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Music Competition Beginners Advice (but it's good for all musicians so read up)

Alita the Pun

Dmitri
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Oct 6, 2016
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A Mellophone Player... Mellophonista?

So I know that an issue in the past for participation in Music Competitions is that many people just don't know what to do, where to start, or what to use. Because of this, I have decided to make a thread (the one you are reading now) for people who don't have much experience in the music field. However, beginners and experienced musicians may learn something here so I would suggest anyone who is thinking about entering a Music Competition or thinking about starting writing music as a hobby or profession to take a look.

Essentials

So before we start into creating music you need to remember that everything you plan on creating for the competition will need to be put online. It simply will not do to think up a tune on a guitar or write up a song on piano. For this competition, everything will be digital (eventually).

The first thing you will need is a computer. A laptop. A PC. An iPad even. Any of these could work, and judging by the fact that you are reading this right now, you probably already have that covered. So I won't dwell on this too long, but my personal choice for computers when your interest is making music is Apple computers. Simply because they are the most powerful platform for sound and music creation, have great support, and an amazing, Mac exclusive DAW which I will get to later. You could go with a PC if you wanted, but I find they tend to be a little finicky and, depending on the sound card you get, may not be up to snuff with the competition.

The next thing you will need when preparing for an online music competition is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). These allow you to prepare music at home without spending thousands of dollars on a recording studio and tech. Now you have a choice here, there are plenty of online, browser-based "DAWs" that are more of musical notation softwares than actual DAWs. They are really great in some cases and there is nothing wrong with using them (I used one myself for my first few competitions) but they often lack the power and options that a more traditional DAW will have. For instance, on one of these online music notation softwares, you can only work with the sample sounds that are provided. They usually have quite a few but quality can also be an issue. The upside to these though, is that they are usually 100% free. You will only need to do a quick email signup and sacrifice your inbox. You will be required to know a little about music though, because it is usually all music notation. That means if you want to write the cool melody that is in your head, you will need to figure out the exact rhythm of it. (quarter, eighth, half notes, rests, dotted notes, etc...) That's just something to keep in mind before going this route.

Top free, online music notation softwares are:
  • Flat.io. this is a great site, I've been with it since it was in beta and I have seen a lot of improvement over the years. It is run by a small team of guys (Swedish iirc) who are very talented. The best part of this site is that if you have problems or questions, you can email the team and one of them will answer your question directly, usually within 24 hours too. great support, intuitive display. A great feature of it is that you can collaborate and work on projects with other users.
  • Another good one that has a bit more of a following is Musescore. It's a pretty decent site, a bit more commercial feeling than Flat.io, but all in all pretty good. It is also good for browsing to find music that you would like to print off and play on your own.
  • [My Choice:whistle:] The best free notation program that I have heard of is called Noteflight. Noteflight is a really good free program with upgradeable features. When I need something written in sheet music, whether I am transposing or writing my own music, this program provides an easy and direct interface to quickly and intuitively work out my music into sheet music format. You need only create an account to get started, upgrading is paid, but it won't set you back much.
If you are going for a more professional notation program, Finale is the way to go. It offers nearly unlimited customization of your scores and is really all around just a fantastic program for serious musicians or composers. The two turn offs of Finale is that it is fairly expensive and not very user friendly. Luckily, there are youtube tutorials out there to help you figure it out.

DAWs are the bedroom songwriter's dream come true. You can program in notes music a MIDI recorder or by hand. The really big thing: you can record live instruments. That's huge for anyone who is interested in live recording their tracks. You can manipulate sound waves to create new instruments, build waveforms, record tracks, the possibilities are nearly endless. The downside is that it will normally cost you money and that's usually a big turn off for a lot of beginner musicians. There are a handful of free ones but they will usually be trial versions or limited capabilities. Still, I have found a few solid DAWs that are free and I will also list a few paid DAWs that are pretty awesome.

Top free DAWs:
  • [My Choice:whistle:] Garageband. Garageband is a great program for beginner musicians and those who want to get a feel for digital song creation without committing, and dropping hundreds of dollars on a paid DAW. It is essentially a really really good preview of Logic Pro, without a lot of the big quality of life and more technical features. But if you are just starting out, you probably won't be using those anyways. I would recommend this software for anyone who is interested in experimenting with recording or digital music. The only thing that would restrict people from using this DAW is that it is ONLY available on Mac so if you have a Windows or Linux PC, unfortunately, this will not work for you.
  • Ohm Studio. This is a really cool free DAW you can get. I have not tried it out for myself, but Ohm Studio has a feature that not many DAWs I can think of have: real time collaboration. That means that you can work on a project with other users around the globe. It's really cool I think and if you are interested, check it out! The free version comes with the base program and you can save up to 10 songs. There is also a subscription you can get that is pretty cheap that lets you save up to 200 songs. There are also paid versions that you can purchase if you want to that add instruments, plugins, and 24-bit recording. Keep in mind that in the free version, your audio recording quality will be limited to 16-bit so you will not be getting as nice quality of audio from the free version. In the spoiler below are prices for the subscription and paid versions. I can't say I would recommend the paid versions for the price, when it comes to DAWs, you get what you pay for. But the free version and subscription are pretty good. You can find a link to the Ohm Studio Shop here.
  • Ohm Studio - Free
  • Ohm Studio Subscription - 9€/month for one month, 8€/month for 3 months, 7€/month for 12 months
  • Ohm Studio Pro - 39€
  • Ohm Studio Pro XL - 99€
  • Audacity: Audacity is another free DAW that is accessible to all platforms. It is an open source program with wide compatibility with a variety of plugins. It doesn't have all the features you might get from a high quality paid DAW but for a free DAW, it rivals Garageband. I would highly recommend Audacity to anyone who doesn't have a Mac. If you already use Audacity and want to support it, you can donate to help keep the program free on the website.
Top Paid DAWs: (keep in mind if you only want to participate in the ZD Music Competitions, I would not recommend buying one of these or spending a ton of money. The above options are fine for that. If you are interested in going beyond ZD Music Competitions and actually start writing your own music, you may want to take a look at the below DAWs)
  • Ableton Live: Ableton was my first DAW, although I must admit it was only the trial version, but I loved it. Currently, I am learning how to create electronic music because that's my favorite genre. Ableton is optimized for electronic music creation and has two main view modes. Arrangement mode is what you may be used to if you have used DAWs like Garageband in the past. The other mode is called Session mode where you can create scenes and clips which makes it really great for live performance and people who prefer to let the music inspire them while recording. It has wavetables and other plugins built in with each instrument at the bottom of the screen for easy access where in programs like Logic Pro, they are not as accessible. I personally really appreciate what they have done with Ableton Live, but it is a bit pricy which is why I do not use it personally, but I love the software. It also does not have a super intuitive interface but it has a built in tutorial series. If you are not one for reading the instructions, it will take a bit of experimenting and YouTubing to get it down. I wouldn't recommend it to beginners but it is a really solid platform. Here's the link if you want to check out Ableton. Below is the pricing for the three different versions you can get.
  • Intro - USD 99
  • Standard - USD 449
  • Suite - USD 749
  • [My Choice:whistle:] Logic Pro X. Logic is great. It could be called the "Big Brother of Garageband" because it takes everything from Garageband, and BEEFS it up. It has a really user friendly interface and a great tutorial mode if you are switching from Garageband to Logic. It is really affordable considering the price of it's competitors. It is really great for recording and has realistic samples and intuitive MIDI options. I could go on and on about Logic but for the sake of not being more long winded than I already am, I'll stop myself. Anyways, You can check out Logic Pro X here. There is only one version of the app and it is pretty affordable.
  • Logic Pro X - $200
Peripherals

Peripherals are convenient but unnecessary. Don't be fooled by websites telling you that it is essential to buy their product if you want to write music in a DAW. Anything you can do on a MIDI device or other peripherals you can do manually in your DAW (except if you use the online music notation software). MIDI peripherals simply streamline the process. They can drastically improve quality of life but are not essential. Nevertheless, here are some good things to grab if you are interested. Just remember everything here is completely optional.

Nice Cans (headphones):
If you want to hear your bass lines and melodies with more clarity, it is time to get a real pair of headphones, not those Skullcandy earbuds you got when you were 12, real over the ear cans. Now before you go off and buy a pair of Beats, let's think about it. While Beats are popular and fashionable, their sound quality is not really that good. Here are a few pairs of cans that are really good. Be aware that when comes to headphones, you want wired headphones. If you get wireless headphones, there can be latency which makes playing on MIDI or recording track by track a nightmare.
  • [My Choice:whistle:] Bose QC25 - $175 (Although I do believe that there is a new model, the QC35, available so if you want to check those out, they are probably even better. I think that they are wireless but they include a cable to make them wired)
  • JBL Headphones. Most of them are wireless so I don't touch them, but I know a lot of people who like them so I'm just putting them here, you will need to do a little research to make a decision on these.
MIDI Keyboard:
These are great if you are interested in live recording through built-in sample instruments or when using synths. Some of them come with built in drum pads which are nice. which one you get depends on where you want to work. if you want to work in a home studio, a full keyboard may be right for you. If you plan on being a little more mobile, you may want a smaller, one and a half to two octave keyboard that you can stick in a backpack. Here are a few that I would recommend:
Audio Interface:
There are a ton of other peripherals that you could spend thousands of dollars on but these are the main ones that you will need. If you plan on recording with real instruments though, it is helpful to have an Audio Interface. These are boxes that allow you to input live audio such as that from a guitar or microphone. Here are a few that you can look into:
Mics:
Microphones are good to have if you plan on recording an acoustic instrument into your DAW or if you want to sing. I have a couple of different mics and each is good for different things. There are two main types of mics, Dynamic and Condenser Mics. You can take a look at THIS video to learn the differences and decide which is right for you. The two mics I own and have had success with are:
3. The Process

Creating music can be quite a strain sometimes. It is hard to think of chords and melodies. It is no easy task to interweave melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and drum beats. To do so, you have to be in a certain mindset.

Focus - Go somewhere where you can concentrate and focus on your music. It is hard to write good music when you are distracted by other things, so make sure you go somewhere where you are distraction free. Places I go are my room, basement, my college, or a cafe. That's different for every person though so you will have to find a place that works for you.

Be Inspired - Inspiration is really important. When I'm uninspired I can work for hours and come up with nothing substantial but if I'm inspired, I can hammer out some music. Once I felt really inspired to write a song on my guitar so I grabbed my acoustic and wrote a song in three hours. I like to carry a notepad with me so that if inspiration strikes me, I can jot down my ideas really quick. Inspiration is not something you can plan so when you get it, take advantage of it!

Don't Be a Perfectionist - As a perfectionist myself, I struggle with this. I expect all of my songs to sound like what I hear on Spotify. This results in me starting, and then abandoning a lot of the musical ideas that I have. It is important to try and finish your songs because the more songs you complete, even if they don't sound exactly how you want, the more experience you will get and the better your next song will be. Bringing this back to the Music Competitions, when you start, you may not win or get many votes. Don't let this discourage you. Hopefully, voters will provide some constructive criticism and feedback that you can take and use for your next song. I think that the ZD Music Competitions are awesome opportunities to try something new and to get experience creating and sharing your songs.
4. Upload

The final step in creating your entry for the Music Competition will be uploading the song and sending the competition host the link. There are a variety of ways that you can do this. If you made a song on one of the music notation websites like Flat or Musescore, simply use the link to your song and send that to the competition host. If you recorded/created your song using a DAW, there is a bit more you must do.

First you will need to upload your song to a website. I would recommend Soundcloud, it is free and easy to use, but I know there are others out there like Clyp that are acceptable as well. I know that Logic Pro X has a feature where you can directly export songs from the app to Souncloud, but I can't say the same for all DAWs so if not, you will probably have to export the song as an .mp3 file and then upload it to Soundcloud (or other website) separately.

Once you upload your song, make sure it works and then send the link to the competition host to review. Keep the forum rules in mind as you make your songs and make any changes necessary to keep your song within those rules before you submit it.

If you have any questions whatsoever, feel free to PM me and I'll try to answer your questions as best I can.

Well I hope this guide has proven helpful, my fingers are stubs now so I need to stop typing. Hopefully this will encourage anyone considering trying out the music competition to give it a shot and provided some good options for those who need to be cost effective and for those who don't. I look forward to seeing you all in the next ZD Music Competition! :whistle:
 
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Alita the Pun

Dmitri
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A Mellophone Player... Mellophonista?
Update 1 - 10/3/19
- Added a section on Microphones in Peripherials.
- Fixed some errors and clarified some sections.
- Removed Herobrine.
- Updated [My Choices :whistle:] to my current preferences.
 

Mellow Ezlo

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Nice guide! I would add Audacity into the list of good free DAWs. Its arguably one of the most accessible, being available on all platforms, and is extremely easy to learn. I haven't used it much myself, but I know a lot of people who use it as their preferred option when it comes to free DAWs, especially non-Mac users (though I also know some people who have Macs who prefer it over GarageBand - also, it's important to note that GarageBand can only be downloaded if you have the most up to date version of the Mac OS software).

Under paid DAWs, ProTools is available on all platforms and is amazing software. It has more features than Logic, but is also more expensive and far more professional (so it's less user friendly). Its the preferred DAW for many professional recording engineers, so it's definitely not for beginners and the price is hefty.

I would also ads Sibelius to the list of paid notation software. Its pricey, but it has a better UI than finale imo and the default soundfonts are a bit better.

Sennheiser is also my personal favourite brand when it comes to studio headphones. They have amazing prices for great quality all around.
 

Alita the Pun

Dmitri
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A Mellophone Player... Mellophonista?
Nice guide! I would add Audacity into the list of good free DAWs. Its arguably one of the most accessible, being available on all platforms, and is extremely easy to learn. I haven't used it much myself, but I know a lot of people who use it as their preferred option when it comes to free DAWs, especially non-Mac users (though I also know some people who have Macs who prefer it over GarageBand - also, it's important to note that GarageBand can only be downloaded if you have the most up to date version of the Mac OS software).

Under paid DAWs, ProTools is available on all platforms and is amazing software. It has more features than Logic, but is also more expensive and far more professional (so it's less user friendly). Its the preferred DAW for many professional recording engineers, so it's definitely not for beginners and the price is hefty.

I would also ads Sibelius to the list of paid notation software. Its pricey, but it has a better UI than finale imo and the default soundfonts are a bit better.

Sennheiser is also my personal favourite brand when it comes to studio headphones. They have amazing prices for great quality all around.
Great suggestions! I'll add those to the list! :)
 
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TL The Legend

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maybe you should mention that noteflight's instrument choice is a bit lacking, but unless you're creating, like, a concert band piece it's not a big deal. I really love the site though, been using it for years. Also can we talk about how it refuses to transpose in the sheet music, so you end up with every instrument in the same key and if you're someone used to transposing, it's really weird not transposing everything (because it'll transpose in the actual music)
Flat is great but a bit lacking in features, although if you just care about making music and have some patience it's ok. I don't use it that much because i prefer to be able to add text to my music, but if you don't care about that, go ahead.
 
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