Having said that, there are some general things to keep in mind, regardless of the contest specifics:
Be Creative. Don’t just copy trends or try to sound like your favorite artist. You’re just gonna end up blending in with everyone else. Bring your own unique sound and flavor to your song.
Commercial Appeal – At the same time, be sure to consider things like song structure, arrangement and having a catchy hook. It doesn’t hurt to follow at least the basic skeleton of today’s hit records. Don't be weird for weird’s sake. The trick is to take pieces of what’s relevant now and flip that in your own unique way.
While you don’t need a state of the art recording studio to make a great song, you’ll need some basic gear to get the best result. We’ll list the bare essentials here:
A Reliable Computer – The first piece of equipment you’ll need is a reliable computer. You’ll be running a DAW (digital audio workstation) to record your song, so you’ll need something with a decent amount of computing power to make sure your creative flow isn’t thrown off by lag or other technical difficulties. This can be a desktop or a laptop, but a laptop may be ideal so you can always cook up on the go.
A Digital Audio Workstation – A digital audio workstation, or DAW for short, is a piece of software used to produce and record music. There are many professional-grade DAWs on the market today including FL Studio, Logic and Ableton. The best lowest-cost option is Garageband, which is basically Logic-lite. It’s included totally for free in all Mac computers. It’s super easy to use so it can be a great place to start if you’re new to the game. Audacity is another free alternative that works on both Mac and Windows.
A Beat – Unless you’re recording some kind of spoken word poetry, you’re going to need an instrumental to sing or rap over. If you’re making a song for a contest, make sure you’re following their rules for which beats you can use. Some may have no limitations, but others may ask you to make a new song from a specific beat or beat pack.
If you’re free to use any beat you want, then the good news is there’s no shortage of beats for sale online and tons of music producers offer free versions of their beats to be used for non-profit purposes. Keep in mind though, if you plan on posting your song to Spotify and other streaming services and want an instrumental that’s free of tags, you’re probably going to have to shell out some bread to buy or lease a beat with for-profit, commercial usage rights.
Be sure to check the beat leasing policy of the producer you’re getting your beats from, otherwise you may end up in a situation where you’re limited in how much and where you can sell, perform, and distribute your songs. Legion Beats is a great option for a well established production team that has a huge catalog of industry quality beats that you can buy or lease for less than most producers. Actually you can get every single beat they release through The Legion Beat Club, which includes 30 beats/month. And right now, you can try it out for just $5 at legionbeatclub.com/join
An Audio Interface – An audio interface is a device that converts the audio frequencies from a microphone or instrument into a format that works with your computer. It also allows sound to route from your DAW to your speakers or headphones. There’s a bunch of audio interfaces to choose from but a great option for beginners on a budget is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which will run you about $120.
A Microphone – One of the most essential pieces of the recording puzzle is a quality microphone. Luckily, once again, you don’t need to break the bank to to get professional sounding vocals. The Shure SM58 is a great mic to consider if you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck. Amazon offers bundles that include the mic itself, a stand, the necessary cables and the all-important pop filter for under $200.
Studio Monitors or Headphones – You’re going to need to know how your song actually sounds so you can make adjustments to your mix and your computer’s built-in speakers just won’t cut it. In a perfect world, you would have both a set of studio monitors (speakers) and a nice pair of mixing headphones, so you can hear your song on multiple devices to get the clearest picture of your mix, but starting with just one of these options is enough to get things rolling. The KRK Rokit 5s are some great low-cost studio monitors to consider and the beyerdynamic DT 1770 PROs are some of the best mixing headphones on the market and priced cheaper than most competitors.