Guides/Scanning Cover Art
How to Make High Quality Scans of Music Artwork
This guide is divided into two parts: one on digitizing (scanning/camera work) and one on digitally processing images. The first part is mostly complete, but the digital processing part needs refining with current techniques from the community. It should still be helpful in its current form to anyone wanting to scan CD and vinyl artwork for inclusion in MusicBrainz' Cover Art sections.
Digitizing artwork can be simple and easy, but it can also be slow and tedious if you plan to remove as many imperfections as possible. This guide explains in detail how you get the best quality scans without spending too much time with diminishing returns. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to spend hours removing every speck of dust or share gigantic files, so automation is used where possible and lossy compression where it makes sense. I hope you can use this guide as a reference whether you are scanning record covers, CD fronts, booklets, or discs.
The basic workflow for scanning is to:
- Straighten text
- Color correct
- Clean up
- Create JPG
Not necessarily in that exact order. You may not need to do all these steps, or you may need to do more.
Notes on this guide:
- With respect to your time, we try to condense as much relevant information as possible into step-by-step sections without being too wordy. Currently, there are several sections that could use step-by-step guides that don’t have them, but more are planned with instructions in the future.
- This guide is not limited to free software since we try to recommend the best possible tools, free or not.
- Focus on Windows compatible software, but Mac and Linux alternatives are mentioned where appropriate.
A step-by-step approach is used in lieu of oversimplification to avoid confusion for beginners. Discussion and feedback thread available here:
Part One: Digitizing
Converting a cover to a digital image is best done with a flatbed scanner (preferred) or a camera setup. Paper-fed scanners should be avoided.
If you want to scan LP covers, a 12″×17″ scanner will work better than an 11.69″×17″ scanner but still usually leaves off part of an edge (LP covers are 12.375″ squares). Digital image stitching software will help combine LP cover scans into one complete image cleanly. A camera setup can be used to photograph the LP cover alternatively.
For best results, get a Charged-Coupled Device (CCD) scanner as opposed to a Contact Image Sensor (CIS) device. CCDs tend to capture better quality scans and have a much greater depth of field. CIS scanners blur anything that is not pushed right up to the screen, which would be a problem when scanning spines of booklets or anything not completely flat (example).
This is not to say CCD scanners always look better than CIS. For example, the CIS scanner, Canon PIXMA MG3220, creates raw scans with more vibrant and accurate colors than the more expensive CCD, Plustek OpticPro A320L. To get comparable color quality, the colors of the CCD’s raw scan need to be adjusted based on the scanner’s calibration, then the brightness levels adjusted. After this the CCD scan is superior since everything is in focus and has more detail for the intended resolution.
The scanner should have an optical sensor reading minimum of at least 1,200 dpi and this is real resolution. In labeling this is the smaller number and any larger numbers are the interpolated resolution done by software (can ignore). Further reading.
If a scanner’s specifications state two DPIs, such as 4,800 x 9,600 dpi, then the smaller number is the resolution of the scanning sensor and the larger is the precision of the stepper motor moving the sensor. If you choose to scan at a resolution that is not a factor of the stepper motor dpi then some location error will occur (explained). Your scanner might avoid this error if it scans at the next highest compatible stepping size and reduces the image dimensions in software.
Best is to scan at the highest allowable dpi then move onto post-processing in image editing software.
Other Factors to Consider in Scanners
- A book-edge, where the scanning surface reaches all the way to the edge of the scanner. This is useful so you can scan half a booklet without removing the staple and while keeping the page flat against the glass. Sometimes the glass surface does not reach the edge but is the same height as the side, which helps keep the page flat on the glass
- Removable cover for scanning large things
- Buttons on the scanner are not important. These buttons usually only work with the inferior default scanning software
- Speed of scanning
- Color depth (Input 48-bit; Output 24-bit preferred)
- An infrared channel that can be used to digitally remove dust and scratches by software like VueScan and SilverFast (explained)
In terms of maintenance, keep around a microfiber cloth and air-blower to remove glass dust. Canned air might spray propellant onto the glass, so make sure to use something that’s meant for lenses such as the Giottos Rocket Blaster. Use a small amount of glass cleaner or 99% isopropyl alcohol on an eyeglass microfiber cloth to remove anything that can’t be blown off. PEC-PADs are disposable wipes that are helpful in cleaning glass without introducing more lint or dust.
Keep an eye out for faint, vertical, colored lines in your scans. This is the result of dust infiltrating your scanner and latching onto the sensors. It is usually possible to disassemble the scanner with simple tools and blow or wipe the dust away, but take care not to introduce additional dust.
Recommended Scanner Models
Plustek OpticPro A320L (2017) - $600
- 24-bit color output
- Image sensor: CCD (1,600 dpi)
- 12″ x 17″
Part One: Scanners & Scanning Summary
- Scanner size: Any scanner will fit CD booklets; affordable A3 12″×17″ scanners exist but an LP cover is 12.375″ so be prepared to scan an LP cover's four corners. Later Microsoft ICE or Photoshop's 'Automerge' tool are necessary to help create a seamless scan effortlessly from these four parts. Otherwise $6,000 large format WideTEK and Contex 18 × 24″ scanners exist. Alternatively a camera setup is also appropriate.
- Sensor type: A CCD scanner produces better detailed scans compared to a CIS scanner thanks to a much greater depth of field.
- Resolution: Your scanner should have a minimum optical resolution of 1,200 dpi.
- Preferred feature factors: scanners with a completely flat frameless scanning surface (only for/best for LPs), 24-bit output color depth, infrared channel.
- Additional tools: Air-blower, microfiber cloth. Avoid canned air.
- Scanner models: Read reviews for great past and current models with good price-performance matching above conditions.
A camera setup might be the convenient option for you if you have a DSLR but not a scanner, but it will likely not achieve the resolution or color accuracy needed for great processing. You can buy an all-in-one product that comes with a built-in camera, or you can make one yourself. You will need to photograph an LP cover, for instance, in a spot with controlled lighting away from direct sunlight.
DIY camera setup guides:
All-in-one product examples: