Once upon a time, literally in another millennium, there was no Netflix. There was no YouTube. There were no streaming sites to watch whatever you wanted when you wanted. Getting depressed already?
You were at the mercy of the TV-programming stations. You depended on them broadcasting cool stuff and you had to watch it whenever they broadcasted it. If you were busy at that time, then tough luck.
This changed in the early 80's when VCRs became the hot consumer technology.
Finally you could:
- record the program
- watch it repeatedly
- watch it anytime you wanted at your own schedule and convenience
- skip (and later block) commercials
- rent movies which added yet another dimension to your freedom of program selection
So no wonder VCRs were such a success despite the limitations of degrading tapes.
The "00:00" Blinking Display Epidemic
One more quick side anecdote before we finally get to the main topic ...
It was like a cultural joke to have that modern wonder of technology in your living room happily blinking "00:00" at you. All it needed was one power outage and this scenario took its course. And almost nobody was brave enough to fix this.
A mini LCD plus a non-intuitive UI and a horrible manual meant you were stuck with that "00:00" display mocking you. I'm serious, programming a VCR was a daunting task beyond the skills of mere mortals. So most of the time people were stuck at the "manually pressing 'Play + Record'" level, which at least got them the core functionality.
Those manuals were a crime against humanity.
Step into a timemachine, copy-paste a text into an early alpha-version of Google translator, switch a couple of times between some of the more obscure languages and the end result of this machine translation would still be lightyears ahead of those 1980's manuals.
End of history lesson ...
Back In The 21st Century
You just plunked down a decent amount of cash for the latest DAW upgrade or a powerful VST like Omnisphere 2. You install the software and then you just use it.
Of course, you'll be able to get something out of your purchase if you have experience. There are lots of common features across many sample libraries and simple VSTs. However, any extensive synth like Omnisphere, Diva, FM8 deserves a manual reading. And especially your main workhorse like Cubase, Sonar, Logic requires a deep understanding of all the available features.
Listen, I get it. It's not sexy to read manuals. It's not fun and with some of those multi-hundreds of pages for a deep software like Cubase, reading a manual requires a serious investment of time.
But, if you want to make the most and best out of your purchase and actually use all the awesome features and functionalities, then you'd better be prepared to dive into the manuals and do some studying. Hey, you paid for all those features. Why not get some use out of them? Again, you'd be crazy not to.
And yes, I hear you. You might be a visual learner. There's nothing wrong with hunting down YouTube tutorials and "steal" as many cool techniques as some kind, fellow soul is willing to share. But considering the depth of all those flagship products, you'll be truly hard-pressed to get all the knowledge presented to you via some video tutorials.
Your Manual-Reading Action Plan
Set A Realistic Time-limit For Yourself
In my personal experience I've found that getting a motivation push and telling yourself, "I've had it, now I'll master my software by slaving away for 2 hours/day reading manuals. Then I'll produce awesome tracks," sounds heroic, but is doomed to failure. Your motivation simply will fizzle out.
Instead, do the smart thing and schedule a more realistic timeframe. Shoot for something sensible like 15 minutes/day and get a habit going. This does not mean that you are only allowed to read 15 minutes or can't continue tinkering when you've just discovered a cool new feature. No, if you have the time and energy, go for it. But otherwise feel free to immediately stop after your 15-minute-countdown timer has signaled you that time's up.
Remember, you're in for the long haul and the process of developing the habit is more important than burning yourself out in a short-sighted push that's too ambitious, especially when you haven't built the foundation yet.
1) You Are A Newbie
You just discovered your love for music producing and are just getting started. Awesome. Make sure to develop smart habits right from the start.
For every new software you purchase, collect the manuals into a central repository. A physical folder for printed manuals and a virtual folder on your PC or an Evernote notebook for PDF-manuals.
Then commit to regular study by scheduling reading sessions into your calendar. I'm serious, you need to schedule it in. Treat it like an appointment. Read a chapter while simultaneously following along the examples and explanations and trying out the features.
The investment of time will be worth it.
2) You Are A Seasoned Pro
If you've been involved in this crazy music business thingie for a while, here are the steps for you.
a) Collect all your manuals
Create a manuals folder on your computer and/or upload them to Evernote. This way, you have a backup and access from all your devices.
Put printed manuals on a bookshelf close to hand. If they are in another room and you'd have to interrupt your session and go get them, you simply won't do it.
b) Analyze your "weaknesses" and prioritize!
This is an essential step. You need to structure and organize your reading. Where are your weaknesses? What are your most used/most important apps?
- Your DAW?
- Your main synths?
- Your notation software?
- Your essential FX plugins?
Get a list going of which manuals you'll work through first! Where will you be getting the most value out of?
Let me suggest a 2-tiered approach. Pick one manual for intensive study (like your main DAW) and one secondary manual for a more casual approach (like a softsynth). Systematically work through your main selection and skim and playfully experiment with your secondary selection.
Create A Personal Knowledgebase
For serious results summarize what you learned in each session. Write cliff notes in an Evernote note, create a personal Wiki or knowledgebase or add new information you want to internalize/memorize into a spaced-repetition software like Anki. (An article about Anki and how to use it as a musician is already on my to-write list.)
It may sound weird, but soon you'll start enjoying to read manuals. They are not as dry as they used to be. Fortunately, those horrible 1980's manuals are a thing of the past.
You'll develop that expectation of learning something and being able to use your software better, which helps you create better music, have a more efficient workflow and, dare I say, have more fun in the process.
Link those positive feelings to reading manuals for creating an upward spiral.
Now get started on digging into those manuals. They are better than their reputation and all the knowledge and skills you'll build will make it worth it.
Have fun. 🙂