See the Light: A Guide to Lighting Basics

Lighting is a powerful way to enhance any kind of performance, service, or presentation—here’s what you need to know

Nothing can enhance musical concerts, theatrical events, worship services, clubs, installations, or even corporate presentations as much as effective lighting. But trying to choose the best lighting for your needs can be daunting because there are so many possibilities. Fortunately, though, there are options available for every application and budget. So, you just need to know what’s available so you can make the right decisions—and that’s what this article is all about.

Illumination or Enhancement?

Your first decision is whether you want lighting for illumination, or to enhance a performance with creative effects. With illumination, you’re generally choosing your light, setting it up, and leaving it be. Enhancement requires more advanced fixtures to provide control over the amount of illumination, the color of light, movement, and the option to sync the lighting to the performance.

LED vs. Incandescent Lights

LEDs will be the dominant lighting technology of the future. Compared to incandescent lights, they’re easier to use and maintain, require less power, generate less heat, and are relatively immune to shock. LEDs also offer more flexible color options. The most basic and popular color mix is red, green, and blue; those are the three primary colors of light, so mixing them together gives the most available colors. Adding white to the mix (RGBW) allows for more brightness and the ability to mix a cleaner white light, while adding amber is better for mixing more saturated colors, and also increases brightness. Some manufacturers offer a six-color option that typically includes red, green, blue, amber, white and UV LEDs (RGBAW+UV). This provides the most flexibility for color mixing.

LEDs are spec’d by the number of optics and the wattage in each. For example, 5 x 10W RGBA means there are five optics each containing a 10W red, green, blue and amber LED set. Although wattage doesn’t define the fixture’s level of illumination (as it would an incandescent lamp), it does give a general idea.

Incandescent lights are less expensive than LEDs, making them a popular choice. However, LED lighting is easier to maintain and will ultimately last longer, making the initial investment more cost-effective over time.

Once you’ve decided on your preferred lighting technology, the next step is deciding what kind of fixture is best for your needs.

Soft, Even Wash of Light Over a Wide Area

PAR (Parabolic Aluminized Reflector) fixtures are the most popular and best-suited fixtures for this application. The name of these fixtures originates from the technology; the incandescent lamp is in front of a parabolic reflector, which disperses the illumination over a fairly wide area. Some fixtures, like the ADJ 56 Combo, are incandescent lamp-based and designed to mount higher up, like from the ceiling or a bar. The package includes a 300W lamp, mounting clamp, and gel filters to produce different colors. The Blizzard LB PAR Quad RGBA (Fig. 1) has 12 LED-based optics (10W each) mounted in a fixture that’s equally suitable for ceiling/bar or floor mounting.

01_Blizzard LB PAR Quad RGBA
Figure 1: The Blizzard LB PAR Quad RGBA has 12 built-in programs, a sound active mode that responds to sound, strobe effects, and user-selectable dimming curve options.

These two PARs are single units, but you can also find multiple PARs mounted on a bar—like the Chauvet DJ 4BAR Flex T USB (Fig. 2). Buying packages with multiple PARs often reduces the price compared to buying the same number of PARs individually and also helps reduce your setup time.

02_Chauvet Bar Wash
Figure 2: Two Chauvet quad-PAR bars provide a wash of illumination in the same or different colors.

If you’re just starting to explore lighting, you might prefer a pre-configured, “plug and play” package such as the ADJ Mega Flat Hex Pack. This includes four PARs (each 5 x 6-Watt, RGBWA+UV LEDs), four power cables, three cables for connection to DMX controllers (we’ll cover controllers in more detail later), a wireless remote, and a carry bag.

Soft, Even Wash of Light Over Walls and Other Vertical Surfaces

The most suitable option here is strip lights, like the ADJ Mega Bar 50 RGB RC (Fig. 3). It includes 24 red, 54 green, and 47 blue 10mm LEDs in a 24″ bar. It has a similar light output to a PAR, but spread in a linear form.

03_strip light
Figure 3: For a soft, even wash of light over vertical surfaces, strip lights provide the optimal lighting.

Although the Mega Bar is compatible with DMX controllers, it also includes a wireless remote control that provides much of the functionality of a separate controller. Note that it draws only 18 watts.

Tight, Bright, Focused Light Beams

This is a job for the venerable spotlight, which typically has a crisp edge of light to facilitate projecting patterns or images. You’ll often find variable focus as well, so the edges can be softened somewhat. Spotlights are usually brighter than PAR fixtures, and have adjustable framing shutters to narrow the beam’s width, thus preventing the beam from illuminating areas that shouldn’t be lit. For example, the ETC Source Four Jr 36Degree (Fig. 4) has a 36º lens, but can also be set to 26º and 50º fixed-field angles.

Figure 4: The ETC Source Four Jr 36Degree has a projector-quality lens, and handles bulbs up to 575W (note that the unit doesn’t include a bulb).

LED spotlight options are available too. For example, the ADJ Encore Profile WW has a 100W light source, and via manual focus, you can change the angle of illumination from 12º to 30º. Of course, the wider the angle, the more the light gets distributed over that range, so wider angles may make the light appear less bright. This unit also offers a great degree of control, including dimming, and a sound active mode where the light intensity responds to audio.

Lighting as Special Effects

You can choose lighting options for just about any visual effect you want to achieve.

Strobe lights output short bursts of very bright light. Because most LED lights have short decay times and intelligent control options, many of them can be used as strobe effects (although these may not be as bright as dedicated strobe lights).The Blizzard SnowBlind (Fig. 5) is a good example of an LED-based strobe light.

05_Strobe light
Figure 5: The Blizzard SnowBlind uses white LEDs for cool, low-power operation, and can respond to sound and DMX control.

Brighter strobes, like the ADJ Encore Burst (which draws almost twice as much current as the Blizzard SnowBlind), cost more but create the kind of effect associated with tungsten lamps while offering the advantages of LED lights (less energy draw, cooler operation, and longer life).

Beam effects, which provide tight beams of light shafts (Fig. 6), are also popular.

06_Beam effects
Figure 6: Beam effects generated by the Chauvet DJ LX-5 LED moonflower fixture.

The more expensive the unit, the greater the variety in terms of color and brightness. A good example of a sophisticated beam effect, the ADJ Aggressor HEX LED (Fig. 7), has two, 12-watt hex color LEDs that produce effects based on red, green, blue, cyan, amber, and white LEDs. It also has 60 sound-activated reactions that move to the sound of the music.

07_ADJ Aggressor
Figure 7: ADJ’s Aggressor HEX LED can be daisy-chained easily to other units, and works on 100 to 240V, 50/60 Hz.

There are also the lighting equivalents of multi-effects. These fixtures can include a mixture of strobes, beam effects, wash lights, or even all three. A good example, the Chauvet DJ Gig Bar 2, features two LED derby fixtures (these spread multicolored, chasing beams throughout a room), LED wash lighting, four strobe lights, and a laser, all mounted on a single bar (Fig. 8).

Figure 8: Chauvet’s DJ Gig Bar 2 features four different effects, and comes with a stand, wireless footswitch, and a carry bag.

Effect lighting usually works in tandem with fog/haze machines because the light needs to reflect off of something in the atmosphere to be seen. Without fog/haze the effect is less likely to be noticed. Oil-based fog machines are (thankfully!) a thing of the past—today’s water-based machines, like Chauvet’s DJ Hurricane Haze (Fig. 9) are better for several reasons.


09_Hurricane Haze
Figure 9: Chauvet’s DJ Hurricane Haze 1DX is a compact, water-based haze machine with DMX control for synching with light controllers.

Moving lights are yet another option for special effects. These types of lights come in the same fixture types as other common fixtures, but they mount on a moving yoke that allows re-positioning the light to illuminate different places. The Martin Pro RUSH-MH1 Profile Plus (Fig. 10) is a good example of a moving-head LED light fixture. It features a rotating gobo wheel (a gobo, which stands for “goes before optics,” is a template which light shines through, thus projecting a pattern or image onto a surface), two color wheels, and motorized pan and tilt.

10_Moving lights
Figure 10: In addition to providing a moving light, the Martin Professional RUSH MH 1 Profile Plus also provides electronic dimming and a strobe.

Moving lights are more expensive than non-moving options, and while they can run stand-alone or with a sound-activated mode, you’ll get the most out of them when you can use a control device (e.g., DMX) to control the motion. Also note that the pricing on moving lights varies greatly, from a couple hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

Control Options

Now that you’ve decided on the technology and lighting type that you need, let’s decide how you’ll control them.

As mentioned at the beginning, if all you want is general illumination, you can simply set up your lighting, and have it provide a static output or look. But where lighting really comes into its own is when it becomes part of a performance—and for that, you need control. Here are some possibilities.

Standalone. This is one of the simplest and easiest to use options because the control is integrated with the light itself. However, it’s also the least dramatic option because the control basically consists of being either on or off. With incandescent lighting, you just plug the fixture(s) into a power source. LEDs usually involve going into a menu and setting the intensity, and perhaps the color. Some LED fixtures can also be programmed with a remote control. In either case, the fixture remains in the chosen state until it’s changed, or powered off.

Sound active. Some fixtures integrate a small microphone that can monitor the sounds being played, and vary the light output accordingly—the light gets brighter with louder sounds, and softer with softer sounds. This has a precedent in the “color organs” that were popular in the 60s. Ideally, you want to be able to adjust the microphone’s sensitivity so the light changes more quickly with smaller sonic variations, and less often with large audio variations.

Apps and Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for wireless control. This is a relatively new control option, thanks to the proliferation of smart devices. Wi-fi controlled devices are more robust and have a longer wireless range than Bluetooth, but require extra equipment to interface with the fixtures, and can be costly. ADJ’s Airstream Bridge DMX is a DMX to Wi-Fi interface that works with the free, iPhone/iPad-compatible Airstream DMX iOS app (Fig. 11), and can control any DMX fixture, making it a great low-cost solution.

Figure 11: Two screen shots from the iPhone version of the Airstream DMX iOS app.

Bluetooth is ideal for shorter distances, and less costly. Chauvet builds Bluetooth receivers into some of their fixtures for compatibility with their free BTAir app (note that this works only with Chauvet fixtures, but is available for both iOS and Android). For example, Chauvet’s DJ SlimPAR Q12 BT (Fig. 12) wash light allows for smartphone or tablet control and doesn’t require extra hardware. It’s also compatible with the optional-at-extra-cost IRC-6 remote.

12_Chauvet Bluetooth
Figure 12: Remote control via Bluetooth doesn’t offer the same kind of range as wi-fi, but it’s cost-effective; Chauvet’s Bluetooth control app is compatible with Android as well as iOS.

DMX. This is the most advanced control method with the greatest number of options, and is a little more complex to understand—so we’ll stick to a fairly high-level explanation of how a DMX system is put together.

DMX fixtures connect to each other with daisy-chained DMX cables, starting at a console that generates the DMX control signals. The console can be a standalone piece of hardware, or software running on a computer. To provide individual control, each fixture has a unique address—like how mail gets directed to specific post office boxes. You can set two fixtures to the same address if you want them to react in the same way, or receive the same information.

Incandescent lights have only one variable (called a parameter) to control—intensity. So, only one DMX channel is required to control it (a DMX channel carries the control signal for a specific destination). LED fixtures may have multiple parameters, like color, intensity, or other specifics dependent on the fixture; each parameter requires its own DMX channel. When addressing a fixture with multiple parameters, you set the DMX address to the first control channel, and then the fixture automatically maps the remaining parameters to the subsequent channels.

The next fixture in the line will need to receive control signals over the next free DMX channel. If the first fixture requires three DMX channels, then it uses channels 1, 2, and 3. So, the following fixture will need to start at channel 4.

All of this information must be programmed into the control console. As a result, the console needs to be told what each device is so that it knows which DMX channels map to the various parameters. It also needs to be told each fixture’s DMX start channel. This setup and preparation process is called patching.

Once set up, the console will allow you to control a fixture’s available parameters. Most consoles can also define scenes, which are predefined settings for multiple parameters. Changing from one scene to another can trigger a completely different lighting effect.

DMX controllers are available at all price points and levels of complexity. As a start, the Chauvet DJ Obey 3 is a simple controller for RGB LED lighting fixtures for under $60. Additional channels, and the ability to control multiple fixtures and hardware at once, will increase the expense. For example, ADJ’s Hexcon, which provides 36 channels of control with six multi-function faders, costs about $120 while the Elation Stage Setter 24 (a 24-channel DMX lighting console with tap sync speed, audio trigger, and MIDI trigger; see Fig. 13) is around $188. If you need even more capabilities, the ETC ColorSource 20 handles 40 fixtures with 20 hardware faders and a multi-touch display.

13_Stage Setter 24
Figure 13: Elation’s Stage Setter 24 represents a good cross-section of capabilities and price.

For musicians who use Mas OS or Windows computers in live performance, and want to run an automated light show while performing, the ENTTEC DMXIS is ideal. You pre-program your entire light show in advance, then step through the light show using a footswitch (not included) plugged into the DMXIS hardware interface. Or, with the VST/AU DMXIS plug-in, you can run the lights directly from audio software such as Ableton Live, Cubase, Studio One, Mixmeister, etc. This means that the light show synchronizes automatically to the performance, even if you change tempo live.

Setup/Location Considerations

Congratulations! You’ve chosen your technology, fixtures, and how you’re going to control them. The final step is setting them up. The available space and your objectives dictate the best way to do setup; here are some tips.

  • When lighting for illumination, front-lighting the performers should always be the priority. Place the fixtures in front of, and above, the performers. The general rule is 45º to each side and 45º up. If a space isn’t big enough to allow for two positions, or there aren’t enough fixtures, placing lights directly in front can work as well.
  • If your default choice is a natural/neutral color, then adding color can change the performance’s mood or intention—for example, blue for sadness or romance, red for rage or passion, green for balance and calming, yellow for joy, white for purity, and the like. (The web has many resources about color psychology, like Effects of Color on Emotions from the Journal of Experimental Psychology.)
  • If space and available number of fixtures allow, add a back or top light to help frame the performers and separate them from the background. For this, you can use a saturated color even when the intention is just to provide illumination. Choose a neutral color if the performance will be captured on video or photo, because that provides the best framing for the camera.
  • When lighting for effect, if you have the option, placing effect fixtures behind the performer can blend into the performance and provide a more visually cohesive look. Hang the fixtures above the stage or place them on stage; typically, effects fixtures focus into the audience space.

Lighting is one of the most powerful ways to enhance a live musical performance, worship service, play, corporate presentation, or anywhere people gather for an experience. As with so many aspects of technology, lighting continues to become more affordable, while also becoming more capable. If you haven’t taken advantage of the latest advances in lighting, it’s time to…see the light.

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