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Custom designed DIY album covers

Custom designed DIY album covers

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my art that I like record albums. I’ve been collecting records since my earliest days of college and they became a natural fit when I began taking photographs of cool things like records, books and toys. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that one of my many “someday” projects would be a set of limited edition prints packaged in a real album cover. How cool would that be?!?!

(No, sorry, no such print set is being announced in this post. But… someday!)

Future plans aside, I recently did have the opportunity to create my own record album cover, and it came out great! So today I’m sharing my experience in a “how to” tutorial for others who may be so inspired to create their own record album packaging.

The Background

Years ago, I sent out an elaborate Christmas card package, which I dubbed, “It’s a Copyright Infringement Christmas!” The package included an 8 1/2 x 11″ card and a 110 minute cassette mix tape of the coolest Christmas music imaginable — Detroit Junior, James Brown, various Motown greats, etc.  I printed all the cassette labels and inserts on a (rare, for the time) color printer, and filled the envelopes with glitter, broken cassette shells, and tangles of audio tape pulled from the destroyed cassettes. The star, though, was the music, as everyone loved the selections I made (said the former college disc jockey with much modesty).

As the years have passed, with cassette players giving way to CD players and iTunes, fewer and fewer people have been able to listen to their hand-picked Christmas collection, but EVERY year since I’ve been encouraged by family and friends to make a new version. “If you ever copy Copyright Infringement Christmas to CD,” they would hopefully plead, “you’ll never have to give me another thing!”

Promising rewards aside, dubbing the collection to CD has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but year after year the project has been pushed way, way off onto a back burner without the time to do the project right — whatever that meant, as I had no idea how I could better the original package by just dumping the music onto CD.

I then realized that I’d made the original tape in 1992, and 2012 would be the 20th anniversary, so…

I  did it!

Where the original had filled both sides of a 110 minute cassette — 55 minutes per side — in the CD era I’d be able to fit 80 minutes of music per disc. Bonus tracks could be at play!

CDs? Dude. No one uses CDs. It’s all about streaming and downloads.

Well, yes, I thought about producing the 2012 version of my illegal Christmas compilation on a USB flash drive, but:

  1. A couple of the recipients (most notably, my parents) don’t use iTunes, iPhones or iPods, and would not know an MP3 from a hole in the ground.
  2. Handing someone a flash drive and saying “Merry Christmas” seemed like a hollow offering.

My plan, then, was to produce a set of 4 CDs. The first two would reproduce the 55 minute A and B sides of the original cassette, while the last two would be loaded to the digital gills with newly discovered (and equally cool) bonus tracks. The discs would be packaged inside an LP-size album jacket, with the CDs mounted on a full color cardboard insert. Rounding out the package would be a limited edition Christmas-themed print suited to the copyright infringing nature of the music.

Got it? Good! Let’s go to work!

Geography of an album cover

In order to design my album cover I first had to figure out how an album cover is constructed. Those of us who grew up around records have the basics: an LP is about 12″ in diameter and fits into a square cardboard sleeve that’s a little bit large. Easy! Take two pictures, glue ’em together, and — voila! — album cover!

Not so fast!

Careful attention to how an album cover is actually laid out and constructed will provide a guideline for generating a design template that can be used for applying art to the front and back covers, as well as the spine you’ll see on the edge when the album is stored on a shelf. Using this template, the cover can be printed on a single sheet of paper, then cut, folded and glued to produce the final sleeve.

Template of an album cover

Template of an album cover

The template for designing an album cover is shown above. Note that the image to appear on the front of the cover is on the right, while the back cover image is on the left. Designed in this manner, if you were facing the album in a sales bin, the spine would be on the left and the record (or in my case, CD tray) would slide out from the right. Virtually all album covers are designed in this way to be consistent and prevent dust from sifting down into the record jacket.

Note
On occasion you’ll see variations on this design, with the jacket opening on the top, or the position of the front and back covers swapped. Usually, these are design mistakes that are sometimes corrected in later pressings of an LP.

The dimensions you see above are as follows:

  • The front and back covers are typically 12 ¾” tall and wide.
  • The top and bottom tabs you see on the back cover are folded over and affixed to the reverse side of the front cover. I chose to use 1″ high tabs, which seemed like a good size to get a good firm seal between the two covers.
  • Plus… the spine. Read on!

Does a record album have to have a spine? Well, no, not really. Vinyl records aren’t very thick and a 12″ LP will usually fit fairly easily into a simple spine-less (ha, ha ha) 12 ¾” sleeve. But that would be boring! After all, don’t we want to see the sideways title of our album when it sits on a shelf squeezed between other records? Sure we do!

Spine detail

Spine detail

So, between the front and back covers we also need to provide a bit of space for the spine, and the spine needs to be wide enough to accommodate whatever we plan to put inside the jacket. For an album that holds a single vinyl LP, the spine is usually 1/8″, varying slightly higher when the packaging also includes a booklet or other inserts. For my project the album needed to hold a CD tray, a limited edition print, and a very thin sheet of protective bubble wrap. I estimated that a spine of 3/16″ would be sufficient.

The image above and to the right is a detail of the spine measurements for my album cover. It is important to understand that an album cover is actually a box construction. So, if we provide a 3/16″ spine running up and down between the front and back covers, we must also provide a  3/16″ margin between the cover and the tabs, effectively forming the “sides” of the box we’re going to construct. The spine and the top margin are illustrated in the diagram.

Color note!
It’s worth noting that I chose to color the tabs dark gray, even though they were to be glued to the reverse side of the front cover. I used the color change as a visual clue when folding the tabs, and the dark gray color was close enough to the margin color (which in turn matched the front color) so as not to be visually distracting if the construction of the “box” was not precise.

Software note!
I used iDraw on my iMac to layout and design the cover you see above. Nice piece of software!

Printing the cover

Once the cover art had been designed it was time to print. Recall that we’re going to be printing everything — front, back, spine, margins and tabs — on a single sheet of paper. How big does that paper need to be? Adding up all the dimensions…

Height = 12 ¾” + 1″ + 3/16″ + 1″ = 14 15/16″
Width = 12 ¾” + 3/16″ + 12 ¾” = 25 11/16″

20 x 30" prints  on Kodak Endura photographic paper

20 x 30″ prints on Kodak Endura photographic paper

Okay, the total dimensions of a flattened album cover are roughly 15 x 26″, and that means we need to print on a big 20 x 30″ sheet of paper — 16 x 30″ if that odd size is offered by your favorite lab. While I suppose it would have been most preferable to print on lightweight cardboard to mimic the stiffness of commercial record jackets, I didn’t have that option, so instead decided to print my covers as 20 x 30″ glossy enlargements through my regular lab, myphotopipe.com on professional grade Kodak Endura paper.

Whoa! 20 x 30″ photo prints? Isn’t that, uh, kind of expensive?

Yes, it is. Making your own album covers is fun and amazing, but definitely not cheap!

Constructing the record album

Once the prints arrived (and after a few days of allowing them to lay flat), I used an X-acto knife and metal L-square to trim away the excess paper, as illustrated in the photo below.

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

On the right is the spine and the front cover, while the back cover, tabs, and top/bottom margins are on the left. Constructing the record album was then simply a matter of making the proper folds and gluing the tabs in place. I found it helpful to make my folds in a set order, with the printed side of the paper face down, and using the edge of the L-square as a sturdy guide to insure that the creases would be straight and square. In all, you’ll need to make 6 sharp, square folds:

  1. Left edge of the front cover where it meets the right side of the spine.
  2. Left edge of the spine where it meets the right edge of the back cover.
  3. Bottom edge of the top tab where it meets the top edge of the top margin.
  4. Bottom edge of the top margin where it meets the top of the back cover.
  5. Top edge of the bottom tab where it meets the bottom edge of the bottom margin.
  6. Top edge of the bottom margin where it meets the bottom of the back cover.

Photo paper is not generally meant to be folded, so — with a ruler or square edge in place along the crease line — go slow, and gently ease the paper up against the edge of your ruler or square edge, using pressure where you want the crease to form. Once a crease is in place along the entire width of where you want to make the fold, remove the straight edge, fold along the crease, and gradually apply pressure until you have a firm, sharp fold that is able to stand up on its own. Remember — photo paper will fight back!

After folds have been made

After folds have been made

Belated trimming tip!
Note in the photo above that the tabs, which were originally designed to be square, have been tapered slightly. This extra bit of trimming is done to allow greater flexibility while gluing, and will prevent any excess paper from from sticking out beyond the edge of the cover.

Ready to be glued!

Ready to be glued!

All that remains is to glue the front cover onto the folded tabs. I used rubber cement for this job, as it doesn’t bubble, provides a good solid bond, and is very forgiving and easily removed should you “over glue.” The tricky part of gluing the tabs is that the tabs are actually inside the cover and sit suspended in air at a height equal to the width of the spine. Yes, this is only an eighth of an inch (or, three 16ths, in my case), but still enough space to prevent a solid seal — especially at the edges — between the tabs and the cover. To workaround this problem I found magazines of the appropriate thickness that could be placed inside the cover and beneath the folded tabs to provide a solid surface upon which the cover and tabs could be glued with sufficient pressure. The magazines also made it easier to “square up” the corners where the cover, spine and top/bottom margins all meet. Once the glue had been applied, and leaving the magazines in place, books were used to weigh down the construction until the rubber cement had completely set.

That’s all there is to it!

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