Rob Halliday: New tech can dampen even the noisiest lights
People often overcomplicate this craft of lighting programming, but at its core it comes down to four tasks: select and position lights, store the position, store the resulting look into a cue, then make sure the lights are ready in position before they come up. Four things, repeated over and over again, the faster the better.
Modern lighting consoles offer automated help when it comes to getting the lights ready in the right place – ‘marking’ them, as old-school Vari-Lite and new-school Eos programmers call it. In the Vari-Lite system, the cue data lived in the lights – a light only actually stored a cue if it was on, so to preset a light you needed a special state meaning ‘on at zero’. Vari-Lite called this status ‘marked’. Each console gives the helper function a different name – ‘auto mark’, ‘auto move’, ‘move in black’.
What all these functions have in common is an unerring ability to make an enormous amount of noise moving lots of things at the quietest moment in the show. They also lack the smarts to know that a scroller moving a long way probably wants to move gently, while a moving light can be hustled to its next position in a tight transition. This is why many programmers still choose to deal with this process by hand, control freaks that we are.
Recently, an interesting, unexpected side effect of the digital lighting revolution – LED fixtures, media servers – is that this task has become easier. The old skills of minimising the noise of the move or finding something – music or sound effects – to bury it under, while making sure you didn’t do it so quickly something broke, are needed less because colour-changing LED lights and media servers make no noise as they change. There is nothing to break. You can do what you like, when you like. The same isn’t as true for LED moving lights, which still need to actually move, but they’re often smaller and lighter and so, by extension, quieter than the older ones. It’s a bit of a revelation.
Sadly, the world is an imperfect place so there is a flip side: most of these products include fans to cool the LEDs and control electronics. And fans make noise – not much individually, but lanterns are rarely used singly and noise quickly adds up. If one of a performer’s tools is his or her dynamic range, to go from quietest, audience-leaning-in whisper to blood-curdling roar, anything that reduces that range is a problem. We’re all guilty here: think how rarely you sit in a truly silent auditorium these days.
So if you’re looking to invest in this new technology, and there are many good reasons to do so, back up the no-noise marking by listening to each product’s background drone as well as looking at its light output. And if the noise is close to acceptable, please take advantage of any tools the light or your console offers to reduce it further – variable fan speed, or fan speed proportional to brightness, perhaps. Your audience (and your sound designer) will thank you for it.