Why is Automation for Concerts Worth It?


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Please forgive if this is too basic a question. We're a touring band, and people have suggested software to automate our lights. I don't see how this is realistic except for large venues. (We play medium-sized shows of 1,000 - 4,000 sized, and sometimes festivals at 8K+.) Currently, we usually travel with a dedicated lighting designer, and wouldn't trade him for the world. I can see programming specific cues, and adapting them for each show - but not automating the whole show. As with sound, even with the best tech, every show is different, and skilled designers continually adapt their design to performance, band and audience, tweaking everything in real-time.

Logistically, there seem to be problems with full automation, too…

Coffee Shops (0-30)
No lights.

Pubs (30-100 people)
There’s often only a handful of lights, and wide disparity in terms of what you get. Support for external lighting controllers isn’t consistent.

Mini Venues (100-500)
Pretty much limited to what they have, and they may not be set up for external lighting controllers. You don’t have the budget to request the lights in your rider, and you’re probably not bringing your own backline.

Small Venues (500-1000)
Similar situation to mini venues.

Medium Venues (1,000 - 4,000)
You could ask for the lights you need on the rider - that’s expensive. Then, of course, you need a skilled lighting designer to design, configure, hang and focus those lights before the show - and I think you really need to bring your own person to do that. At that point, you’ve hired a lighting designer to take on the road with you, so you would ostensibly want a dedicated lighting control system software package and interface hardware. You’d still probably want a skilled lighting designer to run the show, even if some of the cues are automated - there’s still too much variation for complete automation - the lighting design (if automation is used) needs to be tweaked for every venue, and you’ll still want to run stuff like follow-spots manually.

Larger Venues (4,000 - 8,000)
Your rider specifics the lights you need, and they are there when you arrive at the venue. One person can set them up, but your own lighting will need the help of the house tech(s) to get everything set up in time (hopefully for soundcheck). If you’re running any automation, it still needs to be adapted every night.

Large Venues (8,000 +)
You bring your own backline, and a large crew assembles them. At this point, sure, you can automate a lot. (Though when we've played shows like this, it's festivals, and the last thing we want to do is start messing with hanging lights - these are one-off shows. Our designer will run with whatever is set up.)
Think about an arena or stadium tour. The lighting travels in semi trucks and are set up to be the same every night. Before the tour started a few weeks were spent in rehearsals to get every song cued. The lighting designer hands over the reigns to a lighting director to handle running the lighting desk for the tour. Sometimes the director has some creative freedom other times they will focus the lights daily but only run the cues that were created with the designer. If the band is playing to track the creative team might choose to sync the lighting cues to timecode. This allows tighter timing than any director could hope to achieve for a long tour. The touring director may still have some hits or bumps to add in as needed but the bulk of the cues will be running from timecode.
Well there are 2 types of "automation", one behing a generic term for the type of light that pans/tilts, changes color, etc.....but I think you are talking about a cued show, that doesnt allow spontaneity of the lighting responding to potential changes in how songs are played, in what order, etc.. Most good touring directors or designers are prepared to be flexible in how a set list evolves during a performance, and if a song is played differently night to night. Part of that is having those automated lights that allow easy changes to be made if the band layout changes, or the set changes or has parts cut due to venue variations. Other tools are a console that has mutlitudes of looks and features that allow flexibility and ease of what is known as "busking". The variability in the craft and design is what makes so many touring LD's so good at what they do, as you are aware with your own LD.

I dont think many LD's try to pre-cue any show end to end. They have many groups of looks that each song uses and they can easily (with the right console) have a changing set list. Generally a band may not change much how a song is played unless somebody is doing an extended solo section, but thats easy to deal with. Changing tempo and moving sections just confuses all the other musicians as to wondering "whats next". Some bands are/where good at this, Grateful Dead comes to mind.

Having a good busking desk (think GrandMA) can be crucial for an LD trying to acheive a good production night after night as it allows consitincy as to what the show will look like. Some LD's are not so lucky to have a travelling desk and instead learn to deal with whatever desk a venue provides and that then needs to be learned by the LD. That can cause real headaches and inconstancy in the look of the show,
A slightly different take from someone who supplies audio and flown LX...

A lot of acts carry a ground package of lights and visual FX that are triggered from the computer running the click track for the drummer (and any audio 'sweetening' that goes with). One of my LX guys got a tour with an act when he fixed all the stuff that was failing with their owned LX rig.

There was a shop in NashVegas that was putting these things together. Meant to be "bus and trailer friendly" and was supposed to just work. Not sure what the failure modes were but I suspect failing cables and then fiddly fingers in the software, because the band or its 1 tech person were setting it up and taking it down.
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My guess is that any band that improvises even a little (or a lot....think Phish, Tedeschi Trucks Band, My Morning Jacket, etc.) have some pre-written cues for each song, then a variety of hot keys or macros that can be layered on top if/when the band goes on an extended improvisation section (audience blinders, sizzles, snap-to center, fan-out, strobe, etc.0
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Here’s the opinion of a festival designer:
I’ve seen a lot of designers come through my festivals with a lot of different acts. Their shows have ranged from punt shows off of my house files, up to fully automated time code shows.
Regardless of how the shows are played-back (punt, operator driven cues, time code), most visiting LDs will do a combination of Partial Show Read, Fixture Replace, and/or Cloning to make their show work with my rig.
Essentially, they will divide their virtual rig into spots, washes, beams, and other types of lights. Then, with the help of my knowledge of the house rig, they will decide which of my fixtures are the closest to their fixtures. Lighting Consoles will then translate attribute information from the virtual fixtures to the physical fixtures, resulting in as close of a facsimile of the original design as possible. Of course, certain things like positions and colour mixing have to be fine tuned manually.
What I’m getting at here is that today’s consoles (with the help of skilled LD’s and board ops) can handle differences in rigs fairly well. Obviously, special effects may fall victim to smaller, less diverse rigs, but your main lighting looks and cues should translate across most sized rigs.
With this in mind, playback method (automation or manual control) isn’t influenced so much by the size of the rig, but by the complexity of the design. Designs with more frequent cues and when synchronicity with audio and video (through use of TC and click tracks) is important should be automated when technology, time, and budget allow.

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