A funny thing is happening as we move forward in time. Computers are getting faster, cheaper and more reliable, and lighting consoles are doubling up in the quality of their PC software.
Today, it’s often more effective and a lot cheaper to run your lighting console from a PC, with various wings, touch screens and MIDI controllers acting as your “desk”.
But, if you’re like me, moving to a fully PC console can be a bit scary. What if it crashes? What if some other program cuts in crashes the PC?
When you’re working with any type of lighting control, having a backup plan in mind is critical. Any console can crash or have hardware issues, but with PC’s, I trust them less!
The good news is that any PC can be as reliable as a stand-alone lighting console…you just can’t check Facebook during your show!
How to Setup a Show Computer for Lighting
When it comes to setting up a show PC, there are a number of things you can do to make it trustworthy.
Every single application you install on your PC has the potential to bog down your system and slow things down. When you buy a stand-alone lighting console, it doesn’t come with any additional programs installed and runs very smoothly.
If you keep your show computer clean and fresh of applications, it will run much faster and be much more stable!
Now, if you’ve already got your PC setup or want to remove extra applications that came with your PC, you need a reset. Thankfully, as of Windows 10, that is very simple to do!
Always keep your console up to date with the latest Windows/Mac updates and console software updates. Now, everybody hates automatic updates, and for good reason! You never want them happening in the middle of your show or programming time!
However, Windows 10 does offer the ability to set “Active Hours”, which are times that Windows will NOT install updates! Do a quick web search to find the current way to do this – it will help you greatly! At the time of this writing, you can set up to 18 hours of “Active Hours”, which is enough for most shows…
However, if you’re in the middle of a show run/tour, do not update your system or console software – you never know what could go wrong with an update and leave your show PC useless!
Pro Tip: Delay Windows updates if you are running Windows 10 Pro. I usually delay security updates 1 week, and feature updates 6 months – usually, the feature updates don’t really do anything that is necessary for our lighting computers, anyways!
Never run your computer with the Wifi connected to the internet during a show or on a show day. System updates can creep in and auto-install “later” in the day. (A.K.A. – During your show!) If you are using a computer for a run of a show or a tour, I’d highly recommend keeping it offline for the whole time – whether that’s days, weeks or months!
Hackers, Viruses, and other bad things besides system updates exist on the internet too. You don’t want to chance it! 🙂
Many console-remote apps run via wifi, and they’re very useful. Buy an inexpensive router and you can setup your own network that doesn’t go out to the open internet.
While many lighting designers I’ve spoken with have differing views, I personally do run antivirus.
However, I make sure to only use the Windows Defender antivirus that comes as part of the operating system and I don’t feel any need or desire to use a 3rd party software. It hasn’t done anything bad to my PC yet!
Various console apps have gotten into “fights” with various 3rd-party anti-virus software in the past, which can lead to your critical show software getting disabled or removed – which is why I only use the operating system’s internal anti-virus.
USB Power Saving
If you’re running a Windows PC, then Microsoft has built in a nice “feature” to help save power! USB power saving is turned on by default by your PC, but can and will give you problems if you’re using your PC as a lighting computer.
You may suddenly find that your USB devices shut off, even if you’re using them…this is not good! Luckily, like everything else, there is a setting for this!
As an extra level of protection, I recommend plugging any show-critical USB components into a powered USB hub. This will give you an extra level of power protection, should anything go wrong with your PC. Using a powered hub also makes it easy to quickly swap all of your USB devices to a backup computer.
Make a System Image
Backing up your computer and your files is a great idea. Today’s operating systems do a great job at backing up your files so that you can access them later…but have you ever tried to do a complete system restore from Time Machine or Windows File History?
These tools, while nice for recovering individual files, aren’t quick and easy to do a full restore with.
When you make a system image, however, you are making a complete file, that you can easily restore back to your PC if something were to go wrong. If you are in charge of a “fleet” of the same model computers, creating system images can really save you a boatload of time in keeping them clean!
Backups, Backups, Backups
Last, but not least, it is SO important to keep backups around.
In the world of electronics, you NEVER know what’s going to happen, and it’s always best to be prepared.
When I am planning out backups for a PC based show, I like to have:
- A backup PC, capable of playing back the show.
- Backup show files on a USB stick which leaves the venue every night with me.
- Backup DMX output hardware, or at least the knowledge of where I can get some quickly if needed!
While many people don’t like to budget for backups, I believe that they are an integral part of your show setup.
If something goes wrong, and you don’t have a backup, you may not be asked to do the show again!
As you read the post above, you might think I’m crazy. Sure, I really like having everything “just so”, and am a bit nutso about backups!
While I know that not everyone who reads this post is going to follow everything I’ve recommended, I hope you do. We’re all in this together, and I want to help YOU have the best, most error free-show possible!
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