How Do I Choose My First (or Next) Lighting Console?

lighting consoles lighting software Nov 07, 2022

Perhaps this is your dilemma - you run lights for a band/school/church/small company, and you can't figure out which console to buy.

Got your attention?  

It's not a shocking headline or anything, but, I know that this is a struggle that you have.  In fact, if you're frustrated with your lighting, it's probably because you're using the wrong console for your needs!

Choosing your first (or next) lighting console can be one of the most overwhelming searches you find yourself on.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of different lighting consoles on the market, and their marketing teams all want you to believe that they're the best thing since sliced bread!

While some consoles are just plain bad, most desks on the market are a perfect fit for a certain application.

When you have the correct console for your needs, programming and playing back a great show is almost effortless.

When you don't have the correct console, however, lighting can be a nightmare!

While it might initially seem complicated to find the right console, it doesn't have to be.  In fact, there are really only 3 categories of consoles out there, and once you understand those, it's much easier to find the right console for your needs.

In this article, we're going to dive in to the differences between Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced lighting consoles, and help you find the right category and right type of console for your specific needs!

Basic Lighting Consoles

The most basic of lighting consoles are consoles that can control anywhere from 1 light to around 1 full universe of DMX lights (which is 512 channels).  They may be a stand-alone "fader-board" or even a piece of PC software.

What really sets them apart is the basic functionality.  While they may be able to control over 500 channels of lighting,  these most basic consoles only offer basic programming and playback abilities.

My Favorite Basic Lighting Consoles

Fader-Based Basic Consoles

Depending on the console, this may mean that you have multiple scenes, but you might not be able to fade smoothly between them.  Examples of these are the Chauvet Obey series of consoles.

Other consoles allow you to put scenes on faders to fade between them, but may lack the ability to have more than a handful of channels - such as the ADJ Stage Setter 8.

That's why, for most people, hardware-based consoles like these are too limiting and not the right choice.  But, if you just need some faders to control a few lights and some basic scenes and chases, these can be great!

However, if my descriptions above sound limiting to you (and this is the case for most people) many software-based consoles are within the same price range if you already have a computer that you can use.

Software-Based Basic Consoles

Jumping into the world of PC-based consoles, the first thing we're going to notice is that these consoles no longer have tight constraints on the number of fixtures and where you can patch them.

Instead, the number of DMX channels per universe and number of universes are the determining factors - and that's highly flexible to your needs!  I used to shy away from PC-based consoles, because they used to be pretty terrible and difficult to use.

Over the past few years, we've seen tremendous growth in the PC-based console market.  Today's software is stable, easy to use, and today's PC's are better suited for the task.  When you compare that with the hardware-based consoles on the market, the PC-based console is easily a great value that can't be beaten!

Enttec EMU

ENTTEC EMU is a really wonderful, computer-based lighting console, that allows you to focus on your show.  ENTTEC formerly offered DMXis, which was *very* similar.  EMU is the new version of this.

I really like this software because it is very easy to integrate MIDI controllers and add custom fixtures.

EMU is designed with band lighting in mind - it's very easy to make your lighting react to the music and/or follow your backing tracks directly as a VST plugin or standalone software.

The only limitation is that EMU can't do more than 1 DMX universe, so shows over 512 channels won't fit!

EMU is a perfect console for anyone who is doing the same show or same types of show over and over again, like bands, installed clubs or churches, and small touring shows.  EMU is designed to be simple lighting control for simple to somewhat complex shows - and it excels at that!

This isn't the console for professionals trying to program intense shows, or AV companies doing one-offs.  But for a band running their own lights, a church or a small venue, this console is perfect.

Intermediate Lighting Consoles

When even the most complex basic consoles are too limiting, it's time to step up to an intermediate console.

These consoles mark themselves by having a design that is generally focused around controlling LED's and moving lights.  These may be PC-based, or have a stand-alone control surface.  

They are generally able to control anywhere from 1 universe to many, and usually find their "sweet spot" with controlling 10-50 or more lights.

The biggest place that these consoles set themselves apart from the basic consoles is in the programming and playback - allowing you greater control over fades, effect (FX) speeds, the types of FX you can program and more!

While this might sound complicated, intermediate-level consoles keep all of these things fairly simple - in fact, it's what keeps it apart from professional-level consoles.  

While there are more options and abilities than the basic consoles, the options aren't unlimited and this makes intermediate-level consoles still reasonably easy to learn.

My Recommended Consoles:

When it comes down to choosing an intermediate-level console, there are a lot of bad ones out there.  I cannot count the number of both software and hardware-based consoles I have used that frustrating to use.

For this reason, I don't recommend consoles like the Chauvet Obey 70, ADJ DMX Operator Pro, Magic 260 or Elation Show Designer 2CF anymore. They quickly get out of date and can be very confusing to program.

As we get to the intermediate-level, it's also important to consider whether our particular lights are included in the "Profile Library" of each console.  With some consoles and PC-software, you're stuck up a creek if the lights you have aren't in the library - it's very difficult to get meaningful control of them.  

With the consoles below, you will find that they have a very full library of lights.  And if they don't have your light, it's easy to create your own profile or have me create one for you as a Learn Stage Lighting Labs Member.

Work Pro LightShark

Looking for an intermediate-level console that both doesn't break the bank, and doesn't get installed on a PC?

Hate dealing with Windows Updates, and want wireless control?  Look no further than the LightShark!

The LightShark gives you the best of both worlds - the console has it's software installed on it, but you run it from a connected computer, tablet or phone.  Because the LightShark uses a web browser to house it's interface, it literally can be controlled by any device or operating system that has a web browser!

It's fairly easy to learn, but also can do some pretty advanced things...and it's too expensive either.


Next, on the list we have Lightkey.   LightKey is a Mac-based lighting software that really turns lighting control on it's head!

If you're used to other lighting consoles, then LightKey will simply frustrate you.  But, if you're a Mac person and aren't very experienced with lighting, you'll really love the way LightKey walks you through every step and it's very "Mac" workflow.

The effects engine is one of the most powerful effects engines in its league. You can choose from 50 built-in effects or create your own, You can overlay effects and apply it to almost any attribute.

Lightkey can sync with Ableton Live, Drag your cues to the Ableton timeline and you can sync your lighting perfectly with your music!

Learn more about LightKey in my full review here!

Ready for a Professional-Level Console? - ONYX

Then, ONYX with the NX Touch may be just what you need.

Coming well under $1000 US, you get the power of the Onyx consoles, the PC software and a killer hardware interface that you just can't beat.  The ONYX software is free to try out and learn on your PC, and has a variety of other hardware interfaces available if the M-Touch isn't exactly what you need.

There are a LOT of pro-level lighting consoles out there that can control a lot of lights.  I've tried, and know many of them well.  However, Onyx really offers a unique blend of an easier learning curve, great functionality, and really good value for your money.

The Onyx on-screen interface

It's why I stand behind it and teach it here on Learn Stage Lighting.

Wrapping Up

For most users, however, a full-on professional console won't be your first step into the lighting world.

As I've laid it out above, I hope it is easy for you to find the console that is right for you, whether a simple two-scene desk or a new NX Touch.

Whatever you choose, take the time to make sure you choose well and find the right console for your needs.  A great console really is the 2nd best investment that you can make in your lighting rig, giving you the capability to get the very most out of your lights!


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