Category Archives: Lighting Strategies

Hints and notions about illumination for stages in small venues.

To Hurry Is Useless

“To hurry is useless. The thing to do is to set out in time.”
– Jean de La Fontaine

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Especially when it comes to show production, I will say this when it comes to time management:

If you’re in a hurry, you’re doing things the wrong way.

Of course there are exceptions. When a million things that you couldn’t have foreseen suddenly fling themselves at you, teeth gnashing, you can’t blame yourself. It’s entirely possible to get all your ducks in a row, only to have a vanload of psychotic kleptomaniacs with a fondness for waterfowl show up on the scene. The next thing you know, your ducks are gone.

I’m not here to argue the (bogus) point that you’re responsible for every eventuality, just because you have a certain position of responsibility on a show. That kind of thing sounds good for corporate motivational posters, but it’s as helpful as a greasy hammer when it comes to real life.

What I am saying, though, is that boredom is infinitely preferable to panic, and that you can often choose to not be in a pressure situation. You just have to allow yourself significantly more time than you think you need. If everything goes perfectly, then you can lounge around and enjoy being done. If everything does NOT go perfectly, you still have some cushion to work through your conundrum.

Again, what I’m talking about is when there are clear choices involved.

There are people who have a habit of thinking, “We can set up for our gig in the space of [timeframe], so we’ll show up at [timeframe] before doors.” These people CAN have a good show – if everything goes their way, and the folks supporting them are really top-shelf. If anything (at all) goes pear-shaped, though, the trouble will be very serious. The show probably will be late, or on time but something of a mess. The stress factor will be increased, and live music is plenty intense without any additions, thank-you-very-much-folks.

It’s also entirely possible to show up with plenty of time to spare, and then use that spare time poorly. I remember one show that I did where everybody, including me, was plenty early. We got the band’s gear all set up. I had a basic mix dialed in for the wedges before anybody else arrived. (I’ve told this story here before, I believe, but with somewhat less detail.)

And then, we didn’t soundcheck. The band wasn’t interested, for some reason. I stood by my console at FOH, and waited. As Douglas Adams would have said, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, and with no warning…nothing CONTINUED to happen. Roughly 90 minutes passed this way, as I remember.

Finally, at pretty much the precise moment that the band was to start, they took the stage and proceeded to do what they should have been doing all along: Soundcheck. Except, we had no time. We had to pretty much be in full swing immediately. Nothing was really where it was supposed to be, and so there was this flurried and chaotic activity of trying to dial everybody in all at the same time. Everybody needed something fixed in the monitors, and as I focused on one person, another player’s requests got lost. The drummer, in particular, had precisely what he didn’t want (a lot of everybody else’s vocals), and he wasn’t really in a position to communicate clearly about it. I think the poor guy suffered through a significant part of the first set before anything could be done. It all wasn’t a complete trainwreck, but it was an infinitely bigger sandwich-o-crap than it actually had to be.

To be brutally frank, the band could have socialized for a whole hour before downbeat – with everything being in place for downbeat – if we had only taken 30 minutes to get things dialed in beforehand. It might not have even taken that long.

There’s a big difference between not being able to put your ducks in a row, and not even attempting to arrange those little birds in a linear fashion. Why be in a hurry if it’s not necessary?


Ask Me Something For Thursday

I’ll be doing a live show with AMR.FM on July 9th.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Just a reminder: On July 9th, I’ll be live on AMR.FM. If you’ve got a question about live production that you want answered, now’s the time to ask!

If you’ve subscribed to this site’s feed via email, you can email a question (or multiple questions) to me. You can also get in contact with me via Facebook or Twitter. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that any particular question will be answered, but I’ll do my best to get things in.

To listen to the show, you’ll have to go to AMR.FM and select “United States” & “Utah” in the appropriate dropdowns. The plan is to be on at 7:00 PM, Mountain Daylight Time.


Perishable Skills

Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Big Blue Ox was on the stage for soundcheck, and there was a bit of a problem. Because I get so much drum bleed through the vocal mics at my regular gig, I’ve given up on using overheads or hi-hat mics. The issue with this was that Big Blue Ox plays with some pretty gnarly timing swings, and they need the hat to help them count.

Up on stage I went with a “pencil” condenser, ready to unleash one of my favorite tricks. When space and time is limited, I use gaffers tape to mount a mic on the hat stand, with the mic pointing up at the bottom hat. With everything in place, I trotted back to the console. The input that I expected the mic to be on was dead, but I was seeing a bit of action on the next input over. “I must be off by one on my patch,” I thought.

I won’t go into everything else that followed. Suffice it to say that the mic was repositioned, cables were swapped, and a snake line was ultimately bypassed…

…and then, I finally realized my mistake.

Months earlier, I had deactivated the phantom power on the final bank of inputs to my mix rig. I don’t use ribbon mics, and I make it a point to use DI boxes for getting line-level inputs into the PA, so I’m used to the idea of just having phantom applied to everything. (It saves me from having to check if it’s needed for a particular line. I just plug in and go.) My shutting down the phantom on the final few inputs wasn’t a problem originally, because those inputs are usually a handful of dynamic mics for drums. Also, that removal of phantom was an anomaly.

An anomaly I no longer thought to check for, because – as I said – I always have phantom applied to everything. It makes my life easier about 99% of the time.

My “check for phantom” skill had perished, and the result was a comedy of errors. It did finally dawn on me that phantom might not be engaged, and we did eventually get hi-hat in the wedges. Personally, I think it was all pretty danged funny.

But it’s still important for me to recognize that the skill had withered on the vine.

Use It Or Lose It

I was first introduced to the phrase “perishable skill” through the series “Carrier.” (It’s that documentary about the USS Nimitz.) As the ship is underway back to the US, a situation occurs where the flight deck is pitching dramatically. This is used as an opportunity to provide some continuing-education to the naval aviators aboard the boat. The captain states something to the effect of “Landing on an aircraft carrier is a perishable skill.”

As it turns out, there’s plenty involved with show production that’s also a perishable skill.

The competencies that tend to drift to the wayside are the little things. The routine practices that escape conscious thought. Especially prone to quiet death are the bits that get “automated.” Automation can take the form of tasks that are actively executed for you, but it can also show up when a process becomes passively implemented. For instance, my choice to just leave phantom applied to every line entering the console. Pressing the phantom switches isn’t something that I’ve created a robot to do, or a process that requires some sort of scripted action. Once pressed, the buttons stay that way. I just assume that the phantom is on. It’s a passive implementation.

I’m the same way about the patching of physical lines to the console. Barring an equipment failure, input 1 on the snake is input 1 at the console, all the way down the line to however many inputs are in play. I never think to check for physical crosspatching, because I prefer to avoid it. This once bit me VERY hard at a show I did in Ogden on an unfamiliar audio rig…

Anyway.

The point is that a skill unused, especially one that’s “small” or routine, will tend to atrophy. I’m not here to rant and rave about having a refresher for every little thing, because I’m not going to do that – and you probably won’t either. Instead, I think it’s just wise to understand that our production routines tend to create blind spots. Complacency, and all that. Getting into a groove is a great thing, but whatever is outside that groove can easily escape from us. If we keep in mind that skills are perishable, and that our choices of what to push away from conscious management determine what perishes, we can be ready when the unexpected occurs. We can ask ourselves what might have gone wrong that’s not part of our usual workflow, and troubleshoot accordingly.


The Priorities List

An enumeration of critical tasks and considerations for making a live show work.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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If you look at any desk that I use, you might not think that I have an ordered mind. It can be a little scary, I admit. I am of the opinion, however, that I’m capable of imposing order on certain parts of my mind – especially when there’s a show to be done. This is important, because I think that really pulling off a show requires some kind of plan. It doesn’t have to be written out in detail, but it has to exist in some form. You can’t just throw things together at random and expect them to work. A clear idea of what’s truly important is a really helpful sort of thing.

It did strike me one day that it might be interesting to attempt putting my basic, mental plan down in writing.

So, here you go.

The Pre-Game

Early Is The New On-Time

My general philosophy is that, if you’re early enough, you remove the need to worry about “the critical path.” The critical path is the shortest sequence of tasks necessary to complete a project successfully. Our project is the show, and the critical path for the show is the minimum necessary to survive the night.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do – but do you really want the bare minimum to be your best practice?

Nah.

The critical path for the show might be two vocal mics and a bit of level in the monitors, but that’s not really “full-service” and this IS a service industry. We have other things we can do…if we have the time. So create the time.

Make The Stage A Place You Want To Be On

Oh my. That stage is a mess, isn’t it? Cables are going everywhere from last night’s chaos, there’s gum stuck to various things, trash is strewn around, there’s a beverage glass jammed in a corner, and there’s a pile of wood fragments from that drummer whose hero is apparently Animal from “The Muppet Show.”

Guess whose responsibility it is to clean that up and make the stage look nice?

That’s right.

YOU have to have comfortable, happy musicians in order to do your job properly, and part of making people comfortable is presenting them with a working space that’s as nice as possible. So, get after it. You’ll be fine if you wash your hands afterwards.

Be Ready To Put Everything Through Some Part Of The Rig

Yes, it might be true that you technically don’t have to mic the amps or the drums to make the FOH mix work. However, just because you don’t need something in FOH doesn’t mean it won’t be wanted in monitor world. If you’ve got the inputs, plug things into them. Have the option available. The musicians will probably appreciate it, and that counts for a lot.

Also, make sure your gear is working during the course of setup. If a mic, cable, lighting instrument, loudspeaker, or whatever else is not cooperating, now is the time to find out. It’s easier to fix a problem before soundcheck rather than during, and much, much easier to fix a problem before the actual show is rolling.

A Tsunami Of Vocal

Vocals are often THE critical thing to get right in monitor world, so take the time to get a baseline sound that’s essentially pleasant, focused on the critical midrange instead of extreme low and high frequency “fru-fru,” and LOUD. You should take your basic cue from this chunk of Iggy Pop’s tour rider. (That’s where I got the “tsunami of vocal” bit.)

Now, yes, not everything will ultimately require “rock show” vocals in the monitors, but you have to be ready. You have to be prepared for situations where the ultimate volume isn’t that high, but the monitor-world loop gain is cranked. Start with the assumption that you need full-blown-rock-show level in the monitors, and make that work as well as you can. Make sure to kill your feedback problems as dead as they can possibly be killed. Test with all your vocal channels unmuted, because the total gain of the entire setup really does matter. A little bit of ringing is NOT acceptable. Do things as correctly as you know how.

If you’re particularly lucky, the musicians will be thoroughly impressed, and then ask you to turn things down. If you’re not particularly lucky, at least you’ll be prepared. (I have nothing against luck, and I acknowledge its ability to trump almost every other factor, but it’s not something you can plan on.)

Everything Else

For mics meant for other sources, you still have to have some idea of how they’ll work in monitor world. You do need to establish some kind of tuning to ward off their major problems regarding mixes for the deck. Your favorite instrument mic may have a tendency to ring at a certain frequency when you’re in a high-gain situation, so you need to get that under control. It’s possible that you’ll only have to take a look at the issue a few times – but you have to take that look.

Just as with vocals, the primary goal is to be able to supply the monitors with sound that’s basically nice to listen to, without a lot of “pre-emphasis” on any particular frequency range, and with plenty of level available. Run up the send level of an instrument mic and talk into it. Does it wound weird? Fix it.

Not On The Fly

Make sure your mixing console and/ or lighting system has “sane” presets applied. You want to be able to push things up in a hurry and have a result that is basically okay. Starting completely from scratch is a fun thing when you have rehearsal time and a single band to invest all your energy in, but that doesn’t happen so often in the small-venue world. (It’s especially rare when the venue signs your paycheck instead of an individual act or tour package.)

From a sonic perspective, if a mic is pointed at something and you push the fader up, the resulting sound should be a believable facsimile of that thing. From a lighting perspective, you should have several basic “looks” or “moods” that you can summon without having to think about it too much.

Don’t worry about your presets not being exactly right for everything. If they’re not helpful, you’ll recognize it and take steps to correct it (or learn to). If your preset works for the average case, it’s a good preset and will save you time. Dealing with something truly crazy has to be done on a case-by-case basis anyway, but the average stuff is what you’ll run across the most. That’s why it’s average.

Get The Band In The Room

I often say that loading the band in “is the job.” If the band isn’t in the room, and their gear isn’t in the room, then there isn’t going to be much of a show, right? So, get your hands dirty. Find some heavy stuff and move it. Not only does this help you actually get the show moving, it is often highly appreciated by the musicians. It’s a great way to actually show them that you’re all on the same team. It’s also a great way to prevent the band from getting fatigued before they’ve even played a note.

Also, to a certain extent, helping with the load in gives you a chance to really see the gear you’re going to be working with. If you see four toms for the drum kit, but you only have mics for three, you can make a note to get out another mic without having to be asked first. Did you run an XLR for the bass amp, but it doesn’t have an XLR direct out? Now you know, and you have a bit of time to get out a DI or set up a microphone.

But the main thing is to be helpful and facilitate the musicians being pleased.

Happy, comfortable musicians. Let that be your mantra.

Downbeat and Beyond

What’s Needed On Deck?

Your first priority is to get the stage sounding the way the musicians need it to sound. If they are comfortable and can play their best, then they will deliver the best show possible. Mixing FOH around what’s required for the musicians to deliver is a perfectly acceptable compromise. Forcing the sound on deck to conform to FOH in such a way that the actual performance is harmed? That is not an acceptable compromise.

This goes for lighting, too. If that super-moody light cue with the lasers prevents the players from seeing something they need to see, that just doesn’t work.

If the musicians are truly “in the zone” and fired up, that will translate to the audience. It will translate even if every production factor isn’t exactly where you might want it. You might not get to call your favorite light cues, or FOH might not be as clean and punchy as you might want, but the crowd is still very likely to be happy.

Vocals/ Melody, Then Everything Else

Anyone who tells you that drums and bass are the foundation of a mix is dead wrong. (There, I said it.) The foundation of the sound is the vocals. If there aren’t any vocals – either generally or just at some particular point – the foundation of the music passes to whatever carries the melodic theme.

I can prove my assertion about the vocals.

“Your head is humming and it won’t go – in case you don´t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady can you hear the wind blow and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”

What song is that? That’s right! It’s “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Amazing that you knew that without any music being played. Maybe it’s because you could understand the vocals?

I’m not saying that “Stairway” (or any other song) isn’t a total package. I’m not saying that the iconic guitar intro doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that the rhythm section is unimportant. The way the song builds to a thundering climax is a great bit of fun, and a major part of the song’s overall success.

What I AM saying is that if the vocals or key melodic elements – like a guitar solo – are lost while you try to dial up a crushing drum-n-bass tone, then you’ve got your priorities wrong.

Adjust For The Sake Of The Show

If you’re going to make a sonic change, that’s great. If you’re going to make a lighting change, that’s great.

But make sure you can easily justify that change in terms of serving the actual show. There’s a piece of advice that was given by Dave Rat which I particularly agree with:

Don’t fiddle.

That is, don’t make changes for the sake of making changes. Your existence at the audio or lighting console is justified by the need for an operator to be present and conscious; no further justification is required. If the EQ on the vocal channel is working, and you can’t supply a reason to change it other than “I have to change something,” then keep your paws off the EQ. If the light cue looks fine, and you’re worried that you should flash some PARs or twirl some movers because, you know, you’ve got all these buttons and knobs… Really. It’s okay. Leave it alone.

Of course, if the light cue looks okay, and changing to another cue will totally punctuate the transition to the song’s bridge, then PUNCH THEM BUTTONS, COWBOY!

Context matters.

I do support the idea of experiments. If you want to try something because you’re curious, then that’s a good thing. However, take the time to figure out how to do the experiment without calling a lot of attention to what you’re attempting. Be as subtle as you can. “Roll” things in and out instead of jumping around, if possible.

By extension, this also means that you don’t have to drive everything all the time. Let the music ebb and flow. The balance amongst all the parts doesn’t have to stay exactly the same all the time. Having that balance change just might be part of the ride. There’s no need to manage all the faders all the time. They will continue to exist even if you don’t touch them.

Breathe.

Try To Keep The Audience Happy

This one’s tricky, because you have to have a certain amount of confidence in your production decisions. You have to know when certain requests aren’t physically possible, or really aren’t in the best interests of the show at large.

Even so, do your best to be aware of the audience’s needs. If the crowd is running for the exits while holding their ears, then ask yourself if you’re being unnecessarily loud. If somebody asks for more bass/ less snare/ a different approach to the top end on the vocals/ whatever, then try to accommodate them if you can. This stuff is subjective, and if you can make one more person happy without wrecking the experience for everyone else, you might as well try it. The worst that can happen is that everybody else will hate the adjustment, and ask you to put things back to where they were.

This goes for lighting folks as well. Watch what happens when you call different cues, especially the ones that put light directly into the audience. If a bunch of people suddenly look unhappy, change to a different cue and don’t call the offender again.

Aftermath

Socialization

Once the show is over, you still need to keep the band happy. Try not to rush them out of the venue. Let them talk to the folks who came out, because that will help them build their audience. It’s also nice for players to just generally depressurize after all the excitement. Don’t run the post-show playback (if any) too loud. Giving everybody some time to unwind is just a courteous thing to do, if it’s feasible.

Load Out

The performers are probably rather tired after all the excitement, so the after-show is another great time to help with the moving of heavy objects. This further cements the idea that you and the band are on the same team, with an emphasis on building a good relationship for the next gig.

Further, this means that you can be on point to ensure that the gear is watched. Gear has a nasty tendency to get stolen in the post-show chaos, so keep an eye on things. If the load-out is a multi-trip affair, and it looks like gear might be left unattended, then stay where everybody else isn’t. You might just prevent something from “walking off.” Then, when somebody else returns, you can make another trip with a heavy object.

Setup Begins At Teardown

If you do nothing else, grab the grilles and pop-filter inserts off the vocal mics and wash them thoroughly. A nice, fresh, non-smelly vocal mic is much more hygienic, and also communicates (in a subtle way) that you care about the performers’ comfort.

If you know that someone else has to use the stage before you come back, then you have to clean up now. Get the cables wrapped and the trash picked up.

It’s ideal, of course, to get cleaned up even if you don’t strictly have to. Something might come up before the next show, meaning that you’ll have less time than you planned for. No matter what happens, leave the stage in a condition that you can manage even if you don’t have all the time you want for the next show’s prep.

Now, loop back to the top and do it all again…


Why Techs Should Work Some All-Ages Shows

It’s an excellent way to learn and be tested.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

allages

That picture up there is one of the last from my days at New Song Underground. Underground was an all-ages venue in Salt Lake City that I helped to create and run. It was a BLAST.

I miss it.

Looking back, Underground was a formative experience that I would not have traded for anything. Going to school for audio was an important part of my education, but Underground was downright critical. If you’re looking to become a production craftsperson of some kind (audio, lights, staging, video, you name it), I highly encourage you to spend some time doing work in an all-ages context.

Why? Well…

You’ll Meet People Who Love The Craft For The Craft

It’s not that there aren’t people at every level of this business who “love the art.” Loving the art is what got a lot of folks to those lofty heights.

At the same time, though, the (often) brutally unprofitable nature of the all-ages scene means something: That the people who don’t love the art for its own sake tend to get filtered more aggressively than elsewhere. Sure, there are folks who enter the scene for a perceived, externalized payoff, but they probably won’t last too long. To a large degree, the bands that keep playing do so because they want so badly to play. The venue operators that actually stick with it are in the game because they can’t NOT be in it. The techs that stay around are still there because there are interesting shows to do.

Money doesn’t necessarily make art less pure, but the lack of it acts to encourage the “pure form” to emerge. The question of “will this be cool?” gets just as much weight, if not more, than “will this make money?” That’s how many great things are made.

You’ll Meet People Who Feed (And Are) The Future Of Art

It was through all-ages work that I met two particularly amazing people in the local music world. One was Julia Hollingsworth, who used to run Rising Artists Studios. The other is David Murphy, who runs The Wasatch Music Coaching Academy. Both of them have done mountains of work with performers learning the craft. They’re the kinds of people who are inspiring to be around, and they’re surrounded by players and singers of great talent. The raw potential of some young musicians is enough to make your hair stand on end; the Julias and Davids of the world help to shape that potential.

Through Julia and Dave, I got a chance to work on shows and recordings that displayed stunning performances. There were teenagers turning out the kind of material that folks twice their age couldn’t match.

And the best part is that you get to participate. In some cases, you may be giving “some kid” their first taste of a real show on a real stage. You get to make their day and whet their appetite for more. You get to help performers on their journey towards…whatever they’re journeying toward. I can’t adequately communicate how that feels, or what a privilege it is. There’s nothing quite like it in the world of music. Maybe there’s nothing quite like it in the world, period.

Such experiences are certainly not confined to the all-ages circuit, but I believe they exist there in high concentration.

You’ll Be Challenged

There’s a lot of talent out there in all-ages world, but some of it is undeveloped. There are also a lot of people who just can’t hack the whole “live performance” thing, but haven’t yet learned that they can’t.

Working with folks who are naturally professional, or have learned to be, is easy.

Working with folks who haven’t learned many lessons on professionalism is a challenge – a challenge that’s good for you.

The accessibility and fluidity of all-ages gigs means that you, as a production craftsperson, will have to deal with situations that aren’t under control. Show-orders will change at a moment’s notice. Nobody will submit an input list. Another band will jump on the bill unexpectedly. Nobody will know what’s going on. You will encounter a good number of bands and artists who are well intentioned, but have yet to master the art of show logistics.

And you HAVE to deal with it. You have to do professional work in unprofessional situations, with limited resources, and with limited preparation. You will learn how to be diplomatic, how to find and stay on the critical path for show execution, how to cheerfully chuck out your expectations and just “go for it,” or you will be consumed and excreted by the raging dragon that is “The Show.” You will think nothing of switching out six full bands in a night.

If you want the ultimate education in how to run a PA system at the ragged edge, all-ages gigs are an Ivy League school. You will experience VERY high-gain monitors, with multiple mixes put together for people who haven’t learned how to communicate effectively with audio humans. Both the deck and the house will teeter precariously on the edge of runaway feedback. You will struggle with FOH blends that fight every step of the way, as you wrestle with players who are too loud for each other, and too loud for the poor vocalist…who wants a SCREAMING wedge while they make no more noise than a normal conversation. Also, they’ll want to be three feet from the mic. You will learn very quickly that the loudest dude on stage is as quiet as you can be.

You will not have enough PA. Nobody ever does, of course, but you will have even more not enough PA than lots of other people.

You either swim or sink, and it’s exhilarating. There’s no other learning experience like it, and the best part is that everything else seems much easier afterwards. (You will also learn to be very grateful for people who are professional, that’s for sure.)

So – if learning tough lessons while also experiencing some brilliant moments is something you want to do?

Work some all-ages shows.


Some Basic Music Theory For Lighting Humans

You gotta know where “one” is.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

musical lightsWant to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

The “big boss” at my regular gig is a drummer. He loves the “technical” end of playing the instrument – all the subtle and not subtle things that percussion can do to drive a song. We once had a conversation regarding “strange” grooves and weird time-signatures, and he related to me a tiny piece of advice that had revolutionized his thinking:

“You just gotta know where ‘one’ is.”

In his drumming context, even the most bizarre phrasing could be managed and worked into a tune, just as long as the drummer maintained an awareness of when everything was supposed to resolve, sync up, and start over. If the player knew when one musical pattern was about to give way to another, there was very little chance of getting lost or confused. The tune might get very complex and off-center, but there would always be a moment when everything “locked up” again and anchored the music.

So, what does this have to do with people who build and drive light shows?

Timely Event Acknowledgement

If you’ve ever seen a show where the lighting had nothing at all to do with the music, you probably didn’t enjoy it very much. Lights flashing at random, with chases just randomly switching up haphazardly aren’t much of a show. It gets into the realm of visual noise – information entering the eye that’s disorganized and hard to pattern-match. If it’s bad enough, the light “show” never ends up correlating with the music at all, and is internally random enough that the brain just ignores it.

On the other hand, light shows that acknowledge musical events, and acknowledge those events at the right time, are tremendously fun and bring the entire experience up to a new artistic height.

The key to that is timing, and the key to timing is understanding a little bit about how music is constructed.

A Turn Of Phrase

Most of the music that you’re likely to run into is built using “phrases.” Phrases are often discernible as repeated patterns or modified patterns of musical events, although more complex music has phrasing which isn’t always based on readily identifiable repetition. In music that most people find to be “easy to listen to,” phrase boundaries occur at very specific and predictable points in time: The beginnings and ends of measures or “bars.” Each bar is subdivided into a number of beats, which are a sort of internal, logical synchronization for musical events inside each bar.

If all of this sounds confusing, you don’t need to worry. You probably already have a workable grasp of all this in an intuitive sense. For instance, if I describe some bog-standard techno music as going “thud, thud, thud, thud,” and you can imagine bobbing your head in sync with each “thud,” then you know what beats are. In this particular case, each “thud” is a beat. There are multiple thuds per bar, and within each bar is enough space for at least one musical phrase. You might have a very fast phrase between the first beat and the second, or a longer phrase that takes up half the bar, or an even longer phrase that takes up the whole bar…or a much, much longer musical idea that develops over several bars before coming to a logical conclusion.

For a slightly more involved example, take a listen to this short excerpt of The Floyd Show playing the bridge bridge from “Pigs: Three Different Ones.”

I don’t know how Pink Floyd formally represents the music, but what I hear are two bars of four beats each. (Musical timing using four beats per measure is so ubiquitous that it’s even called “common time,” but be aware that all kinds of other timing schemes exist. You might hear music built around three, six, seven, or even other numbers of beats per bar.)

The drums play a repeating pattern that cycles every two beats. The “major” kick hits are on beats one and three. The snare hits are on two and four.

The lead guitar plays non repeating phrases. The first phrase is a higher note with vibrato, that lasts through the first bar. The second phrases is a lower note that lasts through the second bar.

The rhythm guitar plays a repeating phrase, itself constructed of repeating sub-phrases, with each complete phrase cycling once per measure.

The bass plays four phrases of increasing complexity. Each phrase lasts the better part of two beats, with “pickup notes” especially audible before the bulk of the last phrase. (You might say that pickup notes are like taking an audible breath before speaking.)

The point of describing all of this is so that you can use multiple elements to help figure out where each bar starts. The start of the bar is “where one is,” and provides you the reference point for the other beats in the bar. If you’re going to call a different light cue or start a different chase, it’s musically appropriate to call that cue in exact sync with a beat. It’s even more musically appropriate to call that cue in sync with the first beat of a bar.

Calling light cues in a way that acknowledges the timing of the music has a way of making things look right, which is especially helpful if you’re – to put it bluntly – pulling the show out of your rear. The show might not have been synchronized in advance, but to the audience, it LOOKS like it was. This increases the show’s perceived production values, and that’s something we always want, right?

As you get more and more practice, it will become easier for you to “feel” the timing of a song without having heard it before.

Additional Ideas

If you want to try for still greater heights, try to get a sense for when major parts of a song are transitioning into other sections. It’s not always the case, but it’s true (often enough to be useful) that these transitions can be musically telegraphed. Listen to what happens in this next excerpt from “Pigs,” at around 10.5 seconds or so:

The musicians break off from the phrasing patterns they’ve been using, and use a “fill” to signal that a different musical section is coming up.

Different sections of a song tend to have different emotional themes, and using the lighting rig to punctuate that major musical shift at exactly the right moment is A Very Cool Thing To Do™. In a way, this is the ultimate case of “knowing where one is.” Not only is the cue-call on the beat, and on the first beat of a measure, but it’s on the first beat of the measure that’s the first measure in a larger musical thought.

This same basic premise can be used as a guide when calling cues over a song that starts with a count-in. It’s the ultimate signal for a big transition: The one from “not playing a song” to “playing a song.” It also gives you the timing on a silver platter. The drummer clicks the sticks together on what will become the beat, and you can watch to see if it looks like the percussionist’s next step is to hit the drums…or keep counting.

Not all count-ins are as obvious, it’s true. At the same time, you can listen for clues that come together to give you a pretty good picture of what’s going to happen. If other musicians are seemingly wrapping up musical thoughts as they play to the end of phrases, and the drummer starts doing something to “feel” the timing they’ll have to keep, then it’s a good bet that the song is about to go full-tilt-boogie. Again, an example from “Pigs:”

About four seconds in, you start to hear the drummer count in with the hat. The patterns you hear in the other instruments’ phrases give you a clue that you’re probably going to hear eight clicks on the hat before the big drum accent occurs. If the phrases don’t seem to be about to finish a full cycle when compared to what’s already happened, it’s probably not quite time for the big musical shift to take place.

A final thing to listen for is a musical phrase that I mentioned earlier: A “pickup.” Pickups are lead-ins to phrases that occur before the measure where the “phrase proper” actually resides. Here’s the beginning of “Have A Cigar:”

Depending on how you count it, the snare-tom pickup that leads into the first beat of the next bar happens entirely within the fourth beat. The kick-hit is where the first beat of the next measure actually is, and the pickup gives you a small window of time where you can prepare to call the cue precisely.

(Of course, nothing beats actually knowing the songs. Nailing everything with no prep at all is pretty darn difficult.)

Getting Out Of Major Trouble

So.

What happens if you’re really struggling? You can’t seem to get synced up with the musicians, and the songs are all over the map. You can’t figure out what’s going on. What can you do?

Frankly, it’s almost always safe to do less, and do it more slowly. There’s nothing awful about calling a single static cue at the start of each song. If the fade time on that cue is set so that the lighting transition is very gradual, you don’t have to worry much about calling that cue on the beat. Sharp, yet “sparse” lighting transitions become jarring if they don’t sync with the music, but gentle transitions tend to sit in the background of the audience’s perception anyway.

If you can’t figure out where “one” is, that’s okay. Adopt a strategy that’s makes it unnecessary to know, and you’ll most likely get through in a decent fashion.

Otherwise, feel the beat, and let ‘er rip!


DMX: Yes, It’s A Network

A simple lighting-control setup might not seem like a network, but it is.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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In an age where everything is connected to everything else, we’re used to the idea of a data network. We hardly give a second thought to computers, tablets, phones, and an ever-growing host of other things talking to each other in an orderly fashion. We live in a world of managed communication.

We’re so used to modern, managed networks that we can fail to see that other communication protocols also fit the definitions used for data networks. While this doesn’t prevent us from using those protocols, we end up understanding less about them than we otherwise might. In the world of entertainment, for instance, I’d wager that a good number of us deploy DMX lighting control without conceiving of it as a data net. I certainly didn’t think of it that way at first.

But if we’re willing to look at things a bit more deeply, we gain tools to understand what’s going on when a system is working correctly – and we also gain ammunition to use when troubleshooting. To that end, I’d like to present some of my observations about DMX networking. These observations are not a primer on basic setup, nor will they directly fix an issue that you’re having. They may, however, help you to grasp a basic setup or suss out a problem.

Bus Fare

A basic thing to understand about a simple DMX network is that it uses a “bus” topology. In electronics, a bus is a common conduction line. Networks using a bus topology, then, connect various nodes (lighting fixtures and dimmers, for example) to a single “data pipe.” If the bus becomes interrupted at a point, all nodes downstream of the break are unable to receive or send communication. However, nodes upstream of the problem can be just fine. If a lighting rig loses control of half the fixtures due to a cable being broken or accidentally yanked, the still-connected half should still receive control.

With a bus connection, an important concept is that each node can be completely non-dependent on the other nodes – with the exception of whatever node handles the original data transmission. As long as the common signal line stays intact, the removal of a non-transmitting device has no necessary effect on other devices. Pull a light “off the line,” make sure the cable is reconnected, and all the other lights will continue working.

Larger, more complex DMX networks can make some use of a star (or star-like) topology. Active DMX splitters receive signals from a DMX bus, and then retransmit those signals along additional signal lines. Each line then becomes a bus along which a number of fixtures can be connected. If the splitter is operating correctly, a problem with any single “child” bus will not directly affect any other child bus or the parent signal line.

This Connection Is Connectionless

When a DMX controller is talking to a fixture, it’s using a connectionless protocol.

“Wait a second,” you might be saying, “lights and dimmers have to be connected to the DMX signal line in order to work. How can DMX be connectionless?”

What I mean by this is that DMX is connectionless in the logical sense. Yes, each node has to be physically connected to the signal line, but a DMX controller and a DMX-enabled fixture don’t negotiate any communication parameters with each other. In the world of DMX, data transmission occurs on a “ready or not, here it comes” basis. If the controller is told to transmit a number of instructions for, say, DMX channel 10, then those instructions are transmitted whether a node is listening for instructions on channel 10 or not.

This isn’t to say there aren’t connection parameters, of course. It’s just that the connection parameters are not determined by communication over the network media. All the necessary connection configuration is stored in the devices used. The DMX controller is built to communicate in accordance with the DMX standard, as are the lights and dimmers. Further, the lights and dimmers are set up by the user to listen on a pre-arranged set of channels. Once all this is set, the only way to change it (on a simple DMX network) is to do so by hand.

We’re Out Of State

Simple DMX, being connectionless, is also stateless. Because the DMX controller has no knowledge of whether a fixture is receiving or not, any communication that gets sent has to be completely “understandable” without regard to any prior communication. Also, the controller is ignorant of the fixture’s actual control state. This necessitates that any request for a certain control state (what color the fixture should be producing, where the fixture should be pointing, etc.) has to be fully self-contained in order to be reliable. For example, to guarantee that an RGB fixture is set to produce a yellow color, the non-zero red and green intensities have to be requested alongside a request for a blue intensity of zero. If the blue-at-zero request is not sent, then the current dimming level of the blue emitters will not change.

This might seem surprising, especially if you use DMX software that shows you the supposed control state of the fixtures. You might have signaled your fixtures to give you an amber color, with the software showing the fixtures as producing that color, and the fixtures themselves physically producing the correct color. It seems that the software knows the control state of the fixtures, but it doesn’t if the DMX network is a simple one. The software knows what information has been supposedly sent, and what that information should mean…if everything is working as expected. The light-control program is simply making the powerful assumption that the control state of the lights matches the requests that were sent. It does not actually know what’s happening down the line.

A Parting Word

You may have noticed that, at several points, I have qualified my descriptions with the idea that they apply to a “simple” DMX network. This is because there are protocols and technologies that can be used in conjunction with DMX that have a great deal more functionality. For instance, it’s entirely possible – using Art-Net – to encapsulate DMX data so that it can be transmitted using Ethernet-based equipment and Internet protocol. RDM allows for DMX controllers to actually know something about a fixture’s state. This article’s scope doesn’t include these concepts, because the point was to discuss the “plain vanilla” DMX networks that are commonly found in small-venues.


How To Be Demanding

Be nice, be early, and know what you’re talking about.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I was mostly done with the “wordcloud” graphic up there when I realized it was all basically about one thing. As an audio-human, most of my perception of “demanding” has to do with, well, audio. (Audio in monitor-world especially.) However, being demanding can happen across any aspect of show production. Audio, lights, staging, costumes, whatever – any area can be one where you might want to be picky.

Now, “picky,” and, “demanding” don’t really have the best connotation these days. They conjure up visions of spoiled people who can’t possibly get anything done unless everything is “just so.” You know…whiny primadonnas who are so fragile that an inconsequential mistake by catering could wreck the whole show.

But there’s honestly nothing wrong with being fastidious about the production of your show, IF you go about it the right way.

So, how do you go about being demanding in a good way? Well…

1. Be Polite

If you want to be picky, learn how to be polite. Professional show-production folks can (under the right circumstances) be inspired to move heaven and earth for you if you’re nice. Diplomatic requests in a diplomatic tone of voice – and backed up by patience and understanding – send the message that your desires come from a respect for everybody else’s craft. The unspoken connotation is that this thing is being built by a team, and you’re counting on the appropriate team member to “come through for the organization.” When that attitude comes across, it inspires respect and extra effort.

(Politeness plus enthusiasm is even more effective. Excitement and fun are infectious. If you can get people fired up and smiling, you can pull off amazing stuff.)

The flipside is acting like a brat. Depending on how much clout you have, you may still get your wish…but that wish will be granted by folks who want less and less to go the extra mile, and more and more want to just be DONE with you. You really do not want that.

Politeness is actually pretty easy. If you can stay calm, use words like “please,” “thanks,” and, “may I,” and then wait for a bit while changes are made, you’ll probably be fine.

Also, let me be clear that being diplomatic is not the same as just accepting everything silently. If you ask for a change, and you’re not sure if it’s been made, then you can always politely ask for an update or confirmation. If you handle the asking carefully, you’re much more likely to get a rational explanation of what’s going on. If it turns out that your request can’t be met, and you get a quick explanation as to why, then you’ve still come out ahead: You’ve been given a tool you can use to stay polite. Demands that aren’t reasonable stray quickly into being impolite, just by default. Becoming aware of what’s possible helps you to stay reasonable.

2. Be Early

All the politeness in the world can be quickly undone by asking for something at the wrong time. If you want to be picky, then make sure that you and everyone else have the time necessary.

There have been multiple occasions in my career when I’ve been asked to make changes on a production, and my internal thought has been “I’ve been here all day, and you couldn’t ask this until now?” Some changes, especially those that involve moving pieces of staging that are proportionally large or adding several inputs, are really not good to drop on people. A lot of prep may already have been done with the assumption that things were configured in one way. If that configuration changes, you may be inadvertently asking for your change…AND for a lot of other things to get rebuilt in a rush.

In the same vein, being detail-oriented requires time. You have to be able to identify what you don’t like, get it fixed, and then test the fix, and it’s hard to do that with just seconds to go. You want the lights to be a very specific color, and focused on very specific places? Cool! But that takes a while. You want to put together five, very specific and intricate monitor mixes? Cool! But let’s do that with three hours until “doors,” instead of three minutes.

I personally love, LOVE working on shows where we come in early and take our time. It means that we can be careful about everything, troubleshoot, get everybody what they need, and just have smiles all around. It’s a million times better than trying to muddle through a bunch of intricacy at high speed.

If you want the standing necessary to be demanding about your show, then you must give yourself (and everybody else involved) enough time to do it all properly.

3. Know What The Heck You’re Talking About

It’s really hard to be effectively fastidious if you don’t know what you’re being fastidious about. If you don’t cultivate the vocabulary and technical knowledge necessary to speak intelligently about production issues, then all you’re left with is the ability to make vague pronunciations about what you dislike. If you can’t nail down exactly what you want to change, your chances of getting it changed drop precipitously.

Also, I’ll throw it out there that not knowing what’s going on prevents you from allocating enough time to work through your show’s production. (See heading #2, above.) For instance, you don’t have to know everything there is to know about lighting, but it does help a lot if you can coarsely identify different fixtures. If you aren’t wild about a color choice, it’s good to be able to figure out if a light can change color via remote command (lots of LED fixtures and most incandescent “movers”), or if the light requires someone to manually switch a color gel (most “static” incandescents). Remote control is “cheap” in terms of time and effort, whereas a physical change is relatively difficult.

The wider point here is to acquire the ability to discuss problems in a way that facilitates helpful responses from other people. The more specific you can be, the better. Declaring that “the monitors suck” doesn’t help anyone to stop them from sucking. There are a lot of things that can suckify a monitor mix. Being able to say things like, “the guitars are too low in this wedge here” is very helpful. It tells an audio-human a lot about what isn’t right, and also (by extension) how to fix it.

Having high expectations for your show is a good thing. Getting those expectations met can often boil down to knowing what you want, having enough time available to make what you want happen, and being able to ask for what you want in a diplomatic way.


Seventeen Days For Three And A Half Hours

Production success has just as much to do with logistics as with any other factor.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Last week, I worked on a special birthday show for Amanda Grapes. Amanda handles various fiddle and vocal duties for The Nathan Spenser Revue, The Puddle Mountain Ramblers, and The Green Grapes Band. All three groups played that evening. It was excellent. I also enjoyed the cupcakes.

My opening sentence makes it sound like the day of the gig was the day that effort was put in. Actually, Amanda, the other band members, and I worked on putting the evening together for over two weeks – and that, right there, is a stumbling block that has tripped up a good number of bands. There are plenty of folks who think that the most important work on a show happens just before downbeat. That’s incorrect. Loading in, setting up, getting checked, and all that great stuff is the most ACUTE work of the show, but that activity is preceded by the logistics that make it all meaningful.

The more work I do in this business, the more I see “production execution” as entailing almost trivial concern, and logistics as a major factor that has to be worried over.

Why? Well…

Just Getting The Date Settled Is Hard

Think about the challenges involved in wrangling a band of 3-5 people. Imagine the schedules that have to be coordinated to both practice for, and arrive at some sort of show. Now imagine doing that across three separate bands (11 regular players), a couple of guests who’ll be sitting in, and an audio human. Now visualize doing that while trying to nail down a “moving target” date with the venue booker.

Sound “fun?”

In this environment, the organized have a much better shot at survival than the disorganized. Yes – there are artists who do well in spite of not really being “with it,” but I’ll bet a good percentage of that cohort is being helped along by people who are REALLY good at managing the details.

Being proficient at managing these kinds of logistics is a big part of what separates the “varsity level” bands, venues, and production personnel from the JV crowd. Shepherding such details is the very root of getting shows done, because if the scheduling doesn’t happen, then…what?

No show. At all. Discussing the production doesn’t even matter, because there’s no production to do.

Further, handling the details just well enough to land the night, but not well enough to really know what’s going on – well, that ends up putting a lot of stress on the production side of things. If you don’t know who’s going to show up, and with what, then how do you prepare production for the gig? Your effectiveness drops like a rock. You either have to over-prepare (which isn’t necessarily bad, but can be annoying in larger doses), or just throw things together at the last minute (which can be a recipe for awful production, riddled with technical difficulties and evil surprises).

On the other hand, it’s a joy to work with the folks who are effective at getting the whole herd pointed in the same direction and moving at the same speed. Things just become easier.

It Ain’t A Good Plan If It Won’t Fit The Van

Another make-or-break factor that rests on logistical prowess is making sure the production fits the boundaries it’s going into. One such boundary is the transport of all the gear and people involved, which I won’t detail here.

A boundary which I will get into a bit is that of venue production – and this lies near the core of my feeling that “production is easy, and logistics are tough.” At some point, production techs begin to realize that the biggest shows, with the most complex execution, are just lots of simple bits that are plugged into each other. A 10,000 scene light show is built a step at a time. You need to do some weird thing with lots of mics and lots of monitor wedges going every which way? It’s not really a big deal if you arrive on time, and the routing and hookup is handled methodically. The problem really isn’t the number of “moving parts,” just by itself. The problem is the number of moving parts can be practically stuffed in the box that is the venue.

Figuring that out is logistics, and thinking is DEFINITELY required.

This is why audio humans love to get accurate input lists. It’s also why we like getting an accurate picture of how bands want the night to develop. We like to get both because the intersection of the input list with the show-flow is “A Very Big Deal Indeed.”™ It’s “A Very Big Deal Indeed”™ because a show that isn’t repatched midstream can easily overrun the capacity of the stage or mixing console.

And many small-venue gigs are not repatched in the middle, because reworking what’s going into the snake can be pretty challenging when you only have one production person on hand.

In fact, I very nearly got “bit” by a channel overrun problem on Amanda’s show. It was because I temporarily became lazy about working out that intersection between the input lists and the show’s progression. I read the input requests that I’d been given, but only considered them individually from band to band. Turning them over in my head, everything seemed dandy. The day before the show, though, my cautionary inner voice started to nag me:

“You really should write this all out.”

I listened to that internal warning and wrote up an input list that considered how the night would actually happen: We were not going to repatch anything. Every channel had to be ready to go from downbeat to the last note, because there wouldn’t be time to futz with what was going on at the snake head.

It was lucky that I wrote out the no-repatch input list, because it exposed a problem that I hadn’t considered. Without a repatch, we would not have enough channels to do the show “exactly as written.” If I had just gone, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll be fine,” the show would still have happened – but we would have had to cut down the drum mics at the last moment. That would have been unpleasant and unprofessional.

…but armed with my discovery, I could now use another bit of good logistics to manage the problem. I could call the drummer’s number (which I had been thoughtfully provided with in advance) and discuss the options ahead of time. We decided that he would submix the drums to two channels, which neatly fixed our “not enough inputs” problems, and there were no surprises on the actual day of show. Much better.

**********

The point of all this is that, again, the assembly and operation of a show’s production is basically academic. You place and plug in what you need, check that it’s working, suss out the connection problems and the feedback issues, and off you go. What makes it possible to be effective and focused in that process is the organizational work that “sets up the setting up.”

That’s why it can take 17 days to do a three-hour and thirty-minute show.


It Always Costs More And Takes Longer Than You Think

The story of a lighting upgrade.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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My dad has a list of maxims about life, with one of the most memorable being “It always costs more and takes longer than you think.” I’ve never doubted that particular piece of Papa’s wisdom, but it’s not often that it’s so perfectly demonstrated in practical reality. There’s a bit of a tale here, if you haven’t guessed:

This last weekend was the final (as far as is currently planned) Floyd Show.

Floyd Show was a Utah-based tribute act that performed (what else?) the music of Pink Floyd. They were fronted by Tim Hollinger, a monstrously talented guy who probably knew more about Pink Floyd than Pink Floyd did. Tim loved to push the boundaries of what could be achieved in a small-venue setting, and this caused his productions to be what I can only describe as “deliciously challenging.” Working on a gig that takes a day or more to setup, with the stage packed full of people and gear, and the mix being done in quadrophonic surround is the kind of unbridled hilarity that I live for.

And then, Tim unexpectedly passed away.

It was decided that there would be one more gig to “close the shop.” This would be the last, planned chance to work on the biggest production show that comes through my regular job. (Roll The Bones, our local Rush tribute, will now take the top spot.) Since this was the last chance, and I had been wanting to install a lighting upgrade to – among other reasons – do Floyd Show justice, the announcement of the show prompted a “rush to completion.” Yes, I had wanted to wait longer, but this was it. There might never be another opportunity to do a night that came close to what I had wanted to do with Tim at the helm.

I wanted to have plenty of time to get things working, so I started the upgrade a month before downbeat.

The upgrade was finished about four hours before the show started.

Trial Balloons

A partial reason that everything took a while is because I was being cautious.

I wanted to use moving-head wash lights, but what I wanted in terms of equipment hasn’t really been a priority for the mainstream light manufacturers. Moving-head spots that use optics to create a sharp-edged beam are everywhere. Spendy ($400+) movers built around some kind of soft-edge beam are only slightly less common than dirt. This is all fine and dandy, but truly entry-level moving-heads are basically “off the radar” for even ADJ and Chauvet. I checked with my favorite “off-the-wall and discounted” lighting vendor, and they had the fixture that I wanted…but at a price point that was too close to the next step up to be much of a differentiation.

I checked with some Ebay vendors, and behold! The fixture I wanted was available at a price that was commensurate with what it could do.

Even so, as I said, I wanted to be cautious. I wanted to buy just a couple of units at first, so that if what I got was utter rubbish I would be able to recover in time. I got my first shipment, and the news was good and bad.

On the good side, the lights had a LOT more output than I expected. I had figured that they would outdo the RGBA “puck-pars” that were currently hanging at the venue, but I was pretty surprised at just how much “firepower” a cheap mover could have. (A relatively tight beam angle helps greatly, of course.) Both units moved well, responded to their control panels, and could successfully reset themselves in a reliable fashion.

The bad news was that one of the units refused to shut off its blue LEDs under any circumstances.

I figured that this was just an odd fluke, and I contacted the vendor about a return. It took a couple of days to get things sorted out, but the whole shootin’-match satisfied me enough that the vendor got the sale for the rest of the fixtures. Back to the source went the problem child, and just like that, only three weeks of lead-time remained.

Stand and Deliver

What I had also discovered when I was testing my “trial balloon” fixtures was that mounting them to the installed, vertical stage truss wouldn’t be the greatest idea. The topmost light would have decent trim height, but other units hung below wouldn’t be in the best spot for maximum usability. This is where the “it costs more than you think” starts to come in. I had considered that light stands might be necessary, but I had managed to convince myself that the new toys might not truly require them.

Wrong!

I needed DMX cable anyway, so I visited my aforementioned “off-the-wall and discounted” gear vendor. I found some better-than-entry-level trees and placed my order.

Great – except that the warehouse wasn’t in a hurry to get things shipped. It was days before my order was on a truck. By the time all the lights and the stands were in my possession, I had only two-weeks of lead time.

Nuts

When I ordered the stands, I had assumed that the included mounting hardware would do a satisfactory job at clamping the lights to the crossbars.

Nope.

Getting the fixture bracket secured to the crossbar was an impossible task with the bolts and wingnuts supplied. The luminaires aren’t really heavy, but even a not-too-heavy light can be a bit much when you need to hold it in the air, maneuver it so that a non-captive bolt goes through a hole in a bracket, and then keep the whole shebang still while you fumble with washers and wingnuts in a small space. In theory, it all works. In practice, not so much.

I needed to order O-clamps. More cost.

One week of “lead” remained. After that, it would be the week of the show. The gear had to arrive on time, and it had to work, or things would get REALLY tight and REALLY spendy.

This was not the time to go through a discount vendor. It was time to call someone who would ship in a day – so, I did. Through a minor misadventure, I actually got upgraded shipping. That was an important help.

Down To The Wire

My clamps arrived in time for the weekend preceding the big gig. I then proceeded to realize that I’m the dumbest guy to ever hang a light in this town.

See, I hadn’t worked with O-clamps before. It didn’t take long to figure out the rock-bottom basics (they’re not complicated creatures), but I didn’t exactly take note of every functional thing about them. I managed to get the first light hung. Then, I tried to clamp the second light – to no avail. No matter how I tried, I could not get the clamp to close sufficiently for the retention bolt to be swung into position.

“Cheap crap,” I thought.

“I can fix this,” I thought.

I yanked one of the inserts out of the offending clamp, which made internal diameter wider. I then folded over a napkin to put in place of the insert, which allowed the clamp to close more tightly with just finger-pressure. This allowed me to swing the retention bolt up, and then tighten the whole assembly. It wasn’t pretty, but it did work. “I’m resourceful!” I congratulated myself.

The next clamp didn’t need all that falderol, but the fourth did. The fifth clamp was fine out of the box, but the sixth was a pain.

It was while I was struggling with clamp #6 that I made an important discovery: The nut tightening the retention bolt could be loosened a great deal before it came off the assembly. By pure luck, I had loosened the nut sufficiently on some of the clamps to allow me to use them as intended. On the others, I simply hadn’t gone far enough. There was NOTHING WRONG with the clamps – the problem was the idiot using them. (Me, in other words.)

All of my futzing had cost me time, but I was able to get all the lights ignited and a few basic cues built. I figured that the next evening would allow me the time to get more done…except I misjudged how early I would need to arrive, especially because the band was coming in early themselves to prep for a video shoot. The lights were re-hung, and a few more cues were programmed, but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be when I had to switch gears to tasks that were “mission critical for RIGHT NOW.”

I figured that our scheduled, Floyd Show prep-day would afford me all the remaining time needed to get the lights programmed.

Can you see where this is going?

Prep-day arrived, and I went in promptly after lunch. Even so, the “must do this now” portion of what I had to accomplish (which mostly amounted to a clear stage) took until the first musician arrived. We moved the light trees, which caused a latent problem in the electronics of one of the fixtures to reveal itself. I reworked my hang to fix the issue, and by the time all that was done, the rest of the players were in the room. It was time to do other things, again.

Those other things revealed that there were some pretty rough edges around the sonic part of the show, but it was getting rather late and there was no time to fix them.

So everything got pushed into the next day.

It was about 2:00 PM on show-day when I finally started programming the light show in earnest. It was about 5:00 when I had what I needed.

Downbeat was at 9:00 PM.

It always costs more and takes longer than you think.