If you've ever been car shopping, you know how truly overwhelming the experience can be. Do you go with the luxury model with eight cup holders, or the fuel-efficient model with two? The fact is that this experience isn't totally dissimilar from shopping for a lighting console. With more manufacturers and models on the market now than ever before, the process can be time consuming, confusing, and flat out overwhelming.
If you simply need to turn your dimmers or LEDs up and down, begin by investigating basic 2-scene consoles.
Where does a church begin?
Establish the Basics
From the get-go, you can probably rule out a lot of the consoles on the market. For most churches, while we may aspire to have the full-size MA Lighting grandMA2 or High End Systems Hog 4 console, what's important is, as we filter through the full scope of available consoles, is to have a baseline of the things included allowing for effective and efficient lighting operations.
To this end, it would be helpful to look at the who, what, where, and how of lighting consoles. (Note that "why" is also an important consideration in lighting, but should be established before you get to the console purchasing stage.)
Who? Who is going to be operating the console? Will it be a full-time staff member or an eager volunteer who is happy to help, but needs things as simple as possible? Many consoles have steep learning curves, and simply can't be learned quickly in an hour or two each week.
What? What will you be doing with the console? How many fixtures do you have? A 24-channel dimmer pack requires a vastly different (and cheaper) console than a bunch of LEDs, and especially a stage full of automated fixtures. How many cues or looks will you have in a service? This is probably the biggest determining factor in which console you end up with.
Where? What facility will this be used in? Consider that you may have multiple rooms that require lighting consoles. Scalability is important to consider it makes it much easier when your student volunteer can step up to your main worship room and not skip a beat. Size and portability is also a factor in answering "where?"
How? How do your worship services flow? Are they programmed to the minute with click tracks and MIDI signals? Or are they open-ended and require freedom in making changes on the fly? Some consoles are more programming-driven, while others give you more freedom for "punt pages" and ease of changing cues.
Once these questions are answered, you should be able to narrow down your search quite a bit. Next, we'll take a look at the different kinds of lighting consoles on the market, and some search terms you can use to find them.
Finding the Right Model
Now that you know a bit of the scope of what you're looking for, we can break down the different types of consoles and hopefully give you a place to begin your search. While we won't be able to cover every type of console, we'll take a look at some of the most popular.
Basic 2-Scene Consoles
These are some of the most basic and easy-to-operate consoles. They are good for simple dimmer packs or a couple of LEDs. They usually have two rows of faders, each one corresponding to a DMX channel. They also have crossfader and a master fader. They have a limited number of DMX channels, and simply use these faders to crossfade back and forth between two "scenes." Looks are typically set on-the-fly.
If you simply need to turn your dimmers or LEDs up and down, this is a good place to start. Many of the basic lighting consoles you'll find on Amazon or similar sites will be these kind of "scene-setter" consoles.
This is a hardware-based console that gives you basic control of RGB LED fixtures, or depending on the console, basic moving lights. These consoles typically are easy to program, but don't give you a lot of flexibility in terms of multiple, easily recalled cues.
If you are looking for a "set it and forget it" console, or are just getting into using LEDs for color, you may want to start here. A few typical consoles in this realm include the Chauvet Obey 3 and Obey 4, or the American DJ RGBW4C.
A few more advanced versions of the above consoles include the Jands Stage CL and the ETC SmartFade line of consoles. While certainly more expensive, they also give you a more refined interface and experience, along with a slew of additional features, including better programming and cue recall, as well as the potential for more DMX channels.
For many churches, PC-based consoles are the best place to start. They are portable, affordable, and scalable. While there are a number of programs and applications, it is often easy to demo them until you find the right one for you. Typically the only downside to PC-based consoles is that you don't have actual console hardware to program on, unless you want to pay extra.
As mentioned previously, scalability is a big advantage in these consoles. Most major console brands offer PC (or Mac) versions of their consoles. This includes MA Lighting, High End Systems, Jands, Martin, and more. Meaning, you can have a larger standalone console in your main worship room, and the PC version in the kids and student worship rooms.
While the entry cost for these computer programs vary, there is typically some hardware involved in getting a DMX signal out of your computer through USB. The big manufacturers usually use a proprietary version that you have to purchase, but there are also a number of third-party applications that are free or can be purchased relatively cheaply. These usually use a device like the ENTTEC DMX USB Pro to connect to your fixtures. A list of the third-party applications is available on ENTTEC's website.
Large-Format Lighting Consoles
Are you ready to graduate to one of the bigger boys? Prepare to take time to do your research and demo, demo, demo.
This is a large investment that is worth getting right the first time.
Once you enter into these waters, expect to spend anywhere from $2,000, all the way to $50,000-plus. As you increase in faders, buttons, and screens, costs will also rise dramatically.
Most of the major brands mentioned previously are the best places to start. Many churches also find success in using other brands like ETC, Avolites, and Chamsys. While each designer and church will have their own preference, some of the more popular options at the moment include the Martin M-Series line, and the Jands Vista line of consoles. These brands tend to have a good mix of affordability without the need for a steep learning curve.
It's important to note that when you step into larger consoles, the interfaces and features exponentially increase in complexity. They often become more command-line driven instead of graphically-driven, and can take longer to navigate and program. Once you're at this stage, it's probably in your best interest to work with an integrator who can help you navigate the different waters.
Each church is different, and has different needs as it relates to lighting. Fortunately, the market has responded with a variety of consoles for each unique situation. Take the time to make sure you purchase the console that's right for you.
This is likely a large investment for your church, and it's important to steward the funds you've been given well.
Enlist help, make phone calls, and do the leg work necessary to make sure that you get something that will serve you and your church well for years to come.