A 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 stands at a coffeehouse.
A church hosts a service with 20 lights shining on the stage.
Looking at these different lighting situations, there isn’t really much in common, is there? There are huge differences in the designs of all these systems, right?
Not as much as you think! While the type of events may be very different, the lighting systems actually have a lot in common…
A modern stage lighting system consists of a few main parts- consoles, fixtures, distribution/dimming, and cabling. Whether a small or large 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 ultimately translates them into the DMX protocol to instruct the lights.
Today, there are 2 main types of consoles may will run into:
“Conventional” Lighting Consoles
Back in the wild west of lighting, this is what you would see every single day – simple lighting boards with rows and rows of faders – each controlling a light or group of lights.
These consoles are pretty simple, and some offer the ability to make a cue list to pre-program a show, or a chase function to offer some beat-based music playback.
These consoles can work great for conventional lights and a few LED’s, but really get difficult to work with as the amount of channels each light has increases.
As moving lights and LED’s began to take over the stage lighting world, these consoles have become much less common and useful. Which brings us to:
Software and Hardware “Moving Light” Consoles
Most modern lighting consoles and/or PC software are designed from the ground up to control moving lights and LED fixtures, often with a lesser focus on conventional lights.
The older-style consoles really only dealt with “intensity” of light, which by principle can be raised or lowered during your show or service. That’s all.
When lights with color, movement, and gobos began to become popular, the industry had to change. A difference in color or moving light position isn’t necessarily higher or lower than where it was before, and it is very difficult to control these new lights on an older-style console.
In the professional world, moving lights initially had a completely separate console and programmer, but for beginners or intermediate-level users that just didn’t happen.
Enter the modern lighting console or software.
Sometimes it’s a blurry line between what is a PC and what is not, but the control software is the same – these modern software packages are built from the ground up to control a mix of moving/LED lights and conventional lights.
They often feature large touchscreens, wheels to set attributes of the lights, buttons to type commands and faders for playback.
Distribution and Dimmers
Next we move on to the distribution and dimmers. Because somehow, some way, we need to get the data signal from the console (usually DMX, sometimes through sACN or Art-Net) to the lights and we need to get them power, too.
Back in the “old days” we’d simply connect the dimmers to the console via DMX, bring power into the dimmers, and then only connect dimmed power out to the lights. Life was simple!
Dimmers can vary 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.
But when we’re using LED’s or moving lights, we do NOT connect them into dimmers – even if the dimmers are kept at full! (There are 1 or 2 exceptions out there, where a moving light also takes a dimmed power , but that is rare).
Instead, we connect our lights to constant, non-dimmed power (wall power) and also connect DMX to each light to control it. Many permanent systems will also use relays to switch on and off the power to LED’s and moving lights in order to make them live a longer life.
The most visible part of the lighting system are the lights themselves.
Lights can be fixed-position LED or conventional lights, or moving lights. Within each type of light, we also have categories of lights based on the type of light that they output: they may be spot fixtures, they may be wash fixtures or beam fixtures.
Each type of fixture has it’s own use and strengths/weaknesses. Just because a fixture is good for one use or type of event doesn’t mean that it’ll work for another use!
As you may have guessed, cables are what ties that bind all of this lighting together.
Though wireless DMX has gained some 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.
For the most part, a DMX cable simply works, no matter what the situation, where a wireless setup can be difficult to make work reliably in situations where there is a lot of wireless activity in the space.
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.
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. I hope this article has helped you to understand the very basics as to how a lighting system works, and what you need to make one!