In the past 10 years, lighting consoles have changed and progressed A LOT!
Particularly, in the last few years we’ve seen a big uptick in the amount of quality, PC-based consoles available – to the point that the line between “PC version” and “console” is getting very blurred, or sometimes not even there at all!
With this change comes immense opportunity. Individual users are able to customize and hack together PC rigs like never before, and MIDI controllers are more compatible with lighting consoles than ever before.
But MIDI isn’t always the easiest to setup, and not all pieces of lighting software accept MIDI well. In this post, I’m going to share with you what MIDI is, how to get started using it, and how to interface MIDI with popular lighting consoles and software.
What is MIDI?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and is a protocol that various bits of musical equipment can use to communicate digitally, regardless of manufacturer. You may be familiar with MIDI keyboards, MIDI DJ or drum controllers, MIDI Time Code and MIDI Show Control.
All of these subsets of the MIDI protocol can be used with lighting in various ways, but here we’re going to focus on MIDI keyboards, DJ and drum controllers that are transmitting MIDI notes, MIDI CC (Control change), and NRPN (Non-Registered Parameter Number) messages.
This is called general MIDI, and it’s what we’re going to work with today.
If this sounds over your head – don’t worry! For most lighting consoles and PC software, we simply don’t need to know much about MIDI, because the software we use knows plenty about MIDI!
If you do want the full scoop on MIDI, I would highly suggest you read Show Networks and Control Systems by John Huntington.
How To Get Started with MIDI for Lighting
Get Connected and Map Your MIDI Interface
The first step is to work with a console or PC software that is friendly with MIDI.
If you’re working with a stand-alone lighting console, you probably need to interface it with your MIDI controller via a 5-pin MIDI plug, not USB-MIDI. That can present a bit of a problem as most of the MIDI interfaces you’ll see on the market today only communicate via USB-MIDI – leaving you up the creek!
If you do have a MIDI controller with a 5-pin MIDI plug on it – you’re in luck! You can plug it straight into your console and then consult the manual of your console and MIDI controller to get things talking. Keyboards are one of the few MIDI devices that still come with the 5-pin plug – but even the cheaper keyboards only feature USB.
You’ll most-likely be manually entering the MIDI notes and CC messages that your controller sends out into your console and mapping out the commands you want it to execute. This method may take some time, but once you get your template built, you’ll have it forever!
Getting Around USB-MIDI
Thanks to technology and great developers, we now have a variety of ways to get USB-MIDI signal into our lighting consoles, and it’s easier than ever before!
Not only do you not need to be fluent in MIDI, you don’t have to know much of anything about MIDI at all!
MIDI Through PC Console Software
Many consoles today are able to be run via the PC, and that gives us the huge advantage of being able to use USB-MIDI directly. Inside of Enttec DMXIS, Enttec D-Pro, Chauvet ShowXpress and other software, you are able to directly assign MIDI devices to control many parts of your console – all without knowing any “MIDI-speak”.
That’s right, all of these pieces of software offer “MIDI-learn” functionality, where you simply select the command you want to control via MIDI, then tell the console you are ready for it to “learn” and then hit the MIDI key.
Your MIDI key is instantly mapped, right where you need it! I also know that when I use my APC-40 with Enttec D-Pro, the color feedback also works automatically – lighting up the keys of the MIDI controller without me having to wade through technical mishmash!
MIDI Through PC Networked Consoles
For many users, though, it’s not going to work to run your show through a console software! Whether you’re working for a venue, tour or production house, the console is already there and set up to run the show.
You can, however, possibly network a computer to your lighting console and use 3rd-party software to MIDI-map your interface into your console. This brings a functionality similar to MIDI learn to your stand-alone lighting console.
And thanks to Portuguese developer Ricardo Dias, this is super-easy to do on the M-PC and Grand MA2 PC software packages.
Ricardo’s software is called ShowCockpit, and it allows you to MIDI map your USB-MIDI controllers to the console software. Then, once you join a network session to your main console, you can have control over your show with the MIDI controller – here’s how it works:
ShowCockpit is a kiiler program and a huge problem solver for folks who want to map MIDI interfaces to professional-grade console software. But what if you don’t want to use a PC, or don’t use one of these 2 consoles?
Conversion of USB-MIDI to 5-Pin MIDI
Last, but not least, we have the amazing BomeBox. The Bomebox allows you to convert USB-MIDI to 5-pin MIDI, as well as a whole host of other cool features. This is a stand-alone box that you can use to route your USB-MIDI devices to a console that only takes 5-pin MIDI, all without a PC in the mix.
Decide What You Want, and Go to Town!
Now the ball is back in your court. MIDI controllers have SO many different flavors, and different ways to be mapped to your console.
Probably the most popular way to map a MIDI controller is to gain extra playback faders and buttons. But that’s not the only way that you can use a MIDI controller to your advantage – in fact, MIDI controllers can do a whole host of commands on the programming side of your console as well.
If you’re going to be using a PC-only console or a PC-wing, you might want to consider adding some programming keys and dials to your MIDI controller! Though I personally love playbacks, I also love being able to program quickly, so I map a mix of both onto my AKAI APC-40.
MIDI Mapping Examples
Now that you’ve got the tools to make MIDI happen, I want to share some examples of MIDI mapping that I’ve found around the internet or created myself. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but more of a starting point if you’re completely new to this!
Linkin Park Interview:
This little Gem of an interview show how the lighting designer from Linkin Park makes use of a Behringer BCF2000, a 25-key MIDI keyboard and what looks like a Novation Launchpad to control Linkin Park’s live lighting show. He also goes into the “why” behind MIDI controllers for lighting.
Zyper is a legend in the EDM lighting world, and for good reason – the guy really knows what he’s doing! In this video, he shows you how to use a MIDI Fighter 3D, Leap Motion Controller, Novation Launchpad and an iPad running TouchOSC to run a great lighting show!
How Do I Map a MIDI Controller to My Lighting Console?