A Sound Person's Guide To Lighting
Lighting for small gigs
Published in PM May 2008
Technique : Lighting
Stage lighting is not just for theatre or arena concerts. With a little bit of thought your stage area can be transformed, making you the focal point of the room.
As a busy gigging musician, I am still surprised to see solo artists, duos and bands working without any stage lighting. Let's face it, most pubs small venues don't have in-house lighting, but it doesn't take much effort to transform a room into a proper venue.
So, you've been rehearsing for the past six months. You've got a great set together, and invested a small fortune in backline and PA. You've thought carefully about what your hair will look like and what clothing you are going to wear. You've done all this and spent a lot of time and effort doing it, so imagine turning up at your local pub and playing under cold, faceless strip lights (like the ones your gran has in her kitchen), or even under ornate wall lights that give off just enough of a glow to stop you tripping and dropping your pint. The band might sound fantastic, but it all looks a bit crap really, especially with the pub menu behind you as a backdrop — or, even worse, the football on a 50-inch flat screen. Panic not, help is at hand. In the words of AC/DC, "Let there be light."
OK, so you might not be playing at the Millennium Stadium, but similar principles apply to lighting a band or solo artist. There are a few things you need to bear in mind
Most small venues will only supply two or three 13A electrical sockets (I have turned up to find just one!) If there is anything else plugged into the socket, such as a TV or game machine, you need to point out to the venue manager that they will have to be unplugged before you can connect to the mains, since you will have to power your PA, backline and lighting from this power supply. Each 13A socket can provide up to 3000W of power, so it is important that you think ahead before you go plugging everything in. Some single-unit stage lights can draw up to 2000W if they are powered to the max. Trying to fire two units along with your PA and backline could result in everything going very dark and very quiet. You also need to bear in mind that the ring mains of some venues are also supplying coolers, fridges, pumps and so on. Some better-prepared venues provide a 32A ring main, which can be tapped into using 16-amp ring main to three-pin plug adaptors. These kick out around 7000W each, which should be more than enough for even the brightest, loudest pub band. Stage lighting can draw a lot of power and generate a lot of heat, so one consideration is LED lighting, which has low power consumption and generates little or no heat.
As a solo singer and band member, I look after all my own lighting. That includes all requirement considerations, setting it up and controlling it during performances. If this is your first foray into lighting, you are better off keeping it cheap and simple.
Conventional PAR (parabolic aluminised reflector) cans are the SM58s of the lighting world. Everyone from Rush to pub bands uses these standard workhorses. By far the most common form of stage lighting, PAR cans come in a number of different sizes, making them versatile for all kinds of lighting applications. The lamp case includes a bracket that allows the lamp to be bolted to a T-bar mounted on a lighting stand or individual lighting bracket, which will allow you to fix the lamp to almost any supporting structure, light stand or even speaker stand. Some PAR cans are also supplied with a floor-mounted bracket, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Floor-mounted PARs can also be mounted on stands.
There are many different sizes and applications of PAR cans, but the most common lamp size used in a small gig situation is the PAR 56. The diameter of the lamp is measured in eighths of an inch — therefore a PAR 64 is eight inches across. For bigger gigs and larger stages, a band would be better off with PAR 64s. PAR cans are usually supplied without bulbs, and in the case of PAR 64s the user can determine the power (a PAR 64 is capable of taking a 500W or even a 1000W bulb, giving some great versatility for larger stage coverage) and beam spread of the bulb they need. For the pub circuit, I wouldn't recommend PAR 64s, as they are simply too bright and draw too much power for your needs. You want to add ambience to the stage area, not cook the band! So if you're heading down the PAR can route, I suggest the PAR 56s are the boys for the job.
Eight PAR 56 cans will draw 300W each, leaving plenty of juice in a standard 32A ring main for the rest of the band's gear and giving more than enough lighting for a pub/hotel gig. Some PAR cans are supplied with 'barn doors', which can be angled to allow the user greater control over the direction of the lamp spread. In addition, some PAR cans are supplied with or can be fitted with a transformer to allow the use of low-voltage bulbs. It is always worth double- checking before you make your purchase so you know exactly what type of bulb it has been rated for.
Most PAR cans come with a gel frame, which allows the user to insert different coloured heat-resistant gels in front of the bulb, effectively changing the colour of the lamp. This versatility allows you to have a different colour for every lamp. However, you can't really go wrong with the three primary colours of red, green, and blue (RGB). By mixing these, you can get literally millions of colour combinations.
LED PAR cans
These are not the cheapest option at the moment since they haven't been around that long, and I suspect we are still paying 'development costs', rather than material and production costs. However, LED PAR can lighting has some great advantages over conventional PAR cans.
I have a number of different lighting setups that I use regularly as a solo entertainer and with a band. Initially, I was using a cut-down version of the band lighting for my solo gigs, but this still meant carrying a large-ish flightcase with lighting and stands into even the smallest of venues. This often means that the lighting is very close to me as a performer (owing to the tiny areas that some pubs expect you to perform in), so I then had to take an industrial fan just to keep me from melting down. In addition to all of that, some venues' electrical supplies couldn't even cope with my lighting, and switching on eight 300W lamps would not quite give me the lighted ambience of the stage area that I required. On discovering LED PAR cans, my prayers were answered.
Imagine a single unit that generates hardly any heat, is half the weight of a conventional PAR can and is capable of RGB colour mixing, dimming control and even 'sound-to-light', all for around £85? Well, that's more or less what today's LED PAR cans are capable of.
How does it work?
Light-emitting diodes (just like the one in the key ring torch you were given for Christmas) have come a long way since the Sinclair digital watch. LED technology has improved greatly over the past few years, allowing them to be used as a replacement for conventional bulbs.
Instead of one single, massive, coloured LED, the lamp is made up of hundreds of small red, green and blue LEDs, allowing you to change the colour of each lamp without the use of coloured gels. LEDs use a fraction of the power of a normal light bulb, resulting in a greatly reduced heat output. This allows you to use many more units without putting a strain on the power supply of the venue you are working at. The reduced power draw also means that the lamps have a much longer working life. You might get 30 or so hours of use from a conventional PAR bulb before it blows (which can also trip an electrical supply), but you'll get literally hundreds of thousands of hours from LEDs. And unlike your Christmas tree lights, if one of the tiny bulbs fails, the rest keep on working! The hardware that the LEDs are built within requires no transformers, making them much lighter than conventional lighting units.
However, there is one slight disadvantage: LEDs are still not as bright as conventional lighting. When working as a solo singer, I use a single PAR 64 LED, which is about as powerful as a single conventional PAR 56. But — and it's a big but — the advantages far outweigh the restrictions of their conventional predecessors.
Controlling LED PAR can lighting
Most LED PAR cans are supplied with a DMX connector and a series of dip switches that allow you to set the colour, fade time and sound-to-light settings. For 90 percent of my solo gigs, I just set a single unit sound-to-light or on a slow colour fade cycle and let it do its thing. However, it's possible to link up many lamps using a DMX controller, but we'll talk more about this later.
The ability to get the same amount of colour as using three separate PAR cans means saving on space, lugging gear and heat. I find that a single floor-mounted PAR 64 LED is sufficient for my solo gigs, where space is a premium.
Floodlights and colour mixers
An alternative to using an array of PAR cans to light up the stage area is to use a compact floodlight or colour mixer. These are not much bigger than a single PAR 64, but house three or four 300W or 500W bulbs. Each bulb sits behind a dichroic filter (heat-resistant coloured glass). By controlling which bulbs are lit, you can mix almost any colour required. These units are great for lighting small to really large stage areas, as they are so bright, but very compact. A pair either side of the stage is ideal for a solo performer or even small to medium-sized band.
Some of the older units, like the NJD Quartet (£142), do not have DMX control, which would mean the use of an additional dimmer pack along with a lighting desk. However, more recent versions, such as the NJD Spectre, have full DMX control, allowing dimming from a simple DMX lighting controller, and may also be able to operate via built-in sound-to-light or with an optional controller with built-in patterns.
For me, compact units like this have been a blessing from above. They are small and easy to maintain, and some even take standard halogen bulbs just like the ones in outdoor security lighting, which are very cheap to replace at around £1.50 per bulb. In addition, they are very quick to transport and rig. The floods can fit into a small flightcase and will sit happily on the floor or mounted on lighting stands, taking just a few minutes to set up.
Scanners and moving heads
If you want to add a little movement to your lighting, there are plenty of units out there that will do the trick
A scanner is a lighting unit with a mirror mounted on a servo motor. A halogen bulb or a cluster of LED bulbs are contained within the unit and reflected out across the room by the mirror, allowing a light pattern to be quickly moved around the performance area. By sending DMX signals to the unit it is possible to change the colour of the lamp, shape and size of the beam, or even project patterns by moving the internal 'gobo' wheel inside the unit.
The Martin Roboscan 812 (now discontinued) was a workhorse for a number of years, and second-hand units can be picked up quite cheaply. If you are looking to purchase a new unit (such as the Martin Mania SCX500), a search on the Internet will give you a host of goodies. There are also LED-based scanners, which may not be as bright as a conventional bulb, but their low power consumption means the bulbs will last considerably longer — unlike conventional scanner halogen bulbs, which can be expensive to replace. Most scanners will work as stand-alone units, making them ideal to mount alongside PAR cans or floods to add movement across the stage and out into the audience. They need to be mounted on lighting stands for the best effect.
As the name implies, moving-head units have a moving head that can spin horizontally and vertically.
I'm a big fan of moving head scanners because I think they look cool, and they will work either as a floor-mounted unit, on top of a speaker stack, or fixed to a lighting stand or rig.
The units will work stand-alone, but you can link two or more units together with a DMX cable (a standard microphone XLR cable will do the trick). Units linked together give a synchronized show, which looks fantastic — not just from a lighting perspective, but the movement of the unit itself looks really cool. With this in mind, it's best to use the units in multiples of two to get the best effect. Most of these units come with a number of pre-programmed light shows for use in stand-alone mode. They also work sound-to-light or can be connected to a DMX lighting controller, which can be worked by a roadie or sound engineer. However, in most instances, I set the units to sound-to-light and let them get on with their job!
Most bands cannot afford the luxury of a lighting controller (or even a sound engineer), so it's usual to control all your lighting from on stage. Again, you need to keep this as simple as possible. Screwing up that Darkness solo just because you were trying to change the pattern on the lighting controller with your foot will not go down well with the rest of the band. You have a number of options
Plug all the lights in and leave them on: Simple, but effective.
Use a non-DMX-automated lighting chaser: The type of lighting you are using will depend on the type of light controller you use. Older, conventional PAR cans can be plugged in and switched on at the beginning of a gig — simple, but effective. However, if you want to make the light flash, then you will need an automated lighting chaser. These come as rack-mounted or floor-mounted units that allow you to plug in your stage lights and flash away with either a preset pattern or by sync'ing with a sound input from the PA or in-built microphone. A simple sequencing sound-to-light controller is the NJD SC4000e Sound Chaser, which will power up to eight 500W PAR 64 lamps. It sends 240V power via a connector and 13A cable to the lamps.
If you want to be able to adjust the brightness of conventional lamps, then you will need a powered dimmer unit, such as the NJD NJ202A. This unit has four IEC connectors that will deliver a maximum inductive load of 1150W running at 5A per channel. This would allow you to power up to eight PAR 64 lamps per channel.
Control your lighting with DMX
If you are using DMX lighting, all the units can be linked together and controlled via a DMX lighting controller, which will give you dimming capabilities and individual control of each lighting unit — including PAR cans, floods and scanners. Again, you have the option of sound-to-light sequencing, or if you are lucky enough to have a partner who can manipulate the controller during the gig, all the better (but not really necessary).
Using DMX to control conventional PAR cans requires the use of an additional dimmer pack for the lamps, such as the Prolight DMX Digital Dimmer Pack with eight IEC outputs. This can be fitted to the T-bar that the lamps are mounted on, and will convert a DMX signal into a power signal to control the brightness of the lamp. However, if you are using LED PAR cans, they can be controlled via DMX without the need of additional dimmer packs, making them an even tastier option.
The cost of DMX controllers has now reached an acceptable level for solo entertainers and small bands. A few years ago, the desks were complicated and expensive and designed for people with a degree in lighting technology. These days, things have become a lot simpler and a damn sight cheaper, but without the compromise on technology. I tend to use a small DMX colour mixer such as the Acme iSolution iColour CA32 Mix Controller for my stage floods, which can work sound-to-light or scroll through different patterns at different speeds. However, if I'm feeling adventurous, I link all my DMX lighting together and control it all using a Stairville DMX Master. This particular controller can be found hiding under various names, as it is a pretty generic unit that has been re-branded by a number of manufacturers. It allows control of PAR cans, scanners, moving heads and many other types of DMX-controlled lighting.
It is possible to control all your DMX lighting using software and a laptop with a DMX dongle. However, this is a subject of its own that would fill this magazine, so we'll come back to that in another issue.
As a solo entertainer and with my band, I use a combination of all of the above controllers. I set my moving head units to sound-to-light. The two units are linked and therefore their lighting patterns are synchronized. The stage floods are then controlled via a small DMX lighting controller, which I use to adjust the brightness of the lights at the beginning of the gig. I then let the controller work in either a slow colour mix fade, which slowly changes the colour of the lighting on stage (great for the slower songs), or I punch it into sound-to-light mode and let it flash away for the rockier numbers — simple, but effective.
How you rig your lighting will depend on the size of the venue you are performing in. I generally set my moving head scanners either side of the stage, on the floor underneath the speaker stands. This keeps them from being kicked by any unsuspecting audience members. PAR cans and floods should be mounted on lighting stands wherever possible. Lighting stands come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from a lifting height of 3m up to 6m — however, a 3m pair of stands should suffice.
Push-up stands have a locking pin and tightening system, and are not unlike speaker stands in their construction. They will lift to around 3m. If you are looking for something more substantial to carry the weight of a few floods and a scanner or two, then you will be better off with a wind-up stand. These have a built-in winch and cog system that will allow you to get your lighting up to 3m or more by winding the winch. This makes the effort of lifting the lighting easier and allows a single person to rig the lights.
If you are rigging more than one light per stand, then you will probably need a T-bar. This is fitted to the top of the stand using a bolt or spigot. They can be square or round and come pre-drilled to allow you to hang your lighting using bolts or lighting hook clamps.
You always need to make sure that the stands are on even ground and NEVER exceed the recommended loading limit for each stand. However, it is not always possible to mount lighting on stands. A classic example is if you are performing in a marquee. The nature of the sloping room often means there is simply not enough height for stands, and in these instances it's best to mount lights either on the top of speaker stacks or directly on the floor. Not an ideal solution, and you need to make sure they are away from party-goers' feet, but it's better than having no lighting at all.
Dressing the stage
It is quite often the case that the area you will be performing in has the pub menu behind you or even a massive plasma screen. I combat the local décor by using a 'star cloth'. This is not, as you might think, a piece of material covered in pictures of rock stars, but a black cloth containing an array of white LEDs. The cloth can be hung directly onto the wall with the aid of some strong gaffer tape or hooks, but most of the time I use a set of goalposts — basically, two lighting stands with a crossbar — which is set up behind the band. You don't have to use a star cloth; simple black draping or a giant printed logo of the band will do just as well. It makes the stage area look more like a stage!
Once your backdrop, PA and backline are rigged, you can set the lighting up and play around with the height and angle of the lamps until you are happy that the audience can see you as well as hear you. Now you've made it all look pretty, the performance is up to you 0
Published in PM May 2008
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