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Understanding Lighting Consoles

Research your fixtures
First and foremost, what are the fixtures you are going to be using? What are the features of those units? Take the time to do a little reading by visiting the manufacturer’s website and/or reading the fixture user manual.

• Locate the protocol and familiarize yourself with the attribute control channels of a fixture (Does it have CMY or a Color wheel? Does it have Gobo wheels or is it a wash fixture? Is Pan/Tilt a 16 bit channel controlled by two channels each or is it an eight bit channel controlled by one channel each?)

• Research any special ‘effects’ modes that the unit might have and know how to achieve them (i.e. Random Color Spins, Quickest Path, Blink, Ramp/Snap effects, etc). This way you won’t spend time searching for an effect that some lights have built in that others do not.

• Know how to reset a fixture from the console. This is extremely important to know, and will definitely become necessary at some point along the way. It’s important to note too that no two manufacturers have implemented this feature in the same way, so clearly understanding how this works will save you the frustration of making a mistake like shutting down the lamp accidentally while trying to reset a fixture.

Once you are familiar with the features of a fixture that you are going to be using, then follow up with a few technical details like:

-What options are available for software modes (standard, reduced, enhanced?)

-Which mode do you want to use? Which mode fits your application?

-How many DMX control channels per mode for the type of fixture you will be using?

Knowing how many channels per fixture will help you when calculating how many fixtures will fit onto one DMX universe of 512 channels.

Preparing a console for a show
Here are some basic tips to put into your preparation routine:

• Make sure the console has the latest available software. This is your responsibility as the programmer, so carry the software with you that you want to use. Not sure what version to use? Then always use the latest available released version of software for that console because it will have the latest features and updates available.

• Have your software ready as a backup. Check that the available software has correct fixture personalities for the fixture types you are using. It’s also important to confirm with the equipment supplier that the fixtures have the latest available software uploads as well. It has happened before that a manufacturer will change a fixture’s performance drastically from an early software release somewhere in the evolution of that fixture’s life, so using an outdated software version on the console and/or fixture could end up with less than acceptable results.

• Give yourself enough time in advance of the show to program. This will vary from show to show and with experience level as well. Don’t try to program too much into too short of a time period.

Pre-programming for a show


Patching is the process by which you assign a DMX starting channel to a fixture in the software so that you can select the light and control it from the board. Consoles will vary in syntax for the actual steps, but on automated lighting consoles, the process usually starts by selecting a fixture personality from a manufacturer list. Once the type of fixture has been selected (this is similar in theory to the ‘shopping cart’ you might use while shopping online), it becomes available for you to assign an address. Usually, the fixture will be referred to by an ID number of some sort, which is the unit’s unique identifying number that you will type on the keypad of the console to select it once it has been successfully patched. After an ID number has been assigned (some consoles will do this automatically), you are able to choose a DMX universe (possibly up to 32+ in some cases, using a console with networking capabilities) and then a physical DMX starting channel address. This ‘address’ works in much the same way as your mailbox does on your street. You receive mail in your box, and you can’t read other people’s mail since it isn’t (usually) delivered to your box. Sending a lighting command from a console is like sending a letter to your mailbox. When the command is sent to a specific fixture, it will listen and perform the task, but when the command is addressed to other fixtures, only those will listen.

NOTE: It’s a recommended practice to patch in your fixtures into the console first and then address the lights physically because the console will not allow a fixture address to overlap another. Since most fixtures today can be addressed to any DMX starting address, this means that there is the possibility of an error when the technician does not correctly count the number of channels and inadvertently assigns an invalid address to a fixture. Take the addresses assigned in the Patch window of your show and write them on the lighting plot, then take that with you to the fixtures, and you will save yourself some time troubleshooting an incorrect address problem later on.


After all fixtures have been patched and everything is functioning correctly, the next step usually is the toughest from a creative standpoint. Where do you start when programming a show? I recommend breaking down the project into basics like:

• Program fixture selection groups based on the layout of fixtures in your rig

What are the obvious groupings in the rig? Washes on truss 1? Floor lights? FOH washes? Side trusses stage left and stage right? Let the rig dictate to you in the beginning and start by narrowing down which lights can effectively be used together.

• Program Palettes/Presets like:

– position palettes

– custom color mixing palettes

– gobo/pattern palettes based on patterns and beam edge functionality of the fixtures

So what exactly are palettes/presets?

Most automated lighting consoles allow the programmer to record specific values for fixture attributes like position, color, gobo and/or focus and store them into buttons for easy recall when building cues. This is similar to creating colors on a painter’s palette so that the colors can be easily used in a painting without having to create the color from scratch each time. The advantage on a lighting console when using palettes is two fold.

First, when you are building cues that use the same location onstage or color over and over again, select the desired fixtures and simply touch a position or color palette/preset that you have stored. Using this technique will result in faster cue building and more consistency from cue to cue.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly in the long run, is that when a value recorded into a palette or preset changes, all cues that refer to it automatically update. This is critical in any show that tours, regardless of size, because normally the programmer may not have enough time to physically check every cue in the show once the trim height is set and all technical issues have been resolved. Updating a handful of position palettes or presets is usually possible, however, and it helps to ensure that the show will look the same night after night.

What palettes should you start with? Locate key elements of the stage first:

– Band positions(if working with music)
– Stage areas(theatrical performances)
– Scenic elements like Rear Cyc, screens or set pieces
– Podium or speaker positions
– Room Elements
– Audience Washes
– Stage Washes
– Cueing a show

How do you begin programming cues for a show? The key is to have a clear picture in mind of what you want to achieve. Understanding the application’s needs is very important to coming up with an effective plan for cueing the show. Here are a few points to help identify the direction you need to work toward for the show:

Identify important parts of the show first. Ask important questions like:

Are there musical sections? What is the style of the music? Will video be used? Will live image magnification be used? What will the general stage look be? Will the stage look remain the same or change between songs or performers? Is the show a theatrical performance? Is there a solo performer? Are there general speaker sections or multiple speaker lecterns? Do specific lighting areas need to be separated out onto individual channel control handles (i.e. podiums, areas, orchestra, choir)?

Tackling those kinds of questions help lead you into programming the essentials for the show, and then you can focus on the creative aspects once the creative energy begins to flow and you grow comfortable with the lighting hang, stage, and show demands.

Programming Techniques to get you started
1. Separate and break down the show into sections in order to begin. Identify each place in the show where you want a scene change first and program those as cues.

2. Don’t ‘over program’ the first two minutes of the show and leave yourself nowhere to go. Program a foundation for the show with cues to cover each section without focusing all of your time on the specifics until after a basic set of cues has been created. By focusing on the breaks and changes, you will begin to build a foundation layer of cues. Using this technique also means that you will have enough cues to cover the whole show should you have a short amount of time to program. There is no worse feeling than running out of time for programming and still having a portion of the show without anything programmed.

Once the essential cues are covered, go back and focus on more specific details that you want to highlight. At that point you can work through each section adding as much detail as you need for the show. While working on the cues, you can smooth out transitions between each cue as you go along, focusing on fade times, delay times, or other elements of timing as needed.

3. Another extremely helpful tip is to program all cues using position palettes or presets, with few exceptions. This will speed up programming time while allowing the LD the ability to ‘compare’ one palette to another, rather than having to create each palette from scratch each time the value needs to change and hold up the forward progress.

Creating a show is a very subjective process, but hopefully you can see that by following a few guidelines and checking off certain ‘essentials’ of a show, you will ease into the process in a less intimidating way. Before you know it, you will be further along than you realize and it won’t be difficult to add the finishing touches to a great looking and well-suited show.

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