How Do I Run My Show From Stage?

Picture this – you’re in a band, are a DJ or are in a small church worship team, and you want to have a killer light show every night, but you don’t have anyone to run lights for you.

Money is tight already, and you certainly don’t have the budget to pay somebody else AND buy new lights!

While there are a number of different ways to make a great light show happen from stage, they each have their pluses and minuses.

In this article, I want to work through the 5 ways of running your band lighting from stage so that you can have a clear picture of the options and figure out what is best for you!

You might think that automating your lighting show is going to be expensive, but it really doesn’t have to be.

In fact, you may be surprised how inexpensively it can be done and how good it can look!  Let’s dive into the 5 different ways you can run your show from stage, starting with the simplest:

1. Sound Active Mode ($ – Free) (We Can Do Better)

The first and cheapest way of running your show from the stage is to use “sound active mode”.

It’s likely free because you simply take your lights and switch them into “sound active mode”.  Then, you watch them strobe erratically and change color out of time with the music.

While it’s true that newer DJ lights from the major brands do have better sound active modes today than they’ve ever had before, it’s still annoying over time!

As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of sound-active mode.  It’s often worse for your show than having no lighting!

So, if you care about dynamics, which you do because it’s your music, we need to aim higher.

However, as students of stage lighting, we can do much better without much work or cost.

2. Basic Foot Pedal Controller Kits ($50-400)

Our next step up in complexity is the basic, non-MIDI foot pedal controllers that are out there for controlling lights.  

These units can give you some basic color or fixture changes during your songs and are a step above the dreaded “sound-active” mode.

Because the functionality really depends on what unit you buy, here is an example of these controllers, how they work and what they can do for your band’s lighting rig!:

LED Par System

DMX stage lighting

One popular option is a LED par system like this ADJ Starbar Wash.

A package like this can get you some slightly more complex lighting looks with a really easy, quick setup.

The foot controller packaged with the LED pars allows you to change colors, bring up built-in programs, put the unit into sound active mode and blackout.

So, for really upbeat songs, you can put the unit into a sound-active mode, and then when you’re about to launch into a ballad, drop the lights into a static color.  Having control and using sound-active mode very selectively is a way to make a decent show without any effort!

The downside of such a unit is that you really can’t customize the color options or order, and your number of choices are fairly limited.

It’s a really great starting point for any band, and when you’re ready to move up to a more serious lighting controller, these lights can also be controlled by DMX.

So, the Starbar Wash is a great starting point, because you can use 100% of the system in a better lighting rig as you upgrade to bigger and better things!  Speaking of better…

3. ENTTEC EMU (A Few Hundred $’s + a PC)

The above control solutions are what I’d call “cute”.

They’re fine if you’re just starting out, and are a great way to improve your band’s lighting design from nothing.  But they are far from ideal, and for just a little bit more cost, you can get a whole lot more functionality!

This is where I really love the software solution ENTTEC EMU.   This software fills the void between simple foot pedal control and expensive automation in a simple-to-use package.

In fact, it’s the best way I’ve found to create a killer show on a budget.  It’s worth far more than ENTTEC charges for it!

EMU is a PC/Mac application that makes it a piece of cake to assign your lights to different scenes (“programs”), and then play those back with the press of a footswitch or the trigger from a VST/MIDI source.

Getting started with EMU is fairly simple.  When you purchase the software, you will either buy it on subscription, or purchase and ENTTEC DMX output “box” that gives you a free trial to the software. You then install it on a PC or Mac (anything that’s not ancient typically works well), and watch the linked videos above to learn the basics!

One of the biggest things I like about EMU is that it gives you the ability to make your show only as complicated as you desire.

You can begin with just a simple set of cues for each song, triggered by a MIDI footswitch, and graduate to a full-on MIDI-integrated OR timecode controlled masterpiece.

In fact, if you use a DAW like Ableton Live, you can use EMU as a VST plugin to run your light show from the inside of your existing programming so you don’t have to worry about the lighting show – you just playback your tracks as usual!

If you’re completely new to lighting and just want to add some lights to your band’s show, this may look confusing.  But, you can start small, with some simple scenes and it doesn’t have to take a ton of your time.

4. Intermediate : Midi Notes ($200+)

MIDI controller for lighting
A Basic MIDI Keyboard Controller that can send MIDI notes.

EMU is probably the simplest and best way to get started running a show from stage.

Still, for larger or more complex shows, it can make sense to use different software or console to trigger your lights.

Using basic MIDI note control, you can play through your show using a MIDI controller or a MIDI track in a DAW such as Ableton Live or LiveTraker.

This way, you can create presets for every song you do, then make the lighting really magnify what you’re doing on stage.

As a quick aside, the program LiveTraker is one that isn’t as well known, but I’ve been using it and really like it. It’s a very easy program that allows you to put together a setlist of your music and trigger video, lyrics, audio, and MIDI, all at the same time. Check it out here!

*Going through our link helps the channel by giving us a commission at no additional cost to you.

Many different lighting software programs and consoles offer the ability to trigger MIDI notes. For the consoles I cover here, that includes DMXis, lightShark, ONYX, and LightKey!

In fact, I cover how to connect many of the consoles that I cover here with automatic control inside of my Action Plan “Automatic and Live” which is part of Learn Stage Lighting Labs. Not a Learn Stage Lighting Labs member yet – learn more and sign up here!

Some lighting consoles and/or software also offer the ability to bring in a physical MIDI controller – and you can learn more about that in my article here!

5. Advanced: Timecode Control

Last, but certainly not least, I want to touch on timecode control.

This is a way for you to run a really complex, but very predictable show from on stage.  What do I mean by that?

If you run a click track or other backing tracks, you can add to that SMPTE time code, which will allow your tracks to speak with your lighting console.  Then, you can have all of your lighting cues pre-programmed on autopilot to simply “go”.

Using timecode takes a lot of time to program at the start, and only pro-level consoles support this functionality.  But it allows you to run a slick, incredibly complex show, night after night, with the power of a professional console behind it.

The downside to any timecode or DAW control is that you really can’t be spontaneous, and you’ve got to stick to your tracks – or else the light show won’t line up!

This is where the “MIDI Notes” method above wins!

Whatever method you decide to use, I hope this article has helped to inform and hopefully narrow down your choices for running your show from stage.

Today we have the technology to do this and make it relatively stress free with the right plans. That’s why I’ve compiled my step-by-step guides to running your lighting show from stage inside of Learn Stage Lighting Labs, in an Action Plan called “Automatic and Live”.

Labs members can check it out at the link above, and if you’re not a Labs member yet – Click here to learn more and join us today!

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