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Lighting Desk Basics – Beginner’s Guide to a Stage Light Control – 1

The lighting control, “board” or “desk” is the a key part of any stage lighting set up and it is using the lighting desk that an operator is able to control the equipment. This can range from adjusting the “levels” on stage lighting dimmers to controlling complex intelligent lighting systems and media servers. Although there are many different types of lighting control, a great deal of the features are common to most and On Stage Lighting explains these features in the first part of beginner’s guide to the lighting desk.

Lighting Desk Output

How a lighting desk controls your rig depends on what kind signal it outputs to the various bits or equipment that it “talks” to. Some basic dimmers use different analogue voltages to interpret their channel “levels” and some top notch professional kit uses an ethernet network like a PC.

The standard in stage lighting control is the DMX512 protocol which means that that many lighting desks, big and small, output one or more DMX signals. There are very few things that you have to understand about DMX512 and using it in lighting control and they are detailed in DMX Lighting Systems – Is Anybody Listening?

Channel Controls

Even the most basic lighting desk has a degree of channel control. This enables the operator to adjust the “level” (sometime expresses as a percentage – 0% – 100%) of a “control channel”. A lighting desk controls this channel which can be used to adjust a range of lighting equipment, traditionally the intensity of a stage light via a stage lighting dimmer. A modern lighting desk controls these “channels” using different input methods such as faders/sliders for intensity, numeric keypad (where you type in a value) and other weird wheels and dials. These wheels give the operator the ability to adjust parameters and levels, particularly in the control of intelligent lighting. Where lighting intensity is controlled by faders, an additional “flash button” is useful for quick flashes of each channel.

Master Controls

The master control faders on a stage lighting desk adjust the output channels levels on a global scale. The SubMasters can control different groups of lighting channels while the Grand Master adjusts the intensity of every channels as it leaves the lighting desk. It is worth remembering that, on a lighting desk with intelligent lighting control, the Master control faders only actually adjusts lighting intensity level channels.

Lighting Desk Playback

“Playback”, relating to a stage lighting desk, is a term used to describe the “playing back” of different scenes, looks or states during the show. At it’s simplest, playback is simply setting the channel faders on the desk to a given level and then fading up the relevant Master Control so that the result appears on stage. Lighting desk’s that have “2-Presets” enable you to set your next scene up on another set of channel controls and then crossfade that scene in when required.

More sophisticated lighting desks have a number of playback features:

Memory Playback – Stack Control and the Go button.

Even simple lighting desks have often a degree of Memory Playback which enable the operator to record “memories” of different scenes and their channel levels and then play them back using a fader or “Go” button. These scenes can be faded in and out using a pre-recording time or timed manually by the op. A lighting desk that has a “go” button plays back scenes using “sequence control”, also known as a “theatre stack”. In a “theatre stack”, each scene is played back in numbered order every time the “go” button is pressed and, as the name suggests, this system is common in theatre shows where the cue sequence should be the same every night.

Memory Playback – Submasters are Go!

An alternative way to playback lighting scenes it use Submasters. Each submaster on the lighting desk can have a memory recorded “onto” where the scene can be faded in and out using the submaster and even added to the output of another submaster memory. This gives the lighting op really hands on control and ability to mix and match the lighting states “on the fly”. The number of acutal physical submaster faders on a lighting desk is often increased by using multiple “pages” of subs that each contain a different lighting state. There are are quite a few lighting desks that have submasters in addition to stack control and a “Go” button and these can be useful for manually operating some cues such as houselights/tab warmers etc.

Timing Controls

All lighting desks with memory playback that use a “Go” button have a degree of timing control. Recording the fade times, both in an out, with a cue mean that when the “Go” button is pressed you get a smooth timed cross fade. Some desks give the ability to have separate “Up Times” (the number of seconds for the new cue to fade in) and “Down Times” (how long the old scene takes to fade out) which can give you more control over the ways the lighting changes. Submaster controls don’t usually need much timing control as their purpose is to provide a manual fader to control the cue by hand. Timing controls on submaster playback are more desirable when controlling moving lights – more on that later. There are some manual “2 Preset” lighting desks that have a simple automated fade time associated with their master faders.

Effects Control

Effects Control is a feature of a lighting desk that has some kind of automated generation of lighting effects. This can simple “chases”, timed flashes of different lights or complex generation of intelligent lighting effects that would be time consuming to produce by traditional programming.

Chase effects can be triggered by a sound signal, as well as altered using different timing and chase patterns. Lighting desks with effects control use one or more seperate master faders for overall control of the effects output.

Intelligent Lighting Desks

Intelligent lights, moving or not, can have a large number of parameters that must be controlled. Although it is possible to control a DMX intelligent lighting fixture using the simplest manual DMX desk, it is not desirable. This is largely due to the fact that the complex features that an intelligent light has to offer cannot be best used running a lighting desk with no intelligent control interface. The user interface makes programming a chore and command of large numbers of fixtures becomes difficult particularly for the beginner.

The other reason that makes controlling intelligent lighting using a traditional “generic” lighting desk is the way that cues are played back. Simple conventional lighting desks use Highest Takes Precedence (HTP) playback that is ideal for controlling dimmers and light intensity. Intelligent lighting parameters such as position, colour, gobo etc. benefit from being played back on an Latest Takes Precedence (LTP) basis which makes for better control of cues and scenes. The actual difference between HTP and LTP is another article, which will appear on this site soon.

So, having established that we need some specialised intelligent lighting desk control in order to effectively program and playback intelligent lighting cues, there are some common features to all lighting desks designed for this purpose.

That is the subject of the next article in this series – Lighting Desk Basics – Beginner’s Guide to a Stage Light Control – Part 2 Intelligent Lighting.

You might also be interested in :

DMX PC Lighting Software – The Cheap Stage Light Controller

  1. Aiden


    Thanks for this great site, that you update with great articles every few days πŸ™‚

    Very Well Done
    Keep it up

  2. cutecess

    um, i randomly got on this site from google, but i was wondering – i’m a teenager (as in, still at secondary school not looking for universities) but i’m interested in lights (i run the lighting desk for all events at school)and was wondering if there is anything you can do with lights when you’re under 18.

  3. kyle caskey

    I just bought a LSC light station controller and I need to find out how to get a manual for it or just some instructions on how to work it please help …. contact me at kdc1179 at


    Hi cutecess,
    Yeah there is lots you can do at 18. For starters understand DMX.Since its the ABC of lighting. I understand your problem and dillemma since i had it too at that age. I started doing lighting when i was 13 in school and today im 23 and am a professional lighting engineer/designer/programmer.It’s not Rocket science but its not easy either. Knowing your basics when you actually go for that job, would only help.It’s all here on this site. So it shouldnt be a problem.

  5. Doug

    I have a stage setter 8 controller and I am trying to find out how I can program it to do a chase with just two or three of the lights while I have the rest stay steady. Or is that possible with this controller? Right now I don’t know much about programming it. I just figured out how to get the lights to come on.

  6. Rob Sayer

    Hi Doug, don’t much about the Scene Setter although looking at a picture it seems like you can record your static look onto a submaster on the bottom bank of faders while your chase runs.

    Usually these controls just need the right combination of choose chase numnber, add step, record, etc.

  7. William Smith

    I’m part of an emerging performance company (were all about to graduate from university) and were planning a large project for the coming year. I’ve been asked to hunt down information on lighting desks and prices and I wonder if anyone can point me in the right direction?

    Many Thanks in Advance,



    Hi will,
    Well you are at the right place to start at atleast. I need to know what kind of performances you are doing. There are hundreds of consoles, but not all can be used for theatre and neither can all be used for rock shows. Also whos your operator , it all comes down to the guy whos handling the lights for you. Whatever he is comfortable with stays….So thats how it is. If you want some suggestions on good lighting consoles for all purposes then here goes;
    3.Jands Lighting -dont know the website just type it in at google.
    4.Whole hog

    If you are looking for cheap and good, then there are softwares like martin Light Jockey available amongst hundred others.

    Just do your R snd D and ask us if in doubt.
    Hope this helps

  9. William Smith

    Thanks Sharukh,

    To answer your question we do a variety of performances. From small intimate acting spaces to full theatre spaces. In those situations We have used a Strand 200 and a Strand 320i respectively.

    The Operator is myself and I have been focusing on the Technical aspects of theatre in my course for over a year now and have recently begun working under and learning from Graham McLusky.

    The main reason for considering a new board is that the company are planning for an open air performance of the Theban Trilogy in our local castle and given that this will be a major event to get our selves out there, as it were, we are applying for various grants etc part of which may go towards investing in a lighting board of our own for ease of use when touring and visiting other theatres/venues.

    Thanks for those websites, I will check them out, and if anything else pops into your head I’d love to hear what you or anyone has to say.

    Many Thanks,


  10. Rob Sayer

    Hi Will and welcome to On Stage Lighting.

    If you are hoping to get funding to “invest” in a lighting desk, you probably don’t want to go down more common route of hiring such equipment. But, if you did decide to hire, talk to Pearce Hire in Peterborough who are good.

    If you have been working with Graham, then as a theatre consultant I expect that he can give you some good pointers about your desk purchase. One of the desks from Zero88 are a common choice of desk in the UK for users like yourself. I personally would avoid Strand kit these days.

    There are tons of “Which desk shall I buy?” threads over at the Blue Room which make some good reading or you could start a discussion at our Facebook group.

    The thing to remember is that everyone has their favourite that they claim is “the best”.


    There you go Will.Figure out what you are most comfortable with and go for it. Ease of use, transportability, easy maintenance, idiot proof(that is even a non lampie can operate incase u r not around)….are all things u have to consider.

  12. Kevin Rennie

    I am currently trying to learn as much as possible about perfomrance lighting systems and have found your website to be invaluble. I am just wondering: if you set the preset to say 50% and then increase the associated master to full/ the grand master to full then will the light preset to a half increase to 100% or will it reach a maximum of 50% and as a result if the masters were at only 50% would the preset light be at 50% or 25% (half of 50%). Any help and guidance is greatfully appreciated.

  13. Kevin Rennie

    I am currently trying to learn about and how to operate theatrical lighting systems to allow of to idly with the technical side of school shows. The school has said that they are willing to train me but I would like to have a background knowledge ofthe basics. The systan used is a simple preset system with limited programming capability and no intelligent lighting. I would like to learn the basics and some more advanced background of more complex systems to allow me to help in the local volunteer run theatre. I an wondering if anyone could recommend (in addition to this one) any websites or books to look at for tutorial purposes to allow of to learn. Thank-you in advance.

  14. Alan c

    Hi. I’m currently a student studying technical theatre.
    I was just wondering. If I was to buy a lighting desk to learn on what would you recomend ?

  15. Dinesh

    Hello All,

    Can anyone recommend one or more alternatives to ETC’s Insight 3 lighting control desk & playback system?


  16. Paresh


    I would like to hear from on avolites boards… Which is the best for indoor / outdoor events & will u pls share some good pictures of wedding setups which will help me & i will be glad if those pics are with lights..

    thank you all,


  17. Lighting Induction | technicalhowtoblog

    […] Control desks are used to distribute the light through channels, manually controlled desks use a number of faders to control each channel of light, crossfading controls are used to transfer between states. Computer controlled desks save each scene to memory and outputted when the controller requires. […]

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