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The Portable Option – Software-Based Lighting Control

Software-driven consoles are a fascinating development in lighting technology, because they afford the opportunity to have full-fledged lighting control, while doing so in a flexible, scalable way.

If you’ve ever been car shopping, you know how overwhelming it can be. Do you need the power of a V8, or the extra cupholder in the backseat?

Instead of keeping a $10,000 lighting console in a storage room somewhere, the only thing you need now is your laptop.

All the options, choices, and styles can be overwhelming. The story is the same for lighting consoles.

If you need all the bells and whistles, there’s an option for you. If you need simple, no-nonsense control on the cheap, there’s an option for you as well.

As technology has continued to progress, so has the development of lighting control hardware and software.

Types of Software-Based Lighting

Software-driven consoles are a fascinating development in lighting technology, because they afford the opportunity to have full-fledged lighting control, while doing so in a flexible, scalable way. Do you only need 512 channels of DMX? You can pay less than someone who needs 2,048!

Some software programs exist (for Mac and/or PC) that aren’t connected to a big-name lighting company.

A couple of these options include Lightkey and LightFactory. For simple use cases, these software options can be great solutions.

Do note, however, that you’ll often need to purchase third-party DMX interfaces to use with these programs, with Enttec and DMXking being two of those popular choices.

Lighting company name-brands have also begun to roll out innovative and enticing products in the software market in recent years. Companies like Chroma-Q, High End Systems (maker of the Hog), MA Lighting (maker of the GrandMA), and Elation have each released compelling option for churches, which allows them to get into a big-name brand, without the big-name price tag.

How They Work

As you might expect, there are a variety of ways that software-driven lighting connects and can operate. The simplest solution is to run the program on your computer, and output DMX signal through an individual USB-to-DMX dongle. Typically, this will work within just one universe (512 channels) of DMX.

The next step up is to actually implement a physical surface console, from one of the name-brand lighting companies, which effectively serves as a giant mouse for your software solution. This allows you the opportunity to have a physical console with buttons, while still maintaining a lower price point, because you’re purchasing the hardware and software separately.

Affordability

As has been discussed already, the main advantage in software-driven lighting is affordability. With such an option, you’re not stuck purchasing a multi-thousand-dollar lighting console to run a few lights in a student room.

Further, many software programs give you the opportunity to scale up the number of DMX channels that you are using, allowing the software to grow with your environment. If your student room only requires 128 channels now, but you plan on adding moving lights down the road, you can easily purchase the additional channels that are required to continue using the same software that you originally opted to use.

Portability

With a software-driven solution, portable church becomes much more reasonable.

Instead of keeping a $10,000 lighting console in a storage room somewhere, the only thing you need now is your laptop. While this advantage is fairly self-explanatory, it is no less important for those churches who have crews with limited manpower, time, and resources, and need to have a functioning lighting console in no time.

By going in such a direction, you’ve saved money on space, cases, and room on your front of house desk.

Learning Curve/Scalability

Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to find an ecosystem with a software-driven lighting system is the scalability and uniformity of the systems.

Using our student room example noted previously, perhaps you’ve purchased an Elation M-PC for your student volunteers to run eight LED PARs. Those volunteers can get comfortable running that particular console and software in a lower-risk environment, while still becoming proficient in the software.

At the same, if you added the top-of-the-line Elation M6 console in your worship room to control a number of static and automated fixtures, you’ve made it much easier for those same volunteers to transition between the two rooms when they are ready to do so.

Ultimately, this makes you a better steward of your time and resources, as well as your volunteers’.

Limitations

While software-driven lighting consoles provide an incredible opportunity to churches, to get into a lighting console with a much lower entry barrier, they aren’t without their faults.

The unfortunate mistake many churches make is trying to run both lighting and lyrics from an individual computer to save resources. While this probably can be done in some instances, it is certainly not recommended.

The resources needed to process two memory-intensive programs on a single computer can often be too much, causing one or both programs to crash at a critical moment.

The other headache that many lighting directors will run into is programming efficiency. This headache manifests itself in two ways.

First, without a physical surface and actual buttons, quick programming becomes a thing of the past. While there are ways to make up for some shortcomings, it simply will not be as fast to program large amounts of lights, especially ones with multiple parameters (pan/tilt, zoom, beam, iris, gobo, rotation, etc.)

If you do have the patience, you can work around these shortcomings, by creating presets and groups to help you navigate more quickly through software menus and settings.

The second inefficiency is that many software options – especially third-party ones without the brand name – tend to lack certain features. For simple setups, this likely won’t be an issue, but it would be worthwhile to do your research or demo the product, before investing into it, to ensure you won’t be dealing with any significant issues upon beginning to use the product.

Like all technology purchases that you make for your church, you’ll need to weigh the specific pros and cons for your environment.

Fortunately, as technology continues to progress, we have more options than ever, and that includes in software for lighting within our worship spaces.

 

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