Making Your First CD? on a Budget

Making a CD of your voice is easy; making a good one is not. This article will carry you, the performer, through the process from my point of view as a producer of such discs. My hope is to help the budget-constrained singer produce a first disc.

There are four steps in creating your first CD: Preparation, Production, Reproduction and Editing, but not in any particular order.

Production

A producer’s ideal scenario begins with materials ready for use–complete, playable, needing no correction and cued for the tracks on the CD. In that case, production is very simple and inexpensive. Your source (cassette, DAT, videotape or whatever) is transferred in digital form to a computer. The tracks are separated and recorded (burned) to a CD-R (CD-Recordable) disc in a drive which looks for all the world like an ordinary computer CD-ROM player. A one-hour master may take 90 minutes to transfer to the computer and 30 minutes per copy to burn. The result will be like any CD, but it will not have a professional look and may not work well in a car stereo or some other CD players.

Now, there are two approaches to having your CD-R producedpay an experienced producer or get it done free by someone who wants to learn how. Do not pay a novice to learn at your expense as there are some traps into which a beginner may fall. An ‘experienced’ producer can show you a CD he has made that looks and sounds professional (the cost of adding CD-R capability to a modern computer is about $500 and the cost of each blank is in the range of $2-$5).

Preparation

Preparation is basically your job. To the extent that the producer is involved the time and cost increase dramatically. First, you must be aware that the quality of the CD will not be better than that of your source. Things can be done to make it seem betterequalization, balancing dynamics, de-noising and so onbut they can be expensive.

First, assemble your materials. That means original source recordings in their various formats. Figure out exactly what you want to use and what order it will be in. It is better to have fewer fine selections than to pad the disc.

Second, check with your producer to ensure that all of your media are readable for his computer. For example, I can handle almost all magnetic media (full-, half- and quarter-track open reel, cassette, four- and eight-track cartridges but not El Cassette), but would rely on you for mini disc and DAT; videotape is also a good medium even for audio, but confirm that the producer can play PAL, SECAM or a variant NTSC format if needed. You do not want to transfer your source material to make the master if you can avoid it, since that step will cost quality in the finished disc.

Third, make the play list obvious and unambiguous for the producer. Suppose that your sources are several cassettes. Play each through, noting the start and stop times of each selection on each tape. Then choose the selections you want and their order, sum the duration and allow for the space you want between tracks. Make a list of the tracks and the sources with timing information and annotations, such as “Fade out applause after two seconds.” Make a copy on tape of the disc as you want it to sound with an audible mark where you want the track to change. (One way to create that audible mark is to record separately a click or a clap. Copy that sound in between selections.)

Reproduction

You should have your producer create two copies of your CD for youone to keep and one to send out for reproduction. You will want bulk reproduction for three reasons: economy, reliability and professionalism. The cost of CD-R blanks is not much greater than that of pressed discs, but each takes 30 minutes or so to produce and ties up costly equipment. Reliability comes in two flavors: the pressed CD is more durable than the CD-R and it plays on almost everything. A pressed disc looks professional in ways that no CD-R can; to that extent, it presents you as a pro, just as a professionally-reproduced demo tape conveys a different message than one you run off yourself.

One way to have your discs reproduced is at a facility which makes CD-R copies in quantity. That solution is economical for a few dozen copies, but becomes more expensive by the time you need a hundred or so and delivers discs which are neither as reliable nor as polished in appearance as those which are pressed. Your producer should know of such reproduction facilities and be able to steer you to one or more if that’s your choice.

However, I recommend that if you’re serious about singing professionally, you bite the bullet and have the discs pressed. The cost is about $1.60 each for 500or $1.00 each for a 1,000. At a buck apiece, you will want to pass the discs out liberally.

The process of reproducing CD’s is complex and is usually handled by a broker. Your producer may recommend one, but recognize that reproduction need not be local and that the most important factor in selecting a reproduction agent is that you can communicate easily. Although I live in Los Angeles, I use a broker in Ohio whom I have never met. We correspond regularly through e-mail and conventional mail with an occasional telephone call when timing is critical. Since I’m pleased with his service, I recommend him by name:Digital Bim, 933 Sells Ave., Columbus, OH 43212, (614) 481-9355, digibim@infinet.com

I receive no kickback for those I recommend, but he and I would both appreciate it if you mention my name when you contact him.
Note that the costs cited above are representative for bare discs with two-color silk screening. Shrink wrapping in a jewel case with a tray card and an insert can add a dollar or more to the cost of each disc. I receive most of mine bare and “package” them in cardboard mailers at about 20 cents each. The printing on the disc itself covers most of my needs; a custom printed cardboard sleeve could be used as an economical alternative to the jewel box.

Editing

Editing your source to produce your final CD can be trivial or overwhelmingor anything in between. Both analog and digital tools can be used to reduce noise, emphasize voice, even change pitch or tempo without altering the other. But a great deal of skill, hardware, software and time may be needed to accomplish those feats. In many cases, you will want to participate in the process: How much noise do you want to take out and what cost will you pay in overtone quality? Is that semitone rise in pitch really worthwhile? What is the right loudness for “O del mio amato ben” compared with “Ho jo to ho”?

There is no easy way out of editing in the real world. In an extreme case–perhaps a home video of your finest performance–you may want to make a cassette copy yourself with corrections. Or you may choose to change the order of selections so that poorer sound quality is acceptable in the context you create. However, if you want to produce the best result from inferior sources, expect to spend time and money, and to get to know your producer very well indeed.

Making your first CD can be easy and economical. You must resist the temptation to overproduce it, to perfect the timing to a fraction of a second, and otherwise to polish the disc. And even after you’re rich and famous, you can look back at your beginnings with pride.