Technology: A beginner's guide to lighting consoles
Technology: A beginner's guide to lighting consoles
In the second part of his lighting consoles feature, Elation’s Bob Mentele guides us through the factors to consider when selecting a lighting controller
Last month, we took a look at how lighting control developed over the past few decades. With a little knowledge under our belt, we are ready to look into the current control options available to us, and how to choose the best one for an application. There are numerous variables involved in choosing a lighting controller, but we will step through some of the most important.
The initial information that we need to collect is in regard to the lighting fixtures that are connected to the system. The feature set needed in a console is directly dependent on what needs to be controlled or will need to be controlled if there are plans to upgrade the lighting in the future. We also need to pay close attention to the quantity of fixtures the system has or will have and the number of DMX channels they require in total. If the lighting is completely dimmer-based, or single intensity parameter LED, then we can look at a very basic dimming controller, or perhaps a two-scene preset console.
These come in various sizes and capabilities but are usually limited on the maximum number of DMX channels they can control, typically around 48. Some allow for recording of presets, or cues for show playback, while others do not. While these consoles do have limited channel control capabilities, we could operate more fixtures if we address multiple units to the same DMX address. They would simply be controlled by the same fader or channel but would allow some expansion and flexibility if there isn’t room in the budget for the purchase of a larger console. These consoles can also be used to control any DMX device, they just do not contain the interfaces needed to control them efficiently, so it isn’t recommended to use them for multi-parameter fixtures.
For small LED colour mixing systems where budgets are tight and more eloquent control is desired, there are a few specifically designed consoles that help to make mixing colours and using other features a little easier. These types of consoles also tend to be affordable, but they do lack some features that larger consoles have. They are also typically limited on the number of fixtures they can control but, again, we can address multiple units to the same DMX address to stretch the capabilities a little more. These consoles tend to have quick access buttons to recall popular premixed colours and some have the ability to record presets as well for future use. When choosing to use this type of console, you will want to make sure to check that the colour mix in your fixtures will match with the supported colour mix(es) of the controller as some are limited to one or two. Also, if you have a system of multiple variations of colour mixes, I would not recommend this type of console because the light output from the fixtures will not be consistent. You will want to look into something more advanced.
For small systems that include a mix of different types of devices – conventional, LED colour mixing and moving lights – there are what we call hybrid consoles available. These consoles include some hardware that makes control of moving lights easier – things like encoders, joysticks, various executor buttons and perhaps a small touchscreen. At this level, most consoles will allow for preset and cue recording and playback. Some will also make running effects easier with the addition of an Effects Engine, or a collection of prebuilt and editable effects and chases that can be recalled and assigned to specific lights. Colour chases, strobe effects, movement of moving lights in various shapes and speeds are easily added to a show with this capability.
While these consoles do provide an interface that is better designed for programming multi-parameter fixtures, they still tend to be limited in the number of devices that can be controlled, and they also may have limitations on the number of DMX channels a fixture can use. Fixtures that allow for pixel control of cells may not be supported with a console like this. Another limitation that most of these consoles have is the lack of ability to connect an external monitor for additional display space. That can make programming a larger system difficult to keep track of and it can cause issue when multiple users need to be aware of the various programming that’s been done on the console as well.
For the most complete control of a lighting system, have a look into a fully integrated lighting console. These consoles can handle any and all device types. The only major limitation to them is the maximum number of DMX universes that they can control. Some console manufacturers limit the output capabilities of the consoles until you pay an upgrade fee, while others sell the consoles “unlocked” or with no artificial DMX limitations. The limitations placed on consoles will be dependent on the computer processor that is used in them. Some will allow for up to 64 universes of DMX, or over 32,000 channels of control. At this point in control, the variations will mostly be on the interface side. Most consoles within a series will run the same or similar software, so functionality is the same, but, as the consoles get larger and more expensive, you gain more access to various features through the inclusion of more faders, encoders and executor buttons. These consoles will typically have integrated touchscreen monitors and will also allow for the use of additional external monitors so that you can display more information about the system and the current programming being run. These consoles tend to be the most reliable of any type because the hardware used in them is of higher quality and the consoles are designed to take more abuse from the users. The software in these consoles also tends to be continually developed and improved by the manufacturers. They are constantly removing bugs and adding new features to extend the life of the product. Updates are also made to make them more powerful and easier to use with new lighting fixture technology. While these consoles are going to be the most expensive, they will also last the longest.
Another possible control method for a lighting system is through the use of software on a computer. This has become another very popular method because you tend to get a lot of features and power for a low price; Onyx from Obsidian Control Systems is free and allows for four universes of DMX output. Typically, you are using the same software as a fully integrated lighting console, but you save money by not buying the large hardware device and screen that is included in a console. One big downside is that it will take additional time to control your fixtures because you are lacking the physical interface that enables a user to work quickly. You will also need to include a convertor when planning to use software, either a device to convert USB to DMX or a network to DMX gateway.
This is what will be used to connect the computer to the lighting system. When using software for lighting control, it is highly recommended that the computer running the program be dedicated to that purpose only, and not connected to the internet. The last thing anyone needs is to overdrive their computer with too many tasks, making it crash in the middle of a service. One suggestion is to look for software that allows for the use of a USB interface. This would enable you to grow your control capabilities as budget becomes available, or as your system grows.
There are some companies that offer multiple interfaces of varying sizes and prices. Adding an interface to a software control application will help to increase the speed and ease of controlling your lighting fixtures or recalling presets. Even with adding a simple interface, the cost of a software control application is still typically lower than that of a dedicated console. Like dedicated consoles, developers are constantly improving the software, so you are able to stay up to date with this method as well.
The choosing of a lighting controller can be a very personal decision. Each type of console will use its own method and language to control the lighting, which may or may not mesh with how you, your team and your system work. If you are looking to make an investment in a new lighting console, make sure to research its capabilities and limitations. When looking to purchase a fully integrated console, download the software and try it on a computer first to get a feel for it. Ask your dealer for a demo and use it in your space. Try as many as you need to until you get the right one. It’ll be worth it.