Bring me back to light

posted by Jeff | Friday, January 5, 2024, 11:44 PM | comments: 0

Much as I expected, my lazy gamer habit with Against The Storm would lead me to focus on other things. Especially after I failed last night, by about two minutes, to close a silver seal (if you know, you know). Naturally I turned back to lighting.

My MA Lighting dealer is still putting delivery of new MA3 onPC consoles in late March, which seems like a long time. Yes, technically I can program anything in the software right now, and view it in 3D in the app, but designing a rig is a lot easier in other software intended to do that sort of thing. That's an interesting thing, because the pro-est of pros use some CAD software that costs hundreds of dollars per month to use, so that's a non-starter for someone learning. There's an alternative that seems easier to use that starts at 395€, which isn't terrible, but it limits you to just one universe of lights (512 channels). That's probably fine for learning use, though the console I'm getting supports 8-ish universes (4,096 parameters). To get more than four, it costs 2195€. None of it's necessary for me to learn, fortunately, and there's a free version that won't export lights, but it will export stage objects.

What's cool about the MA and ETC consoles is that almost everything in the interface, including everything outside of the core buttons, is customizable. The high-end ETC consoles actually have buttons that have tiny screens in them, assignable to anything. Both have screens of various sizes next to buttons, faders and the encoders so you can see what they're doing contextually. The more expensive they are, the more parameters they can control (they're kinda like DMX channels, but the tilt on a moving light technically uses two channels, but it's one parameter). That's why the top end of the range of those products are so expensive. It breaks down like this:

  • Both platforms top out around $80,000+ and can run 20,480 parameters or more with external processors. They have many, many touch screens integrated into the console, and non-trivial computers inside.
  • There are in-between models that have fewer screens, fewer faders, around $30,000, and run fewer parameters.
  • There are versions with no screens, but still have computers in them, and they're between $10k and $14k.
  • Then there are the "bring your own computer" solutions that plug into control surfaces via USB. The strategies are a little different.
    • At the lowest end for ETC, you can run 1,024 parameters with just the software on your computer for about $550, but that includes no output hardware. If you want a programming wing, that's another $4k, and if you also want faders, that's at least $1,800 more. If you want 6,144 parameters instead of 1,024, spend $1,700 instead of $550.
    • MA's cheapest option is about $2k to run 4,096 parameters (you can see the competitive math there) on your computer, and that includes a box with two DMX outputs. Instead of the $2k box, you can get a fader wing with 10 faders for about $4k, or if you want all of the buttons and the faders, that's about $7k (that's what I'm saving/waiting for).

So what are the compromises? If you're worried about portability, it's certainly a little goofy to have the console, which is really just a control surface, plus a computer, plus at least one touch screen. You also don't get all of that contextual stuff right in the console on the little screens and screen-backed buttons. What I've seen in photos and videos is that people will position at least one touch screen over the console, so that the rotary encoders at the top line up with the four graphical representations at the bottom of the screen. If you have a large screen or multiple, you can put one over the faders so you can see what they're assigned to. Beyond that, you can organize any of the windows any way you want on various screens, just as you would on the "real" consoles. It's a little hacky, but if it's between $7k and $80k with the same software under the hood, I imagine you figure out how to make it work.

It's cumbersome to program on a laptop, though I think if I could remember the keyboard shortcuts, it might be easier. Certainly a real control surface, which is the thing is that I'm getting, is a lot easier with dedicated buttons. There's basically a language that MA3 (as well as the ETC EOS line) uses, where you form sentences to do stuff. So "Fixture 1 Thru 5" selects fixtures 1 through 5, as you might expect. But what's really tactile is the rotary encoders, the wheels on the console that contextually change attributes like dimming, panning and tilting, color values, etc. Mouse dragging or scrolling on just the right thing is clumsy. Certainly running a show would feel more natural with physical buttons and faders.

My frustration now, even when I'm using a touch screen, is that you have to constantly push the "buttons" button on screen to show the virtual buttons ordinarily found on the console. It's awkward because you fill the screen temporarily with buttons and can't see the thing that you were doing.

But now that I'm getting a feel for how to get around, I'm starting to go back and read more of the manual. I can't always apply what I read, but when I'm messing around I end up with little gaps and it doesn't behave the way that I think it should. I will say that if I had to program a show on MA3 for basic theater, i.e., not with moving lights, I'd be totally comfortable doing that. Heck, I did that on far cruder equipment in community theater in the late 90's! It was still DMX back then. Still, looking forward to real hardware, even if it is the junior varsity version.


No comments yet.

Post your comment: