An edited version of this article appears in Theatre 62’s monthly newsletter ‘Prompt’ (June 2013):
Ian James writes… As you may be aware, during recent shows our trusty 20 year old lighting desk has been slowly dying. It had become very unreliable and its memory was going amnesic. One way or another it had to be pensioned off and replaced. This prompted us to re-evaluate our whole show rigging and operating scenarios.
We identified the following issues and aims:-
1) Lighting control system. The old desk (even when working) had some frustrating limitations so any new system needed more functionality and flexibility. It was also bulky and cumbersome to move in and out of storage for every show.
2) Rigging logistics. For every show we have to assemble the control cabin, and the largest part of this task was the assembly and plugging together of the sound system. So, for every show, until the operating cabin and sound equipment was complete, we were unable to start full rehearsals with sound.
3) The Sound Desk. This again is 20 years old and showing signs of its age. Like the old lighting desk, had some frustrating limitations. It was also big and heavy and had to be dragged in and out of storage every show.
4) Back up Provision. It’s a fact of life that everything that works will, at some time (and it’s usually an inappropriate time), fail. To minimise the impact of this happening during a show we needed to incorporate a degree of backup and redundancy so, in the event of a failure, the show could continue, even with reduced technical functionality.
5) Electrical safety. The electrical safety arrangements used in the lighting system are some 30 years old and do not sufficiently meet current standards and good practice. Basically our 60 dimmers needed upgrading.
6) One Night Events. The comprehensive lighting control needed for our full stage productions is not appropriate for one night events. We need a simple, basic, control desk that can be used with the minimum of setting up and be operated by anyone with the minimum of tuition.
If finances were unlimited none of this would be a problem and £20 to £25 grand would sort us out very nicely, thank you. However, surprise, surprise, the club finances do not stretch that far. We estimated that with a bit of judicial “value engineering” the above aims could be achieved without too much compromise, and all for the nominal cost of a brand new well specified lighting desk. That is, about £5K
Although it’s still “work in progress” we are well on the way to achieving our aims. I would prefer not to include a nerdy list of equipment descriptions that nobody is really interested in, but as it is club money being spent I think it only right and proper that I bore you all with a brief rundown of what’s been happening:-
a) Two rack mount computers have been built from scratch, one each for lighting and sound. Both machines are basically identical and could be interchanged if needed. Both have backup hard drives and operating systems and either could run both lighting and sound together if needed. All credit to Jon Lewis for designing and building them.
b) Lighting control software with its USB interface has been purchased. This gives us more power and flexibility than we currently need plus the ability to plot and run rehearsals from a laptop during the weeks preceding a show. However, like all software, we have to learn how to drive it.
c) The new sound computer replaces an earlier machine which has been pensioned off after many years service. The multi-channel sound cards, audio editing and show control software have all been transferred to the new machine along with the sound effects and show file libraries.
d) A unit that combines the output of two lighting desks has been purchased (Strand DMX Merge Controller). This helps resolve the “control backup” requirement by allowing two independent control desks to operate the stage lighting at the same time.
e) A small, basic, lighting desk is being acquired for small events. This could also provide basic back-up facilities if needed.
f) A touch screen monitor has been purchased to provide an easy control surface for either of the computers. This is in addition to the monitor screens we already have. Both computers run with two screens.
g) The old sound desk has been replaced by a fully programmable audio processor system. With appropriate software it can be configured by any computer over a normal Ethernet network. Critically it remains permanently wired up at all times and can be used whether the Control Cabin has been built or not.
h) As a trial, one dimmer pack (6 dimmers) has been successfully upgraded. We have all the parts to complete the upgrade of the other nine as soon as time permits.
i) For each show we still have to rig the computer monitors, mice and keyboards, but these are light and easily movable. Two 10 meter long extension cables have been built so they can be placed in the hall for rehearsals, or the control cabin during a show.
The basic core of the new system has been assembled on a temporary basis, tested, and used very successfully for “When We Are Married”. As time permits it will be permanently assembled and wired into an proper equipment rack.
For the geeks and nerds amongst us that like schematic diagrams I have put one together for the system as currently configured. To the un-initiated it all looks rather complicated and specialised but in reality it makes shows easier to operate and more consistent in performance. If your curiosity has been raised and you would like to know more, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The technical team welcomes anyone who wishes to join our contribution to the production process. You don’t have to grow a beard or wear shorts and steel toe caps but having a dollop of creativity, theatrical timing and a sense of humour does help.
Click on this link to access the schematic diagrams: Control System Block Diagram April 2013
Links to websites for some of the equipment and software mentioned:-
Show Control Software: http://www.ctrelectronics.co.uk/csc-show-control.php
Lighting Software, PC Stage: http://www.lowernab.co.uk/
Sound editing software, Adobe Audition: http://www.adobe.com/downloads/cs2_downloads/
BSS London Architect, Programming software for sound processor: http://www.bss.co.uk/en/softwares/hiqnet-london-architect-v500-windows
Sound Card & MIDI ports: http://www.marian.de/en/products/trace8
Sound Card & MIDI ports: http://www.marian.de/en/products/trace_alpha
DMX Splitter: http://www.hqpower.eu/downloads/4/vdpspxngbnlfresd.pdf
BSS London, BLU80: http://www.bss.co.uk/en/products/blu-80
BSS London, BLU32: http://www.bss.co.uk/en/products/blu-32
Sound Card & MIDI ports (Lighting Computer) http://support.creative.com/Products/ProductDetails.aspx?catID=237&subCatID=946&prodID=15760&prodName=E-MU%200404%20PCI&subCatName=PCI/PCIe%20Audio/MIDI%20Interfaces&CatName=E-MU+%2f+Creative+Professional&VARSET=prodfaq:PRODFAQ_15760,VARSET=CategoryID:237