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GODRIC WILKIE: Finding Information

Sounding Off
Published May 1997

"Please read the manual!" runs the time‑honoured advice — but what do you do when the information you need just isn't anywhere to be found? Godric Wilkie has a pertinent tale to tell and a plea to make...

Manual labour can be hard work. When you hit a snag in your software, or find something you want to do which you know must be possible if only you could guess where they've hidden the commands, then — being a sensible person — you turn to the manual. But even supposing that you can define the exact nature of what you need to find out, if you can't find that particular topic in the Contents pages and there's no mention of it in the Index, then all you can do is read the wretched book from cover to cover — and you could still end up without any answers. You'll end up phoning the software helpline yet again, and waiting patiently in the queue for as long as it takes; eventually you'll get an answer that's probably reasonable enough. So why couldn't they tell you that in the first place? Why can't manufacturers give us the information we need?

My questions were: how do I move an audio region in a Pro Tools session to a later time in the session so that the automation I've painstakingly built up moves with it? And how do I select all regions (and automation) to the right of this point in the session so that I can move it all as one lump to later in the session? Not unreasonable queries, you might think. Aha...

Let me give you some background. I've been using Digidesign's Sound Tools and MasterList programs to edit CD masters for clients since about 1989 (I've been told that I had one of the first systems in the country). Some years ago, I that realised my SE30 was going to be left behind by Digidesign and it was time to upgrade. I decided to buy a 4‑track Pro Tools system for the primary reason that the D/A to A/D conversion hardware was better quality than in the system I had, and for the secondary reason that occasionally there had been sessions (admittedly only a couple) where having an extra two tracks would have made my job a lot easier.

Then the other day a client phoned up to say that he wanted to edit a CD's worth of music — nine tracks of about six minutes each — without gaps and, in a few places, to overlay the crossfade between tracks with dialogue, and we decided to assemble the edited tracks using Pro Tools.

Once we'd positioned the tracks, we drew in automation envelopes to adjust and match the levels between tracks. While we were doing this, we had to move a region slightly and I assumed (not unreasonably, I feel) that if I moved the audio, Pro Tools would take care of moving the automation with it. Alas, I was wrong: I had to move the automation separately. On this occasion it didn't bother me too much, but I thought it a little eccentric (and my client thought it totally daft) that the automation and audio were apparently unlinked.

A few weeks later the client called again, wanting to insert a new track between the existing tracks 3 and 4. This time I knew that I really had to work out how to move both the audio and the automation at the same time (I wasn't going to redraw 40 minutes of automation!) — and it would also be nice if there was a quick way of selecting all the stuff to the right of the third track and moving it as one.

Never mind how bad it looked to the client, then — out came the manual (luckily, I'd already admittted that I didn't know the program very well). But 10 minutes later I still hadn't discovered the answer, despite having looked up what seemed to me all the even slightly relevant items in the index. If you look up 'block mode' in the current manual's index, it refers you to page 19 — where you find no mention of it at all. Look at page 108 and the explanation for the existence of block mode is that it speeds up screen redraws — there's no mention that it also has the effect of grouping automation and audio together. Likewise, there's no explanation of the 'Select all to the right' shortcut. It doesn't seem to be mentioned in pages 175‑179, which deal with selection techniques — although, randomly enough, it does appear on the keyboard shortcuts card.

So — and this was even worse than consulting a manual in front of a client — I called Digidesign's customer support (Hello Giles). I got through to an answering machine, and left my query and a request for response within 15 minutes. In the meantime, I called a few people I knew who had Pro Tools systems, including the esteemed editor of this very publication. The general response was "Yes, it's a bit of a problem with Pro Tools..." It had occurred to me that if I could select all the automation, change to the waveform displays, and then shift‑click on all the audio regions and move them, the previously selected automation should move too. This worked: it was extremely laborious, but it got the job done. A few minutes later, Giles called back and told me that if the 'Region block mode' display is used, automation and audio get moved together. This also worked and was quicker than my method. Giles also told me a keyboard shortcut for 'Select everything to the right'.

Now, full marks to Giles at Digidesign for getting back to me quite quickly and telling me what I needed to know, but why could I not find out either of these two facts from the manual? I'm not even saying that they're not in there — though two of us hunting certainly couldn't find them, and nor, it seems, could the few other users I called — but if you can't actually locate information, it might just as well not be there.

By the way, I'm not really picking on Digidesign: try looking up any of the 'render' filters, or the 'hardlight/softlight' modes in any of the three Photoshop manuals produced by Adobe — there's diddly squat on them. No wonder there are so many third‑party 'Photoshop For The Cognitively Disadvantaged' books around. (In contrast, the new Max manuals are really quite good.)

Much of the money that you and I pay for software is not for the R&D of the software itself, but for support — both manuals, and the techies you talk to on the phone. Since the latter represent an ongoing employment commitment, they are likely to be a considerable cost to the software company. It seems to me that if the manuals were properly written and sensibly indexed — and that means re‑indexing following re‑pagination as well — then most enquiries could be answered by users looking in the book. We'd all spend less time in phone queues, and the companies could save money on staff.

So software producers — write better manuals, get rid of a few tech support staff (sorry, Giles) and pass the savings on to us.