Art of the LP: Making The Album Cover (Literally)

Photo by Oliver Wang.

When I began researching my story on LP covers shot in Los Angeles, I hit up Chris Portugal (aka People Under the Stairs's Thes One) because I know he has a soft spot for local L.A. records. Portugal replied via text, "sorry I didn't get back, I'm spread really thin right now. Trying to manufacture the first suede album cover." That seemed like too good a story not to follow up on and a few weeks later, I found myself sitting down with Portugal and Jennifer Freund, owner/operator of Dorado Music Packaging in North Hollywood.

We circled a conference table strewn with album jackets of different styles and material and I realized how much I had taken the physical album cover for granted. When people think about "album cover art," they're usually focused on the image on the cover: the photograph, the illustration, etc. But the cover/jacket itself - as a physical object - is also a product of creative, artistic processes.

For example, even on the most "ordinary" cover, the cardboard that goes into the construction begins as a single, flat piece to be cut, scored, folded and glued in such a way to create a unitary "jacket" to protect the vinyl record. Moreover, is the cover image physically printed onto the cardboard (aka "direct-to-board")? Or was it printed on paper and then glued-on (aka "tip-on")?

Most record jackets manufactured before the 1980s were tip-ons but direct-to-board has since become the norm. As Freund explains, "if you go to old record stores, you'll see that [tip-ons] have trouble keeping them together. It's really just one piece of paper wrapping around and with the vinyl inside, it creates tension. The direct-to-board is a faster process and a less expensive process."

But here's the thing: since paper has a different texture than cardboard, a tip-on cover literally feels differently than a direct-to-board. As if to prove this point, Freund hands me a recent commission: the CD covers for the new Nick Waterhouse album. They are tip-on covers - an unusual choice since the vast majority of CD covers have always been direct-to-board. But strangely, even though I knew I was holding a CD jacket, it felt like I was holding an LP; the texture of the paper, the seam where the paper is glued to the cardboard underneath, were all intensely, viscerally familiar. An artist requesting a tip-on cover is deliberately choosing a slower, more expensive process but they know their choice produces small subtleties that factor into how the consumer literally experiences the record.

Torn tip-on | Photo by Oliver Wang.

Especially for Dorado, which sets itself up as both a high volume and boutique press, their clients often come to them with a range of manufacturing challenges in order to achieve their artistic visions. Case in point, the cover of People Under the Stairs's last album, 2010's Highlighter. Portugal laughs, "I literally walked in here and I said, 'I wanna do something that's never been done before.'"

The trick though is that the album's packaging - while intensely elaborate - wasn't meant to be in-your-face flashy. Instead, the innovations that Dorado implemented were largely ones that enhance the package's aesthetics without simultaneously waving them in your face. For example, Highlighter is ringed with a band of paper, known as an obi after the Japanese term for "sash." Normally, this band is easy to produce; it's just a strip of paper wrapped and glued around an album. The challenge is that Portugal didn't want it glued since that meant, once broken, the obi wouldn't be resealable. Instead, Dorado sheared (i.e. die-cut) small notches on each side of the band, that intersected like a belt. "Who would care, right?" Portugal asked rhetorically, and then answered, "it's these little things, like the fact that you can actually take it apart and put it back together, that are huge design [features]."

Highlighter also required special fluorescent ink to be mixed, just for the cover lettering. (it glows under ultraviolet light). The exterior jacket material, which looks and feels like cardboard, is actually a tip-on;  "the material was different than paper we ever tried to wrap on anything before," said Freund. The interior of the gatefold (double) cover also required an entirely different kind of paper which, in turn, required another custom ink to print with.

Image: Courtesy of Piecelock 70.

Even Dorado has its limits; the obi features cut-out stencil lettering for the album title but as Freund explained, "you can't punch out those little letters and have them hold. That has to be laser cut." That meant Dorado had to send out the obis to another factory to be laser-cut, then bring them back to finish the manufacturing process in-house (which included the notch-cuts in the back, plus a difficult, double-foil stamp process that Dorado hadn't attempted before). Freund pointed to the cover, "it looks so clean and simple, doesn't it? These are very complicated and difficult things to do." (As it is, Dorado and Highlighter won a 2012 "Best of Special Innovation Printing Award" from the Printing Industries Association of Southern California.)

Photo by Oliver Wang.

We walk to the back of the shop, where the actual printing takes place. In a time where clean, minimalist design dominates, it's obvious that Dorado's herd of Heidelberg printing presses were built in a very different era. Relics of the 1960s and '70s, they can be huge, lumbering machines - some the size of a small RV - and while they're built for high-volume output, they feel more "brute force" than "sleek efficiency." As we stand in a side room, Freund shares, "they actually shot an episode of CSI in here," pointing to a jet-black Heidelberg machine that made a background cameo in one brief scene.

Photo by Oliver Wang.

While the Heidelbergs were set up for mass production, today's packagers need to find ways to streamline their operations to take advantage of the growth in boutique labels and record projects. Back when vinyl was the primary recording medium, packaging plants dealt in units that began in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Any kind of smaller run required a custom job which, at the time, usually meant a generic cover chosen from a catalog with the artist name and album title stamped on.

In contrast, today, a plant like Dorado can run off a few hundred units if a client prefers. Freund notes that most of their smaller orders tend to either be for 500 or 1000 but increasingly, clients are ordering 2000 units, a sign she says that vinyl is making a comeback (albeit tiny compared to other recording formats): "we've seen a growth in the number of people, and the number of bands wanting to produce their own vinyl. We've got a lot of young people whose dream it is to be on vinyl."

As for the suede cover that Portugal wanted to get made, it's for Palm Spring's DJ Day and his upcoming album. However, as it turned out, animal hide is too difficult to adapt for mass production since its stretch and give interferes with the wrapping and gluing process. Instead, he and Dorado found an alternative: "a latex-impregnated paper with an acrylic polyurethane surface coating" which will provide both the look and texture of leather grain. When I asked why Portugal would go through this much trouble, even with a willing partner in Dorado, he thought for a moment and replied, "especially in our field and in our genre of music, people have really stopped caring about everything. There's a general sense of, 'well, I'll put it on Youtube and we'll send you the MP3s.' So I felt like going overboard with the packaging and the care. It's actually part of the record, the design."

Photo by Oliver Wang.

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Top Photo: By Oliver Wang.

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