What are Submasters and Playbacks? – Learn Stage Lighting .com

What are Submasters and Playbacks?

Sitting down over a meal with a venue owner, I was asked the question

“Do we need a computer software based lighting console, or is what we have okay?”

“Since we can only program 8 scenes on the faders, how are we supposed to run a cool show off of that?”

I quickly took advantage of this time to give my venue owner friend the lowdown on the console he had bought and helped him realize the difference between submasters and playbacks.  He had so much more flexibility than he thought, since as he was using the playbacks on his console like submasters!


So what are submasters?

Submasters, are faders similar to the grand master fader that most every console has in some form. Submasters control the output of a group of lights that is recorded to that fader.

Unlike the grand master, or GM, they are typically not inhibitive but additive. What do i mean by that?

Well, that means that the lights are stored on the fader so that they come on when you raise the fader, and go back off when you lower the fader all of the way.  I’ll cover inhibitive submasters a little later.

When you record lights onto a submaster, your console records the state of all the lights onto the fader- so if 3 of your lights are at 100%, and the 4th is at 50%, then that is the result you’ll get when you raise the fader fully. When you raise the fader up to 50%, however, the 3 lights are now at 50%, but the 4th light is at 25% – pretty simple, right?

This is assuming you are in an HTP world, and this also assumes that the fader you have up is the only fader up with those lights programmed to it.

In a conventional, HTP, submaster world, the highest fader for a given light wins, meaning that if you have a light at 100% on fader 1, it will always be at 100%, no matter what you do with the other faders, since you are not touching fader 1.

This allows you to do some pretty complex conventional lighting looks, since you can have different groups of lights on different faders, and then push up one of the groups to full on another fader, bring down the first fader, and then revert back to your original look by pushing up your first fader, and pulling down your 2nd fader, etc.

Learn more about HTP vs. LTP right here!

Inhibitive Submasters

Another type of submaster your console may be able to program is called an inhibitive submaster. This acts like the grand master- but only for the lights that you’ve recorded to it.  It’s a master for a select group of lights.

This can be very powerful as you can quickly subtract a group of lights from your light on stage. Keep in mind that the normal position for these faders is at 100%- if they are at 0%, you won’t be able to bring the channels up that are recorded on the faders at all!

Effects Submasters

The last type of submaster that I want to quickly go over is an effects submaster- this is a submaster that has an effect recorded on it from your effects cue generator on your console.

Depending on what console you have, this may do different things and be recorded different ways, but can be a cool way to record chases, or effects with your lights onto an easy to use fader. See your manual or email me for more information on this.

As I went over in my post on conventional lighting consoles, recording a submaster is typically as simple as hitting “record”, and then selecting your fader with the flash, or bump button, or typing “sub” and the number of the fader you want to record to. If, while recording, you change your mind about what you want on a given fader, just bring up the new look, make sure what you see on stage is right, and record your look onto the fader you want to replace.

It will overwrite the look you had, so remember to be careful as you program!  See your manual for more info on programming effects and inhibitive submasters, as most consoles do this slightly differently.


As we left off with my venue-owning friend, he had playbacks on his console, and didn’t even know it! He thought he was stuck with 8 looks, but really, he had 8 faders of 99 or more looks, and at least 99 of those pages!

These faders are called playbacks, and they are each in their own an individual playlist, often each with a play and bump button, and perhaps a stop/back button.

Playbacks are recorded to much like submasters, but recording a new scene on the fader typically adds it to the list instead of replacing the current list that is there. Besides hitting play, you can move the faders up and down to bring the looks up and down, changing what you see live on stage.

With moving lights, the ability to play back many more different scenes and parts of scenes suddenly becomes very important, and switching between scenes is very different because of LTP, or the latest takes precedence design for determining which fader turns on which lights when multiple faders are up.

Simply put, LTP allows the most recently touched fader to gain control of whatever lights it has on it. It then can restore the lights back when you release them from the current active fader, or can override and dump the old fader. LTP also allows you to quickly “grab” a single light or group with a fader, do something with it, and then release it and have your old look, exactly, right back on stage.

LTP is a very different way of thinking than HTP, but it has clear advantages when working with moving lights and playbacks.  With playbacks, like submasters, you can record different lights, or different attributes of moving lights onto different faders, and then have a whole buffet of lighting looks at your finger tips instantly by pressing the different play buttons and bringing faders up and down. In addition, many moving light consoles have virtual playbacks or faderless playbacks, allowing for many more playbacks on screen on in button form. This allows you, with programming time, to record many effects and cues for a great show.


It is always good to remember that everything has its place, including submasters and playbacks. There are so many conventional rigs and venues that a submaster console works great with, and some really flexible shows can be programmed into such a console.  You can even do some basic moving light looks with a conventional console.

So don’t discount the idea that a conventional console may be right for you! But, if you’ve got moving lights, the clear winner is the playback, allowing you to have a dynamic show all at your fingertips!

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