Learning Software, Part 2: Upgrading Efficiently

By • July 16, 2008

In part one of this mini-series, we examined the creation of and reliance on a crib sheet containing a matrix of highly condensed and abbreviated “how-to’s” for the software you must master. This collection is really a 3- or 4-page distillation of the manual, which is usually better organized as a first-time tutorial, not as a quick and constant resource. A second form of crib sheet not covered in part one is a separate and far more simple and compact one containing an index of oft-used, but difficult to remember, tidbits of disparate data which may not even be in the manual. Mine included items such as macro triggers, useful elements from obscure fonts, less-used key bindings, midi parameters, panning assignments, etc. By necessity, it’s a one-page crib, always in view alongside the more complicated volume we discussed in part one. Essentially a trivia log for your work, it involves a little effort to organize and continually update, but possesses the advantage that these voluminous obscure elements don’t ever have to get it all the way into your head unless repetitive access firmly plants them there. You are ready to go as soon as you log each one.

For instance, when I figured out that a lot of my dynamics and word expressions in Finale worked better as articulations, the good news was that hundreds could be placed by inputting the right corresponding numbers. The bad news was that hundreds had to be placed by supplying hundreds of the right corresponding numbers. Difficult to do by memory, but a snap with the right crib.

Now let’s tackle the issue of upgrades to software you’ve already mastered. As a general approach, go first to the developer’s printed or digital brochure which trumpets the new features and advantages. It may be rudimentary, but it makes a good starting point to investigate and assimilate in your crib sheet what’s new and/or different. However, since these brochures essentially are only headlines, you should contact the developer and see if there is more complete documentation of all substantive changes available. The microscopic ones you will find through ongoing use and can be noted as you go.

People usually think of macros or key bindings simply as useful slaves, extending your “reach” by accomplishing tasks or mouse actions through a surrogate keystroke. However, if you think of macros as highly retentive ways to personally reorient and customize your posture toward software (and memorize its minutiae) you can surpass mere efficiency; they can also act as a buffer between upsetting change and comfortable familiarity.

Some of the skulduggery in upgrading performance consists of simply rearranging the furniture, i.e., moving old tools and features to new places for more logical integration with new tools and features. If you have shortcuts which used to summon these elements at the old locations, spend an hour or less pointing them toward the new ones and then go on your merry way, working as you used to. And, if you ever need quick access to the “according to Hoyle” method, it’s there in abbreviated form on your crib sheet, which you should update in the same manner as it was first created.

Other upgrade strategies involve doing familiar tasks more eloquently (and often complicatedly.) Once reprogrammed, some of your old macros can assimilate the new methods and eliminate some of your learning load. For instance, if the look and feel of your old score page is the result of a complex formula, some of which has been changed in the new regime, reprogram a macro to fill in the revamped variables to get you back to your cherished appearance, without repeatedly getting your hands dirty.

Software developers are always second-guessing the priorities of their users. But suppose you have your own approach to using their product? When Finale first took all of its tools out of a pallet and put them in a menu, I reacted by macroing them all with much more nimble and, coincidentally, easier to remember keystrokes. If your upgraded software now thinks “mixer” (command-M,) but you instinctively think “board,” macro that sucker to something like “command-B” and you’ll remember it more easily.

Of course, anything completely new or transformed may require the crib sheet strategies we talked about in part one. Any new macros you must develop, however, can be regarded as investments in easing the transition to your next upgrade.

Software is everywhere, and your strength as an industrial musician depends on its mastery; it can also leave you incapacitated and/or unemployed if you put it to use before you’re ready. What matters is results, and no one cares whether or not it’s all in your head. Use the above approaches, and you can not only hit the ground running, you can be sprinting.

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