House Lighting and control (DMX)
Lighting is important. In a world where everything is captured on video, it is even more important than it used to be (unless you can afford REALLY expensive cameras and lenses). Lighting enables us to see where to focus our attention, and by creatively filling the rest of the space, lighting can be almost as powerful as music when it comes to influencing our emotions. There is a reason that statistically more people commit suicide in a city like Seattle (with limited days of sunshine per year) than in Phoenix (with limited days of cloud cover per year)... and it isn't just the politics! And while everyone likes a great sunny day outside, we are all captivated by the drama of a spectacular Sunrise or Sunset, and love when God gets really dramatic just before or after a thunderstorm.
There are books and university classes on the subject of lighting, so I plan to keep this brief based on my experience and what I have learned from those who HAVE taken the university classes. If you want to learn more, by all means do so! If you want to study this topic more, I would focus on theatrical lighting or becoming a lighting director (LD) (or both). All of that to say, this series of articles will not cover ever available topic in depth!
The most obvious type of fixture is your house lighting. For many churches, this is controlled by a switch (or series of switches) on a wall that may or may not be dimmable that turns on everything from overhead fluorescent lights to chandeliers. We call a piece of hardware that emits light a “fixture” to distinguish between the hardware itself and the light emitted by the fixture. The typical fixture hanging in a traditional church building is called a “pendant.” While they are traditionally warm white in color (think traditional incandescent bulb), it is now possible to have a variety of colors (Including blue red, any other color and of course warm white) which CAN be used to further enhance the environment. On the other hand, if your house lights are a weird color because of the nature of the pendant they are enclosed in, that can really impact both the quality of your vides and the quality of a visitor’s experience. More important than the color is the control. Being able to easily turn the house lights on or off or dim them at the same time as your stage lighting can be VERY beneficial.
Speaking of control, DMX is the most common lighting control protocol available. Other protocols (such as ArtNET and sACN) basically enable more DMX control (number of available universes) per wire, but the concepts are the same. DMX is basically a constantly updated database of 512 channels that can each have a value of 0-255. That is one “Universe.” On a traditional 3-pin or 5-pin XLR cable, you can only have one universe. For many churches (and other organizations, that is all that is needed depending upon the number and complexity of the lighting fixtures in use. Each fixture typically uses between 1 and 30 channels each. Some fixtures can be given the same “address” (the number on the DMX database it jumps on at), and that technique can make your universe go further and save you some (or a lot) of programming at the cost of some artistic flexibility (which your DMX controller may or may not be able to handle anyway). It should be noted that there are still some older protocols called AMX and MPX that may look the same (and even use the same XLR cables), but they are NOT compatible with DMX without expensive converters, and you can cause serious damage if the two systems are accidently a combined without said converters.
DMX Controllers vary from simple controllers such as the Obey 40 from Chauvet (which won’t even let you access all 512 channels and are technically limited to 12 fixtures although there are some creative ways to control more) to huge professional controllers costing 10s of thousands of dollars and capable of many universes. As a controller is basically a dedicated computer with a physical interface, there are many computer programs that can also control your DMX. Some of these can use a physical interface (faders, buttons, etc.,)
The biggest advantages to the more complex controllers is that they facilitate multi-fixture effects, have much better dimming capabilities between scenes, and enable you to control multiple scenes and chases independently at the same time. A scene is a common term used on any controller and refers to a preprogrammed set of DMX settings sent to one, some or all of your fixtures. A chase is a series of scenes used to create various types of light movement (whether with color, intensity or actual movement). If you have some complex moving fixtures, a larger console almost becomes necessary as it can become a painful experience to control all of the available channels without the proper tools to do so. Our observation is that the jump from a typical simple controller ($100-$1,000) to a more powerful programmable controller with built-in effects and 2 or more universes will usually cost at least $3-4K with the next jump landing between $6K-$30K. Similar to soundboards, your needs, what you want to accomplish, and your available resources must be balanced, and we would be happy to help you think through that process.
Next time, we will talk about different kinds of stage lighting fixtures and the use for each. As always, if you have questions about your church lighting system or you are thinking about upgrading it, please contact us!