What makes a good manual?

This has been on my mind for awhile: what makes a good manual? I’m always thankful when a piece of music equipment I acquire comes with a good manual. I enjoy tutorial videos, certainly, and listening to audio examples. A good manual, however, is a thing unto itself. It’s a way to learn, and it serves as a reference source, and it sometimes even introduces creative ideas. It can be, in other words, cultural in addition to technical.

A manual isn’t either good or bad. There are lots of constituent elements. Part of a manual may be useful, while other parts may be flawed. I am hopeful for a conversation here about what those constituent parts are — what makes a manual work for you?

(To be clear, my hope here is to discuss what makes an excellent manual with shared examples, not to spend time bemoaning examples/companies that we think don’t do a sufficient job.)


Actual examples. I like the manual that comes with the Koma Field Kit because it contains a number of ways to ‘wire it up’ and you can go astray from there. Maybe it was because I was a fan of those ‘200 electronics projetcs!’ things you could get from Radio Shack back in the day or something, but I love a good concrete example.


Yeah, I really appreciate patching/routing examples. The 4MS Spectral Multiband Resonator really focused my thoughts on this topic. It had very useful patch examples (even if one of them essentially suggests that you obtain a second one of the modules).

My Mackie mixer, on a more mundane note, also came with clear examples of how it might be used to different ends (nothing on no-input mixing :slight_smile: but plenty of practical examples).




  • Thorough and detailed.
  • Clearly written using standard English grammar.
  • Jargon is clearly defined
  • Prior knowledge is not assumed
  • A personal connection with the audience. This is hard. It’s a question of tone and presentation. People might talk about “humor” or “personality” but these things should really be whatever your particular audience is likely to respond to. Maybe your audience appreciates brevity more than detail.

Good list, I would add “organized” to the list. One of my gripes with the Octatrack manual was that you would need to flip between different sections to complete one operation. Maybe that was just the nature of that beast - I sold mine awhile ago, so maybe my frustration with the manual is tied with my impression of the gear.

Ableton Live has an excellently written, detailed, and well organized manual with some nice touches of personality and humor.


One of my gripes with the Octatrack manual was that you would need to flip between different sections to complete one operation

I still have PTSD from that fucking thing. That manual may as well have been written in a foreign language. In addition, every iteration of the software basically obsoleted the manual.


An index is also quite helpful, if well done.


I like manuals that are fairly basic and to the point. Something that gives me the information I need to explore a module. I appreciate ones that go to the effort of having examples etc but it’s not something for me that defines a good manual.

A decent diagram of the module.
Description of the inputs, outputs, knobs and LEDs.
Voltage ranges for inputs and outputs.
Knob behaviour - attenuate/attenuverter etc - does it differ if CV is present or not?
LED behaviour, especially if multi-colour.
If there’s any menu driven or multi-functional control then a diagram and description of how to use that.
For Euro modules in particular - clear power cable instructions. I don’t give a hoot about the red stripe - tell me which side is -12v (and ideally have it marked on the pcb!)

Examples - I like the Mutable Instruments manuals. Short, to the point and they provide the sort of information I want.

This one is important to me, at least: manuals should be available in a format that is easily accessible. One good thing about PDFs is that you can write on them, mark them up, take screenshots of important information. (I find a lot of iOS apps in particular depend on online-only manuals. You’re working on an iPad, for example, and you click the How To section, and it tries to connect to a website, which I might not be able to access at that moment because I might be somewhere with poor reception.)

I had a minibrute 2s for a minute and I think of their manual to be an especially good one. I found it to be exhaustive without being exhausting.

It had a clear table of contents, so one could skip over some of the introductory stuff if they chose. It also employed plain, yet concise language that beginners and seasoned musicians could understand. It had great visuals, using both color and symbology, to convey ideas and concepts. The end of the manual has a nifty little section for all of the “shift functions” listed out for reference. That’s nice.

But the best thing it had going for it was the “cook book” of different patches to both understand how the machine functions and where one could begin a new patch. You should check it out!


That said, I also appreciate one-pagers that allow the user to explore with minimal base knowledge provided by the manufacturer.

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Yeah, I appreciate a quick-start guide, too.

A lot already mentioned, but I like colors (if there are) to be differentiated enough that I don’t have problems with my mild++ color blindness.

in theory I agree with your list, but I find that Mannequins, in breaking most of these rules, have made a much more generative (ugh, that word) manual than any of the other Eurorack manuals I’ve read, while still remaining plenty useful. The W/ manual even turned me on to the music of Dakim as part of a useful use suggestion.

I like the Max/MSP help patches as an example of the potential software documentation has. (the lack of a thorough-going general manual bothers me, though)

Ableton’s manual, I have to say, has been the most pleasant surprise to read from; the explanation of what they’ve modeled each piece after, from the session view down to the device parameters is clear, concise and includes plenty of inspiration in the form of asides.


I agree that max help patches are fantastic. And that’s the only bit I’m going to reply to. :wink:


for hardware, full electrical schematics are always appreciated

edit: or an easily attainable service manual!


Functional block diagrams.

Perhaps they just appeal to me as an engineer, but also they communicate using a language which is already known to modular synthesists: patching. I know it can take a lot of magic (ie mysticism) out of a module to shine a spotlight on its guts… but so many modules are just a “patch-in-a-box” and I want to see it!


ARP 2600 manual is one of the greatest, assumes nothing and so acts as a very good introduction to subtractive synthesis, it has a personality and sounds like one guy talking to you, because it is.

There is humour and digressions and finally some nice patch examples that ramp up in difficulty to the end of the book.

Also the diagrams are hand drawn which is adorable


My kind of manual


Madrona labs manuals are a joy to read.

They are fun, detailed, and have amazing artwork to boot. When reading you get the impression a lot of love went into them.