Your band has recorded your masterpiece, you've gotten the mix right, and everyone is happy. What's the next step? If you plan on using your product as merchandise, you'll need to get it ready to be sold - or as we say in the business, "retail ready". This guide will help you understand your options and prepare your CD project to meet the world.
Mastering. I could devote an entire section to mastering; mastering is what sets commercial recordings apart from home recordings for the most part. However, as software becomes better and cheaper, getting your project mastered is now more attainable than ever. Professional mastering is, quite simply, the careful compression (evening out levels while increasing volume), equalizing (subtracting or adding frequencies for punch & clarity), and performing minor edits such as fade-ins and fade-outs. Some mastering businesses charge as little as $20 per song, but be aware: unless the mastering business offers honest quotes, an accurate and realistic equipment list, and offers references, you might not get what you bargained for. To master on your own, you'll need a software compressor/limiter, like the Waves L3+Ultramaximizer plug-in with presets for mastering; they'll give you a professional result without having to tweak any complicated settings. Once you've gotten your mixed song sounding more commercial, let's look at your other options.
Duplication vs. Replication. If you're ready to press less than 1000 copies, you need to look into duplication. Duplication is less expensive in short runs and is done using CD-R discs, much like you use in your home computer. The printing quality on the discs is rarely as good as the silk-screened artwork on replicated orders, but certainly usable. You'll expect to pay somewhere around $2 to $4 per disc this way, including the jewel case, printing, and shrink wrap/bar code. Expect to pay more if your order is smaller than 1000.
Replication is for large-run orders of 1000 or more. This process involves the actual manufacture of the discs with the material pre-recorded onto it; the cost of doing so isn't practical in quantities less than 500. Both replication and duplication offer stunning quality at affordable prices.
Distribution. Once you've got your copies made, it's time to sell it. In order to distribute your music, you need to find a distributor - a company that will sell your CD in exchange for a set fee. Some of these companies offer many value-added services including credit card terminals to carry to shows, placement on music services such as iTunes and MusicMatch, and promotional items and publicity. The first step in finding a good distributor is simple: if they require more than a small set-up fee to get started, they're probably not an honest business. A small, nominal setup fee is common to help defray the costs of stocking your CD, but paying for more than that isn't fair. You can still turn a healthy profit this way if you promote your release well. Check with other bands on who they use; you might be surprised at what you find out, and you too can have a distributor set up for your band's recording.