Album Cover Design 101

Album Cover Graphic Design 101


If you are anticipating designing your own album cover, we must assume that you have artistic ability, basic design experience, some fairly sophisticated computer skills and an array of expensive computer hardware and software… If you are not already at this level, it’s unlikely that the information contained here will be adequate to prepare you for the task at hand.

While at one time it was essential that your design be created on a Mac computer, today most professional design software such as QuarkXpress and the Adobe Creative Suite is available for either Mac or Windows, and files can be opened cross-platform. In particular, printable PDF files that are now used for most direct-to-plate off-set printing, resolve many of the previous cross-platform issues.

However, all designs for CD covers that will be processed using commercial offset printing techniques, involve many issues that differ greatly from the basic technical skills needed to create an office newsletter or even a complex webpage.

A clear understanding of graphic colour systems (CMYK, PMS, RGB etc.) file formats (EPS, TIF, JPG, PSD etc) image resolution (72, 300, 600ppi/dpi) line screens (ie. 85, 133, 150 line) as well as how computer programs deal with vector and raster images (just for starters) is essential to ensure that you are ready to embark on a new adventure as an amateur graphic designer.

In order to assist you in assessing the requirements for CD (or other music products such as DVD) cover art, we have provided a brief description of the manufacturing process and some of the many terms that you will encounter, and need to understand.

There is still no substitute for having a trained graphic designer using a Mac – such as the staff at Summit Sound – handle all the design & technical aspects of your cover layout, using all the proper software and tools of the trade.


Summit Sound offers complete professional creative design services to ensure your job is done correctly the first time. We have the latest hardware and software and experienced staff who design music product covers every day. Our rates are very competitive, and all of our packages offer our design services as a very affordable option.

Clearly not everyone with a computer is a graphic designer, and recognizing this can save you a great deal of expense and needless stress. If you are not certain that you fully understand this process it is probably best to leave the technical details of your cover design to the professionals at Summit Sound.


Some customers may wish to supply their own cover design files. Any professional graphic designer should be able to easily download our design templates and design guidelines. If you are not a professional designer,  but still wish to attempt this, be sure you FULLY understand ALL requirements listed here and follow all guidelines provided. If unsure about any step in the design process, call us for advice BEFORE you proceed…. On the other hand don’t consider it a sign of weakness if this process is beyond your technical or artistic abilities.

There is much more to this process than most people think, and recognizing when to turn the technical details of your design over to a professional can often actually save you money.


Direct-to-plate CD/DVD cover print is created from high resolution CMYK – PDF files at 300 dpi resolution with all text and images embedded. If you are unable to export from your design software to a printable hi-res PDF of your final layout, convert all colours to CMYK, embed all text and save the final image as TIF or EPS… Summit Sound can then pre-flight your files and create printable PDFs for approximately $60.


All CD covers (and similar products including magazine covers etc.) are printed using the “process colour” “4 colour” or “CMYK” standard, which are all different names for the same process that uses 4 primary colours (CYANMAGENTAYELLOW & BLACK…ie. CMYK – (the “k” stands for black) to create a finished full colour image. Today, images to be printed on a 4 colour press using this CMYK process are separated into these 4 primary colours by computer software.


Since computer monitors use a colour process known as RGB to display colour, when you supply design files to a commercial offset printing company, all colours and all images (spot colours, photos etc) will need to be converted from RGB to CMYK before saving and exporting as a printable PDF. Some CMYK colours can not be accurately rendered in RGB on your screen and some colours you will see on your RGB computer monitor cannot be perfectly matched in CMYK.

Since RGB files absolutely cannot be used when your job goes to press, any files accidentally supplied in the RGB format will need to be converted to CMYK by you, or incur extra cost for conversion to CMYK by us.


Process or CMYK colour printing is also known as 4 colour printing since the letters C-M-Y-K each represent one of the 4 primary colours used on the press to create full-colour images. This may help you understand why you will see CD cover graphics described using terms such as 4/0 – which simply means full colour on the front with no printing on the reverse or back. 4/1 – printing (standard to some CD and DVD covers) means full colour on the front with back ink only on the reverse or back. 4/4 – means the cover would be printed full colour on both front and back. Costs may vary with each of these 3 options.


If you have never designed graphics for professional CMYK output, you need to be aware that what you see on your computer monitor can be VERY misleading, and since most printers use a colour management system to ensure that what you print matches your screen (even if your screen is improperly calibrated) so doing a colour print-out can even add to the deception and thus your confusion. This is why it is important to reference all created colours to a standard (printed) CMYK colour guide on which you will see colour swatches printed with the CMYK values that you can then manually enter for each colour you wish to create… Always believe this chart and not your screen. For any important photo images you might also consider using a service bureau to scan your photos. If using images from a digital camera always shoot these at maximum resolution and then convert the final cropped version’s resolution (downward) to 300dpi. NEVER attempt to convert lower resolution images (under 300dpi) upward to 300dpi as this will pixelate the images (it makes them blurry). Always supply a colour print-out along with any supplied digital design files, as this will alert us to potential problems should we find that the TRUE colour output of your file does not match your printed version. If you supply digital files only without a printed proof, we have no reference point, as our computer displays are likely to be calibrated very differently than yours.


Before your files can go to press they must either “rip” to an image setter and be output to negative film with colour key proofs (for disc imprint films), OR be saved as a hi res printable PDF file and sent to a press with direct-digital imaging capability (for CD cover printing). Our CD & DVD cover printing bypasses the traditional “negative film & colour key proof” stages that used to be common, and PDF design files are now transferred digitally to a press that utilizes the latest “direct-to-plate” imaging technology. This change in the production process has reduced pre-press software issues and costs for colour (CMYK) printing significantly.


Cover printing for music or similar products (CD, DVD etc.) is a very specialized process done by a “handful” of specialty printers who create nearly 100% of all such covers that are printed. These printers will require that your cover design come to them formatted to industry standards. Due to the volume of work that these specialty printers do, it is nearly impossible for any normal print shop to compete with the pricing these cover print specialists offer, as they can print several dozen covers “ganged” on a large sheet and then divide costs between all customers. They create this “specialty” printed product according to very stringent guidelines required by CD/DVD manufacturers who will ultimately use automatic packaging equipment to assemble the finished product. Each product such as CD, DVD etc. have different requirements for the actual stock (paper/card) to be used, including weight, material and coatings on that stock. Even the “grain direction” of the stock and size of scores or spaces between perforations is critical. If for any reason a client’s “supplied” printed covers do not meet industry specifications, they will require manual insertion which itself, can cost double what the specialty printers charge to print a standard CD cover, which would normally be packaged automatically at no additional charge. For this reason it is not recommended that you attempt to use covers from a non-specialty printer. Colour copies or laser printed covers are not usable except for “short-run” products.


Since your cover printing is most likely to be done by a music specialty printer (so it will meet the automatic packaging requirements of CD manufacturers… see above) you must provide your design to the printer’s exact specifications to avoid disaster with the finished product. The graphic and print industry use specific hardware and software to ensure standardization and quality control. 

Should you choose not to use the professional design serves we offer at Summit Sound, your supplied design files must be created in a format that is compatible with industry standards or you will face substantial additional costs to have the required changes made.

You must ensure proper resolution and sizing of all images, conversion of all colours to CMYK and will also need to add appropriate image bleeds and crop marks for trimming. Finally you must convert your layouts to hi-res printable PDF files so they can go direct-to-plate. (more details on all of this below).


Good for photos – Not so good for text or illustration. 

Raster images created by programs such as Adobe Photoshop (and ideal to render photographs) are made up of pixels.(tiny little squares) In Photoshop, these pixels are mapped to a grid to create complete images. A 300 pixel per inch (ppi or dpi-dot per inch) one inch square image would then be made up of 300 tiny squares (or pixels) The more pixels an image starts out with, the higher it’s resolution and the larger it can be rendered with clarity. You can successfully reduce the size of a raster image and still maintain it’s clarity, but attempting to enlarge this type of image will decrease it’s resolution and result in either the reduction of image size or a loss of image clarity. Therefore, increasing image size decreases image resolution. If for example to you were to make a 4″ square web image (which is 72 dpi) into a 300 dpi image for print, in order to maintain the same clarity or resolution, it would reduce image size to approximately 1/4 or about 1″ square. Resampling that same 72 dpi image in Photoshop to 300 dpi, but attempting to maintain it’s size at 4″ square will remap the pixels, but results in a very fuzzy looking photo as each pixel from the original 72 ppi image is now 4 times larger in the re-sampled 300 ppi version… so the resolution is 1/4 of what it originally was… and is not usable. The other problem with rasterized images that contain text, is that the text will be rendered with less clarity as it becomes pixilated (so rounded edges become jagged). The smaller the text that gets rasterized, the greater the problem with clarity.


Good for text and illustration – Not so good for photos. 

Vector images created by programs such as Adobe Illustrator, (and ideal for text or illustration) are not made with pixels. (as Photoshop’s raster images are) Illustrator graphics are comprised of mathematic equations called vectors. These are ideal for text and illustration, as vector graphics can be infinitely re-sized without any danger of image degradation. Fonts can also be successfully converted to curves using programs such as Illustrator, and rendered in a vector format. Unfortunately vector based software does not render photographs as well as raster based software.


Cover designs should be created using page layout software such as QuarkXPress (or InDesign).

While it is possible to do a complete cover design in a program such as Photoshop, you need to understand that because Photoshop rasterizes (which is ideal for photo images) it is not the best choice for text, as it makes edges less sharp when they are pixilated by the software. On the other hand, a program such as Adobe Illustrator which creates vector images (and is thus ideal for text and drawings) does not process photo images as well as raster based programs like Photoshop.

This is why professional designers use page layout programs such as QuarkXPress (or InDesign) for layout, as it allows them (for example) to combine both raster (photo) images from Photoshop and vector images (illustration/text) from Illustrator ensuring the best possible end result.

We do have clients who provide complete designs in Photoshop, or Illustrator with “reasonable” results, but you need to understand that this is not going to yield the best result.

Doing your design entirely in Photoshop will optimize photos but compromise (especially smaller) text. Conversely, doing a complete design in Illustrator (or exporting to Illustrator) will optimize your text/illustrations but may compromise photos…

This is why we highly recommend that you take advantage of our Summit design services, (or employ the services of another professional designer) who can create your design using the correct software tools, with a full understanding of the complexities involved, when files will be printed by a commercial offset printer on a 4 colour (CMYK) press. Doing your cover in a proper page layout program, so that you can combine any vector (Photoshop) and raster (Illustrator) images is the proper and most reliable way to create a design for professional output to CMYK print.


Page layout programs such as Adobe “InDesign” – in our experience, are less reliable than QuarkXpress. We routinely see issues with missing or hidden layers when converting InDesign files to hi-res printable PDF, so it is critical that any supplied InDesign files be flattened and rasterized before converting to PDF.

Should you opt to create your design using Adobe “InDesign” be sure to note this when you send us your PDF files, so that we can double check for technical issues, before we go to press.


Once you have created your design and converted files to printable PDF – always re-open the final PDF files using “Adobe Acrobat Reader” and double check to ensure everything has been rendered correctly, that all layers, colours and text is there, and also that any invisible layers are not visible.


CDs usually have the front surface of the CD imprinted. The design may be as complex or as basic as the disc imprinting process will allow. Our CD packages typically include Summit Sound creating 1 to 4 disc imprint films with 1 to 4 colour disc imprinting, but up to 6 colour imprinting is available at additional cost. Colours for the disc imprint are created using Pantone or PMS colours (NOTE:this can differ from the usual CMYK colour requirement for cover printing although with 4 colours (full colour) you can use CMYK too) but we will need to create 1 positive right reading emulsion side up film for each colour used. If you want a white background behind your disc image (to make the image printed on your silver CD appear as it does on white paper… (instead of as it would look printed on a silver mirror) we need to create an extra film to print a solid white base behind your design (this would also be considered an extra colour)


If creating your own disc imprint films and there are photos or other halftone images on your CD imprint, you must have your service bureau output your films with a 100 line screen using an elliptical dot. Summit Sound can provide complete disc design and/or film services as required, however, disc design services may be at additional cost on some packages.

For More information on Summit Sound’s Design Services visit the “Graphic Design” page on this website.

Summit Sound also provides a free consultation service on your supplied cover design and can recommend the proper route to take (along with complete cost estimates) to ensure a professional finished product.

If you have any questions call us toll free at 1 800 403-9755 or E-mail us.

Summit Sound Inc, 184 McAndrews Rd. P.O. Box 333, Westport, ON K0G 1X0.