Band LightingYour Stage Lighting

Concert Lighting Techniques – Know The Rig or The Show?

In the run up to the season of outdoor concerts and music festivals here in the UK, On Stage Lighting looks at a reality in concert lighting, the benefits of having different information and asks you “Which is more important to you? Knowing the music or knowing the rig?”.

Your Stage Lighting Techniques

It’s a secret kept from the Billy Bunters, but a large proportion of concert lighting is the product of the unknown. Wrangling a lack of information is the stock in trade for many techs in the concert and events business. A lot of shows are done on the fly by people who really should be paid more for their talent and creative techniques.

I was recently called in as “house lampie” at a local venue. The band to play that night had all the usual, sound crew, backline techs but no dedicated LD as such. For lighting, I checked and prepared the house rig in anticipation of either having to run the show myself or hand it over to their regular Tour Manager who was arriving later in the day. A bit of busking programming done, palettes checked and tweaked, faults sorted.

An hour or so before the support act went on, I’m stood the desk and feel a presence before seeing the familiar sight of a hand to be shaken, names to be exchanged – the aforementioned Tour Manager. Standing there, between the TM and myself, we had the full picture: I’d used the rig a few times before and had programmed a few pages of subs for busking, he knew the show and the music, down to the last beat.

The usual conversation takes place, more often in a leaky Kwikform FOH tower as sounds of rain and crowd anticipation filter though the earplugs. I run through the kit, the programming I’ve done and we discuss who will run the show. He’s not the band’s LD per se and is a bit rusty on the desk, so having listened to what I’ve created for him work with, he requests a couple additional tools to be programmed and we leave the question of who is running the show open for now.

Show time. I run lighting for the support act, of course. They are OK, pretty dynamic and I busk some decent looks together with movement and accents when it’s obvious. I know where everything is on the desk, so can play along quite well. Having worked there a few times recently, I also know the rig well enough to know all those little things that can add up to a good stage picture, angles that work well and nice balances between fixtures. But I don’t know what they are going to be playing or what is coming next πŸ™ The result is good, however.

Time for the main act. TM decides that he fancies running the show and will see how it goes, I hover to field questions. It goes well, the lighting is obviously a different style, not just because everyone has different eyes but also because there is a limit to what you can do having only just walked up to an alien desk and rig. He excels in knowing every song, every beat and every break – dynamically right on the money.

It started me thinking about the nature of busking concert lighting from different perspectives. So, why not look at those perspectives and break them down to analyse their strong and weak points?


Knowing The Rig

Give me a rig for a second night, and I will create better lighting than last night. Last year I was depping for a friend of mine for two days on an indoor festival. His rig was nicely flexible and the focus good (really can’t over emphasise the importance of a good focus, eh?) – I created a page of subs for my own use even though he and I use a console in a similar way. The first day went well, you can feel your command of the stage growing as you get used to the kit and programming – after all, this is your instrument. On the second day, I added some of my own “hey, I’ve got time” special palettes and tweaked a few things. Result? Really kick ass lighting!!

So, what’s good and bad about knowledge of the rig and the programming?

  • This is your instrument – it’s helps if you’ve played it before.
  • Able to concentrate without thinking about the technicalities of doing stuff – heads up, looking at the stage.
  • Understanding of what really doesn’t work with what you have.
  • You have found those happy accidents: good positions or angles, fixtures that catch something nicely or colours that work well.
  • You have more time to see.


  • Never quite sure what song is coming up, in order to choose colour combinations and nail them every time. Erk, this isn’t a blue song?
  • While you can react to dynamics and a lot of music is pretty predictable, you are always slightly following.

Tactics and Techniques?

Use time you save looking at the desk to constantly evaluate the stage picture, you don’t need to mentally compute what you are doing so use your energy to keep looking and keep up with what’s happening visually and musically. Line up your best base layers (like decent colour washes), use them to underscore more complex stuff and to return to when you need to “stop all that a-wagglin’ and a a-strobin’, like, yesterday!” Always know how to stop stuff like chases and movements instantly. If you don’t get the beats, do something that isn’t a rockin’ out bump fest, movement speeds or even shutter chases that are more textural and less beat dependant.

Knowing The Show

Just like the previous perspective, give me a second show and it’ll be better than the first. In the world of concerts and events, many shows only happen once and often with little rehearsal. After a while you get used to the idea that you all do your best as professionals, what happens happens. But doing a rare show for a second time helps you remember how much better it can be and the luxury of rehearsing.

  • You know the set, you can be ready for the next thing. Colours parked up, specials ready to go.
  • Hardly miss a beat and aren’t surprised by a sudden stop (there is nothing worse than moving lights still moving when they obviously shouldn’t be)


  • May be not aware of all the tools available or the capabilities of the rig
  • Haven’t tried out different combinations or looks
  • You may spend more time looking at the console than the stage

Tactics and Techniques?

Your show is made by hitting that beat, so make sure you have the ways and means to bump like a demon. Three intensity subs work for me, or split the blinders into two sets. Keep them on your free hand (left hand on many consoles) so you can select and adjust other fixtures while keeping the beat.

Concert Lighting – Ideal vs Reality

Obviously, in an ideal world we’d all have the rig of our dreams, plenty of rehearsals and everything would be just dandy. But like we said at the start, a lot of concert lighting is created using the only information available. That may be a knowledge of the kit or of the show but often, it ain’t both.

Geek Out: Lighting TechniquesΒ  – What submasters were used?

As an aside and for your interest, here is the recipe for the secret lighting sauce that night. All submasters are programmed as attribute only faders (not whole fixtures) to retain flexibility. A rundown of the subs used in addition to the usual fixture selection tools and palettes that would do the bulk of the work.


Not may generics in the rig: Front fill light, Specials Intensity (Source Fours with Apollo Right Arms, position set by palettes), House Lights.

Intelligent Intensities

Get those fixtures on: Washes, Spots, Scans, PixelLine intensity on individual subs
Make those fixtures chase: Same deal, shutter chase, fader position controls speed.
Strobe: Make some of the rig strobe. Different strobes according to fader position, strobe released on fader out.

Bump Splits

Intensities, splitting the rig into three sets: For beat bumps and kickin‘ that beam structure around the roof.
PixelLine: PL intensities, split across 2 bump subs.Β  All together now, Flip, Flop etc.


Moves with speed controlled by fader position: Circle, Tilt Saw for both Scans and Washes. Could have used simple Pan Only Saw and Tilt Only Saw and mixed them but it uses up too many subs on several fixtures types, so Pan Saw was left out for the rig layout in question.

OUT: This is my all time favourite sub and one I use on most concert shows. It’s a position only Crowd position controlled by fader. Fade in, the heads all move out from their starting point on stage, fade back, they return. Move position by fader means that you can also do quick moves DJ style especially with scanners. In this case, there were no dedicated blinders.

So, there you have it. A hand full of subs for a truck full of shows.

What do you think?

During the show, I asked the question on Facebook and Twitter : “Which is more important to you? Knowing the music or knowing the rig?” which received a range of responses. Some came down on the side of knowing the instrument well enough to be able to play along while others suggested that knowing the show was the better option, being able to hit every beat was desirable.

This is an interactive so let us know what you think. In that situation, would you rather know the setup or the show? And what are your own approaches and techniques in these different situations? Come over and put your comments in the box below as usual πŸ™‚

  1. Peanut

    I like to think great lighting is a nice balance between both schools of thought. You can’t really have one without the other. You can miss an amazing crowd singalong moment (molefays on 100%!) by not knowing the song, or by not knowing where on the desk the blinders are.

    We get an awful lot of bands through the venue where I work, and the smaller ones rarely tour LDs, so I end up doing lights for most of them (to varying degrees, depending on how much of their ‘style’ of noise I can bare….). But on odd occasions, we’ll get a band through of whom I am actually a fan, and those are the shows I REALLY enjoy.

    Case in point – Thrice, a melodic rock band from Irvine, CA, recently played a Cardiff date on their UK tour. I hoped and prayed for weeks that they wouldn’t have an LD, and when I got to do the show, it was one of those days when you’re really glad you work in a crappy little music venue!

    You can check out videos of the show (and my lighting skills, or lack thereof….) at some guy’s YouTube site:

  2. Rob Sayer

    Hi Peanut, yeah a balance would be nice but not always the case, eh?

    You sound pretty bold with your Moles tho. Dunno if I’ve ever had the balls to run a set of Moles at 100% for fear of spooking the genny, tripping the rack or just blowing some o’ those pesky DWEs.

    Molefay Moment !!![crowd] Waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyoooooohhhhhhhh [/crowd]

  3. Lampie The Clown

    Hey Rob, Moles don’t have DWE’s or even FEYs any more. They don’t even come in groups of 9. They are a hollow shell of their former power draw, and it is sad, but safe for the genny.

    I spent the first 15 years of my career knowing the rig, but not the band, as happens when you work for a lighting company. I ran the desk for many opening acts, quite a few club bands, and the occasional headliner.

    Rock, and it’s father “the blues” are pretty easy to find changes on if you can count to 4, and can do it 4 times in a row. Most musicians will telegraph the changes if you watch closely. If there are two guitar players, 9 times out of 10 the singer will look at the one who is about to solo, most musicians change their posture just before taking a lead, and drummers can’t help but tell you the changes. If you can see them well enough, you will probably hit the all the major changes. On the other hand, modern jazz is hopeless for getting hints from the stage, and the counts can change without warning.

    After 15 years of that, I toured with the same band for 10 years straight, doing about 200 shows a year.
    On about half the gigs I got a rig I designed, and the other half were of the “find out when you get there” variety. Festivals are a good example, but proper theaters with 6X12s, 8″ fresnels, and a desk that has 8 faders and a go button were also common.

    Knowing the rig but not the band is more fun, because there is less pressure to get it right. If you miss a solo, or get thrown off by a fast intro to a slow song, nobody is going to get bent out of shape. Let’s face it, if the band was concerned about making the lighting cues tight, they would pay an LD.

    Knowing the band but not the rig produces better lighting. There may be a few gems in the rig that you miss, but the audience doesn’t know that, and besides, I’ve never walked away from a desk thinking I got all there was out of the rig. I settle for knowing I got what I wanted and needed. The lighting should be judged by what the audience saw, not by what they could have seen.
    Timing of the bumps is important, but timing of the fades and moves are what make the lighting a seamless part of the show. You have to know the band well for that.
    Knowing the band also means knowing what they need, and what they don’t. If the lead singer can’t hit a mark and sing at the same time, you won’t waste lights on specials for him. You’ll put them to better use, and let the follow-spots cover him.
    Spot cues are another obvious benefit. You might as well take off the headset if you don’t know the band. The spot ops can guess just as easily and with better timing than if they wait for a go on your guess.

    If I want to have a good time, give me my rig and desk. It won’t matter who’s on stage, I’ll have fun showing off the cool things my rig will do, and if I’m lucky, most of it will fit what the band is doing, most of the time.

    If the goal is for an audience to see the best show possible, the band needs to have an LD.
    Just my opinion…


  4. Edvard Hansson

    I think knowing the show is most important.

    Just made an show 2-3 hours ago without knowing the console or the rig, with an programmer who helped me programming subs, and i made it thru all the way great.

  5. kidblasterful

    Depends on who is running the desk. For someone with a musical performance background, knowing the rig would be preferrable. Being able to improvise, build the show, and not mis cues are vital. But then you can make your own cues. Most music is predictable and programming chases in series of 4 or 8 will be the best bet. Since most music is 4/4 time sig. I’ve played drums for 14 years and can say it helps. If I’m not comfortable with the song, I can follow the bass and drums and do just fine. This usually provides for the most dynamic show. Not knowing the rig will only get you into trouble abd half ass programming due to time restraints. Lighting is an equal portion of the show and should be as dynamic as the music. You can usually hear how a song is building and can hit those dynamics. But of coarse, you would need to know what levels of dynamics you are working with. Knowing the band and set is always prefferable, but if I had to choose, i prefer to know the rig over the band.

  6. Bear

    I love my desk and knowing what your fixtures are capable of is priceless.
    My name is Healing Bear.
    I have been programing and operating Light Jockey for about 5 years.

    It has been a baptism by fire.
    Here is a link to some recent video:\

    I own my controller+ a 4way opto/distro(not to mention a whole light show consisting of 4 x 54watt moving LED washes, 4 x MSD 250 scanners with rotating gobo’s and a rotating prism, 4 x 30watt led moving head spots, 24 12 x1watt LED par 36 cans, 6 x LED rain style par cans, 4 x OLD American DJ P64 cans(they work well as crowd blinders) 4 x omega 250c color changers(14 color +white) 1x 900watt RGB stage wash and 3 old Chauvet Mini Legends.
    It is not the greatest gear but my controller lets me get a lot out of it.
    I can do 512 channels right now and I have operated 53 fixtures with the gear that I currently have. 11 movers and 34 RGB fixtures.
    I would prefer to operate my own controller.
    I also prefer fo work with music that I know but I have enough of a music background that I can anticepate changes fairly well.
    I play a fair number of one offs with band in the video(The Mantras) but they still keep me on my toes.

    Please let me know what you think.
    Have a great day all!

  7. zenithapollostar

    Actually your instrament and the show are a symbiotic organism,they are dependent on each other for theyre survival. the more control you have of one ,automatically the other becomes easier. If you know the show you automatically, if you already arnt, become more proficient on your instrament.As your abikity increases with your tools,so does your ability to create an ideal scene,product,or situation. the more uncertainty a being has in any area of his life,profession,personal relationships, the more his attention gets stuck in these areas and diminishes his ability to create what is desired. At the very least it will slow down.Somtimes stop himm completly.

  8. zenith apollo star

    thats too much said above. What Im saying is certainty breeds certainty. The more you know the show/production down to one hundredth of a second , The more less likely you will have your attention be stuck or hung up anywhere along the timeline of the act/show Or in anyway hindering or fouling up the natural flow and motion of the show.
    Consequently, the more we are certain and in control of whatever tools or area we may be using to create what we are creating the more we become the master of these tools,our space ,our selves, and the final product we deliver.
    that’s all πŸ™‚

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