Visually speaking, good stage lighting can make or break a show. A well-designed lighting system and expertly programmed lighting cues can make your performance look stunning and professional. A poorly assembled system without scripted lighting cues can make your best-sounding show look like open-mic night at the neighborhood coffee house. Designing, purchasing and implementing a professional stage-lighting system for your band, however, has always been prohibitively expensive. For the touring band on a shoestring budget, how well or how poorly your show's lighting is deployed is usually up to each individual club. It's like playing Russian roulette with your lighting.
Fortunately, new technology in performance lighting is helping to change all that and give even financially challenged bands the tools to be far less dependent on a club's lighting system. Ben Davis, a lighting systems expert of a pro audio and lighting design firm in San Francisco, Refraction LLC (www.refraction.net), helped explain this new technology and how it can apply to your act.
“A new previsualization technology that's hit the market in recent years is software that lets you program and preview exactly what your show's lighting will look like on a computer screen,” Davis says. “With the software tied into a standard DMX lighting console [DMX is a programming language that's similar to MIDI, but for lights], you can press a button and view the lighting effects in real time, complete with atmospheric effects, such as how the light beam will look through fog or haze. The virtual representation is pretty realistic now, thanks largely to the pioneering visual effects efforts of engineers in the gaming industry. In fact, because it all looks so real, I joke that programming lights today is like Lighting Man, the video game.
“In conceptualizing a show, we use a program called VectorWorks [www.nemetschek.net], with which we design an aerial view of the stage,” Davis explains. “Once all of the elements, such as the lighting trusses, fixtures and musicians are positioned on the virtual stage, we start extruding things to create a 3-D model. When that's complete, we can view the stage from any angle. Next, we export this model to ZZYZX ESP Vision [www.espvision.com], the software tool that we use to program the lighting cues and previsualize the lighting effects. ESP Vision is also connected to a DMX lighting controller [such as Flying Pig's Hog 3 PC]. So, once you've completed the programming from ESP Vision, all of your work gets stored right in the DMX controller.
“If you're using a sequencer, like Logic, onstage, you can even map MIDI tracks that will trigger a DMX lighting controller and use ESP Vision to perfectly synchronize the lighting effects with the music. You can literally program all of this in your living room and then simply take the DMX controller to your gig. This makes programming the lights for your show a hundred times less expensive than in the past. Ten years ago bands would have to rent a small hall and all the lights and hire an entire lighting crew for weeks just to program the lights for their concert.”
GET THE LED OUT
“LED stage lighting is the new thing,” Davis says. “It's really caught on for a technique called ‘infinite color mixing.’ LED lights employ RGB color, like your television. Whereas with conventional lighting fixtures you get just one color per light at a time — the color of the gel you put on the light — an LED light has the ability to become any color through RGB additive color mixing. By blending different amounts of red, green and blue together, you can literally create millions of color combinations using just one LED light.
“Another big advantage is that LED lights are low heat,” Davis continues. “Conventional lighting fixtures get extremely hot. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've been burned by conventional lighting fixtures; I sometimes wonder if I still have fingerprints. With an LED light, there's virtually no heat. This is a huge plus because now you can put an LED fixture inside of a fabric, or similarly flammable material, and not worry about it catching on fire. Plus, LED fixtures are low voltage, pulling only a fraction of the current required to run traditional lighting fixtures. What I do onstage with eight LED floor lights takes less than one 20-amp AC circuit breaker. Before, when dealing with traditional stage lighting, you probably needed eight 20-amp circuits just to run all the lights satisfactorily.
“There are a few things that LED lights just won't work for because they produce a polarized light,” Davis explains. “For example, if you need to create a very warm and natural-looking tone on film or in the theater, the shadows created by a polarized light might not be appropriate. The incandescent light of a traditional fixture gives shadows a soft edge, whereas a polarized light gives shadows a hard, crisp edge. As with any task, you need to pick the right tools for the job. In this case, LED lights can be very effective for lighting a band onstage.”
According to Davis, “LED lights range in price and quality, from industrial grade to bedroom-DJ grade. I'm finding that a small LED fixture costing just $80 and made in China will burn out in short order. An $800 fixture, no matter where it's manufactured, will most likely be well-designed and roadworthy. Good top-of-the-line fixtures available today include Color Kinetic's ColorBlast and James Thomas Engineering's PixelPar and Color Blocks [distributed by AC lighting].”
“LED lights are small and lightweight,” says Davis. “I went on the road with a three-piece band recently, and I brought just four LED lights. They all fit snuggly into a single Pelican case, and I could easily check this on a plane or stow it in the trunk of our car. Bringing along a few LED lights like this is an ideal way to supplement a club's in-house lighting system. You can easily illuminate a 20-foot stage and produce an amazing show. I believe it's possible to put together a small touring package with four LED lights, an inexpensive DMX lighting controller and the previsualization software for less than $2,000. It's a great investment if you want more control over your band's live presentation, no matter what venue you're playing.”