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Learn the basics of DMX lighting control
Learn how to integrate DMX control into your set
Learn about the best DMX controllers available designed with producers in mind
Lighting is a hugely important part of any gig. Nobody goes home singing the lights but the energy and feel of a show comes from the visuals as well as the music; it’s a symbiosis.
Despite this, a lot of musicians have zero input on their lighting and often it shows.
I’ve worked with DJs for years and I regularly meet people that are super interested in lighting but find it all a bit daunting so hopefully this article will demystify DMX and get you started.
We’re going to explore the basics of DMX lighting, ways to manage your budget and a selection of the best DMX controllers that are geared towards DJs and producers.
Understanding: DMX Lighting (A Buyer’s Guide)
What Is DMX Lighting?
DMX, or “Digital Multiplex” is the current standard digital communication protocol used in remotely controlled intelligent lighting fixtures. The technology has been around since 1986, and finally allowed for interoperability between lighting products from different companies.
“Universes” In DMX Lighting
DMX operates on “universes”. Each universe is made up of 512 channels which correspond to attributes on a fixture like intensity (or brightness), pan, tilt, or a specific colour.
A classic lighting instrument like a PAR can is just a light bulb in a tube so it would only take up one channel of data (an intensity channel) to turn the unit up and down via a dimmer pack. RGB fixtures and other intelligent lights have more parameters to control (red, green and blue as well as dimmer) and take up more than one channel in one universe.
In the image above we have three fixtures patched: one Clay Paky B-EYE K10 and two SGM P6’s.
Each attribute clearly has its own channel which corresponds to its DMX address (DMX value between 1-512).
The B-EYE here would be addressed to 1 and would know to listen for DMX signals being broadcast down the line on channels 1-21.
The first P6 would be addressed to 22 and would know to listen for DMX signals on channels 22-25 and so on. The job of lighting control software is to provide a UI to manipulate these parameters and generate DMX signal.
Breaking Down The 3 Groups Of DMX Lighting Fixtures
Lighting fixtures can be simplified into three basic groups.
Spotlights are long-barrelled fixtures used for sharp-edged focused lighting using multiple lenses and focused with internal shutters.
Washes are used for softer and more even lighting of a larger area by lighting through a frosted and ringed lens. They are focused with external “barn doors” and by moving the lamp inside closer or further from the lens.
3. PAR Can
PAR stands for Parabolic Aluminium Reflector which refers to the shape of the lamp inside it. They’re punchy, and no rock n’ roll show would ever be complete without one. Basically a big light bulb with a shiny surface in a metal tube.
Setting Up Your DMX Lighting
You’ll likely want to add a bit of color to your set. For that, things like RGB PAR cans will be your best bet. Connecting them all together is simple as lighting is typically connected via daisy chain as shown below.
DMX Lighting: Factoring In Your Budget
Ok, now that you’ve got an idea of how this all works we can start talking about money.
Obviously this is the biggest hurdle for most people to get into lighting. Fixtures are expensive, control is expensive, hell even cabling gets super expensive once you have to start buying it in quantity (or replacing lost ones…).
The purchase also comes with a whole host of maintenance and upkeep which other than being financially costly can also be exceptionally time-consuming if you want your gear to look its best.
So how can you possibly put your vision out there without dropping a boat-load of cash?
Just rent it!
Rental gives you the best of both worlds: new kit, well looked after and available to hire on a day rate that can be worked into your appearance fee. This is because you’d be providing another service to the client by setting up and controlling the lights.
Also, if you’re a regular customer and return the kit in excellent condition every time you’ll get even better rates down the line.
Bonus Tip: If you really want to get your hands on lighting I’d recommend spending your money on control rather than fixtures. This means you can program your show offline or through a visualiser without the need for a bedroom full of lights and then take it to the gig-ready to go.
Next, I’ll be taking you through a few of the best DMX controllers on the market specifically created with producers, DJs and performers in mind.
Best DMX Controllers For Producers, Mobile DJs & Live Performers
Simple yet nicely featured interface (timed fades, strobe)
Limited channel capacity
No ability to accurately control moving lights
No DAW or MIDI integration
There are drawbacks that come with the price and the form factor. For one, even though a Universe is 512 channels, this desk can only handle up to 16 channels.
Now, this doesn’t sound like a lot but bear in mind that lights can have the same address as long as their channel configuration is in the same order. You still have independent control of up to four fixtures you have so it’s by no means a lost cause if you’re going to be doing small shows with a handful of simple RGB fixtures.
While this is the odd one out in terms of it not integrating digitally into a DAW or being able to fire MIDI commands, this little desk is made with function DJs and RGB PARs in mind.
It is also a non-threatening introduction to DMX control and with features like timed fades, colour macros and strobe (as well as a sound-to-light microphone in the desk that I probably wouldn’t recommend) this little unit is feature-rich for the price.
Cabling – I’d recommend getting a 3-pin to 5-pin adapter as well as a 5-pin to 3-pin adapter so your DMXIS can be configured as 2 x 5-pin outputs, 2 x 3-pin outputs or leave it as one of each to keep your setup flexible if you play in different venues regularly.
Mac and Windows native clients
DAW integration/MIDI automation
Ability to recall scenes and banks
Limited to one universe
Programming MIDI automation tracks for attributes could be fiddly
This option is the most common that I see people opting for and I can absolutely see why; Enttec are known for making little boxes like this and their equipment is used throughout the industry.
The two DMX outputs (just a parallel split, not two universes) allow it to double as a splitter and with one output being 3-pin and the other 5-pin this is a unit designed with versatility in mind.
DMXIS has standalone control software which you can use independently of a DAW to generate DMX but that’s not what you’re here for so let’s get to the showpiece of the DMXIS which (to most producers) justifies the price jump from the Obey 4: the DMXIS VST plug-in.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying having full control over your rig including patching fixtures, naming fixtures and controlling complex attributes like pan and tilt through a VST is nuts. You can literally play the lights.
You can get as detailed as you want with your programming. Each automation line can control a DMX channel so you can essentially mess with raw DMX values via your arrangement view. You can then line them up with beats or fire scenes and playbacks that you have pre-recorded with MIDI notes as if it were a part of your composition.
You can also have a dedicated strobe button on your AKAI pad for when the moment takes you and with that kind of power the only question is how could you not?
The only real drawback with DMXIS is that you are limited to 512 channels but I’d imagine that if you’re leaning towards a DMXIS your shows aren’t too big and that will be more than enough.
Scalability becomes an issue when you start using things like LED pixel tape where each pixel has three values and when you have around 30 pixels per meter the universe becomes a much smaller place.
The main difference between Lightjams and DMXIS comes down to third party hardware and the way the VST plug-in sends information.
To use Lightjams, you’ll need to buy a third-party USB to DMX converter. A single universe license combined with the Enttec converter Lightjams actually comes in cheaper than DMXIS, with identical parameter capabilities.
Bear in mind that if you decide to expand to more universes in Lightjams, you’ll need to expand your hardware as well to something like this that can output multiple universes.
Lightjams is designed for pixel mapping, where you treat each fixture as if it is one pixel on a display. This means you can run video content across your rig in an arrangement you’ve mapped out in the software.
Yes, that does mean that if you had 2,073,600 RGB PAR cans and arranged them in a 1,920 x 1,080 configuration you could make the biggest HD display ever.
But I digress; chances are you aren’t looking to pixel map and just want to get a basic rig together.
Lightjams still takes care of that very nicely with the ability to patch intelligent fixtures like moving lights and control those parameters through the software.
There is also a VST plug-in to integrate with your favourite DAW but the important difference to note is that the VST doesn’t generate DMX signal itself like DMXIS does. The plugin sends all timing info (bpm, time signature, etc.) to Lightjams via OSC. This means that whereas DMXIS is programmed within your DAW, Lightjams is programmed separately and then set to respond from commands to your DAW or MIDI pad.
This doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, at the end of the day you’re getting DMX out of the same USB port but where it does matter is that Lightjams is (currently) Windows only meaning that if you’re a Mac DAW user you’ll have to have a VM running Lightjams and you could potentially run into connection issues between the two.
The software however, is feature-packed including a virtual VU level converter to allow you to visualise your sound over the lighting rig.
There are also 64 configurable knobs you can control as parameters from your DAW and use the values in Lightjams.
Budget-wise, feature-wise and scalability-wise Lightjams is, in my opinion, the best bet on this list with rental options. The price point for the amount of parameters is a big reason for that.
The learning curve, however, might be a bit steeper than DMXIS — particularly for a lighting newbie but there is an active community to help you with any questions you have.
Without a production team or somebody like me, you are limited to what you can accomplish with things like budget and knowledge but it isn’t impossible and if you can get your head around a DAW you can get your head around the best DMX controllers available to producers.
Scalability is the big difference between these options and it’s really down to whether you think you’ll take this any further and might need those extra addresses down the line.
Don’t feel disheartened by that though, because it is absolutely possible to have a high-end production look with limited data availability.
If you’re willing to go for a non-traditional concert look, I’ll be talking about those choices in Pt. 2.
Last update on 2021-10-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API