A large, massive lighting show takes up a whole arena, bathing an artist or speaker in vibrant light. A corporate speaker gets up before his sales team in a 5,000 seat room with lights overhead. A small band plays in front of 2 lighting trees at a coffeehouse.
Looking at this, there isn’t really much in common, is there? There are huge differences in the designs of these systems, right?
Maybe not as much as you think!
A basic, modern stage lighting system consists of a few main parts- consoles, fixtures, dimming and cabling. Whether a huge or small system, these basic pieces make every lighting rig function.
The first part of a stage lighting system is the console. This is where the you turn on and off the lights and give instructions for movement. The lighting console takes the ideas from the hands of the lighting director and translates them into DMX protocol to instruct the lights.
At the basic level, there are conventional lighting consoles. These consoles range from the simplest 2-scene lighting desks to large consoles with many submasters and a couple cue stacks.
2-scene lighting consoles are simple consoles that allow you to setup 2 lighting looks at a time, changing one while the other is live. Submasters allow you to program many different looks and parts of looks onto different faders, combining them at different levels as quickly as your hands can move. Cue stacks on some conventional consoles allow you to pre-program many scenes into your console for precise playback later.
The next type of controller is a moving light(ML) controller. These consoles are designed for programming moving lights and LED fixtures, but can also program conventional lighting. ML controllers range from small, simple, affordable consoles to very complicated, expensive consoles that you see on big music tours and corporate events. These consoles have advanced effects editors and may have visualizers to allow you to program many looks very quickly and easily, even without an physical lighting rig! Looks are programmed onto playbacks, which like theatrical cue lists, can have many cues played back easily. The cool thing about having so many playbacks is that you can make them behave like a mixture of submasters and cue lists, allowing you to have tons of looks available to you at once. This allows you to make unique looks all show long without having to repeat looks, making the lighting show very interesting.
Lastly, there is the software based controller– run off of a computer with no specialized keyboard necessary, the software based controller can mimic the style of any of the other types of lighting consoles, or desks. Software based controllers may have a “wing” they specialized keyboard that looks like part of a lighting console. You can customize the wing setup to have multiple programming or playback wings- or you don’t have to have them at all- a very cost effective solution for some applications!
Next we move on to the dimmers. Dimmers take the signal generated by the console, usually DMX, and fade in and out your conventional lighting. I cover how DMX works here. Dimmers can very from a simple 1 channel unit, which only dims 1 channel of light at a time, all the way up to 96 channel or greater dimmer racks for large shows and installations. The most common small dimmer pack is 4 channels, which can be hung with your lighting to give you flexibility in your setup.
The most visible part of the lighting system is the lights themselves. Lights may be conventional, moving lights, LED, or effects lights. They may be spot (hard-edged fixtures), or they may be wash (soft-edged fixtures). Each has it’s own use and strength and are all controlled via DMX signal from your lighting console or dimmers(which are controlled by DMX).
As you may have guessed, cables are what ties that bind all of this lighting together. Though wireless DMX is starting to gain popularity, there isn’t a safe way to do wireless power yet! In addition, cable is the best, most reliable way to move data and power to your lights.
Wrapping it Up
It may seem a surprise to you that the tiny coffee shop lighting system uses the same type of equipment as a large-scale event, but it’s true. For me, I may often work in both a church and large event situation in the same week, going in between large hotel ballrooms and small sanctuaries, using many of the same skills to bring excellence in lighting. Understanding the basics can give you a great grasp on how to use any piece of lighting equipment. Soon you’ll be analyzing every lighting rig you see and knowing how it works!
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