If reverse engineering means examining a finished work to try to figure out how it was constructed, then forward engineering means examining a work in progress and projecting forward to imagine what it might need to be completed. In music production, having the ability to see how a track will end up would be a fortune telling skill: you would never be lost and always know what to do next to arrive at your musical destination. In this scenario, composing would simply require layering and editing parts and effects one by one until the envisioned texture was reached. But production doesn’t work like this. The producer is partially lost at all times and doesn’t know exactly where the music is going until it gets going. We don’t envision a sound until it comes into view.
Another sense of forward engineering, however, is learnable by producers of any skill level. This entails not predicting a track’s future but rather making sensible production decisions that will send the music along a forward trajectory, even if you don’t know exactly where that trajectory will end. A sensible production decision is characterized by having at least one of several traits:
It helps the music adhere to broad conventions of genre and style, whether those are dance-oriented, ambient-oriented, experimental-oriented conventions, and so on. For example, deciding on a tempo, a set of rhythms, and an initial sound set locates the music somewhere rather than nowhere.
It instantiates traditional instrumental roles in the music, such as a beat, a bass line, a chord structure, a melody, and so on. While there may be no “real” instruments in your track, even synthetic sounds continue to play musical roles modeled on the real world, we-are-listening-to-one-another interactions that are the collective responsibility of a band of musicians.
It helps the music cohere better, as does setting up track Groups and effects Sends that can be used to treat different groups and parts with different amounts of the same effect. Using Track Groups and effects Sends glues the music’s parts together in subtle ways, bringing a measure of unity to an un-orderly collection of sounds.
It provides the music with a temporary scaffolding, as does repeating parts within a section and then repeating sections to create larger forms. Sometimes, when you don’t yet know what you want a part to do, you repeat it so that its form-form-form-form-form-form enacts a steady scaffolding for other parts. You can go back later to vary the repeating part, or not.
At any point in the process it reuses what is already present in the music. The most powerful example of this is resampling, where one processes an existing track and records the results onto another track to make a new (and altered) part. But there are many other production recycling options. A sliver of a beat can turned into a micro-beat, a moment of audio can be turned into a sampler instrument, or a reverb tail can be amplified into a more significant sound (and then used as a drum sound for that micro-beat). When you go to a restaurant where the chef has prepared beans “three ways”, this is the same recycling idea in action: extract multiple textural options from your materials.
It subjects the music to various sonic treatments (a term coined by Brian Eno). This idea relates to setting up Groups and effects Sends, but also applies to the the track’s entire mix. For example, a “global” effects treatment can be applied to all of a track’s sounds at once. This technique can destabilize your idea of what the music is so far, especially since you may have committed to a tempo, a set of sounds, a form, etc. But it can also be inspiring because in one fell effect swoop you’ll blur all of the sounds in a halo of reverb, crush them into bits, or multiply them into swarms of rhythms. The results of such treatments could be a new beginning for the music.
It takes chances and learns from its many small errors. At every moment of composing, the producer is taking chances, making tiny bets, making mistakes, and finding one thing while looking for another. Your hands find a chord you didn’t anticipate finding and it sounds good; the effect created for this sound works even better on that sound; you try out this instrument you haven’t touched in a while and are surprised at what you find; and the section at the end that you had looped so you could fix some notes in it becomes your favorite, so you revise the piece to highlight this section. Being sensible incorporates ways of working on a whim and recognizing serendipitous discoveries that may arise as a result.
In sum, these seven production decisions create results that get you thinking anew about the potentials latent in what you have so far. Forward engineering is elegant in that it doesn’t spend more energy that it needs to, trusting that your practice will generate its own momentum.