RTFM? Gee, I’d love to…

One of the dubious benefits of being a music technology guru is that I have ridiculous numbers of high-end programs on my hard drive. After my fiasco earlier today trying to get Cubase to handle multi-output audio coming from VST plug-ins, I sulked for a couple of hours, drove down to the corner to buy two very fattening macadamia nut/white chocolate cookies, and then started thinking about other ways to get where I want to go musically.

I have Sonar 8.5 here. I’ve barely looked at it. Maybe it’s time to finally break down and learn Sonar.

First the good news: In preliminary tests, Sonar seems entirely happy to handle at least three simultaneous audio output streams coming from Spectrasonics Omnisphere. This puts it a giant leap ahead of Cubase, which chokes and spits up.

Now for the bad news: Sonar’s manual is all but impenetrable. The problem, and it’s deeply rooted, is this: The people who wrote the manual know what they’re talking about. As a result, they apparently feel no need to explain much of anything to the reader.

Right now I’m trying to learn how one would edit notes in the piano-roll window. The first page I consult in the online help has a nice big screenshot of the piano-roll window. It shows several panes, such as the Track List pane and the Drum Grid pane, that are not visible in the actual window I’m looking at in Sonar. Nothing on this page, however, instructs you how to open any of those panes. It’s just a diagram of, “Hey, here they are.”

The next page is called “Note Map Pane.” Sounds promising, right? Well, there’s nothing on that page. Or rather, there are two sentences, the second of which contains a clickable link to a different page that is also called “The Note Map Pane.” This might suggest that a bit more organizational thought would not have been amiss. Or something.

Does the second page called “The Note Map Pane” tell you how to open the Note Map pane? No, it does not. Among the other things it doesn’t do is explain to the novice why one might want to engage in a little note mapping. I happen to know that, because I’ve been using MIDI sequencers for precisely as long as there have been MIDI sequencers — but if I didn’t, I’d be baffled.

Okay, let’s try the page called “Adding and Editing Notes in the Piano Roll.” This page has, be it noted, no screenshots or diagrams of any kind. The first sentence, in its entirety, reads as follows: “You add notes in the Piano Roll view or Inline Piano Roll view by first choosing a note duration in the Piano Roll toolbar (or in the current track’s Note Duration menu if you’re using the Inline Piano Roll view), and then clicking in the view with the Draw tool at the pitch location and time location where you want the note to go.”

The thing is, the Sonar interface is totally studded with little tiny buttons. There are more than 60 of them in two rows along the top of the main window. These buttons are not labelled. So where would I find “the Piano Roll toolbar”? What does it look like? And what would I do in the Piano Roll toolbar in order to choose a note duration? Nothing on this page explains those little details. As with note mapping, I happen to know what an Inline Piano Roll view is. If I didn’t, this page wouldn’t help me. There’s not even a clickable cross-reference to the page where the Inline Piano Roll view is described.

This is what I mean by saying the authors of the manual know what they’re talking about. The meaning of that sentence is perfectly obvious, I’m sure, to them. But it’s not obvious to anyone who would actually need to use the manual.

I haven’t gotten very far in the manual yet, so I’m not sure whether what I’m seeing is due to the linear data presentation fallacy, but just for the record: Manual authors quite often pitch headlong into the linear data presentation fallacy. The linear data presentation fallacy is this: The author assumes that the reader of the manual will begin on page 1 and read straight through to the current page, not skipping over anything, and will surely remember exactly what was said fifty or a hundred pages back. Thus, there’s no need to explain it a second time, nor to provide cross-references. This is a failure of the manual writer to understand how the document will be used. Nobody reads a manual that way. (Well, perhaps a few timid middle-school students do, if they come from conservative homes.) The way you use a manual is, when you have a question, you find the page that relates to your question, and you read that page.

The consequence of this entirely unremarkable utilization strategy is that every page has to explain everything. This is, of course, inconvenient for the manual author, who is almost certainly very underpaid and working under an unreasonably tight deadline, and who may in addition not have access to the program as he’s doing the writing.

I speak from experience here. Native Instruments once contracted with me to write a manual. The contract specified that I would need a certain period of time with the software prior to my deadline — two or three weeks, I forget the exact number. On the date when I was supposed to receive the software, it was not yet ready. I said, “Well, in that case we’ll have to push my deadline back by the same number of days that the delivery is delayed.” The fellow at NI said, no, they couldn’t change my deadline. It would remain the same.

At that point I explained to him that NI were in violation of the contract, which I had negotiated in good faith. If they wanted me to do the work in less time, they were going to have to pay extra for a rush job. And of course they weren’t willing to do that. So I didn’t write the manual. When you’re a freelancer, you have to set your own boundaries, because nobody else is going to set them for you.

It would not surprise me to learn that the Sonar manual was produced under similar circumstances. My ire at this pale excuse for documentation is not directed at the manual’s overworked and unappreciated authors, whoever they may be. Nor is it directed at Sonar, Cakewalk, or their corporate masters at Roland. They’re not doing anything that most of the other companies in the music software industry aren’t also doing.

All I wanted to say, really, is — how discouraging. Here you’ve got a possible convert to Sonar-wonderfulness, an individual who already knows a whole lot about the technology and doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding with the basics … but your manual doesn’t provide the information that he needs in order to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks in the UI.

How will an actual novice, a newcomer to the technology, deal with this type of challenge? I don’t even want to think about it.

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