Picture this – you’re in a band, and you want to have a killer light show every night, but you don’t have anyone to run lights for you.
Money is tight already, and you certainly don’t have the budget to pay somebody else AND buy new lights!
While there are a number of different ways to make a great light show happen from stage, they each have their pluses and minuses, their pros and cons.
In this article, I want to work through the 5 ways of running your band lighting from stage so that you can have a clear picture of the options and figure out what is best for you!
You might think that automating your lighting show is going to be expensive, but it really doesn’t have to be.
In fact, you may be surprised how inexpensively it can be done and how good it can look! Let’s dive into the 5 different ways you can run your show from stage, starting with the simplest:
1. Sound Active Mode ($ – Free) (We Can Do Better)
The first and cheapest way of running your show from the stage is to use “sound active mode”.
It’s likely free because you simply take your lights and switch them into “sound active mode”. Then, you watch them strobe erratically and change color out of time with the music.
Okay, so maybe I over-exaggerated this, and there actually is 1 place that sound active mode does (kind of) work. That’s for DJ’s.
If you’re a DJ, then sound active mode can work well and give you a fairly dynamic show without you having to do anything….during the fast songs. But you might as well turn your lights off during slow songs – it’s just not worth the distraction!
As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of sound-active mode. It’s the “light-noise” that is worse for your show than having no lighting!
So, if you care about dynamics, which you do because it’s your music, we need to aim higher.
However, as students of stage lighting, we can do much better without much work or cost.
2. Basic Foot Pedal Controller Kits ($50-400)
Our next step up in complexity is the basic, non-MIDI foot pedal controllers that are out there. These units can give you some basic color or fixture changes during your songs, and is a step above the dreaded “sound-active” mode.
Because the functionality really depends on what unit you buy, here are a few examples of the different types of these controllers, how they work and what they can do for your band’s lighting rig!:
Basic Chase Controller
First up, we have the very basic, but also very cheap chase controller.
This basic chase controller can do 1 thing well – chase around conventional (non-LED) par cans. The feature that makes it better than the above mentioned sound-active mode is the fact that you do have control.
You can stop, adjust the speed, put the unit into a sound-active mode and black it out! The controller also features a “chase box” that provides the power to your par cans, so all you need is some par cans and this controller.
The upside to a chase controller like this is that you can use any brand of par can, which you may already own. The downside, of course, is that you can’t use LED’s or moving lights with this system!
But still, it allows you to actually change the lighting in rhythm with your music – and that’s a good thing!
LED Par System
The next option is a LED par system like this Chauvet 4Bar Lighting System.
A package like this can get you some slightly more complex lighting looks with a really easy, quick setup.
The foot controller packaged with the LED pars allows you to change colors, bring up built-in programs, put the unit into sound active mode and blackout.
So, for really upbeat songs, you can put the unit into a sound-active mode, and then when you’re about to launch into a ballad, drop the lights into a static color. Having control and using sound-active mode very selectively is a way to make a decent show without any effort!
The downside of such a unit is that you really can’t customize the color options or order, and your number of choices are fairly limited.
It’s a really great starting point for any band, and when you’re ready to move up to a more serious lighting controller, these lights can also be controlled by DMX.
So, the Chauvet 4Bar is a great starting point, because you can use 100% of the system in a better lighting rig as you upgrade to bigger and better things! Speaking of better…
3. Intermediate : Midi Notes ($200+)
The above control solutions are what I’d call “cute”.
They’re fine if you’re just starting out, and are a great way to improve your band’s lighting design from nothing. But they are far from ideal, and for just a little bit more cost, you can get a whole lot more functionality!
If you’ve got an existing lighting console with a MIDI port on the back of it, this could be the next step for you. (If not, skip down to #4…it’s not worth buying a console AND doing this)
Using basic MIDI note control, you can play through your show using a MIDI controller.
This way, you can create presets for every song you do, the make the lighting really magnify what you’re doing on stage.
The first piece of gear you need to acquire is a lighting controller that can control your rig well. In fact, before we even think about foot-pedal control, we need to get the whole show programmed into a controller that is midi-notes compatible and has an actual MIDI port. If it has a USB connection for MIDI via a computer, it’s not going to work for our purposes.
Every console will program differently, but the important part is that you are able to either a) assign specific MIDI notes to cues inside the controller or b) assign your MIDI controller to put out specific notes that correspond to the cues in the console.
That means you’ll next need a MIDI foot pedal. While there are many options, a good, value-priced unit is the Behringer FCB1010.
Or, alternatively, a MIDI keyboard controller – so your keyboardist or another band member can press the keys on cue to make the lighting change!
Then, once you’ve got all of your gear together, you get to make them talk via MIDI.
For the cheaper consoles, like the Chauvet Obey 40, you’re going to be programming the MIDI controller’s keys to line up with what the Obey 40 has permanently assigned for note triggers.
Most modern MIDI controllers have the ability to be programmed and patched around like this. Since the exact process to do this will vary by controller, be sure and check out your product manuals for the info you need to get it all set up.
Even with this flexibility, be warned that many controllers won’t allow you to set fade times on your cues, so all of your lighting changes will be “snap” changes.
However, for not much more cost, you can ditch your old lighting controller and really take your lighting to the next level with…
4. Enttec DMXIS ($300+ a PC)
This is where I really love the software solution Enttec DMXIS. This software fills the void between simple MIDI control and expensive automation in a simple-to-use package.
In fact, it’s the best way I’ve found to create a killer show on a budget. It’s worth far more than Enttec charges for it!
DMXIS is a PC/Mac application that makes it a piece of cake to assign MIDI notes and commands to faders, buttons, wheels – you name it!
You simply right-click on the cue, list, button or fader that you want to control, hit “learn” and press or move the button/fader/wheel on your MIDI controller and the software connects the 2.
No need to figure out numbers/channels/banks/etc, which is a real winner in my book!
Getting started with DMXIS is very simple. When you purchase the software, a DMX output box is shipped to you so that you can talk to your lights. You simply provide a computer that meets the specs of the software, which is not demanding. (Specs at Bottom of this link)
One of the biggest things I like about DMXIS is that it gives you the ability to make your show only as complicated as you desire.
You can begin with just a simple set of cues for each song, triggered by a 1/4″ footswitch, and graduate to a full-on MIDI-integrated OR timecode controlled masterpiece.
In fact, if you use software like Abelton Live, you can use DMXIS as a VST plugin to run your light show from the inside of your existing programming so you don’t have to worry about the lighting show – you just play back your tracks as usual!
If you’re completely new to lighting, and just want to add some lights to your band’s show, this may look confusing. The good news is this – not only is DMXIS easy to use, but I have also prepared a FREE guide just for you to get started with lighting. Click here to enter your email for my FREE guide – 3 Steps to Begin with Band Lighting.
5. Advanced: Timecode Control
Last, but certainly not least, I want to touch on timecode control.
This is a way for you to run a really complex, but very predictable show from on stage. What do I mean by that?
Well, if you run a click track or other backing tracks, you can add to that SMPTE time code, which will allow your tracks to speak with your lighting console. Then, you can have all of your lighting cues pre-programmed on autopilot to simply “go”.
Using timecode takes a lot of time to program at the start, and only pro-level consoles support this functionality. But it allows you to run a slick, incredibly complex show, night after night, with the power of a professional console behind it.
If you run DMXIS, there is also a powerful companion program that you can purchase called Showbuddy.
Showbuddy allows you to align your lighting cues with your music if you don’t already have a DAW playing your backing tracks. It is by far the simplest way I’ve found to accomplish a lighting show perfectly in sync with your tracks!
The downside to any timecode or DAW control is that you really can’t be spontaneous, and you’ve got to stick to your tracks – or else the light show won’t line up!
If you’re completely new to lighting and just want to add some lights to your band’s show, this may all seem very confusing.
For that reason, I have prepared a FREE guide just for you to get started with lighting. Invalid shortcode attributes
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