Shifting some boxes the other day, I came across the manual for my first new tape machine. The pages were well-thumbed, slightly dog-eared, and, on the technical specification pages, there were assorted annotations made by me when setting up the machine to record as hot as possible to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high, tape hiss being the bane of all playback systems in those far-off days. It was a slim volume, concise and to the point, explaining all the main controls, giving some hints and tips as to how to obtain the best results, with a couple of pages of specifications and an index. If you wanted to know more, you purchased the workshop manual, a much more serious publication with exploded diagrams, testing procedures, and a full set of part numbers for the experienced service engineer. Even with all that, it wasn’t a particularly weighty tome; there was only so much that could go wrong with a simple two-track tape machine, and I dutifully read both the instruction manual and, when I could afford to buy it, the service manual and put them on the shelf for future reference.

Not long after this, Pete, a young friend of mine and a sound designer in a different field, agreed to test a piece of software that I’d been nagging him to try for a couple of years. He downloaded the demo package and assured me he’d give it a thorough workout. There was silence for a while and then the emails began. Pete’s a child of the digital age; he doesn’t do conversation. As such, communication with Pete is via email for detail, text for terse comments, and Twitter when he wants to vent his frustration.

The first emails were all with regard to fairly simple procedures that he wanted to carry out but couldn’t work out how to make happen: Could I fill him in? I gave a quick description of how to solve his various problems, almost invariably finishing with, “There’s a good description in the manual.” Silence reigned again for a while after that and then came the grumpy text messages: “how u mak it do….?” My texting speed is about the same as a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript, and my replies gradually took longer and longer to thumb in to the phone as I tried to work out texting shortcuts for various complex procedures. Shortly after, the bad-tempered and invective-laced Tweets started to arrive. I can’t give you examples, because this is a high-class publication and those words have no place on these pages.

Not having yet discovered how to get still more complex instructions for sophisticated software into 140 letters, I finally managed to get him on the phone (Skype, of course, as he’s across the other side of the world from me) and, with the software up and running on my own machine, guided him through the problems he was having. Slowly, his temper improved, and he began to appreciate what I saw in the program, but he continued to grumble about how initially unintuitive he found it and how difficult it had been for him to find his way around the program at first. It was then that I uttered the words, “But it’s all in the manual. All you needed to do was look it up.” Back came the reply: “I don’t do manuals. If I can’t work out how to use something without the manual, I don’t bother with it. And anyway, this one’s effing enormous.” (Can I write effing? I think I can write effing. He did actually say “effing” and not the full word. Sorry, I digress.)

I’d always thought that it was a canard that real men don’t read manuals, but Pete’s scathing reply gave me pause: I, of course, being the quaint, old-fashioned soul that I am, had read this particular manual. At least, I’d read the actual, physical manual that came with version one of the software many years before and then printed off the various “new in this version” addenda that arrived with each new iteration, but I’d not actually read the latest full manual. I downloaded the PDF from the manufacturer’s website and opened it up to have a look. I seemed to remember that the paper version had been quite chunky, but when I scrolled through the latest version, I was somewhat shocked to discover that it now ran more than 600 pages. What’s more, after a brief browse through various sections, I became all too aware that, although I’d printed out the “what’s new in this version” sections, I hadn’t necessarily carried the action to its logical conclusion and actually read them. There were whole swathes of the program that I knew nothing about, new concise methodologies that circumvented what had been arcane work-arounds in early versions, rafts of extra keyboard shortcuts, and whole new advanced sections of the program that I’d never even seen.

I went through all of my most used programs and downloaded and examined the latest manuals for the versions that I owned. If I’d printed them out, entire forests would have been laid waste to supply the paper. They were all huge—hundreds of pages of detailed descriptions, examples, diagrams, and pictures—and bore little or no relation to the printed manuals that still grace my technical bookshelf. I started to think about equations like the relationship between time spent reading a manual and time wasted trying to work out how to do things without recourse to the manual. You see it on the message boards all the time; a plea will go out from some poor harassed grunt stuck in the boondocks with a fretful cast, an apoplectic director, and a seemingly insurmountable problem. Such is the camaraderie of our profession that an answer will come winging its way back in short order, although these days, all too rarely accompanied by the words, “You can find this information for yourself on page 375 of the instruction manual. You have read the manual, haven’t you?” Or more succinctly, “RTFM,” which was one of the first message board acronyms that I became familiar with, such was its widespread use in less polite days gone by.

With the plethora of multifunctional hardware items available to the sound design world, time spent reading the manual is a wise investment and all but essential as upgrades and bug-fixes drop from the heavens like so much digital dew. Intensive and comprehensively documented training days are held by manufacturers of the major mixing desks, and any self-respecting production sound engineer now carries a set of manuals for the gear that he oversees in PDF format on a laptop or, increasingly, on an iPad, or similar tablet.

But for every manual-reading engineer out there coping with hardware in the world of software, there’s someone like Pete, who does actually seem to believe that reading the manual is some kind of admission of failure, and it’s difficult to know how to involve the Petes of this world. Many programs use context sensitive help menus and pop-up tool tips, or they link to the latest version of manuals via the web, all of which are useful compromises, but I’ve come to believe strongly that, as the software that we use gets more and more complex, reading the manual should be the very first action that we take after tearing the shrink-wrap off the box, or opening up the downloaded file, rather than something that we do after hours of hair-tearing frustration.

Mind you; it isn’t just in our world that people are guilty of NRTFM. Shortly after I got married, my mother-in-law, knowing that I used a particular word-processing program, phoned me for some light problem-solving. I pointed out gently that all she needed to know was in the manual. “Oh, I don’t have a manual,” she admitted. Why didn’t she have a manual? A friend of hers who worked in an office had kindly installed the program on her computer, because it was really expensive to buy a copy, wasn’t it? It’s not often that you get the chance to lecture your mother-in-law on software piracy, and I may have laid it on a bit thick, and I may well lay it on a bit thick again in another article, but that’s for later. Right now, I need to update my website so I can offer my new effects libraries for sale. Now, WTF did I do with that manual?

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for 40 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound. His two new libraries, The Voice Of Poseidon and Sounds Of Flight, are available online at www.johnleonard.co.uk/immersive.html. Live Design readers receive a special offer of 30% discount: use the code LDM30 when ordering.

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