Stage Lighting Control

Do you have a hardware fetish?

The world of lighting control would seem to be very much about software right now.  Fans of different console platforms will argue over functionality and workflow as much as they’ll state that their favourite shiny console has the best screen tilt mechanism or power-up button.  That attention to hardware is still there, bubbling away.  On Stage Lighting asks if we aren’t suffering from a tiny bit of Control Hardware Irrational Prize-ification (CHIP).  Do you have a CHIP on your shoulder?

The recent release of QLab 4 with ArtNet output capability and basic lighting cue functionality has been met with a range of reactions.  Remember that they are just that – reactions.

In the post about the new version, I suggested that software-based lighting control was still seen as the domain of the cheap, amateurish, DJ-esque market or a convenient way to prep your show while away from a ‘proper’ console.  I also pointed out that this is at odds with audio and video playback trends, both departments embracing software as a major rather than minor part of their show programming and running workflows.  Some reactions to the very idea that QLab 4 would even hope to control lighting at anything other than a low level reinforced the prevalence of this mindset in lighting.

Let’s be clear.  We aren’t talking busking rock and roll shows here, where hardware of some kind still continues to have a large part to play.  (Of course, that hardware doesn’t have to be a dedicated lighting console and many are using other hardware methods to interact with recorded data via a physical interface whether it be a MIDI keyboard, pads or whatever.  However, if you look at something like the Resolume screen interface it isn’t hard to see how much buskability can be retained when only using a QWERTY keyboard and mouse. But that’s for another day.)

Today, I’m thinking about a theatre show that we’ve just finished here at Bath Spa University.


Sound and Video were controlled by two operators surrounded by six different Macs, four of which were running the show.  The sound gear included a hardware digital desk but the show was mostly soundscapes and so much of the audio work happened in complex QLab programming and playback.  The actual hardware was little more than a preamp for much of the time.  Similarly, video was running multiple outputs to different projection systems and included captioning and some projection mapping.  There was no vision mixer or switcher, no additional video hardware other than a few DA splitters and the output devices themselves.  All the machines were connected via the network and OSC triggers were used in various configurations between both Sound and Video.


The lighting system was a decent sized rig of generics, a few movers that were lightly used, and odd bits and pieces such as haze, and DMX shutters for the projectors.  The system was run from the sleek and shiny ETC Gio with additional screens and other hardware hoopla that goes with that, all running into an ArtNet box to control the DMX system.


The resulting show was cued playback of all departments in the traditional theatre style.  What did this mean for the lighting programmer?  The short version is:


“Typing in stuff, saving the data and then pressing a button on cue during the show.”


What did Sound and Video do during this production?

Drag and drop, type in stuff.  Save the data. Press a button on cue during the show.

That’s different.  Right?  The real difference in the theatre was that two of the operators were using generic computers and one, the LX programmer, was using a computer in a specially designed box with specially designed shiny buttons and screens.  One that comes with a not inconsiderable price tag and can’t be used to check your email or use it for another purpose.  Like running sound or video on the next show.


With the Gio or any other theatre lighting console, you type in data, save it and then play it back.  Just like the software based kit that the Sound and Video operators were doing. But the Gio is shiny.  And special. And everyone likes to feel the that they are special. So why not have special kit to do this very same thing on?  Lampies – Because you’re worth it.


Whatever the interface, hardware, and software, the kit outputs data that is stored and in the case of lighting controllers the output just data that is a lot of 8-bit channels and their level.  A hardware lighting desk might include special buttons with special names and special touchscreen with interfaces specially designed to make you feel special.


But none of this makes the case for special hardware over a computer in a generic box IF a software interface does exactly the same thing with equal or better workflow.  If the workflow is only just slightly better using the hardware, is it a whole £££ Gio + Touchscreens better?  Or are we suffering from collective delusion about the benefits of hardware over software in a situation that is simply data input, storage and playback?

Next time you find yourself thinking that software lighting control is second best or if QLab has no business controlling lighting, ask yourself if it is because the interfaces are actually not capable of inputting data, storing it and then playing it back.  Or if you actually just have a hardware fetish.


Image based on the work of Ian Abbot on Flickr

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