper Pro (Mac/Win; $39.99), Memorex CD LabelMaker (Mac/Win; $29.95), Neato 2000 (Mac/Win; $29.95), and SureThing CD Labeler (Win; $39.95). We'll also explore several issues regarding CD labeling and packaging. But let's start with the basics.

Here, There, EverywhereTo achieve a fully professional look, you'll need to add labels to three areas of your CD package. The top surface of the disc takes a self-stick label for artwork and text. The bottom and spines of the plastic "jewel" case usually hold a tray card made of lightweight cardboard or heavy paper. The front cover of the jewel case holds an insert of the same material or a booklet with lyrics or other information.

The front-cover insert/booklet or the tray card should always include a list of the CD's tracks along with their corresponding track numbers. Giving the timings for each track adds a nice touch, as well. Be sure to include your phone number (or other contact information, such as your e-mail or Web-site address) on the disc label and on at least one of the jewel-case inserts. Remember to add a copyright notice where appropriate.

Some blank CD-Rs come with a label area imprinted on their top surface, and you might be tempted to label them using a marker pen to save time and effort. Don't: No matter how neat your penmanship, marker-labeled discs have an unprofessional and careless appearance. Even more important, many marker-pen inks contain solvents that might damage some brands of compact discs. If you still choose to use a marker (for archive or other nondistribution discs, for example), consider using a special CD-marking pen such as the TDK CD Writer, which contains a permanent marking ink that is safe for all compact discs.

Some people are reluctant to use paper labels on CDs because they fear that the labels will unbalance the disc and adversely affect playback. That might be a problem if you stick a large return-address-style label on your disc. CD labeling kits, however, use labels that uniformly cover the disc surface and (thanks to some clever alignment gizmos) are perfectly centered. In his article for EMedia Professional, Brad Thompson described some experiments that he performed to test the effects of unbalanced labels on CD-ROM discs. He discovered that using only half of a disc label caused some slight imbalance problems, but even then, playback accuracy was not noticeably affected. Proper application of an entire disc label did not appear to cause any problems.

According to a spokesperson from Stomp, Inc., accelerated aging tests performed on several brands of labels have revealed a problem with disc labels failing to adhere properly to some Maxell CD-Rs. Maxell uses a special coating on its CDs that makes it difficult for the labels to get a long-term grip on the discs. This problem did not occur with other brands of CDs.

Picture PerfectAside from conveying important text-based information, CD labels and jewel-case inserts offer an opportunity to project a personal or musical image through the use of photos, clip art, and other graphic elements. If you're well versed in a graphics program-such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, QuarkXPress, or Adobe PageMaker-you can use it to design and print your labels and inserts. Although these programs can cost a lot and take time to master, they offer the highest degree of control over the final product and provide the only way to achieve fully customizable, pro-level results.

Fortunately, most labeling kits include an assortment of ready-to-use layout templates for creating labels and inserts in popular graphics applications. The templates let you work in your favorite program and print out the results (with proper alignment) on the proprietary label stock supplied with each kit. (Each company sells its own replacement label and card stock.) The labels usually come on standard 8.5 5 11-inch sheets, but some kits also include templates for the metric A4 format. Disc labels typically come two or three to a sheet and may be accompanied by some smaller ancillary labels for miscellaneous uses.

The list of supported programs varies from product to product, and that might steer you toward one kit over another if you must use a particular program. The only labeling kit in this group that provides no assortment of templates for third-party applications is SureThing; it's intended as a stand-alone (and full-featured) one-stop label-making program and includes its own dedicated collection of design templates (see Fig. 1).

The Memorex kit represents the other extreme, offering only third-party templates for the Macintosh. (The package supplies PC users with label-making software.) As if to compensate, the Memorex CD-ROM provides the largest collection of Mac (and PC) templates in this group, including layouts for Microsoft Word and ClarisWorks.

CD Stomper Pro and Neato 2000 set a middle course by offering easy-to-use label-making software along with an assortment of third-party templates. CD Stomper's PC software, an earlier (and modified) version of MicroVision's SureThing CD Labeler program, provides a nice balance between power and user-friendliness. The Mac software is completely different and comes from another developer; its interface stresses quick-and-easy label design but with less versatility than the PC software (see Fig. 2). The Neato kit's MediaFace software, now in Mac and PC versions, offers a good set of standard label-designing tools in a familiar graphics/layout environment.

In case you don't have your own collection of digitized art, all of the labeling kits include an assortment of background art-photos, abstract designs, textures, drawings, and so forth-to use for disc labels and inserts. Most of the images are not ideally suited to musical CDs (the images are intended for a variety of applications, including CD-ROMs, multimedia, corporate presentations, and archiving), but you'll probably still find plenty of artwork to fill your needs. SureThing, Memorex, and CD Stomper Pro supply hundreds of images-photos, drawings, and patterns-and SureThing includes 8,000 clip-art images-far more than the other kits. Neato provides 66 backgrounds (and one "compact disc" logo) in 72- and 150-dpi versions.

SureThing is unique in offering more than 50 fonts with its kit, so you can expand your collection of type styles to jazz up your labels. The other programs rely on the fonts you already have installed. Of course, you can always import graphics from other sources and add new fonts at any time with any of the programs. Keep in mind, however, that different graphics programs handle fonts in different ways; some programs treat blocks of text as bitmapped images, so the final appearance might not be as smooth or clean-looking as possible.

Label LiberationAll the labeling kits in this group include some kind of ingenious contraption for sticking the CD label onto the disc. Neato (originally MicroPatent) got the ball rolling a few years ago with its two-part plastic device that worked somewhat like an automotive clutch-alignment tool. Neato, however, has now joined both Memorex and CD Stomper in offering a one-piece unit that employs a spring-loaded, pistonlike plunger mounted in the center of a smooth circular platform.

Although they all look different, the devices work in essentially the same manner: after printing the label, you peel it off the backing sheet and place it sticky-side-up over the large piston on the circular plat-form. You then place the disc data-side-up on the piston where it rests on a short spindle, suspended over the label. To apply the label, you press the disc down until it makes contact. Bingo! You have a perfectly centered and smoothly applied CD label. These applicators might seem a bit medieval in design, but don't let their low-tech appearance fool you; they work remarkably well, and they can all label a great many discs without a mishap.

CD Stomper is one of my favorites (see Fig. 3). It has a solid feel, a wide base with a low center of gravity, and a nonskid rubber pad covering the bottom, all of which contribute to a good sense of stability. The 1-inch-tall piston holds the disc high enough to avoid accidental contact with the label, and the spring feels smooth with the right amount of resistance. And you can lock the piston down for easier storage.

I also like the Memorex applicator (see Fig. 4). It's taller than the CD Stomper and has a smaller footprint, but the construction feels solid, and the nonskid buttons on the bottom prevent the device from moving during use. The 1.5-inch-tall piston keeps the disc well away from the label, and the extrastrong, extralong plunger spring offers very good resistance and a solid, positive feel. I'd prefer a label platform that was 11/48-inch wider in diameter to better support the edges of the labels, but I have to admit that I encountered no problems when I used it.

The Neato 2000 applicator is much like the CD Stomper Pro, except that it's smaller, flatter, lighter, and lacks the rubber bottom pad (see Fig. 5). Its 31/48-inch-tall piston puts the disc uncomfortably close to the label during use, which could cause a problem if the label suddenly curls. Unlike the CD Stomper and Memorex devices, the Neato 2000 doesn't use a metal spring; instead, it relies on a piece of foam sponge to provide resistance when you press down.

The SureThing kit takes a different approach. Its applicator is built into a CD jewel case and doesn't use springs. You open the case, place the label on one side and the disc on the other, then close the case. The disc and label meet in proper alignment. Although SureThing's device is cleverly designed and the applicator is easy to store, I found it more troublesome to use than the other three. It also provided a less positive feel and its construction was clearly not as sturdy as the others. (According to a MicroVision spokesperson, a newer, sturdier, molded-plastic version of the applicator will be available by the time this issue reaches the newsstands. It's about the same size as the current model and works in a similar fashion. The company plans to offer an upgrade path for current owners.)

Stick 'em UpIn most cases, you can't use the labels from one manufacturer with the label-design software from another, because the positions of the labels on the sheets vary from company to company. After printing your labels, however, you can use most brands of CD labels with any of the applicators in this group. I got excellent results with several different combinations of labels and applicators. Keep in mind that the plunger diameters vary by a very small amount (several thousandths of an inch), so try one or two labels before committing to a large run of discs. If you want to play it absolutely safe, use the same brand applicator and labels.

If you need to have compatibility between your design software and different brands of label stock, consider purchasing the SureThing CD Labeler (see Fig. 6). It's the only kit with software that supports nearly all other brands of tray cards and disc labels currently on the market. In addition to Neato, CD Stomper, and Memorex labels, SureThing works with stock from label giant Avery and others. You can switch from one brand of label stock to another without redesigning your label; the program makes the necessary adjustments automatically.

The most common type of CD label uses a nonglare white paper, but you can also get disc labels in a wide assortment of papers and colors, including glossy white, gold, silver, and transparent. The standard white labels usually cost the least and are often the easiest to work with because they dry quickly.

Printing on precolored labels affects the final color balance of your design, so you'll need to experiment a little. For example, white text or empty spaces take on the color of the background, and light colors blend with darker backgrounds. In many cases, you'll get clearer and brighter results by printing the same colors on a white label instead. On the other hand, colored labels provide users who have noncolor printers the option of adding a colored background to their discs.

Glossy-white labels add a photo-quality finish to a label, but they're more expensive, and they might take a bit more time to dry. Transparent labels also add a professional touch to a CD, but you might have to wait an hour or more for them to dry before applying them. Of course, you can't use a transparent label on a CD-R with a brand name and label area already printed on the top surface of the disc. Another drawback to consider: it's difficult to peel a transparent label from the backing sheet without getting fingerprints on the back (sticky side) of the label. Unless the label is heavily printed, those fingerprints could be visible after you apply the label, so you need to handle transparent labels with extra care.

Now that we've covered the basics of CD labeling, let's take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of each kit.

CD Stomper ProWith a price tag of less than $40, CD Stomper Pro from Stomp, Inc. is quite a bargain. The CD-ROM that comes in the kit includes label-designing software for the Mac and PC along with more than 1,200 images (backgrounds and clip art). Although the PC software (by MicroVision) offers more versatility than the Mac's, the Mac software is a breeze to use, compensating for its other limitations. Expediency is the name of the game with the Mac program: you simply choose a template, select from hundreds of backgrounds, type in some text, and you're done.

The PC software sports a clean and intuitive interface: you can design your label from scratch, or you can start by choosing one of several preset layouts and then one of several variations with different colors and shading. You can import graphics, add or change text, and manipulate the elements in a variety of ways, such as rotating objects or curving and angling text. For more sophisticated productions, Mac and PC artists can use one of CD Stomper's graphics templates in Photoshop, Illustrator, QuarkXPress, PageMaker, CorelDraw, and EPS formats.

Moreover, the CD Stomper Pro applicator is one of the best in this group with its wide, stable base and smooth plunger action. The well-designed platform is solid and totally flat, providing an even surface for pressing the label against the disc. The CD Stomper Pro kit also comes with a generous assortment of labels (far more than any other kit) to get you started, including 50 matte-white CD labels and 10 front-cover and tray-card inserts. Replacements cost $24.99 for 100 standard white CD labels, $29.99 for 40 glossy-white labels, and $19.99 for 50 jewel-case inserts (front and back).

Memorex CD LabelMakerThe Memorex kit is one of the least expensive kits in this group, although it offers one of the best applicators. Unfortunately, it doesn't include a label-designing program for Mac users. Windows users, however, can take advantage of CD LabelMaker's exPressIT software (see Fig. 7) for designing and printing CD labels and jewel case inserts (as well as labels for MiniDisc, Zip, Jaz, floppy disk, audiotape, and videotape).

The design software provides all the basic features for CD-label production, along with several cool tools for altering text and graphics by stretching, flipping, rotating, and deforming selected objects. The software includes hundreds of images, but it offers little in the way of documentation.

The Memorex kit provides the largest number of third-party templates for working with high-end graphics programs on the Mac and PC, and it's the only product in this group that offers CD label templates for Microsoft Word (Mac and PC versions) and ClarisWorks (Mac). Memorex CD labels come in a variety of solid colors and in clear. The kit includes 18 labels in assorted colors (and clear) and one jewel-case insert (top and bottom). Replacements cost $24.99 for 100 standard white CD labels, $34.99 for 100 assorted colors, and $19.99 for 50 jewel-case inserts.

Memorex has made a substantial commitment to the do-it-yourself CD marketplace. Aside from its labeling kit, the company also markets brightly colored jewel cases (in ten-packs with five different colors), blank CD-R and CD-RW media (also in ten-packs), and internal EIDE and SCSI CD-RW drives for PCs.

Neato 2000Neato has been successfully marketing CD labeling gizmos for quite a few years now. The Neato 2000, with a price tag that matches the Memorex kit, uses a newer one-piece applicator much like the CD Stomper and Memorex devices. The Neato applicator, however, is smaller and lighter than its competitors, the plunger feels a bit more "spongy," and the piston seems a tad shorter than it should be. Nevertheless, it gets the job done, and it's quite easy to use.

Neato's earlier CD-Face label-designing software for the Mac has now been replaced by the more robust MediaFACE program (see Fig. 8). It lets you view templates and copy and paste background images (from a collection of 66). A text tool lets you add text on top of the background, and text, clip art, and other objects can be moved, rotated, sized, flipped, and distorted. Standard graphics tools are provided for drawing shapes and layering objects, and palettes are included for changing colors and fill patterns.

Neato's MediaFACE software for the PC lets you import the same 66 background images and add text. You can curve, angle, and rotate the text, and you can easily change its color. Both Mac and PC designers can also use a number of graphics templates for Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDraw, and QuarkXPress.

If you need to label more than just CDs, Neato is worth checking out. The company offers an extensive line of high-quality labels for just about every type of disk and tape cassette imaginable, including MiniDisc, MO, Jaz, DAT, and others. The Neato 2000 kit comes with 12 matte-white CD labels, four glossy labels, two matte-white jewel case inserts, and two glossy-white inserts (front and back). Replacements cost $22.95 for 100 matte-white CD labels; $29.95 for 40 glossy white labels; $14.99 for 20 matte finish jewel case inserts, and $29.95 for high-gloss inserts. Neato also offers gold and silver labels.

SureThing CD LabelerMicroVision's SureThing CD Labeler kit is available only for Windows users, which is unfortunate for Mac users because the SureThing CD Labeler software is the best CD-label design and layout program in this group. Unlike the other kits, MicroVision's CD-ROM provides no templates for third-party graphics programs, and that could be a limitation for professional graphic artists. Nevertheless, most musicians will welcome the powerful, yet highly intuitive, user interface that allows nonprofessionals to produce great-looking, even sophisticated, label designs. What's more, you can design and print a terrific-looking label in a matter of minutes.

SureThing's secret lies in its use of interactive SmartDesigns templates. With its professional designs and layouts, the SmartDesigns feature lets you browse through hundreds of backgrounds and combine them with myriad text styles and arrangements. When you find a layout that suits you, simply replace the generic placeholder text with your own, and you're finished. (The CD Stomper software offers a similar feature, but with fewer options.)

The kit includes 50 fonts and thousands of clip-art images to further enhance your label designs. A Text Effects feature lets you create curved, angled, arched, or drop-shadowed text, and the program provides enough flexibility in other areas to customize your designs in a number of ways.

Although the SureThing CD-ROM has no third-party templates for graphics programs, the label-designing software is unique in offering support for most brands of label stock, so you can use it with labels from other companies or with MicroVision's own labels. On the negative side, the kit includes only ten glossy CD labels (no inserts) to get you started. However, the SureThing kit deserves praise as the only product in this group to include a printed and bound user guide (34 pages).

The SureThing label applicator is arguably the weakest part of the package. Designed around a CD jewel case, it's awkward to use and susceptible to damage. Although it should work fine for an occasional label application, I wouldn't use it for a run of 50 or 100 discs. Clearly, the SureThing software is the main reason that someone would buy this kit. It's an attractive option if you already have a label applicator and simply need better design software.

Replacements cost $17.95 for 100 matte-white CD labels, $24.95 for 50 glossy-white labels, and $19.95 for 50 matte-white jewel-case inserts. MicroVision also markets clear, colored, and metallic labels as well as labels for several other disc, tape, and cartridge formats.

End CutAn old Hollywood axiom states, "It's not how you play the game that counts, but how you look while you're playing." This little adage is typically offered with a tinge of sarcasm, but beneath the surface lies a grain of truth-at least when it comes to CD packaging. After all, getting your demo noticed (in the right way, of course) is half the battle.

The labeling kits we've examined here provide the essential tools for developing and printing artfully designed, eye-catching CD labels and jewel-case inserts. As we've seen, some do it better than others, and each kit has its strengths and weaknesses. But, regardless of which labeling kit you use, it's nice to know that desktop musicians can now join the CD party and not feel underdressed.

Associate Editor David Rubin lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

After you set up your design or graphics software, the process of printing and applying most CD labels is very nearly foolproof. With a little extra care, however, you can maximize your results and minimize the mishaps. Here are ten tips that might improve your end product:

1. Make sure your printer is properly calibrated before printing labels.

2. Always run a test sheet on a piece of plain white paper before you print the labels. Place the test printout on top of a blank label sheet and hold both sheets up to the light to verify that the printed area is exactly where it should be. (This is especially important when working with third-party templates.)

3. Sometimes the die-cut edges of a label are hard to see if you're looking through another piece of paper. If so, save a used label sheet (with the labels removed but the surrounding areas intact) and use that as your alignment sheet. The translucent backing paper lets you clearly see the label edges and how they relate to your test printout.

4. For an alternate approach, simply print out a template if one is provided with your software. Check it against a label sheet to ensure that it is precise.

5. Because there is always some variation in how printers handle each piece of paper, design your labels so that the background pattern or color extends slightly past the edges of the label. This prevents uneven-looking borders and provides a more uniform appearance.

6. Labels should be stored in a cool dry place. For best results, allow 24 hours for the labels to acclimatize before you print on them.

7. After you print your labels, remove them from the backing paper by placing the label sheet face down. Peel a small portion of the label away from the backing and then, while holding the label against the table, gently peel the backing away from the label. This approach minimizes curling of the label, which is especially important with the Neato and SureThing applicators.

8. Avoid touching either surface of the CD before labeling.

9. After you apply the label to the CD, carefully smooth it out by pressing gently with your index finger in a radial pattern, moving from the center outward. The rubber pad on the bottom of the CD Stomper Pro makes an excellent surface for holding the disc as you smooth the label. A clean mouse pad also works well.

10. Depending on atmospheric conditions, the label adhesive might take several hours to set completely. Once you have applied a label, never try to remove it; you might damage the disc.