Control/Dimming Lighting Control with a Laptop

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Dec 16, 2010
Location
Buffalo, New York
In the past few years, I have heard a great deal about mobile computers being an option for show control. Using programs such as Light-Jockey or High End's Hog3PC on a laptop, patched into one's dimming system and lighting fixtures.

Most lighting companies now provide Windows compatible software, which emulates the Operating System of their most popular consoles. Looking into such possibilities, I have spent a great deal of time downloading such programs from every vendor of which I could think (GrandMA, 3PC, ETC, Chamsys, ect.). Using these as emulators, enable to gain a better understanding of each machine's abilities and kinks, has been invaluable while using my home desktop. Now I am certain that I want to use such programs in real-time, to control live lights and other show components. I know that this is possible through the use of DMX to USB widgets/nodes, but I am not entirely sure as to how. As I have already said, I have only used these programs as mere emulators on a desktop so far.

I would expect that the computer would need a high buffer rate and overall good processing abilities enable to control lights live, during a show. As my desktop sometimes slows noticeably when only running the software for emulation/programming purposes. But, I could be wrong.

I pose two questions for CB:

How would I go about setting up a laptop as a console replacement?

AND

What would be a recommended laptop for such a task?


Thanks in advance, to any CB member who can help me out here.
 

derekleffew

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First, I've changed the thread title from "Show Control with a laptop" to "Lighting Control with a laptop" as show control implies inter-departmental communication.

For the most part, the speed of the computer doesn't much matter. Even the slowest of computers is capable of transmitting DMX512 (or DMX over ethernet) with the appropriate dongle which actually does the transmission work. Each manufacturer will have specific minimum requirements for the computer, as well as requirements for the dongle. ETC has taken the stance that there's no way to control lights without one of their consoles. Hog3, Maxxzy, Vista, and grandMA: you must have one of their proprietary interfaces. ChamSys is a little more forgiving, but to use some connectivity features, you must have at least one piece of their hardware.

Now for the soapbox:
Programming and operating lights from a personal computer with a QWERTY keyboard and mouse (even if equipped with touchscreens) is NEVER preferable to having a dedicated control surface. It can be done, but will be slower and less efficient. Some things cannot be done, such as manually fading one group of lights down while another fades up, in different times. So if you're planning on using an "onPC" solution, be sure to budget for the appropriate fader wing/programming wing/playback wing that most manufacturers offer.

Be aware also that any computer in a show-critical mission should have the minimal OS install, only the lighting application, and never be connected to the Internet. In other words, a unitask device that can't be used for anything other than controlling lighting.
 
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gafftaper

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One place I work fairly regularly is running Champsys MagicQ on a Windows XP laptop that must 7+ years old and around 500-800mhz. We have no problems at all with it.

Agreeing with Derek, PC based solutions should only be thought of as temporary. Yes you can do it this way but some of the simplest things are not possible without the ability to operate multiple things at the same time. If you want to buy your way gradually into a system, then there's a lot of power in something like MagicQ and adding a fader wing later. If you are doing this because you think it's a cool solution that will work just as well as a dedicated console, think again. It's just not that great of a user experience. Yes adding fader wings makes things better but even then it's just not the same as having a real console in front of you.

That said, I disagree a little with Derek in that there is a lot of potential power in mouse and keyboard interface during programming if designed well. My primary console at work is a Strand Classic Palette. At this point I use the mouse about 75% of the time and the keypad about 25% when programming. The mouse is really fast for selecting channels and tweaking values. However when it's show time, I IMMEDIATELY put my mouse down and go for my real faders, subs, and buttons. Playing back a show with a PC interface is really a pain unless you have EVERYTHING recorded into a cue stack.
 

TimMiller

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Personally I like the hog3pc. There is lots of room for expansion you can add as many dmx universes as you want along with the programming and multiple fader wings. All of their console hardware is compatible with the pc and vice versa. Also another cool thing is if some one wants to run their hog2 show you just load up the program and away you go. If you keep an eye out on the Highend forums you can usually find someone who is selling the widget (USB to single universe of dmx) DP-2000 (4 universes of dmx) or the DP-8000 (8 universes of dmx) along with the programming and fader wings) also you can update the software in Highend's lights using the widget.
 

metti

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Sorry about the other post. Seriously though, I am a pretty die hard MagicQ user and I have also used 3PC and Vista. Vista, which I don't really like anyway, is the only one that is even remotely user friendly without a control surface. Chamsys, is relatively affordable, even with a wing. The Maxi Wing is nice but pretty expensive however the PC Wing can be combined with an X-Keys for a relatively affordable setup that is still incredibly powerful.
 
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I'm definitely not trying it on as any "cool" solution. Hell, if price wasn't an option, and I wanted a cool solution, I'd probably go overkill and buy a Chamsys 3000 console for everything. But, Lo and behold, I am still a college student, and can barely afford the laptop...let alone lights and dimming boxes. So... I need this solution. I work with a Hog III at the theatre I work at, and I'm also fully aware of the advantages being able to use my hands has over a mouse.

Although I really like Chamsys boards, I feel as if the interface for their software is a little bit more complicated than necessary. So, software wise, I would have to say I like 3PC the best and will probably go with that. I still have a question though. Nobody has been able to explain to me how I would go about setting up my laptop (via widget? or something?) to control lighting. And I sorry if that sounds silly, but I just haven't learned that yet.
 

CrisCole

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An interesting side note: During a trip to Cleveland, I noticed one of the playhouses had an iPad that was connected to a console.

It was a very strange setup. The LD would paint with light on some program, and then plug in the board via USB and fiddle with it.

It seemed like the light board replaced a keyboard.

I'm totally clueless about this. Maybe I'm crazy...

Anyone heard of such a thing?
 

derekleffew

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...So, software wise, I would have to say I like 3PC the best and will probably go with that. I still have a question though. Nobody has been able to explain to me how I would go about setting up my laptop (via widget? or something?) to control lighting. And I sorry if that sounds silly, but I just haven't learned that yet.
Now that you've responded that you prefer the HogIII OS, we can answer the other question. You buy a Widget (one universe) or Super Widget (4 Univ.), plug it into a USB port, and you're in business. (Let's ignore the DP2000's, DP8000's, and other Art-Net and DMX over ethernet solutions for now.)

If you need assistance, I'm sure the fine folks over at High End Discussion Forums can help.

Another soapbox:
WHY do you feel it necessary to own your own lighting console and possibly dimmers? Are you going into the lighting rental business? Do you want to become such a renowned programmer (like axislights--he's spoken elsewhere on the economics of owning one's own console), that you require people to hire you AND rent the console from you?

As a student, I think your time and money would be better spent buying and learning a visualizer and using the free OLE console software; rather than buying a dongle/widget/hardware that allows you to actually control lights.
 
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len

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What would be a recommended laptop for such a task?


Thanks in advance, to any CB member who can help me out here.
The requirements lie within the chosen software documentation. Whichever one you choose there will be a minimum recommended OS, memory, hard drive, etc. As for actual operation, and which hardware, see above answer. They're all different. Some use a generic box, some require a purpose built product only available through a mfg. authorized dealer. Since you've already been playing around with them on your desktop, transferring and setting up on a notebook should be easy.
 
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I have also been gathering a small amount of used lighting fixtures (mainly conventional). Hopefully I will be able to rent out the equipment and service to smaller bands in my local area. If not for the money, then simply to build upon my resume.

As far as renowned programmer, I would like to consider myself a pretty competent computer programmer (knowing Unix, python, Dos, some pearl, and working on C++) and hopefully my ability to quickly and efficiently program lighting consoles will grow with time.

One further question. Say I am NOT entirely sure as to what software I prefer overall yet? Technology is very dynamic, and new versions may pop up at any moment. If I buy a High End one universe widget, would it not work with GrandMA or Chamsys software?
 

derekleffew

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FMEng

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I have also been gathering a small amount of used lighting fixtures (mainly conventional). Hopefully I will be able to rent out the equipment and service to smaller bands in my local area. If not for the money, then simply to build upon my resume.

As far as renowned programmer, I would like to consider myself a pretty competent computer programmer (knowing Unix, python, Dos, some pearl, and working on C++) and hopefully my ability to quickly and efficiently program lighting consoles will grow with time.

One further question. Say I am NOT entirely sure as to what software I prefer overall yet? Technology is very dynamic, and new versions may pop up at any moment. If I buy a High End one universe widget, would it not work with GrandMA or Chamsys software?
I'm no expert, but I have done more than a little concert lighting. It seems to me that PC control would be totally un-suited to the use. I could see using PC control in theater, where you could record cues and just play them back. For concerts, the lighting is totally on the fly, and you need real buttons and faders to manage that.

If I were you, I'd be searching for a good, used, small console. It'll probably cost less than the PC, software, and DMX interface.
 

ibennetch

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The Maxi Wing is nice but pretty expensive however the PC Wing can be combined with an X-Keys for a relatively affordable setup that is still incredibly powerful.
Hope I'm not hijacking the thread, but I'm curious about this. Mind sharing more information about using the X-Keys with MagicQ? Is the software aware of the X-Keys device or does it just emulate keyboard keystrokes? I haven't seen much information for getting it to work though I have seen a few casual mentions of people who use it.
 

len

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I have also been gathering a small amount of used lighting fixtures (mainly conventional). Hopefully I will be able to rent out the equipment and service to smaller bands in my local area.
Your area may be different than Chicagoland, but you won't make much doing that. Small bands, etc., barely get paid anything. A typical bar band maybe makes $200 - $500 a night, if they're EXTREMELY lucky and can draw 200. Which means a 4 piece band makes $50 - $100 a person. And to pay a lighting person out of that ... well, you can see where that's going. To get into venues that can handle 500 +, you'll need bigger stuff, and you'll need a contract with the venue, where the talent will forward you a rider and you'll have to deal with their varying demands every show. I don't mean to discourage, but the reality is that rock and roll lighting is a big money business or no business.
 

metti

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Hope I'm not hijacking the thread, but I'm curious about this. Mind sharing more information about using the X-Keys with MagicQ? Is the software aware of the X-Keys device or does it just emulate keyboard keystrokes? I haven't seen much information for getting it to work though I have seen a few casual mentions of people who use it.
There are keystrokes that correspond to every standard button on the Chamsys boards and you can assign these to the X-Keys. There are numerous people out their with similar setups. For the keys themselves, you can use the DIY labels that come with the X-Keys or you can use the actual keys caps that they use on the Chamsys boards if you can get a dealer to sell you a set.
 

TimMiller

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Have you looked into any of the avolites consoles? Their smaller consoles are pretty affordable and when it comes to doing concerts I prefer running everything off the avo then running the media servers and such off the hog3 but when it comes to theater I prefer the hog or the vista. The vista takes some getting used to but it's a very powerful system. It programs your show in a timeline rather than a cue list. I like to use the vista in dance shows because you can program right along with the timeline on the cd (you can load all of your music into the console and let it play the music and run the light cues based off of marks you put on the time line). Works really well for those extremely picky choreographers.
 
Joined
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Location
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An interesting side note: During a trip to Cleveland, I noticed one of the playhouses had an iPad that was connected to a console.

It was a very strange setup. The LD would paint with light on some program, and then plug in the board via USB and fiddle with it.

It seemed like the light board replaced a keyboard.

I'm totally clueless about this. Maybe I'm crazy...

Anyone heard of such a thing?


Luminair (DMX lighting control) for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the iTunes App Store
 

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