Last October, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Simply Worship conference in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Part of my involvement was in co-leading a lab with Brendan Mackenzie, the tech arts director at Brookridge Community Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which focused on lighting consoles. Preparing for that session, I came up with a 10-point checklist that I believe allows a novice or veteran, to test a new console or evaluate their existing console. The consoles during the lab provided a range of what's available in the market.
How easy is it to create a look in the room?
For the sake of comparison, here's what we had that day.
A. A two-scene preset console (Lightronics TL4016, approx. $500)
B. A PC- and Mac-based lighting controller (ADJ myDMX 2.0, $299)
C. A mid line digital memory console (ColorSource 20, $1,749)
D. A topof-the-line digital console (High End Systems HedgeHog 4, $5,500)
So whether I'm checking out a new console, or assisting a church about how to best use the console they are currently using, these are the questions I ask myself. In order of "gotta have" to "icing on the cake," here are my 10 points.
1. Create a look
How easy is it to create a look in the room?
On console A (the Lightronics), it's very simple to grab sliders and start creating, but it will take some fiddling to get the colors and/or levels you want. On the other consoles, it will take a few more mouse clicks or key strokes, but parameters like colors and levels will come easier through presets. On a new console, I'm evaluating different ways to create a look.
2.Store a look
How simple is it to store the look you just created?
On console A, (the Lightronics) it's very easy! A couple button presses and you're done. On the other consoles it's similar, a little more training and it's a breeze. And if it's a new console evaluation, then what are all the different ways it can store a look? Maybe as a scene, a cue, or a preset. So far so good?
3. Playback a look easily and smoothly
How effortless is it to recall, or playback, a look that you have stored?
Here's where we start to separate the pack a little. Console A, the Lightronics, is relatively easy, since all you have to do is push up a fader. But, how smoothly it happens is dependent on your ability to smoothly push the fader. And if you are bringing another one down at the same time, it's even trickier!
Console B (the ADJ) only does hard cuts, no fades (at the time of this writing). So if fading from one look to another over a period of time is a must for you, then this would be important to know. Consoles C and D each pass this test well. They both have the ability to enter a predetermined transition (fade) time, or even do it manually on the fly.
4. Create and Playback a Cuelist
If you are not familiar with this term, a Cuelist is a series of looks (cues) arranged in a stack (list). In most consoles, when you press "GO," it advances to the next Cue. This is more of a question of capability than how well it does it. Console A (the Lightronics) cannot do this. The other three consoles do it, but with different methodologies and levels of features. Playing around with this on a console would allow you to assess if it does it in a way that works for your needs. In the case of the more advanced consoles, you can pretty much assume it will have all the options to do it in a way that works for you.
5. Mix Colors Easily
Because so much of what we do involves picking or dialing in colors, I find this to be an important test. For Consoles B through D (ADJ, ETC and High End Systems), this is pretty easy, but applied in considerably different ways. On Console A (the Lightronics), let's assume you have some simple RGB (Red, Green, Blue) LED fixtures. Then you'll need to use three faders—one for each color. Now mixing colors is a little bit of patting your head and rubbing your belly! Not that bad, but if you are new to lighting, then it can be confusing and could end up frustrating. By contrast, on Console D (High End Systems), you can do it many ways: a. bring up a Color Picker Wheel and using your finger on a touch screen intuitively, dial up what you want. b. Use two encoder wheels to dial the Hue and Saturation of the colors. c. Or as most do, prebuild all your common colors in a Pallet screen, where one touch recalls the color/s you want.
Hang with me, only four more to go!
6. Edit a Look
Many cost effective consoles that I look at do not offer this. Imagine you have built your looks for Sunday morning. Sometime later, you or your Worship Pastor says "let's alter that look." Does the console even let you edit the look? Or do you have to recreate it from scratch?
On Console A (the Lightronics), you'll be starting from scratch! On the other three consoles you can edit the look, but how you edit them is done significantly different, depending on the unit. Console D (High End Systems) is the easiest in the group and actually has many different ways to do it. As you go back up the list of consoles, there are fewer ways to do so as each is not as flexible.
7. Store Parameters
Suppose you have moving lights in your rig. Information like what they are typically focused on would be useful to have stored in a way that is easy to recall. Does the console you are working on have the ability to store things like those Positions, or other parameters like Color, Intensity or Beam effects? Console A - the Lightronics no. Console B (the ADJ) and D (High End Systems)Yes. Console C (the ETC) does it, but indirectly. A caveat is needed here, as Console C (the ETC) was very new to the market last fall, so I am hopeful for future software upgrades that will allow for more features.
8. Control a Moving Light Easily
While it is technically possible to control a moving light from Console A (the Lightronics), it would be almost unusable and to say the least, impractical. For a console to do this effectively, it then needs to know the parameters of your particular fixture(s), with this usually done through a Library menu. Consoles like this will have thousands of library files in them to cover all the current crop of fixtures on the market, and a means to add new ones as they are released.
We then hope that the console presents these parameters in a manner that is easy to adjust. Especially, we like to see things in real world values. Pan and tilt in degrees of angle not 0 to 255, Gobos as Slot 1, or Slot 2, not a number between 0 and 100. I advise you to test how easy it is to bring up things like pan and tilt position and adjust them, and to bring gobos into the beam and spin them. The same for colors, zoom, focus and prism.
9. Create and Store Effects
If you are using LEDs or moving lights, then you're probably going to want them to wiggle! Well, not in the literal sense, but in a way that enhances the environment you wish to create.
Maybe you want a moving light to slowly move around the stage area or tilt up into the room and back down? Or the color mix to chase across the fixtures you are using? Or even as simple as varying the intensity of the fixtures in a random wave pattern? Most of these are best done using a console's Effects engine. Does the console you are in front of do Effects? How well does it do them? How easy is it to add this to a look? How do you stop them when you want?
10. Overall Ease of Use
There are plenty of consoles on the market that can do all of the above and more. But which one is best for you and your team?
Have you ever heard of RPN calculators?
It stands for Reverse Polish Notation. Which means a "normal" calculator is just PN. It goes like this
In terms of PN you would enter,
3 4 + 5 =
In RPN you would enter
3 4 5 +
Both have the same result, just a different way of thinking about it and entering it.
This is similar in consoles.
What if I wanted to delete cues 4-7 in a cue list?
For one major console on the market, it's entered,
Cue 4 Thru 7 Delete
On another market leader it is,
Delete Cue 4 Thru 7 Enter
If you're assessing a new console, you'll want to learn about it enough to know if it "just makes sense." If you are learning an existing console, take the time to understand its command structure so that you know how to best use it.
Test, test, test. You test drive a car before buying, so test drive the console before buying it as well. Most local or regional suppliers will be happy to bring in gear for you to take home and test drive. For some models, maybe it's a similar console and not the exact one that you will have a chance to test, but at least testing one model from the same manufacturer can be seen as indicative of what you would be buying.
If you are looking at needing more than one console on a campus setting, then ones like Console D (High End Systems) are a good option to look at because they offer a range of consoles all running the same software. You buy more or less hard surface controls like encoder wheels, touch screen and faders. This way you can have the lesser cost one in your smaller rooms and the more feature-rich one in your main room. Learn one and you've learned them all!
I would venture to guess that there are technologies in your life that you have essentially mastered, even if it is only your phone! Nevertheless, you put in the effort to know how it works and how it can benefit you.
So while there are many other factors involved in evaluating a console, from the hardware interfaces to its parameter limitations, take the time to learn the one in front of you, and you'll be able to confidently make the right choices of how best to use it, or whether or not to buy it!