In this crash course, you will find a quick overview of the basics and a handpicked list of resources to get you started.
The two essentials
To create a light show there are two things you need. Lights referred to as “fixtures” and a console to control the fixtures.
Controlling lights with a console
The lighting console is the machine that talks to your fixtures to tell them what to do. It can be a piece of software on a computer or a dedicated piece of hardware. The types of hardware can vary wildly, from a 100 euro iPad sized controller to 50.000+ euro consoles taking up the space of a dinner table.
Which controller is right for you depends on your needs and budget. Different consoles are popular for different applications. A console which is often used in theatres for stage lighting can be totally different from what big EDM artist use on a stadium tour.
The types of consoles used for small clubs, theaters or small A/V companies tend to vary wildly. In those applications, there are often only a couple of people working with the console. Therefore they can choose what they prefer and what is in their budget range.
For bigger shows or touring acts however you’ll often see the same couple of lighting consoles which are “industry standard”. They are widely available with rental houses and most operators are comfortable with them.
Popular lighting console and software vendors are MA Lighting, Chamsys, High End Systems, Avolites and Elation Lighting. Make sure to visit the websites and get a feeling of the different types of products that are available.
How your console talks to your fixtures
The task of the lighting console is to tell the fixtures what to do. The protocol used to do this is called DMX. Pretty much every light for entertainment purposes is compatible with DMX.
A cable will run from your console to the fixture you want to control. You don’t have to run a cable for every fixture (imagine running a cable for every 300+ fixtures to the console). This is because you can daisy chain the fixtures as illustrated below.
The lighting console is dumb, it doesn’t know what fixture it is talking to. You have to tell the console which fixtures are connected and at what address they are listening for a signal. This is called “patching”. Because most consoles have a database of fixtures (provided by the manufacturers) they know how to communicate with the fixtures when you patch them.
A fixture can use multiple addresses. Each attribute of the fixture uses its own address.
For example Fixture 1 listens on address 1.001 for commands for light intensity, 1.002 for its color and 1.003 for its shutter. The first address is usually referred to as the starting address of the fixture.
For now, just remember that DMX is the protocol that your console and fixtures use to communicate. For a better understanding of DMX read: What is DMX
There is a wide range of fixtures you can use as a lighting programmer. Most fixtures use LED’s, gas discharge lights or incandescent bulbs as the light source. In the last 10 years, LED has become increasingly popular as a light source as the technique improved. It’s way more energy efficient, creates less heat and lasts longer. It didn’t look that good in the past but LED is catching up fast.
Let’s go over a couple of the most common fixtures you see at almost every festival.
if you think of event lighting these are the lights most likely to pop into head.
Moving heads (sometimes called moving lights), as the name implies are fixtures that can move. They have a pan and tilt axis which allows them to rotate. They can provide a variety of lighting effects using optics and mechanics such as gobo wheels, color wheels, prisms and more.
The models are categorized by the light they output such as a wash, spot or beam fixture. A wash spreads its light broadly, a spot emits a light source usually not wider than 45 degrees and a beam emits a narrow beam as the name implies.
A strobe light produces rapid bright flashes of light blinding the audience.
Blinders are a strong light source used to light the whole crowd.
They use an incandescent light bulb to emit a bright warm glow. They don’t immediately go to black after being turned off but have a short afterglow.
Par lights (parabolic aluminized reflector lamp) are widely used in theaters, event lighting and film sets. They are popular due to their simplicity.
The color can be changed by adding a color gel to the front of the light. Some offer the ability to focus the light.
These days you often see a LED version of the traditional par light. These don’t use gels for the color but have colored leds.
While not a light fixture, haze is crucial in maximizing the potential of your light show.
Fog or haze machines (also called smoke machines) are used to create a dense vapor of small droplets or particles in the air. Light hits these particles making the light beams more visible. Haze is a thinner subtle effect that lingers around longer while fog can be seen as a thicker cloud.
The number of fixtures and creative possibilities are endless. Explore the websites of big event lighting manufacturers such as Robe, Martin and Clay Paky. There are hundreds of other companies as well so have some fun exploring the wide range of available fixtures.
You can also browse the rental catalog of a supplier to see what is commonly used. For example RentAll Pricelist.
Don’t worry if you don’t have any fixtures yourself. There is a variety of simulation software packages you can run on your computer to practice becoming a lighting programmer.
With the visualization software, you can pre-program your show in advance. So when you arrive at the show you can just plug and play your show (okay, in the real world it’s never plug-and-play).
Which console do I learn?
In this crash course, I will provide resources for learning the grandMA2 system from MA Lighting. There is no right or wrong, only you can make the decision based upon your needs.
You can’t go wrong with the grandMA2. It has limitless possibilities and is widely used in the field. It does, however, have a steep learning curve. If you only want to control 4 moving heads and 2 pars there are easier software packages to start with such as Onyx or Chamsys.
Note: MA released the grandMA3. However it will take a couple more years before it is mature enough to replace MA2.
Getting started with the grandMA2
The grandMA2 software which runs on the console is also available for free download on your computer (Windows only). But to actually output the DMX signal to your fixtures you need a piece of grandMA2 hardware to unlock the software.
The good thing is that the visualizer and command software is free for Windows, so while learning you don’t have to worry about it just yet.
Update: (grandMA3 software is available on OSX as well. But it will take some before it has all the features to replace MA2).
Tip: You can practice and control your show using the onPC software on your computer. However, you don’t have hardware faders or a jog wheel on you computer keyboard. This can be annoying when programming. You can solve this relatively cheap by buying a midi controller. For a fraction of the price of the grandMA2 hardware, you can have hardware buttons which makes the creation and playback of your show easier. I use the AKAI APC 40 II.
However, grandMA2 onPC is not plug and play with midi devices. The best solution is to buy RD/Showcockpit with the grandMA2 driver + the driver for your midi controller. This software connects the midi device with grandMA2 onPC in a plug and play way. You can do it yourself using Bomes Midi Translator but this takes a lot of time and tweaking.
Time to Learn
To learn the grandMA2 console your first need an overview of the “language”. What do all those buttons do and what is the philosophy behind the console? You don’t want to get stuck in only learning what all the buttons do. In the end, the console is a tool to get what’s inside your head into real life.
When you open the onPC software it looks you’ve stepped into the cockpit of a 90’s spaceship. It takes a while to understand the logic and design flow behind the interface. Don’t worry this is normal. If you want to look up what something means you can find the manual here. However, if you want to learn to use the console there is a better way.
Back to school! The best way to learn to be a lighting programmer is the grandMA2 is through the training course of grandMA2 called MA University. MA offers both online courses and real-life workshops through their authorized dealers.
You can get your login credentials for the online course by sending an email to your local grandMA distributor. In this course, the basic functions of the console are explained in a practical way.
Let’s Start Programming
After you’ve finished the grandMA2 basic course on MA University you have a good understanding of how the console works.
There are two ways of programming.
- Busking . You pre program presets, sequences and effects and play them back live from your lighting console
- Timecode programming. You program the lighting cue’s in advance to trigger on a certain timecode which runs sync with the music. This is usually done in a visualisation studio.
For a more practical introduction on how to actually use the consoles to program a show, I would recommend watching the following videos by Christian Jackson.
These resources should be enough to take you from a beginner lighting programmer to be able to run a small show yourself.
aGuyNamesJonas Variety of longer-form grandMA2 tutorial videos and tips. Good to check-out if you have the basics down.
A good secondary training resource, although it feels a bit dusty.
Console Training (Not the same website as above)
Good as a secondary resource. Just not my first choice.
Learn Stage Lighting General lighting tutorials and tips. Useful as a secondary resource.
grandMA2 Forum The grandMA2 forum to ask questions. It looks ancient but has good information.
Tip: The default forum view shows only one message at the same time. To change this: Make an account, log in and go to the control center. Under options, go to Forum settings. Change the “Message reading display options” to “Multiple messages per page sorted by time”. Without this, the forum is unusable (no idea why this isn’t a default setting).
Here you can download example stages and show files from small to bigger concerts and festivals for grandMA2. This is a great way to practice creating shows without having to design your own rig.
How to get into the industry? A basic overview of lighting designers tips of how to get jobs and be part of the industry.
Christian Jackson – Patreon For a small amount you can support Christian Jacksons tutorials on Patreon. You’ll also receive demo stages, livestreams and lots of other stuff. It’s a great resource to start practicing with those demo stages and tutorials.