Monday, 3 October 2016

in which I try DMX lighting with a MacBook Air


For the last of the current series of FANS shows it looked as if we'd have no lights. Everywhere else we'd had proper lighting rigs, including 8 metre motorised gantries and movable LED systems. For the last show, we'd maybe have a few house lights. On wall switches. In a cupboard.

I decided to see whether it would be possible to create a small DMX rig from scratch, using a few LED fixtures and my MacBook Air. There wasn't really time to get to grips with a portable DMX console, and I really wanted something that would provide drag-and-drop user definable lighting.

Fortunately, there's a few programs around for this and the one I hastily selected is called Lightkey. It does the job in pretty much the way I'd want it to. You define the fixtures, set them up on a 512 channel DMX grid, define presets for them and then drag the presets onto buttons to control the lights. It even gives a usable pictorial representation of the design.

For this show, it was all about inexpensive fixtures, so I hit up Amazon and got most of the bits based upon the comments in the reviews of the cheapest LED PAR style lighting.

The front four PAR64 individually addressable lights were about £16 each and to that I added a couple of budget LED PAR partybars, which even included the full tripod. This was definitely a case of reading the specs carefully before buying anything to sure that they would do what was required.

Add a few bulk purchased 2 metre DMX connector cables, a couple of 20m DMX cables, some 5 metre kettle leads and the various adapters to go from 5 pin (stage)to 3 pin (domestic) DMX and it was almost ready for business. Oh yes, and a USB to DMX converter.

I could then sketch out a lighting design on the Mac, before we even got to the venue. We honestly set up the whole rig in about 20 minutes, including around 45 lighting cues I'd pre-programmed in, including some fancy loop sequences.

If I'd had more time to learn the software, we could have done even better, but the first time we'd connected the software, USB-DMX dongle and lights together was the evening before the show. It still worked fantastically well, creating lighting that was well beyond the switch-on switch-off level. Note to self to bring a bigger power adapter for the MacBook though.

I've been idly looking at proper DMX consoles, but honestly think a Midi-style button set such as a Novation LaunchPad might be a better and kind of more modern option.

And going forward, a couple of inexpensive moving head lights would really add something creating a complete kit for smaller and pop-up venues.

Now, about the next show?

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