Evolution of Modern Lighting Control Consoles

This summer I'm working on a ".1" update to my book Show Networks and Control Systems, which was released five years ago. I'm not adding new chapters or anything, but instead updating various technology versions and parameters (adding USB 3 to the USB section, etc), photos, and so on. I'm also reviewing all the text (actually I used text to speech from my phone to read me my book while storm chasing earlier this year) to put things into an updated context, and in the process stumbled across this sentence:

"Lighting control consoles fall into four basic categories (of course, like anything else, the lines between the categories are often blurry): multi-scene preset, sub-master-based rock-and-roll/club consoles, fully computerized systems, and moving-light controllers."

I wrote this a long time ago and last visited the wording five years ago. I mostly work in sound these days, but worked in lighting in the 80's and 90's and still generally track the lighting market; this sentence doesn't make so much sense any more. So to be sure, I posted on Facebook, tagged a few lighting expert friends, and got some great feedback.  I asked this question, "...it seems that console worlds are merging. Is that true? Is there a meaningful difference between a "theatre" console today and a "rock and roll" or "moving light" console?" (oh and I checked with all of them to make sure I could share their comments here):

Richard Cadena, author of books on entertainment lighting and electricity, wrote back first:

Yes, you're right. There is now little distinction between consoles. Most high end consoles deal well with moving lights and color changers, and the old school conventional lights on a dimmer are nothing more than a single-parameter light. The old days where there was a moving light programmer and a conventional light programmer are quickly fading to black.

Rob Baxter, production electrician and creator of the Pocket Console added:

This is true...and I think driven as much or more by the advent of multi-parameter LED fixtures than the desire for merging of dmx dimming with mover control. Sometimes, it is still preferable to keep incandescent dimming separate, especially in broadcast or film environments, but with tungsten and SCR dimming going the way of the dodo, this will become less and less the case as old style dimming only consoles die due to lack of sales and less need.

Lighting programmer Paul Sonnleitner added:

I remember a time when even in concert touring, there was a separate lighting console for dimmers, and another for scrollers, when used. But there's no real difference in 2017, and certainly a lot less of a difference than there was in 1985. Your observations are correct.

I think this shift has two different causes. First, with consoles like the WholehogII and the GrandMA came flexibility in what could be stored on a "handle." The days where one needed to store a single look per fader disappeared when one could store a chase, a cuelist, an effect, or a submaster as easily as a look on a fader.

Second, I think in general designers have relinquished a bit of control to the programmer. I have myriad designers who needn't ever see a console screen, or when they do, prefer a magic-sheet style view as opposed to a column of numbers. There's an advantage to looking only at the stage and not a monitor for them, and it's as easy to say "take the backlight up two points" as it is to look at a screen, see the value of the backlight is at fifty percent, for example, and say "take group 14 up to 70 percent."

I'm going to disagree with Rob above. This shift has little to do with LEDs or any other fixture type. I haven't separated dimmers and automated fixtures onto different consoles in about 20 years.

I will venture to say that modern console flexibility allows me to program "rock and roll" and television a lot more theatrically in a cuelist-style scenario while still allowing easy access to other handles on the fly. Even the lighting process has adapted to a single platform. 

Rob Baxter responded

I also concur with Paul's thoughts on it as well re: LEDs not driving people to moving consoles, per se, but away from straight up cue-2-cue consoles. It's just too much stuff to control old-style. As for multiple consoles, that actually depends now more on the size and geography of the show than the gear being driven. Some designers or large live layouts lend themselves to additional programmers based on who has what lights and where in the rig, like stage fixtures vs. arena lighting or washes and LEDs vs. framing fixtures. Every show creates it's own control parameters basically, some moreseo than others.

My Citytech colleague John Robinson who also runs lighting for Broadway shows said:

The last show I ran on Broadway that had separate moving light and conventional consoles opened six years ago. Everything since then has been a single console doing everything. There might be a few shows opening with the traditional setup depending on the programmer/designer and the show's needs.

As others have commented, I think the proliferation of multi-parameter channels/fixtures such as LEDs and cheaper moving lights has helped move a lot of the lower-end consoles to add some features that used to only be found in moving light consoles. Something like adding a color picker, pixel mapper, and the need for presets/palettes changed the entire interface.

Access to lower cost touchscreens, USB playback wings and USB facepanels has made PC-based software much more usable and accessible to a wider market. Adding virtual magic sheets and an OSC connection has allowed programmers to create custom console interfaces, expanding what used to be a very rigid limitation by the face panel into some pretty flexible setups. I'm impressed by what some people who have grown up with touchscreens everywhere are coming up with for programming interfaces for mid-range consoles.

There are still some consoles out there that are horrible for busking, so they'll never end up being used for a live show, but those will eventually go away.

Former student and now Local 1 electrician Ben Granucci added:

As the field has seemed to narrow to 2 major players* over the past 5 years (Eos family and GrandMA 2) so have the lines between what they can do. Sure Eos is still the "theater" board and MA is still the "rock & roll" board, but in a lot of cases it has really come down to programmer preference. 

Both ecosystems are mature at this point, but neither is showing signs of obsolescence. At least on the Eos side, that means that a lot of the focus is on adding features that were traditionally on the "other" side. There has been a huge focus recently on adding "busking" abilities, something that has traditionally been a weakness of "theater" boards. 

(*That isn't to say there aren't plenty of other players, they're all just splitting a relatively small amount of the market these days it seems)

Lighting Designer and fellow Yale Drama School alumnus York Kennedy added:

I think yes. They are converging and the addition of multiple touch screens seems wonderful. Of course I am never the one touching them but the speed at which we can program very complex sequences now is just wonderful. For me the great improvement is that the consoles really have the fixture profiles ready to go and also that a fixtures features can be accessed so quickly now! It's really getting to be quite exciting. I just did a large opera with four acts and only used 12 movable, LED back lights. All that cable and power gone! And now with so much flexibility right at the desk. Another great addition is that the ETC consoles can send the data right to my assistants laptop live, Real time, as we program. Thank you John McKernon and ETC. Truly wonderful.

And from Canada, Mike Glasspool says:

I recently did a lighting design for a small show - theatrical where I used a lot of techniques I typically used in rock and roll and busking shows to build it. Going through and programming the show was much faster and then onsite (1 day prior to show day) I was able to adjust for reality. It was a fairly great experience. I used MagicQ for it. Saved the show a lot of money and meant I could do a lot of the work ahead of time. I literally went from load in to a quick focus then a full run through in the same day.

And Chris Ashworth of Figure 53 reminds me via twitter that many lighting systems today are run from totally software-based solutions:

 

So it seems my lighting section needs some updating...

p.s. I've been doing this long enough that I'm still kind of impressed that I can post this on FB and get answers within hours--with all the problems of social media it's still pretty amazing.