Product Review: ETC Ion Lighting Console

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ETC Ion Lighting Console

A lighting console today can no longer be just about controlling dimmers; the world of lighting has grown so that now you control the whole fixture. This change has been developing for a number of years. When Electronic Theatre Controls ventured into the console world, back in the late 70’s, they were moving us from the preset style of manual consoles into computer based memory control systems. The company over time developed a line of consoles that came to dominate the theatrical world. When the Expression™ console line was released in 1987, dimmers ruled the world and moving lights were mainly a dream. As time passed and the dream became reality, the need to control multi-attribute fixtures spelled the end of the Expression line.

ETC has now developed a new series of consoles that takes up where the Expression family left off, the Eos product line. Just as the Expression begat the junior line of Express consoles, Eos has begotten Ion. I have been a big fan of the concept behind the Expression line. ETC designed one software engine which could be implemented in a variety of hardware platforms, thus providing the user who could not afford the top of the line hardware with the top of the line software. They have continued this concept in the Eos family, so that the Ion, while reduced in hardware, is not reduced in control power.

I recently had a chance to spend some time with the Ion console, and came away very impressed with its capabilities. For anyone who can program any of the Expression consoles, moving to the Ion will not be very difficult. The biggest challenge may be remembering to use the Enter key. Since we are now controlling multi-attribute fixtures, many of us will have to learn to embrace tracking. Tracking was always an option on the Expression family but was typically not employed by many designers when programming a show with dimmers only. Tracking becomes more important when working with multi-attribute fixtures, because you don’t want the fixture to always go back to the home position between uses. In order to employ tracking, the console now uses a command line interface, so you have to tell the console when you have finished entering information – hence the Enter key.

The basic Ion console is housed in a small footprint control desk that has input keys, four encoders, a wheel, Grand Master and a Master Playback Fader Pair. When you buy the console you choose how many DMX universes you can talk to – 2, 3 or 4. This is a change from before; in the Expression line you were limited by the number of channels you could control, not always the universes; the smallest Express could talk to 2 universes but only 96 channels. The difference now is because of multi-attribute fixtures, which should not be patched on a channel together. Another important change is how you work with these fixtures. When you patch any device, only the intensity attribute is displayed in the default display. Now on the command line you call up fixtures by number and then are given options to control the attributes. This keeps the screen simpler in standard display mode to see which fixtures are in use, but allows for expanded display information in other screen views.

The basic operations are very easy to learn and most programmers will have no problem creating a look with dimmers and recording cues. The real power of the console is shown when you need to control the multi-attribute fixtures. Once you start talking to a fixture, you are provided with buttons that instantly connect you to the attributes you need to control and place them on encoders for fast adjustment. The power doesn’t stop there. If you take a little time in setting up the console, you can create a multitude of palettes for fast recall while programming.

Back to the hardware. The Ion console comes equipped with two DMX outputs and an Ethernet port for connection to more universes. The console will support two DVI monitors, or one DVI monitor and one VGA. You can also run with just one monitor of either flavor. But you should go for two right from the start. The monitors may also be touchscreens for fast access to screen-based functions. . There are 5 USB ports for connection of a variety of devices; most notable are the optional Fader wings, but just as useful are keyboard and mouse connectivity, and backup devices like flash drives or portable hard drives.

The fader wings come in two flavors, 2 x 10 and 2 x 20. The console will support 200 playback faders and 300 submasters. If you don’t have the fader wings these can be accessed thru virtual faders that will be displayed and can be controlled easily with a mouse.

Since this console is based on an embedded Windows XP computer, you end up with more storage than any show should ever need. For anyone concerned about the Windows XP part, don’t be. All consoles today run on some form of an operating system because they all are microprocessor-based devices. When you embed an operating system, you take away the ability for the operator to add programs which crash the system. The only program this computer runs is Eos software. Back to storage, you can have 10,000 cues divided between 999 cue lists. You can also create 4 x 1000 palettes, 1000 presets, 1000 groups, 1000 effects and 1000 macros.

This console is very powerful and easy to learn. This is the beginning of a new era in lighting control; the Eos software will only grow and expand in what it can do for you. One of the nice things about these consoles is that the hardware has been designed with future capabilities in mind, and as ETC adds more, you will not need to replace the hardware – only update the software.