I have walked into countless churches, theaters and other venues, and seen about every type of lighting console in just about any situation. Little consoles, big consoles, software based consoles and even desks with analog control!
I’ve been surprised when I’ve seen fader-less PC consoles in good sized theaters, and massive, expensive big lighting consoles controlling relatively small rigs in other venues.
You just never know what you’re going to find, and the diversity of reasons can be very interesting.
Software-based lighting controllers are a really good way to save money, and work great for smaller lighting rigs and installed venues.
They are different from traditional lighting consoles in that they need a computer to run, usually a PC, and they don’t come with a control surface by default. Instead they have an output “widget”, that typically runs off of USB to provide DMX out.
The plus side of this is that they are also typically cheaper, and can be the “little brother” of the big flagship consoles- which is helpful if you already know the big console.
Below, I want to highlight and separate 2 different types of software lighting consoles, and help you to determine what is best for you.
Software-Only Lighting Console
The first type of software lighting console is the simple, software only lighting console. This is a lighting console that is written just for the PC version, and doesn’t have a flagship desk that it is modeled after. Some desks like this are ShowXpress, DMXIS, and D-Pro.
The really big positives of this type of controller are cost and simplicity.
They typically have either a cheap or no-cost software, and an output widget that is in the under $500 range. They are also very easy to program and run, which is great for the simplest church and venue setups.
I recently ran a church show on the Lumidesk software and it was really easy for the simple show I was programming. It was perfect for this church, where the sound guy brings up the lighting scene each Sunday morning and it doesn’t change during the service.
Now, the limitations of this console are also something to consider. You may not have all the features you want if you’re used to, or considering a moving light console.
For example, I missed having a programmer screen with a blind mode when I wanted to make changes during my show. It didn’t seem to have groups or pallets, so the size of shows might be limited.
You also won’t have a control surface and maybe not even a touch screen. This may not be a problem if what you’re doing isn’t complicated or isn’t going to change much once it is programmed- just some things to keep in mind.
If your show is a little complicated, you may be able to work in a touch screen for only a few hundred dollars, and that may give you the functionality you need. The best way to figure out a given lighting software will work for you is to check out the website and download the software. Work with it by patching in your lighting rig virtually and seeing if it can do what you want it to do.
You’ll quickly find out if it will work for you, or if you need other features. Thankfully, many software-based controllers allow you to connect a MIDI keyboard of synth controller to give you some physical buttons – which can greatly amplify the amount of “show” you can program as well as speed up programming!
“Little Brother” Consoles
The next type of lighting console is the “little brother” consoles. These are the lighting consoles that are a PC version of the flagship consoles that run much larger shows. Some examples of these are the Hog PC, Jands Vista, and MAonPC. These PC versions are also typically free downloads, with a paid widget to output DMX.
The really big positives of using a PC version of a big console is the flexibility. When you are first installing your lighting system and programming, you can bring in the big console from a production company and program much faster, then load it into your PC system and playback really complex looks that weren’t laborious to program.
If you have large events where you bring in a lot of extra rental gear, you can also rent a console and do the opposite- quickly loading your show into the big console and being able to program right away!
For example: A coworker of mine had to light a show that involved programming a basic look and a cool moving light and LED look to go along with a song. And then the client wanted to take the show on the road without the LD.
This was a perfect opportunity to use a PC based “little brother” console. He programmed the show, loaded it onto the PC once the client was happy, and send them galavanting across the country doing the show.
The 2 big downsides to the little brother PC console is the cost and speed of programming. It’s not as cheap as some other PC based consoles, and it is slower to program than a full console. But as I often say- make sure you demo the options for yourself to find the right product for your situation.
For many installed venues, a software based lighting console is a great choice for lighting control. Because so many types exist, you can choose the console that is best for your needs and price range.