Epson is a household name when it comes to desktop printing technology, so it's no surprise to see their inkjet expertise applied to on-disc printing. The company's Discproducer is a self-contained CD/DVD publishing system that uses premium drives, dependable robotics, and Epson's MicroPiezo ink jet technology. The PP-100, which is distributed through Disc Makers, is designed for the types of CD runs most studio and independent labels will need to complete. We put this model through vigorous paces for months.
Our studio has been offering micro-run duplication for about seven years. We limit projects to 300 or fewer CDs. It may not seem like a large number, but manually burning and labeling CDs takes a long time. Complete one order by hand, and you'll vow to buy an automated system the next day. About six years ago, we ordered a $4000 automated CD producer from one of "the leading" manufacturers. It was nothing but trouble (details to follow). Consequently, we tried alternatives -many alternatives, actually. In short, we've owned or tested nearly every model of tower, stand-alone printer, and automated producer on the market. Therefore, in addition to reviewing the Epson Discproducer, this article will cover key considerations in purchasing and deploying a disc duplicator, printer, or all-in-one production system.
With respect to duplication systems, there are some key areas that you must consider: burn quality, feed system, print quality, ink supply, software, connectivity and reliability. If the solution you choose is deficient in one of these areas, you will have problems. From lost work time, supply expenses or customer returns, a bad machine will harm your reputation and your bottom line.
It may seem obvious, but the drives used need to burn readable discs. For example, a CD tower we obtained form a leading musician-friendly catalogue could not burn audio CD-Rs! Data CD-Rs were fine, but audio CD-Rs would not play. (That brand is no longer sold by the catalog, so don't worry.) That particular tower used drives made by company I've never heard of. We started investigating makers, and found that two of the best brands (for audio burning) are Plextor and Pioneer. However, Plextor recently announced they were no longer making CD burners, so the field has narrowed. One good thing I can say about our other automated duplicator -it was outfitted with Plextor drives, and we never had a CD-R returned for read issues in the six years we used that unit. The Epson PP-100 is stocked with Pioneer drives, which not only make great audio CD-Rs, but quality DVD-Rs as well. We keep an early-model Sony DVD player on-site as a disc tester. It hates any disc that isn't perfect. In fact, it had never played a DVD-R until we tried one made by the Epson. In this era of short-run training-video or bonus-video DVD-Rs, it's imperative that your disc solution makes discs that work no matter where they're played. We have had nothing but great results with the Epson PP-100.
The robotic arm used in automated systems is the next area to consider. When we purchased our first automated system, the salesman promised it was a "24x7, lights-out-operation solution". Making that claim assumes the feed arm can do its job. Unfortunately, that was not the case. A common fault occurs when the gripper picks up two discs. Do you know what happens when two discs are loaded in the same drive? Kaboom! Discs jam the drive mechanism. If the jam is severe, you'll need to tear apart the machine, remove the drive, and pull out the disc. If this type of mess happens often, you can lose hours of time or you could damage your system. The Epson has an AcuGrip gripper that helps to avoid multiple disc picks. At the other end of the spectrum is when the gripper fails to pick a disc at all. This will halt a job in its tracks. Imagine coming in the morning to find your job failed at disc 5 of 300? That's happened to me with my old system. But after running thousands of discs through the Epson, we have yet to have a grip issue.
The print quality of your duplicator has to be top-notch; otherwise, the product looks unprofessional. The Discproducer uses Epson's MicroPiezo technology for crisp, vibrant results. And since the printer is fed by six different ink colors (versus the standard four), output will match the graphic designer's intent, and colors will transition smoothly from one to another. I've tested solutions that use HP printers, but one leading maker's printer smeared. After three months with their tech support, they refunded my money. Another HP-based solution produced quality output; however, it used excessive amounts of ink, which leads to a major topic -consumable use.
Ink costs for some production units can be obscene. Let me explain. Many units use two cartridges -one black and one color. The color cartridge holds red, blue and yellow ink. Suppose a customer orders a disc with a solid blue surface. Producing these discs will use up all of the blue in the color cartridge. Once the blue ink is depleted, the printer will require a total replacement -even though most of the red and yellow ink is unused. You throw out all of that ink. Talk about waste.
To make matters worse, most of the production units will only operate with ink purchased from the manufacturers (enforced through a variety of built-in mechanisms). With only one supplier for these cartridges, there is zero free-market competition to lower prices. On our old production system, the color cartridges have a street cost of $60 plus shipping. One cartridge prints about 300 discs at partial color, 100 in a solid color. This results in per-disc printing costs in excess of $0.60 when you factor in the black ink. The manufacturers claim that their cartridges are of better quality, which is why they cost more. However, peeling back the sticker on depleted cartridges reveals the logo and model number of a cartridge that sells at office supply stores for under $15. Why? This is a predatory business practice by the sellers of the machines.
Taking a completely different approach, the Epson PP-100 uses six separate ink magazines -yellow, cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta and black -so you only replace the ink you use. Additionally, each color can print up to 1000 discs at full-bleed, which reduces downtime resulting from paused
jobs, restarts, and replacements. Yes, Epson requests that you purchase its own ink. But street price of the cartridges is about $40 each, so for about $250 you can print 1,000 discs. This calculates to about $0.25 per disc for full-color printing. Of course, not all jobs are full-color. If your jobs are black-and-white or partial-color, you'll get even better life out of the ink. In our real-world tests, we printed over 3000 discs with the original ink and still have 15% remaining.
The production system is only as good as the software that drives it. We've purchased smaller desktop all-in-ones that had such rudimentary software, the slightest error would crash the system. For example, one popular model will crash if you open the dust cover during a job. Not a stable solution. Our old production system had a convoluted setup that required running three virtual servers to manage production, imaging, and bridging (whatever that means). The Epson come with a straightforward interface system that includes a simple graphics program and a very stable job-management application. Opening the door will pause a job -not crash it. I was disappointed that the label-design software could not import data from a spreadsheet to do mail-merge types of labels. However, a quick call to Epson's support revealed that those features can be implemented by using TD Bridge, a free add-on development application. Nice touch. Users who don't need this feature are not burdened, while power users can open this function if needed. The software allows for quick copies of a disc, or it can suck in your master CD and save it as a disc image. In use, the copy was fine for one or two-offs, but larger runs were more stable when they were created from a disc image. This has more to do with the Windows operating system, but streaming the data from a hard drive is much easier on the system than constantly reading from an optical drive.
Connecting your production system to your computer needs to be simple and reliable. Our old system used some kind of Road Runner booby-trap configuration that required both USB and FireWire connections to run. An issue with either port (or say, a Windows system update!) and the entire system is down. The Epson PP-100 uses a single USB cable to your Windows-based PC. An Ethernet port is available as a cost option for office or multi-user setups. Given the ubiquity of USB ports these days, this is a good choice for most installations.
Even the best machines have issues from time to time. But who can you call if you have a problem? With our old system, you had to pay a yearly maintenance contract that ranged form $500 and up, depending on your yearly disc volume. Other companies had a tech support email but no phone number. With Epson, we were able to check the company's support website or call customer support on the phone. And since many of the Discproducers are sold through Disc Makers, one of the benefits of that deal is access to Disc Makers' customer support line, too. Disc Makers does sell warranty extension plans, but these are much more affordable that those offered for my previous duplicator.
If you're in the market for a fully-automated disc production system, look no further than the Epson Discproducer line. As far as I'm concerned, the PP-100 is not only a smart choice, it is the only choice in this price range. This unit has it all: a bulletproof feed system, crisp printing, a smart ink-supply mechanism and reliable burns. With a street price of under $3000, busy houses can pay for the unit in a short time. My only complaint is it wasn't around six years ago. Countless headaches and wasted hours of coaxing my old system would have been avoided. Not to mention the mountain of money spent on ink. Well done, Epson! ($2695-$4695 street; discproducer.epson.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.