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Lighting Controllers

Via DMX 512 protocal you can use a lighting controller desk to adjust various performance aspects of lighting shows. Programme scences, displays and link multiple lighting units together for synchronised patterns and chases.

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Via DMX 512 protocol you can use a lighting controller desk to adjust various performance aspects of lighting shows. Programme scenes, displays and link multiple lighting units together for synchronised patterns and chases. The DMX-512 communication protocol is the way that most lights and controller use to communicate with each other. A 6-channel DMX fixture will have 6 channels on a controller, and each channel will handle a specific attribute, such as tilt, pan, colour etc. A good quality example of a controller will give you control over all aspects of several lighting systems, which are composed of hundreds of compatible fixtures. Although this will not be to everybody’s needs, and you can get simpler controllers that will have a specific purpose, such as controlling fog machines or lights. On top of this certain controllers offer the ability to use foot control.


The basics of controllers is generally quite simple, individual sliders on the controller will control one aspect of the lighting system, by moving the slider, it will change the specific value, that fixture will follow. By doing all this, you can then save all of this into a “scene” by which it will trigger the specific action or state, this can then be saved into a memory bank. By doing this several times you can create a “chase” by combining several scenes, which can be adjusted into numerous input functions depending on what controller you are using. An example of this is a MIDI controller.


Alongside the hardware, there is also a new focus in software; just as there is in recording and performance functions, to pc software and mobile device apps. There are advantages to this along with disadvantages, which will depend on your needs along with your own personal preference. Although you get the learning curve involved with new software, and the lack of physical and intuitive control that come with hardware, you will get enormous control potential with nearly unlimited creativity to create elaborate lighting programmes. On top of this it could be more affordable.


While shopping for a DMX controller, there are several specs and features to take into account such as the number of channels, obviously this will all depends on your needs and what you may incorporate at a latter date. The number of programmable chases and scenes which also be handy, if it’s a simple set up that you are likely to require, this will not need to be an high number, but for a more elaborate lighting show you want to give yourself enough scope. Again, this will affect the amount of shows you have, therefore this is as important as the chases and scenes, especially if you are going to be keeping as much focus on the music as possible it will be very handy.


A DMX controller is referred to as a “universe”, which has up to 512 channels, a smaller controller will only usually have one OUT, which only gives control of one universe. More complex lighting systems may be composed of several networks or universes, therefore you will need multiple controllers, or a controller that has several OUT connectors.


You can also have a tap/sync function that will allow whoever is controlling the ability to sync the lighting into the music by tapping in the tempo. For ease of use if you have a joystick or trackball control, you will effortlessly be able to us functional controls, such as pan/tilt. It may also interest you to look out for a keyboard input, which will allow you to connect a computer keyboard, which will make it faster to programme and name scenes, chases and shows. If you are going to have a long run of cable on stage, then it may be wise to take into consideration wireless operation, this is achieved by using a wireless adapter, by converting DMX control messages to radio frequencies, and they can bounce between the adapter attached to the controller and the receivers connected to the fixtures. Want to control your lights in real time? Then consider looking out for MIDI control, using a pedal board, keyboard or other means of control, you can get your lights to do what you want there and then.


DMX-512 is the communication/cabling protocol that most entertainment lights and controllers use to communicate with each other. DMX acts like a post office. For control, you assign an address between 1 and 512. However, unlike your house, which only has one address, your fixture needs a number assigned to each of its channels. A 6-channel DMX fixture uses 6 addresses, or 6 channels on a controller. Each channel on the fixture handles a specific control attribute such as pan, tilt, colour, etc.


DMX Controllers
Controllers run the gamut from simple non-DMX switchboxes and relay packs that allow you to power multiple lighting and sound channels to highly sophisticated DMX units that provide control over every aspect of multiple lighting systems composed of hundreds of DMX-compatible fixtures. Some simpler controllers have a dedicated purpose such as controlling specific effects such as strobes or fog machines. Some controller models allow foot control—a great feature for solo acts and small bands who control their lights in realtime during performance.


The basics of DMX controller operation are generally quite simple. Each slider on the controller corresponds to a channel on the fixture being controlled. DMX fixtures have specific values that correspond to their various control settings such as colour, gobo, pan, tilt, strobe speed, etc. By moving a slider on the controller to a specific value, the fixture follows suit. The various control values of each button or slider used to create an overall effect can be saved into a “scene”, which triggers the specific action or state you set. The scene is then saved into a memory bank. Numerous scenes can be combined into an entire program, which, for example, can be synchronized with cues for a show. This is called a “chase.” Chases can be adjusted via a myriad of input functions, depending on the controller being used. Examples of control triggers include MIDI and clock/calendar events.


Software-Based DMX Control
As with software-based audio recording and performance functions, there is a revolution in progress involving a shift in lighting control from hardware-based controllers to PC software and mobile device apps. That said, also as with audio functions, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
Dedicated hardware lighting controllers with physical sliders, buttons, switches, and legible displays offer intuitive and tactile control and workflow without delving deeply into menus and mastering steep software learning curves. On the other hand, software-based lighting control offers enormous control potential with nearly unlimited creativity in designing elaborate lighting programs. Software may also be more affordable route.


DMX Controller Features and Specs
Here are some features and specs to look at when shopping for a DMX Controller:


-Number of channels: Much like calculating the connections needed on an audio mixer, count the number of devices and each device’s number of channels in coming up with an adequate channel count. You’ll of course want to allow some additional capacity for future needs too.


-Number of channels per fixture: Some fixtures have many control attributes or parameters. If you plan to include such fixtures in your lighting system, a controller that can handle up to 32 channels per fixture will make sense. However, if your system will be largely comprised of simpler effect fixtures and PAR cans, a smaller, DJ-type controller is likely to be adequate.


-Number of programmable chases: Allows storage and recall of chase sequences simplifying show programming.


-Number of programmable scenes: As noted above, a scene is a set of control values or slider positions that can be saved for instant recall. Some controllers allow scenes to be saved on external memory devices while software-compatible controllers offer scene storage and editing on external computers or tablets.


-Number of programmable shows: A complete sequence of chases and other settings that comprise a complete performance that can be saved and recalled.


-Number of universes: Each DMX network is called a “universe” and has up to 512 channels. Smaller controllers usually have a single OUT connector allowing control of a single universe. More complex lighting systems may be composed of several networks or universes thus requiring multiple controllers, or a single controller with multiple OUT connectors.


-Fixture libraries: These collections of fixture profiles streamline the process of setting attributes and functions.


-Tap/sync: This function allows the operator to sync lighting effects with the music by tapping in the tempo.


-Joystick/trackball controls: These make tilt/pan and other positional functions easier to control.


-Keyboard input: Allows connection of a computer keyboard for faster programming and naming of scenes, chases, and shows.


-MIDI I/O and control: Allows control of the lighting system with a MIDI-enabled pedalboard, keyboard or other controller—a valuable feature for performers and DJs who control their lights in realtime. MIDI in and out connectors also facilitate programming on external computers and other MIDI-compatible devices.


-USB Connectivity/Software-based DMX control: A USB connector plus MIDI implementation opens up a world of control possibilities using PC software and/or mobile apps to program and control your lighting.


-Compact Flash drive: Enables updating controller software using downloaded updates.
Wireless operation: Some DMX controllers are compatible with wireless adapters so as to deal with situation where very long cable runs would otherwise be needed. Such systems have a wireless transmitter at the controller and receivers located near lighting fixtures. These systems convert DMX control messages to radio frequencies at the transmitter then convert the signal back to DMX signals at the receivers which are connected to the fixtures

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