Retrofitting Theatre Lighting Gear

Ryan S

Member
Hi Controlbooth,

I wanted to pose this situation to you experts. Let's say you've been given around $15,000-25,000 to retrofit a lighting setup at a high school. What would you buy? What would you avoid?

Our school has been using old Lekos and Strand PARs for the past decade or so. We have a new ETC dimmer rack, but our fixtures are sadly lacking. We rent movers and Source 4s to support our inventory for each show.

Our theatre is relatively large: I've attached an image with our groundplan so there can be a better understanding of the space. Feel free to ask any questions you may have, too.

Before we pull the trigger on anything, what advice or reccomendations can you give to help us out?

Thank you so much.
 

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Blacksheep0317

Active Member
First I would list out what your needs are. What do you do over year? 1 drama, 1 musical, 12 school concerts, rentals... Do you do enough events to consider putting together a rep plot and keeping it hung? Long term capitol plans that may include green incentives and moving away from conventional fixtures?

If your already renting gear, thats usually a good place to start looking what you need. Is there something that you find yourself renting every order? If so, thats most likely going to be close to the top of your buy list.

Other wise, start with basics and build out.

Always question one, what do you have enough power for?

Personally, if it was me, I would start with putting together a decent wash, including top, side, and key lighting. You know that any time the stage is used, and most of the time, it will at some point need an even white light somewhere, if not everywhere. If there was anywhere I would suggest getting LED to start mixing into a dimmer based system, its here. If you can spend a bit and get decent color mixing units, you can even skip my next bit.

Now, add some color systems

So where did that leave you? What do you need? What do you have? (dimmers, fixtures, cabling, etc)

After you know what you want to see on stage, decide if you have the ability to control it. Can your console handle as many channels as you need? Can you scale up if you bring in supplemental gear? Is it a good console for teaching on and is the workflow good for what your doing? Personally, ETC has always been my go to for education, and the keystrokes are pretty well carried over through generations of desks so its a valuable skill to have (honestly the programming I learned on the ETC Express in middle/high school is where I learned most of the programming I use in our 3000 cap room today still)

Ultimatly, only you can truly determine your needs based on what you use. I would take a hard look at what your bringing in as supplement, and consider that as a good starting point. Or ask the guys that you are getting the gear from. As much as they may be the guys trying to sell you something, they are also the ones who see your space with a clear eye and reference from other places.
 

josh88

Remarkably Tired.
Fight Leukemia
Add to that, what kind of board do you have to control everything, what do you WANT to do? has renting what you rent allowed you to accomplish what you want to do, or does it leave you wishing you could do more still?
 

Ryan S

Member
First I would list out what your needs are. What do you do over year? 1 drama, 1 musical, 12 school concerts, rentals... Do you do enough events to consider putting together a rep plot and keeping it hung? Long term capitol plans that may include green incentives and moving away from conventional fixtures?

If your already renting gear, thats usually a good place to start looking what you need. Is there something that you find yourself renting every order? If so, thats most likely going to be close to the top of your buy list.

Other wise, start with basics and build out.

Always question one, what do you have enough power for?

Personally, if it was me, I would start with putting together a decent wash, including top, side, and key lighting. You know that any time the stage is used, and most of the time, it will at some point need an even white light somewhere, if not everywhere. If there was anywhere I would suggest getting LED to start mixing into a dimmer based system, its here. If you can spend a bit and get decent color mixing units, you can even skip my next bit.

Now, add some color systems

So where did that leave you? What do you need? What do you have? (dimmers, fixtures, cabling, etc)

After you know what you want to see on stage, decide if you have the ability to control it. Can your console handle as many channels as you need? Can you scale up if you bring in supplemental gear? Is it a good console for teaching on and is the workflow good for what your doing? Personally, ETC has always been my go to for education, and the keystrokes are pretty well carried over through generations of desks so its a valuable skill to have (honestly the programming I learned on the ETC Express in middle/high school is where I learned most of the programming I use in our 3000 cap room today still)

Ultimatly, only you can truly determine your needs based on what you use. I would take a hard look at what your bringing in as supplement, and consider that as a good starting point. Or ask the guys that you are getting the gear from. As much as they may be the guys trying to sell you something, they are also the ones who see your space with a clear eye and reference from other places.

Thank you for this advice. We put on 2 dramas, a musical, and about 20 concerts.

We've attempted to keep a rep plot, but with each individual show needing a unique setup, it's been a challenge.

As we move ahead, I'll continue to ask these questions.
 

Ryan S

Member
Add to that, what kind of board do you have to control everything, what do you WANT to do? has renting what you rent allowed you to accomplish what you want to do, or does it leave you wishing you could do more still?

We have a Philips Pallete Strand Board. We'd like to greatly improve our lighting setup -- a 2 to 10x improvement what we have at the current moment. Renting leaves us wishing we could do more still.

One of my main questions is this: is our budget enough to scale up to LED's? Would the LED's in our price bracket not be as reliable as conventional (tungsten) fixtures?
 

Blacksheep0317

Active Member
With the schedule you have, I would focus my attention towards the concerts. So in general we are talking about a single color wash with atleast top and front light.

In a very broad generalization, I would most likely take what conventional lekos I had already with the dimmers and move those to my front light. If possible, I would shoot for at least 16 zones (four rows of four zones) with a SL and SR fixture for a total of 32 fixtures, ideally on 16 circuits. If there is anything left, maybe a couple specials for a conductor or soloists.

For the top light, I would consider looking into LED strip lights. No lamping, no gelling, no dimmers....and they make great work lights for rehearsals and builds. As a bonus, they make perfect cyc lights, foot lights, side booms, effect lights, etc, etc, etc.....come theatre season. Great multitaskers, and although the initial sticker can be a bit pricey, make sure your comparing to the price of larger copper for distribution and dimming, aside from the fact that you are eliminating up to 10 other fixtures with once purchase.

As to quality, TBH the quality that even the bargain end of "pro" LED lines are fantastic compared to even 5 years ago. The higher end Chauvet and Elation stuff may not be as "perfect" as the new ETC stuff, but esp in a situation where the gear is going to be taken care of and not moved around the country on a daily basis, its alright. And frankly, in an educational environment, I would rather have 10 fixtures that weren't quite perfectly color matched, over having 1 thats spot on. No point in having toys if you don'd have enough to make good creative decisions as well. Stay away from Ali Babba and all that stuff...Get a brand name piece of gear and decent cables, and you will be fine. What kills most LEDs is lack of PM. Maintain your gear. Most people forget about fixtures unless they stop working, so with a conventional you knew you were always atleast touching it for lamp changes. And, theres no moving parts! Make sure you get up to all your fixtures on a regular basis. Eventually, you will know your cycle depending on how dirty your space is. The last rock club I was PM for, I had monthly work calls to clean fans and filters in all the electronics back stage. and with 5-7 shows a week in a filthy enviroment, they needed it. But in the theaters I work at, once or twice a year is generally fine. But if those fans get filthy, the lights will die. $5000 or $5, doesnt matter. Same goes for everything else. Those sensor dimmers are dust magnets. Pull your cards out and blow them out and clean your rack doors out ever now and then.

Just remember as your talking to vendors and doing your research, think about next time. Buy stuff that you may need to grow into a bit. Yes, you may look at some strip lights and say "how can I use 24 fixtures that all need 48 channels" right now, but when you move into a better control surface, your options will get even bigger with what you already have. Esp already having a Sensor rack for your dimmers, start considering if you want to move towards ETC for your control. (I would) Keep an eye out on used stuff to as much as you can. Places like usedlighting and the like are always trying to move over stock of conventionals and dimmers that they are phasing out of tours, but are perfectly fine and maintained by great road staff generally. Have you talked to the ulility companies at all yet either? Atleast in NYS there are alot of incentives for public buildings to go greener, and stage houses are notoriously not green. Theres quite a bit of money floating around out there that may help you go LED as well. (try to work the house lights in as well. They love that stuff)

Sidenote, what theatre are we discussing? I seem to remember coming through Denver to a couple school theatres with dance tours over the years.
 

josh88

Remarkably Tired.
Fight Leukemia
We'd like to greatly improve our lighting setup -- a 2 to 10x improvement what we have at the current moment. Renting leaves us wishing we could do more still.

One of my main questions is this: is our budget enough to scale up to LED's? Would the LED's in our price bracket not be as reliable as conventional (tungsten) fixtures?

My question stands though, What do you want to DO? you say improvement, but you dont say what you're wishing you could do. More color washes? more moving specials? Whats is the thing that you keep being dissapointed by? Figuring that out will guide what you need to look into buying.

The problems with LED is control/dimmers/constant power. If you've been renting stuff already then I suppose its safe to assume you've figured out those components already. The "low end" of LED's has come a long way, there's still plenty of crap but there. Its easy to kill a budget your size pretty easily. I would say figure out the few places you really wish you had (insert effect) or what you've rented the most and buy that. That could mean a color wash, movers, strips etc. It sounds like with your schedule, some permanent movers that can be easily refocused for specials might be a good investment, which may allow you to keep more of a rep plot
 

MNicolai

Well-Known Member
Premium Member
Fight Leukemia
You really don't have the budget to do a sweeping overhaul of your inventory for a room that size going toward LED. Especially after you figure in DMX and power cables, lenses, power distribution, etc. Decent LED wash fixtures for lighting people tend to be ~$800/ea, and spot fixtures tend to be $1400-$1800/ea.

You could buy enough LED's to maybe fit out a single catwalk, but I expect you would get more bang for the buck purchasing Source Fours and PAR's, leveraging your existing dimming infrastructure and not putting much burden on your existing console in terms of being able to handle LED's/mover's efficiently. In my experience the Palette is pretty clumsy when it comes to controlling LED fixtures.

I would look at triaging what needs you're addressing through rentals and try to find a way to eliminate throwing that money away. Rentals are great for schools that want to reach higher than they have the equipment for, but it distracts you from investing in your own inventory a couple fixtures at a time.

These are all just generalizations though. Without having an itemized inventory breakdown and description of how your venue is currently fitted out for dimmers/distribution, it's hard to identify what your greatest needs are.
 

RickR

Well-Known Member
Most of my projects wind up with ETC ColorSource fixtures. They seem to be the sweet spot of price, output, quality and the durability that schools love.

Your budget allows for a base wash or down/ back set to take advantage of the color changing.
 

Silicon_Knight

Active Member
You really don't have the budget to do a sweeping overhaul of your inventory for a room that size going toward LED. Especially after you figure in DMX and power cables, lenses, power distribution, etc. Decent LED wash fixtures for lighting people tend to be ~$800/ea, and spot fixtures tend to be $1400-$1800/ea.

You could buy enough LED's to maybe fit out a single catwalk, but I expect you would get more bang for the buck purchasing Source Fours and PAR's, leveraging your existing dimming infrastructure and not putting much burden on your existing console in terms of being able to handle LED's/mover's efficiently. In my experience the Palette is pretty clumsy when it comes to controlling LED fixtures.

Even though instruments in the $400 range might be sufficient (depending on throw, etc.), you still wouldn't get many - and if your'e just now moving to LEDs, you'll likely need a new lighting board which will chew up a few thousand.

Overall, I tend to agree with Nicolai - it seems incredulous that $10-15k wouldn't be enough for an LED retro-fit, but you're liable to be disappointed with the quantity of gear you'll actually get to buy. With that budget, you might get the groundwork laid for future expansion, but you won't change your actual capabilities much for next year.
 

taneglaus

Member
Hi Controlbooth,

I wanted to pose this situation to you experts. Let's say you've been given around $15,000-25,000 to retrofit a lighting setup at a high school. What would you buy? What would you avoid?

Our school has been using old Lekos and Strand PARs for the past decade or so. We have a new ETC dimmer rack, but our fixtures are sadly lacking. We rent movers and Source 4s to support our inventory for each show.

Our theatre is relatively large: I've attached an image with our groundplan so there can be a better understanding of the space. Feel free to ask any questions you may have, too.

Before we pull the trigger on anything, what advice or reccomendations can you give to help us out?

Thank you so much.
Take the money and run...

You'll get a lot of responses on this one but before you can get an answer you must first know to what your addressing. What is your current inventory?
What are your needs?
Do you really need to upgrade?

Going "green" is the big thing and that means LED technology. But it has its strengths and weaknesses. The nice thing is being able to change colors via the lighting console instead of gel frames.

You're probably going to have to get several bids so check with your local lighting shops and have at least 1 guy come on site for an eval. Then he can put together an action plan. And you'll need to establish a working relationship so keep that in mind. Does he truly know what he's talking about? Does he wand to do you right regardless of your budget? Or is he annoy'd?

If you're not familiar with stage lighting, use a consultant (bring me out...). Don't buy from the Internet unless you know exactly what your buying.

I'm in the process of replacing a high school auditoriums lighting to LED stage wash, 2 moving head long throw fixtures, & a new control console.
All of this auditoriums lighting is very old. No fly system. So setting over stage lights & colors meant using a tall ladder or lift. They have 3 electrical batons & back wall wash. 6" Fresnels on the 3 batons & scoops for back wall wash. I added RGBAW+Uv LED wash pars, 10/baton & 6 three meter strips on the back wall. Each has a unique DMX address for max flexibility. (I forget the name for the portholes in the ceiling above the audience where the long throw ERS's are) I left long throw ERS's as is as replacing them with LED fixtures would kill my budget.

The ERS's above the audience are shooting at steeper than 45 degrees so I added a pipe truss on the side walls of the house and hung 6 ERS wash lights on each to shoot at a lower angle...these required 12 additional dimmers.

The DMX channel count before adding the LED's was up to 99, and with all of the LED channels the count is almost up to 500 on a single universe.

So next is a new console with 2 universes (univ 2 for the moving heads). Reviewing our needs vs budget we settled on the Pathway Cogneto2 for $3k.

We've done all this for about $10k with the school providing labor under my supervision.
 

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