In the summer of 2015 I got a band together to play a theatrical set of rock songs about the residents of a Gothic asylum. A big part of the concept was to be as visual as possible, so alongside the costume and props, we started looking into the lighting aspects.
This on the surface appeared quite baffling, not least because we were looking to punch above our weight as a local band with our stage presentation and also to automate everything so we wouldn’t need a lighting engineer.
And all for a time-pressed group of musicians who had scant knowledge of lighting, lighting control, electricity, bulbs, pen knives, matches etc. etc.
DMX Lighting Control (and all that)
With six weeks to go (really) to the band launch, we had nothing, but then salvation came in the shape of David Henry’s new site, www.learnstagelighting.com .
The really big revelations for us were two things: LED lighting, controlled with DMX (kind of MIDI for lights); and DMXIS software, used for lighting control. If you have a laptop and can invest maybe £1,000, you can probably be the best lit local band. By a mile.
Buying LED Lights: What We Did
Our initial research suggested we should buy cheap LED lights from eBay. These appear to offer massive performance for a very little money, but what we then found out was that they tend to be a false economy, as they break quickly and you have very little support.
That’s not to say you can’t scoop bargains. A Lighting Labs member and advanced user spoke to the Chinese factory direct about detailed specs and got some great lights, but we decided, as beginners, to rely on the bigger brand names and local specialist dealers.
Incidentally, one of the things to bear in mind is power requirements. If you’re playing the King’s Head in the UK beside the dartboard you’ll have just a few amps to play with from the nearest 13 amp socket, so LED is the way to go, as they draw very little current.
Eventually we went largely for Chauvet products. The 4Bar system are hard to beat if you’re on a budget (about £300 in the UK). Two of these on their own would give you decent lighting.
We added some Chauvet LED pars across the back and some IRC Shocker blinder / strobes (hey, we’re an over the top band). We also have a Chauvet Tri Plus to accentuate the singer and a rather unsatisfying American DJ Tripar Plus.
Haze too – where the venue will let us!
Lighting Control Options For Bands
We looked at hardware consoles for control, but these need a human operator and unless you want to spend a fortune severely limit you on what you can achieve, so taking David’s advice, we went for DMXIS software control.
One immediate advantage of this is the comprehensive training on Learn Stage Lighting Labs , as DMXIS is the controller of choice for all the beginner’s and Zero to Lighting hero modules. I was proficient in two or three weeks – and I’m a complete NON-tech head!
DMXIS allows you to set up quite complex lighting scenes with very little technical background. I’d rate it as about the same as learning how to produce / edit / save a staff newsletter in Microsoft Word or edit together a home video in iMovie.
There are onscreen faders and knobs for all your settings – and the designers have done an excellent job of making things intuitive.
You can try the software for free, but you’ll need to fork out for the matching USB interface that sits between your laptop and your lights. This cost me about £180, but I saw a new one on Amazon for about £100. There are deals to be had.
Basically then you have your console on your laptop and a small plug-in box that takes all your settings and sends them out to your lights as DMX commands they can understand.
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Automating Your Band Lightshow
DMXIS gives you a great set of lighting scenes which you can organise by song, type or anything else, but you still have the challenge of changing these scenes in step with your music on stage.
There are various ways you can do this, from simple to quite challenging. We’ve been through a couple of them, so here are the pros and cons we found:
Show Buddy Automation Software
This is DMXIS’s sister product. You import a WAV of the track you want to light into the programme and then simply drag your DMXIS lighting cues onto the track. Then, as the track plays back, the lights fire automatically.
This programme is absolute gold dust if you’re a solo player, performing to backing tracks, but you can also use it as a band and we chose it because it was very simple to set up and use. There are however a few challenges going forward:-
- You need to quantise the WAVs you import to stand any chance of staying in time with your lights live (unless you want to play with the track in your ear).
- You need a drummer (and come to think of it, a band) that can play in time to a click!
- You have to play the song arrangement the same every time, although there are a few cheats you can use to get around this in Show Buddy to add some spontaneity.
- You need someone on or off stage who can set each track running in the sequencer.
- You need a way of staying in time (we had our drummer playing to a click and he counted us in / kept us on the beat).
We’ve used the programme successfully at all our gigs up until now and got very positive comments from the audience, sound engineers and other bands.
Ableton Live Lighting Automation
DMXIS has a plug-in version that will work with Abelton Live along the same lines as above. It’s a little more fiddly for a beginner and unless you have one of the more expensive versions you won’t gain a lot (beat matching and video control are two advantages).
Because of expense and time to learn we passed on Abelton at the time, but may well revisit it at some point as we have some knowledge in the band.
Foot Pedal Manual Operation Alternative
We’re going to control our next show via a Boss dual foot pedal . This plugs straight into DMXIS and with the two buttons you can select your song and then step through the presets sequentially.
This is for a couple of reasons. We have a new drummer to break in at the last moment and adding a rigid light show is probably too much of a stretch for him to get up to speed. And secondly, it’s kind of more FUN playing without the confines of a click!
Footswitch is the simplest way to control the show technically, although it’s obviously ‘a challenge for whoever has the job of firing the cues through the songs. That job is likely to be mine at the gig, alongside my bass effects and tuner.
The alternative is to have someone off stage operating things the two-button way, provided they know your songs well enough or can follow cue sheets…
Incidentally, you can also achieve the above with a midi controller using channels 15 and 16 to select the songs and scenes.
Things we got right
- Going for the lights we did. There are many options (I’d love some moving heads), but the Chauvet 4Bars have given us a great foundation.
- Choosing DMXIS: this software way outperforms hardware consoles at the same price point, is quick and easy to use, and is very light on computer resources. It hasn’t let us down once.
- Getting the right advice: a friendly local lighting dealer got us fixed up with the hardware, while www.learnstagelighting.com demystified the whole lighting process in a way that other sites we consulted didn’t.
- Setting the lights up to design scenes: if you can design scenes with your lights actually working in place, you’ll save a lot of time.
- Rehearsing with the lighting rig: want to know if you’ve missed out a chorus or come in too early? The lighting rig will tell you it how it is (in black and white and red and green etc.)
- Buying RCDs circuit breakers for all the fixtures. It’s provided some peace of mind when our singer’s booted his water or beer all over the cables…
Things we got wrong
- Mostly creative considerations! Thinking every light has to be on and set to 11 all the time! Making shows more complicated than they needed to be.
- But then conversely, programming the lights below maximum with the master dimmer set to full; we had to reprogramme with the individual lights set much higher and then tame them with the master dimmer to suit each venue!
- Arguably choosing Show Buddy for a live band situation when it’s more suited to soloists, although in a sense it forced us to become more disciplined musicians and much more aware of time.
- Underestimating the work involved in setting up the lights at gigs. The first time took hours, but we then actively practised setting them up as a band and it’s like a military operation now!
The show now
We’ve been getting some great feedback. People love the show element and having lights took us to the top of local bills a little bit quicker I think. It’s a work in progress and at some point we’ll have to upgrade or move to an arrangement where we can tap into the house’s own lights when we play and set our show going. That’s a whole different story…