Live Design International (or more commonly known as simply LDI) is the premiere lighting and live event show in the United States, and is a great place to get interesting ideas for your church. While there's a lot of focus on concert lighting, theatrical and architectural lighting are also represented, and the show presents an opportunity to see the latest technology, as well as see some technology trends, that can affect a church with thoughts of building a new auditorium or renovating to bring their technology up to date.
An LED Lighting Update
LED lighting has really come into its own over the last five years, and we increasingly see church installations where the sanctuary or auditorium lighting is almost exclusively LED-based. Quality LED lighting, however, has been very expensive, and I was hoping to see some options that provide quality at a more approachable cost. While prices have indeed come down a little, I was a little disappointed to find that no, LED lighting has not come down significantly. Instead of pricing drops, we are seeing brightness increases and a better quality of light. Not a bad thing, but not as beneficial to the budget.
This doesn't mean that LED shouldn't be considered, however. If you are retrofitting an older building that doesn't have a theatrical dimming system infrastructure already in place, or considering new construction, there is more to consider than just the cost of the lighting fixture. Most LED lighting operates at a lower power draw, and doesn't require as large an electrical service, requires less air conditioning to remove waste heat, and doesn't require as many electrical circuits. Traditional theatrical lighting (which is the only reasonable alternative for high-quality light across your platform or stage) requires an expensive dimmer system to provide control, and in the case of renovating an older sanctuary, might necessitate an expensive upgrade of the electrical service to your building to provide adequate power.
When you spread the cost of this infrastructure over each traditional fixture you intend to install, the cost per fixture approaches the cost of quality LED fixtures, and might even exceed it. Several lighting designers I talk to regularly take a hybrid approach, using traditional theatrical fixtures for a warm front-lighting look, but quality LED lighting for adding color and backlighting to the platform with lower electrical needs and less impact on the HVAC needs of the room.
It is worth explaining what I mean by quality LED lighting. Many of you may have noticed or heard that LED fixtures can be obtained for under $100. This is true; however, there are several problems with this grade of fixture. Typically, cheap LED fixtures are not built to last, and you may find that you are throwing them away a year after their purchase. Second, these LED fixtures are not actually very bright. To make up for the lack of brightness, they throw a very narrow beam of light, necessitating a large number of these fixtures to cover a small area. Better fixtures are brighter and throw a wider beam, requiring fewer fixtures. And lastly, they don't dim well. If you are using them with traditional fixtures and want to fade them up and down during the course of events or services, they pop on suddenly from nothing to about 20-30%, and look very out of place when this happens.
Chroma-Q, Mega-Lite, Chauvet and Elation all have some interesting LED fixtures that provide a nice wash of color, but these are still over $600 per fixture. The really high-quality fixtures are still over $1,000 per fixture. So, we have a long way to go before LED lighting is inexpensive, and there's no indication this is going to happen anytime soon.
That all being said, there were some interesting options for churches wanting to move to LED lighting but already have a significant investment in traditional theatrical fixtures.
Another fun option that's been showing up from more manufacturers are battery-operated LED fixtures that also work with wireless control signals sent via Wi-Fi. Mega-Lite, Chroma-Q and Eternal Lighting both had battery-operated fixtures that work wirelessly, allowing you to place fixtures at the last minute anywhere on your stage or platform to accent part of your stage, or perhaps uplight something you are using for a sermon illustration, without needing to run any cables. The light could be placed at the same time the set piece is moved out, without worrying about connecting cables.
Chauvet introduced two interesting LED lighting fixtures that can be used with a traditional dimming system. Most LED fixtures require non-dimmed power and a separate data cable from the lighting control system to operate; these two new fixtures from Chauvet eliminate the need for the data cable.
LED House Lights
These are also making a big appearance. These are intended to light the seating area of your sanctuary, and most give you the ability to change the color of those lights. This enables you to use your house lights to extend the mood of the service out into the room. Imagine Silent Night on Christmas Eve where you slowly fade your house lighting from white to a dim midnight-blue through the first verse of the beloved Christmas carol.
LED Video Walls
Also present throughout the LDI show were LED video wall manufacturers. One manufacturer that's seen a lot of interest from churches is Absen. LED video walls have been available for a while, but have been out of reach from all but the largest churches. Absen has brought the cost of ownership down significantly, and if you have a sanctuary with a lot of ambient lighting, LED walls can be more cost effective than the projection system you'd need to overpower the light from your windows when you consider the cost of maintenance of high-brightness projectors over a few years. This was the first opportunity I've had to see their products in person, and I was very impressed. If video plays a large part of your services and you are considering replacing or upgrading your projectors, Absen is worth looking at.
While I didn't find what I hoped to find at LDI, the show reinforced that LED technology is only becoming better, brighter, and more sophisticated, and exceeding what some ever thought possible. Hopefully the upcoming years will see pricing come more into line with what the average church can afford.