An introduction to the ins and outs of DJ and stage lighting
Table of Contents
What To Look For In A Lighting System
Types Of Lighting Effects
Spot/Hard Edge Lighting
Wash/Soft Edge Lighting
Advantages of LED Lighting
DMX vs. Non-DMX Lighting
Lighting Accessories for Setup
Setting up Lights
Musician's Friend would like to thank our friends at Chauvet Lighting for providing the information and nearly all images found in this guide.
Lighting and atmospheric effects can add a unique and exciting dimension to your band's live show; your DJ gigs; parties; club; and even corporate presentations.
We will provide the tools and knowledge you need to design a system that will do what you need it to do at an affordable price.
What To Look For In A Lighting System
When buying a lighting system, there are several questions you need to ask yourself
- What do I need to light?
- What kind of effect or mood am I trying to create?
- Am I lighting a band, a DJ, a nightclub, a dance floor?
- Do I want a high-energy show, or a soothing atmosphere?
- Do I need to infuse an air of solemnity or one of discretion and simplicity?
- Is it an indoor or outdoor event?
- What kind of setup is already in place?
- Are there fog machines?
Regardless of the occasion, lighting will set the tone of your event, boost the impact of your show, add to the overall experience of your guests or audience, and ultimately increase revenue.
Types Of Lighting Effects
Most entertainment lighting falls into three main categories based on functionality: effect, spot, and wash lights (described below). They are further grouped into DMX and non-DMX fixtures.
Effect lights are generally defined as lights that use multiple beams and motion in order to create a desired effect. Effect lighting is to enhance a show, not to illuminate a particular area or person. Some lights in this category include moonflowers, gobo projectors, and classic “derby” lights (see Non-DMX lights below).
Gobos, or gobo projectors, are lighting fixtures that employ gobos and high-quality optics to project shapes onto large surfaces, such as walls or floors. Some gobo projectors can change the beam color, but it’s more common to see rotation of the gobo, which creates dynamic projection effects. Aside from the dance floor, another use is to project corporate logos.
Beam Effects — These lights are comprised of many different colored lenses positioned around a central light source embedded in a spherical or half-spherical fixture, also known as a mushroom. Beam effects can have one or more motorized spheres spinning around the lamp continuously, While some can vary the direction of the spin based on sound received by a built-in microphone; for example, changing direction with each kick drum beat. When used in conjunction with stage fog, colored beams are extremely effective.
Flower Effects — These are standalone fixtures with adjustable attributes such as beam color, gobo type, rotation, and lamp, all of which are controlled automatically by a built-in microphone. These attributes can rotate, remain static, or be triggered by specific audio frequencies. The lack of DMX control makes flower effects less suitable for larger venues, but their ease of installation and simplicity make them very attractive for smaller locations.
Centerpiece — As the name suggests, a centerpiece is a fixture designed to be located in the center of a lighting rig, usually directly above a dance floor. Their design is based on a central lamp surrounded by mirrors that reflect light in all directions. Various mirror types can be employed to change the appearance of the effect. They tend to work well alongside flower effects, and like them, control of color, direction, and gobo type are synced to audio via an internal mic. Most centerpieces are not DMX controlled, though some offer full DMX control over all functions independently.
Scanners — These fixtures incorporate a user-controllable mirror that can be positioned in any direction within the range of the fixture. As well as control of the mirror, some models offer DMX control of color, gobo, focus
Barrel Mirror Effects — Closely resembling scanners, they feature a permanently rotating barrel mirror to create a continually falling beam. Just like flowers and centerpieces, color, gobo type, and mirror direction are synchronized to the music via a built-in microphone.
Police Beacons — If you’ve ever been pulled over, you know what a beacon does. It’s a semi conical shaped light with a colored plastic shell and a rotating bulb. Beacons come in red, blue, yellow, and green. Size varies from 7" to 10". Some beacons use LEDs as their light source.
Color Changers — Inside the fixture are one or more color wheels with colored filters that rotate in the path of the beam. Fixtures with more than one wheel allow colors to be mixed by placing different filters in the beam simultaneously. Quite simply, the more color wheels a fixture has, the more unique colors it can produce. Usually, color changers can operate in stand-alone mode as well as with DMX control.
Moving Yoke (Moving Head) — Otherwise referred to as intelligent lighting, this is a variety of DMX-controlled effect with all the functionality of scanners (see above). However, instead of a beam of light reflecting off a moving mirror, the entire fixture moves. The moving yoke is generally slower than a scanner since it has more mass to move as opposed to a simple, lightweight mirror. Like scanners, color, gobo, shutter, focus, and movement must be controlled via DMX. When looking to purchase a moving yoke fixture, pay close attention to the quality of the optics and the number of colors and gobos provided. More expensive moving yoke effects incorporate rotating gobos, a rotating prism, and a number of different color wheels. These features give you full control over all parameters, allowing complex effects and sequences to be programmed. Since all the parameters must be programmed into a controller, moving yokes are not as easy for the inexperienced user to set up as some of the other effects lights discussed above. Below is an example of some of the possibilities provided by a moving yoke fixture such as the Chauvet Q-Spot.
Finally, other more commonly known effects include strobe lights , which are flashing white lights that produce the effect of watching an old-time movie from the ’20s; Laser lights , a laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), produces an intense monochromatic beam of coherent light; black lights (or ultraviolet light ), which causes objects such as white shirts to glow in the dark; and color bars , which are tubes approximately 3' long with banks of red, green and blue LEDs inside. In essence, color bars are like airport runway lights, and can be used to highlight walkways or other architectural details of a venue.
Spot/Hard Edge Lighting
Spot lighting is used to illuminate a particular person or area in a narrow beam that does not bleed light into surrounding areas. PAR-style units can operate as spot lighting when fitted with a narrow spot bulb as opposed to a wash lamp.
Followspots, the best-known example of a hard edge light, also fall into the spotlight category, and are used for productions of all types. In order to follow a particular feature or performer across a stage, a followspot, such as the Chauvet 400G, projects a very narrow beam that can be moved by an operator. A majority of lights that feature gobos are also considered hard edge lighting as they can be used to light a particular area, or project a particular pattern in a defined area of your walls, stage, ceiling or flooring.
Wash/Soft Edge Lighting
Wash lighting is used to create an overall ambient lighting scheme. If you want to take a plain white wall and make it a different color, a properly mounted and programmed wash light is what you are looking for.
Soft edge lighting
Wash lighting effect
Wash lights can be designed and operated in static, linear, or moving configurations. Wash lamps, called floods, can be fitted into PAR units, which can illuminate otherwise dark stages in various colors.
Chauvet PAR 38
PAR Lighting Fixture
These lights are the staple of stage and live sound lighting, often used in large numbers to pinpoint select performers and stage areas at any given time, but they will not offer a true hardedge beam. PAR lamps are identified by their diameters in eighths of an inch. A PAR64, for example, has an 8" diameter (because 64 eighths of an inch is 8").
Advantages of LED Lighting
Manufacturers are increasingly replacing fixtures traditionally fitted with lamps with LED lighting for many good reasons. Light emitting diodes, or LEDs, offer many advantages over traditional incandescent lighting. First and foremost, LED fixtures consume far less electricity than traditional fixtures, allowing multiple units to be placed on one 20-amp circuit. In addition, the life expectancy of LEDs far surpasses that of current halogen lamps—up to 100 times. LED fixtures also project very little heat, and can lower the ambient temperature in a room by over 10 degrees in specific applications. The bottom line: you don’t have to worry about frequent bulb changes due to breaking or failure, performers and guests alike no longer have to endure the heat of PAR cans, and setup and mobility are greatly enhanced due to the fixtures’ lighter weight and low heat emission. Additionally, the low energy consumption and negligible heat emission of LEDs make them more environmentally friendly. Lastly, with RGB color-mixing becoming standard on most LED fixtures, 16.7 million different colors are at reach, far surpassing the number of colors using a gel sheet configuration. In fixtures capable of RGBW color-mixing the number of available colors reaches several billion.
Chauvet Elan DMX LED Effect Light
Here are some examples of effects that can be created with just one LED Fixture, such as the Chauvet Elan DMX LED effect light:
DMX vs. Non-DMX Lighting
Regardless of the category a fixture falls into, entertainment lights are also classified as DMX or non-DMX fixtures.
Non-DMX effect lights will normally react to sound picked up through a microphone that is internal to the unit. Many of these fixtures also include an automated setting where the unit will continue to create effects when not enough or no sound is present. Lights in this category are often manufactured to operate for a specified period of time before they must be turned off (see duty cycle), which makes it necessary to use multiple lights to create a continuous show. Examples of non-DMX lighting are beam effects, flower effects, and gobo projectors.
Also called intelligent lighting, these fixtures can be controlled via DMX-512 consoles or interfaces. A DMX controller (see chapter on controllers) allows you to program the unit remotely, ideal in hard-to-reach places. Fixtures that fall under this category generally do not have a duty cycle and cost more than non-DMX lights, but offer a greater effect value. Examples of DMX lighting fixtures include moving yoke (right) and scanners.
What Is DMX-512?
DMX-512 is the programming language that most entertainment lights and controllers use to communicate with each other. DMX also acts like the post office. For control, you assign an address between 1 and 512. However, unlike your house, which only takes up one number, your fixture needs a number for each channel. A 6-channel DMX fixture uses 6 addresses.
Atmospheric effects will bring an additional element to a lighting show, either by themselves, or because they enhance a lighting fixture’s performance. The most widely used atmospherics are: fog, haze, snow and bubble machines.
In mid-air, ambient light generally reduces the impact of a fixture. Fog machines allow users to see the beams of light being emitted by a unit. By using fog along with your light effect, a mid-air beam effect is created—on top of the fixture’s projection effect. This allows you to use fewer lights to create a sizzling show. One disadvantage of a fog machine is that the cloud produced can be dense enough to cause fire alarms to activate. The fog, if overdone, can also become too dense to see through properly and ultimately diminish the overall performance of the lights. To help prevent this, remote controls such as the Chauvet Timer Remote or Wireless Remote allow you to control duration and intervals of fog.
American DJ Mister Kool
Haze machines create a similar effect as fog machines while minimizing the drawbacks associated with fog. Haze is less dense than fog and so is less likely to activate fire alarms if used properly (Be sure to read your user manual, check your local regulations, and ensure adequate ventilation prior to operation). Hazers also generally maintain a more even and consistent effect than fog machines. Examples of haze machines are the Chauvet HZ-1000 Ultimate Hazer and the OmniSystem Hazer 900.
Chauvet B-250 Bubble Machine
Bubble machines do exactly what you’d imagine: they create bubbles. With multiple wands and a soapy solution, these little machines can produce a very dramatic effect. While not modifying a lighting effect the way fog and haze machines do, bubble machines are excellent for outdoor events, children’s parties, and weddings.
Used for indoor and outdoor events as well as on stage where snow effect is needed, snow machines generate a light substance with the consistency of snow in mid-air. The simulated snow melts into a soap-based solution after reaching a surface.
Examples include the OmniSystem Snow-1000.
Controllers are used to create a desired effect from any style of lighting and trigger a fixture’s functions remotely.
Chauvet Stage Designer 50 DMX Lighting Controller
Elation SDC-6 DMX Controller
DMX controllers such as the Chauvet Stage Designer 50 or American DJ SDC-6 range from very basic 3-button controllers to fully computerized systems. However, controller operation is quite simple. Each slider on the controller corresponds to a channel on the fixture being controlled. DMX fixtures have specific values that correspond to traits of the fixture such as color, gobo, pan, tilt, strobe speed, etc. By moving a slider on the controller to a specific value, the fixture follows suit. The various control values of each button or slider used to create an overall effect can be saved into a scene, which triggers the specific action or state you set. The scene is then saved into a memory bank. Numerous scenes can be combined into an entire program, which, for example, can be synchronized with cues for a show. This is called a “chase.” The chase can then be adjusted via a myriad of input functions, depending on the controller being used.
Chauvet SR-8 Relay Pack
Relays, such as the Chauvet SR-8 Relay Pack, allow users to control non-DMX lighting via a DMX controller. The relay pack contains multiple plugs, each of which correspond to a channel of DMX. When units are plugged into this relay pack, they become dependent upon the relay for power. These lights are either “on” or “off.” The function of the relay is to control that signal. As the slider of a DMX controller is raised, a certain value will represent “on” for the relay pack, which will cause the light to turn on.
Chauvet DMX-4 Dimmer/Relay Pack
Think of them as a dimmer in your home, or the rheostat that controls the brightness of the lights on the dashboard in your car. Dimmer packs are banks of electrical sockets that are designed to have non-DMX fixtures plugged into them. PAR cans are typically plugged into, dimmer packs allowing them to dim. Through DMX control, a dimmer pack relays a command to increase or decrease the amount of voltage being sent to a fixture plugged into a particular location, thereby increasing or decreasing the output of the fixture being controlled.
A footswitch is a controller that allows a user to access specific menu options of a fixture by pressing a footpedal that controls specific functions. footswitch controllers are most often used in live-sound applications.
American DJ FC-400 DP-415 Foot Control System
Lighting Accessories for Setup
The fixtures you select will determine the cables required to connect your system. In general, you will need one power cord per fixture, along with the appropriate extension cords (if needed). In addition, if you are connecting your fixtures via DMX cable you will need one DMX cable per fixture. DMX cables use XLR connectors and come in 3- and 5-pin varieties. Check the user’s manual of your fixtures and controller to determine which will be needed for your application.
American DJ 3-Pin DMX Cable American DJ Spool 5-Pin DMX Cable
Stands And Trusses
In addition to lights and cables, you should invest in either a tripod stand or trussing system in order to raise your fixtures off the floor. Raising them will increase the coverage of your lighting and help prevent your lights from being damaged by vibration and accidental contact. Safety cables must be used when suspending lighting from any truss system. Additionally, you should always be prepared for the failure of replaceable components when traveling to a show. Pack a small duffle bag with extra cables (power and DMX), spare lamps, safety cable, and clamps or bolts for hanging fixtures from the trussing.
Chauvet Tripod Stand with Casters
Odyssey LTMTS1-PRO Lighting Truss System
See all our DJ & Lighting gear and accessories.
Setting upp Lights
Each fixture produces output in a specific beam angle, which denotes the area of light being produced. Assuming that we have two fixtures with the same wattage bulbs, the fixture with the smaller beam angle will appear brighter. This is because the same amount of light is being focused into a smaller area. In addition, because a smaller beam angle creates a more focused and intense projection, the light can be placed further from the subject being illuminated. The larger the beam angle of a fixture, the larger the area that can be covered by the unit. If you are placing the units in close proximity to an area that is being illuminated, fixtures with a larger beam angle will cover a much larger area.
Fixtures should also be placed in proximity to the subject based on output. Lights that have a lower output need to be placed closer to the subject than a high output fixture in order to be perceived as having the same brightness.
Having a combination of wash and spot fixtures illuminating an area will greatly enhance the look of any show. By using contrasting colors, the spots will pop out more, appearing brighter within the wash effect than if used alone.
How To Connect A Controller To Your Lights
A DMX signal begins at the controller and follows the path of the cable to the first fixture and then to each fixture in line down the cable run. The following diagram shows the proper method and order for connecting multiple fixtures to a single controller. The DMX line pictured here runs from the controller to the “DMX In” connection on the first fixture. From the “DMX Out” connection of the first fixture, a cord is connected to the “DMX In” connection of the next fixture in the line, and so on until all units have a cable connected to the “DMX In” connection. The last fixture in the line should have a DMX terminator installed to maintain the quality of the DMX signal.
Assigning Effects And Programming Shows
The key to good lighting design is to mix and match fixtures and tones to create a desired mood and effect. When you are programming, use color schemes that complement or contrast with one another, depending on the mood you want. Using a wash to create an ambient light in a color that will complement your spot, or effect, will make it appear brighter and richer. Clean, crisp complementary colors, along with fluid movement and symmetry, also produce an air of professionalism. Contrasting colors add high energy and drama to a venue. The best way to increase your design skills is by visiting different venues and shows and see what other designers have done. Remember the elements that struck you as the best, and attempt to emulate and improve on them.