Hi everyone! A lot of people have requested that I make my judging standards for the NGADM and NGUAC (and now AIM!) known ahead of time, and I agree that it's only fair I do so. My judging rubric has 7 categories weighted with point values that add up to 10, as follows:
Max points - Criteria - TLDR description
2 - Mixing, mastering, and balance - I want to be able to hear all instruments clearly throughout
1.5 - Structure, transitions, phrasing, and variety - Your track needs to be cohesive/repetitive enough to keep the listener grounded structurally, but variational enough to give your piece an overarching sense of direction
2 - Melody, tonality, harmony, and texture - Full, rich textures are usually better, and melodic content is a must
1 - Instrumentation and sound design - Avoid cliched, inauthentic, and overly harsh sounds
1.5 - Emotion, atmosphere, and catchiness - I want to FEEL something when I listen to your piece
1 - Originality and uniqueness - Aim for creativity with your chord progressions, sound design, and arrangement
1 - Overall (how do the above elements interact?) - I reward cool nuances and rhythmic components here
10 - Composite score
Here's some more explicit details on each category:
Mixing, mastering, and balance
I want to be able to hear all instruments clearly throughout. This usually entails that you use equalizers, compressors, and/or panning to limit distortion between instruments with similar frequency ranges, especially in the bass range. More advanced tools include stereo widening and sidechaining. Quiet or indistinct drums are usually a big indication that your mixing and mastering isn't as polished as it could be. Your instruments should blend well together - reverb may be a good way of accomplishing this, although excessive reverb can also detract from the quality of the mix. I'll also take off points in this category if I think certain instruments are too loud - common offenders are mid-range basses (use headphones when you master your track!) and harsh leads that have too much treble.
Structure, transitions, phrasing, and variety
I've often been criticized for my tough standards regarding structure, but structuring your piece well can maximize the emotional impact of your piece, which is crucial. I highly encourage you to offer the listener some kind of intro and outro. Throwing your listener into the middle of the action, especially if your piece doesn't develop much beyond that, is dangerous, as is abruptly ending your piece. Most of the time, pieces should probably have some kind of refrain that occurs 2-3 times throughout the piece, although certain stylistic considerations may exempt you from this standard (for example, fugues and contrapuntal pieces often have major thematic ideas woven into the texture throughout without really having a single, distinct refrain).
Definitely make sure your piece is structurally complete. A single verse and chorus probably won't get you many points in this category - you need to show me that you have the composition skills to write a full-length, well-varied track. I think one of the hardest things to do in music composition is to find a balance between variety and coherence. You need to keep your listener grounded in some core riffs, chord structure, or melodic content, but there’s a thin line between cohesive and overly repetitive for me.
There are a ton of parameters along which you can create variety - melodic development, dynamics, energy level, texture, emotion, chord progression, etc. I particularly like to hear dynamic contrast (changes in volume levels) and phrasing (little build-ups and breakdowns that control energy level between phrases). Solely relying on changing the instrumentation as a means of variety is not very advanced, and can be quite jarring during transitory moments. Speaking of transitions, they should be really smooth. Extended pauses and stop-start breaks should be used sparingly.
I know this is a lot, and I’m sorry. I’m always challenging myself to be more lenient with structural components, and this is definitely the hardest category in which to earn full credit from me.
Melody, tonality, harmony, and texture
Your piece needs to have melodic content. Melody is often considered the most important parameter of music (not harmony, not rhythm, not lyrics, etc.). There are plenty of contexts in which it’s totally acceptable to not have melodies in music, but the NGUAC and NGADM are not among them. It’s hard to define what makes a good melody, but @Johnfn did a pretty damn good job when he wrote this. I also want to see that you have a good sense of harmony and tonality. Be careful not to overuse dissonance. This can be tough if you don’t have a strong music theory background, but until you get accustomed to using dissonance, it’s a good idea to make sure that all the moving notes in your piece are in the chords you’re using during a given measure/section. I want to see the texture of your piece be full and rich, with a broad range of frequencies for most of the piece. Intros, outros, and breakdowns are good places for minimalism, but otherwise you should use it sparingly. Also, minimalism is a lot more engaging when it’s a beautiful melody rather than a rhythmic club beat.
Instrumentation and sound design
Using stock samples and loops is dangerous. There are a lot of cliched sounds in music, especially in the world of synths. If you’re going to use a preset from a DAW, please at least modify it to best fit the mood and atmosphere of your piece. Playing an angry bass riff and graceful piano melody at the same time (for example) can come across as jarring. Also, using inauthentic string, guitar, or brass samples will lose you some points. Humanizing these instruments can help, but sometimes you’re better off replacing these instruments with something that’s meant to sound synthetic anyway.
Emotion, atmosphere, and catchiness
I say “and,” but I really mean “or.” If you’re going to make a thrilling cinematic track, you don’t need a ton of catchiness. Likewise, if you’re going to make a gritty house track, you don't need much atmosphere (although a little reverb is probably advisable). That said, emotion - whether you make me want to dance or cry - is a must. The mood of your piece gives it a lot of character, and the stronger the “flavor” of your piece, the better. Phrasing and variety is a great way of accomplishing this. The only reason I have this as a separate category than “structure/t/p/v” is that you can have a really catchy tune - or an ambient beauty - without much variety at all. But let me assure you: both emotion and variety are necessary, and often go hand-in-hand. The bottom line is that I want to FEEL something when I listen to your music.
Originality and uniqueness
Although somewhat self-explanatory, this is another tough category in which to get full credit. When evaluating originality, I often pay attention to the instrumentation, chord progression, and arrangement. Experimental pieces often get full credit here, but also be careful not to take too many compositional risks. If you want full credit on one of these categories, you’re better off prioritizing “melody, tonality, harmony, and texture” rather than originality.
Overall (how do the above elements interact?)
I often consider this category a “flex category.” If there’s some cool nuance or rhythmic component of your piece that I feel I didn’t sufficiently reward in another category, it’ll be rewarded here. If your sound design does an especially good job of enhancing the piece’s atmosphere or mood (for example), I’ll probably give you full credit here. I consider how the piece comes together as a sum of its parts, so-to-speak.
And now for some general guidelines...
1. I'm going to judge what I actually hear, not your intentions behind the piece. "Obviously the piece is meant to be in a videogame, therefore it doesn't need much variety" is not a valid excuse.
2. NEVER use the genre of the piece as an excuse for not fulfilling the criteria above. Neurofunk pieces still need melodies. Orchestral music still needs good mixing.
3. You also can't use your DAW as an excuse for not fulfilling the creteria above. I fully understand that having fancier production tools or better sound libraries than the next guy will give some users an advantage under my point system, but I can't keep track of that stuff for every single user I judge. There's a reason why compositional attributes (structure, tonality, emotion) are much more heavily weighted than production and sound design. Musicianship is more important than the tools you have, and I strive to make my point system reflect that. That said, I'm not going to give you a perfect score for mixing just because mixing in Garageband is tough.
4. I will treat your piece as a stand-alone track. If your piece sounds like two or more completely different works, you’re not getting many points in the “structure and variety” category. Classical composers are usually better off focusing on perfecting one movement rather than submitting a track with several movements. Everyone is almost always better off looping a track than using fade-out or abrupt endings.
5. There are no formal length requirements for either the NGUAC or the NGADM. BUT usually pieces between 2 and 6 minutes are advisable. Shorter pieces risk being structurally incomplete or just having very fast pacing. Longer pieces are often either overly repetitive or incoherent.
6. Submitting solely comedic or non-musical content is unacceptable. Voice acting, sound effects, and meme compilations to a beat have no place in these contests. That said, using vocal samples and other 3rd-party content is fine, as long as they comply with NG audio guidelines.
I don’t expect my fellow judges in the NGUAC to adopt these standards, but I do highly encourage you to make your scoring methods public.
An additional note:
If you think any of my criteria are unfair or biased in any way, please let me know as soon as possible! My job isn't to find a reason to give everyone a 3 or lower. My job is to help you improve your music in every way I can, and if you think my standards are ridiculous, odds are you won't find my critiques very helpful at all. :)
Thank you for taking the time to read through my judging standards, and good luck in whatever contest you entered!