Since about the time I got my first groovebox (Roland MC505), I noticed that it generally doesn’t take me that long to learn and start using a new piece of music equipment. Usually within a week or two I feel pretty comfortable with something I recently purchased, and most likely it’s already gotten used in one of my songs too.
I never really thought about this until just recently though, when someone asked me how I learned the Octatrack so quickly. Well, aside from the fact that I’ve already owned the Monomachine and Machinedrum before I got the Octatrack, I really wasn’t sure how to answer that. I mean, I do pretty much the same thing any time I buy something new for the studio, so I guess the best way to answer that question is to lay out how I approach a new purchase.
These days I pretty much take a long time to decide whether or not I want something new in the studio. It takes me a awhile to research what I think I want, see what else out there might also fit that role, and investigate if the workflow really appeals to me. I don’t care how many features something has, if it’s hard to get to them, I’m likely not going to bother.
I’m sure this will cause some people to groan, but one of the first things I do when I’m seriously considering buying something is to download and read the manual. Doesn’t matter if it’s hardware, a DAW, a speaker, or a guitar, I like to read the manual front to back before I make up my mind most of the time. This step is less about learning specific functions, or studying all it’s functions, as it is figuring out the overall layout and organization it has.
Most gear is organized in layers of complexity or functions. For instance, a groovebox might have separate menus for song layouts, pattern editing, or part synthesis. A plug-in might be organized by each of it’s function like LFO’s, Envelopes, or Oscillators. So the first time I’m reading through a manual, it’s just a quick skim to get a handle on how everything is organized, as well as to sort of mentally decide which areas of the machine I’m going to use more than others.
Which brings me to the next thing I always do when I buy some new music equipment; I learn it with a plan in mind. Maybe I want to write a new song using it, or prep a live set, or even perhaps generate a pool of audio samples to use later. The point is that I start working with a specific goal in mind, so I can go through a complete task from start to completion.
By reading the manual quickly first, I get a rough idea of how I can use something, such as:
– What areas does it seem to focus on, i.e. synthesis, sequencing, or sound manipulation?
– What areas does it NOT seem suited for? Do you have to stop playback to save your settings? If so, then likely not a good live tool.
– Is the noise floor really high? If so, then probably not something I’d want to master with, etc.
– Is it stable, does it crash or act unexpectedly even rarely based on user comments?
– Do I have to memorize a lot of cryptic symbols or abbreviations?
Figuring all this stuff out before I even buy something means that once it arrives, I can dive in and start working in the areas I think will make the most sense to me and how I envision it’s use in my studio. I don’t waste time at this point learning functions that I may or may not ever use, I jump in with the important tasks in mind. It’s all about breaking down a piece of gear into parts, and focusing on the ones I KNOW I want to use first. If it can’t do the main tasks well, then I don’t need to bother with the little features either.
Usually within a couple days I can dive in and more or less figure out the basic structure and how it works. I’ll probably sketch out a song using it, just to force myself to see how it works in a situation I’m likely going to use it in again in the future. Having the manual handy helps a lot for quick referencing, and I have to admit I love having all my gear PDF’s on my iPad next to me in the studio. Makes looking up the answers to a question very fast, so I don’t waste much time on it and lose a good idea.
After a couple weeks of use, I usually decide to change things up and try something new with it. I’ll force myself to use it in a way that I might not have initially. Maybe if I was sequencing it with a DAW, I’ll try using it’s internal sequencer instead. Or I’ll use a new EQ solely for a week for all my studio needs. Just setting some limitations that are different from how I’d normally approach a certain piece of gear.
The point is to approach it in a way that didn’t first occur to me. This means a lot more menu diving as I explore new functions I didn’t remember in my first manual read. Sometimes I’ll check out YouTube vids explaining these functions too, just to see how other people are using it. After a few little exercises like this, I then go back and….
…read the manual again.
I know, I know, it’s a sickness I hear, but I do actually read gear manuals to help myself get up to speed on how they work. Silly I know. Anyway, this time I’m focusing less on the overall structure of things, and more on certain tasks that I find myself using again and again. Am I doing it the most efficient way? Are there short-cut key combos that will save me time? Am I backing up everything correctly?
This is where I get into the nitty gritty of certain functions and make sure I’m not missing anything that will save me time based on how I’m already using the new purchase. Slightly more in-depth, but I tend to skip over the sections of things I know I have a good grasp of already. Having whatever I’m studying about close at hand helps a lot, as I can actually go through the act of whatever I’m reading about. Meaning I’m that much more likely to remember how to do it in the future.
Doing something sticks with you longer than reading something!
At this point it’s probably been 3-4 weeks and I’d estimate I know about 90% of what I need to know. Depends on what it is too, a simple plug-in might only take me a couple of days to really grasp. After that it’s usually just the occasional manual dive to refresh how to do something I had forgotten.
For the more complex pieces of gear I buy, things like synths, grooveboxes, drum machines, DAWs, etc I might try and complete a couple projects using only those tools. Just to force myself to look at them in different ways, and re-evaluate what their strengths are.
For really complex things, like DAWs, high end synths, or complex plug ins, I might even go back and read the manual again a couple years later. Even though I probably know the item really well by that point, there hasn’t been a time yet where I didnt learn about some new function that was added in an update, or relearn about some time saving tips I forgot about.
I think if there’s any one rule I follow when learning something new, it’s to decide ahead of time to focus on the most useful functions first based on my own needs. Then slowly drill down and learn the things you’ll use less frequently, or maybe that didn’t make much sense at first. As you get more and more familiar with something, you can spend more time learning the finer points of it, when it’s not going to hold you back from using it day to day because you already know the major functions it has.
And of course, the more you do something, the better you’ll get at it always holds true, so just focus on spending as much time using the new gear as possible.