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

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 many of 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!

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

For this reason, I’m going to start simple, and recommend the consoles I like for entry level lighting and tell you why.

Then, I’m going to give you examples of what size lighting rig you can run from these desks so that you can tell which console is right for you.

We’ll go from smallest and simplest to largest and most complex, to make it easy for you to scroll down and find the console for you.

Let’s dive in!

Basic, Two-Scene Lighting Consoles

When your motto is “all conventional’s, all the time”, or you just need to control a few LED’s, a basic, 2-scene submaster console is all you need.  These consoles offer basic, up and down fader control and bump buttons to flash the fixtures.  They may also include a chase mode that allows you to flash the lights in sequence.

Here’s the type of rigs it can handle:

0-24 Dimmer Channels (Conventional Lighting)

1-8 LED “Groups”

0 Moving Heads

0-24 Atmosphere Machines (Fog, Haze, etc)

2 Scene Lighting Console

From John Lemieux on Flickr.

Or, any mix of the above.  You can’t do all of the above at once on a simple, 24 channel console.  Check out this page to understand DMX channels and how to make it all add up!

The positives of simple consoles like this are that they’re really simple to program and run.

You can teach somebody in no time and have them up and running.

On the flip side, these desks don’t offer a ton of flexibility or ability to program a lot of ready-to-go scenes.

Simple consoles like this have an equal number of channels to faders, so it’s pretty simple to wrap your head around the DMX.

My favorite basic consoles in this range are the Elation/American DJ Stage/Scene Setter series.  These desks offer great functionality with single channels, submasters, 2 scene mode and many programmable chase patterns.  They’re also well built, road-worthy and affordable.

Your options include:

Stage Setter 8 (16 DMX Channels) Stage Setter 24 (24 DMX Channels) Scene Setter 48 (48 DMX Channels)

Basic, LED Only Consoles

Our next type of desk is the very basic, very simple LED only consoles.  These consoles are specifically designed and function only to control LED fixtures.

For that reason, they really can’t do a mixed rig of lights well – but that’s okay.  If you just need to control a bunch of LED’s, these are your consoles!

With their small footprint and ease of programming, these consoles are great if you’re doing uplights/room lighting, restaurant/bar lighting.

While these consoles can do a good mix of looks. but they’re not the quick to switch between looks.

If you just need to “set it and forget it”, this is the console for you!  However, if you want to customize your colors, or program different lights to different colors, then these consoles are probably too simple for you.

Just to recap, here’s the type of rigs these desks can handle.

0 Dimmer Channels

1-8 LED “Groups” (More on that below)

0 Moving Heads

0 Atmosphere Machines (Fog, Haze, etc)

On the basic end of these *ahem* “basic” consoles, we have the Chauvet Obey 3.  This is a great little desk that allows you to select or mix a color on your RGB LED fixtures quickly and easily, or choose a preset chase/strobe.  The downside, however, is that you can only mix 1 color at a time for all of your fixtures.

And it’s cheap too!  If you have RGBA or RGBW fixtures, then you’ll need the Chauvet Obey 4.

On the other hand, the American DJ RGBW4C allows you to control up to 8 separate groups of LED fixtures with all sorts of different colors.  (Learn how to create LED groups here).

Also cheap like the Chauvet, this little console also has 3 programmable presets which allow you to do a few scenes.  Check it out right here for the best price!

Basic ML Consoles

Coming up next down the line is what we like to call a basic moving light console.  With the ability to control basic moving lights, put them into scenes and get a decent show going, these consoles are the ones that frustrate me the most as well!

Why is that?

Put simply, they just barely delve into the world of moving lights, and are limited in both the number of channels each fixture can have and a number of scenes you can program.

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.

A few years ago, these were great little lighting controllers that had a lot of power for a little price.  Today you can get a much more versatile AND easy-to-use PC-based console for less or equal cost.  And yes, you can still have the physical hardware for that cost.

Let’s take a step up and look at some intermediate and advanced consoles that have a TON more control!

Basic PC-Based 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 on the principles that it takes longer to program with a mouse and many they can be subject to viruses, etc.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the PC-based console market, and 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 beat!

Enttec DMXIS

Concert Lighting Design

Photo Credit: Doctor Grondo via Compfight cc

Enttec DMXIS lighting softwareEnttec DMXIS is a really wonderful, computer-based lighting console, that allows you to focus on your show.

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

DMXIS 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.  DMXIS also has a companion program called Showbuddy, which allows you to automate your show to backing tracks easily.

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

DMXIS 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.

I wouldn’t suggest this type of console for AV companies doing one-off’s, however, as it takes a longer time to program.

ShowXpress by ChauvetChauvet ShowXpress is another great entry-level option, this time designed for DJ’s.  Like DMXIS, it is a PC-based console that offers a good bit of flexibility – especially in the playback of your programming and the MIDI control.

ShowXpress is strongest in shows where you don’t follow a given setlist and have cues programmed out to it, but rather, you run everything on the fly via buttons on the screen or on your MIDI controller.

I recommend ShowXpress first for DJ’s, but also for anyone getting started with church lighting or even professional lighting.

The great thing about ShowXpress is that it’s not limited to 1 universe of DMX – you can have up to 6 universes of control if you buy more DMX output boxes!

While to more advanced users, it may seem simple, ShowXpress is able to do a TON for not a lot of money, and even can pixel map, or play video clips across your LED fixtures, which is pretty darn cool.

The downsides?  ShowXpress is really not well suited when you’re adding new fixtures to an existing rig, or changing DMX addresses to accommodate a new rig.  If you need to do this often, you’ll either have to juggle multiple show files for the different rigs you use or spend some serious time editing every scene in your show.  If this is a concern to you, I’d highly suggest scrolling down to the next console…

Ready for a Professional-Level Console?

Martin M TouchThen Martin M-PC with the Martin M-Touch may be just what you need.

Coming in around $500 US, you get the power of the Martin M-Series consoles, the PC software and a killer hardware interface that you just can’t beat.  The M-PC 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, Martin M-PC really offers a unique blend of an easier learning curve, great functionality and really good value for your money.

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

Learn Stage Lighting Labs Member Extras

Access the full Lighting Basics Blueprint and From Zero to Lighting Hero action plans to take your band’s lighting to 11!  Inside, I’ll show you exactly how to start from no lighting knowledge and end with an incredible, versatile and budget-friendly lighting show, all with Enttec DMXIS.

Also access the Beginning With Chauvet ShowXpress and Advanced Martin M-Series action plans where I teach you these two consoles step-by-step.

Not a Labs Member?  Click Here to Learn More about Learn Stage Lighting Labs!

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 Martin.

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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