LED Fixtures Have Arrived

Almost every fixture in this shot is powered by LEDs...

Almost every fixture in this shot is powered by LEDs...

I remember attending LDI, the big lighting trade show in Vegas, a few years back. We re-named it LEDI because there were LED lights everywhere. That was probably 3 years ago. Back then, LEDs were still either good and really expensive or not good and cheap. Back then, most of the fixtures were simple RGB fixtures that had questionable color mixing, and middling output. White light was typically mixed from RGB and didn’t look good at all. My how things have changed. 

Enter Tri- and Quad-Color LEDs

One of the biggest improvements in LED fixtures is the advent of Tri-Color and Quad-Color LEDs. These fixtures mix the color before it leaves the lens so you don’t get the “dots of color” look from older fixtures. The wattage of LEDs has also gone up. A few years ago, .5-1 Watt LEDs were common, and they got more brightness by putting a lot of them in a fixture. Today, we see higher power quad LEDs; 5W, 10W, 15W and higher are pretty standard.

The prices have also come down. As production has ramped up, costs have dropped. Competition is also up. While there are dozens of cheap, Chinese knockoff brands (most of which I’d stay away from…), all the major manufacturers have been developing their LED lineup. That means there are almost always many options for a particular situation, which is good news. 

Moving Head LEDs

Three years ago, VariLite introduced an LED-powered VL fixture. At the time, it was really expensive, and while it looked good, it wasn’t nearly as bright as their arc-sourced fixtures. All that’s changed. Every major manufacturer now has LED sourced moving heads that are almost as good, and in some cases better than their arc-sourced versions. Because the power and heat loads are lower, the heads are smaller and lighter, which means their faster than ever. And again, costs are coming down to the point where they’re very reasonable.

That all applies to profile-type fixtures, but there are also a ton of simpler moving head LED wash fixtures out there that are really cool. Again, we’re seeing brightness, speed, color mixing and costs that were unheard of just a few years ago. I love putting these into lighting rigs now; they add so much visually, but so little from a budget standpoint. 

And Now, White LEDs

Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have thought we would be moving away from tungsten-sourced ellipsoidal and Fresnel fixtures. But again, here we are. Chauvet, Strand, ETC, Altman and others all have really good white ellipsoidal spots now. So good, in fact, that we haven’t put a single tungsten fixture in a church in over a year. Some of these use a single, custom warm white LED, others mix as many as seven colors to get a nice white. I was unprepared to be impressed with them, but after installing quite a few, I’m pretty much done with changing bulbs. 

These are about the only fixtures that still carry a price premium. While LED ellipsoidal fixtures are still more expensive, they offer great benefits such as not having to change bulbs, lower power consumption, less heat output and a more consistent light field. 

We are in the process of setting up our new warehouse, and when we’re done, we will be bringing in as many white LED fixtures as we can find and shooting them out. Stay tuned for that report. We also plan on doing the same thing for various PAR and wash LED fixtures. I hope to be able to get a bunch of those tests done this spring. 

Now, I’m sure there are some lighting purists out there who will argue that LED fixtures don’t yet have the dimming curve down, or red shift, or some other highly technical parameter that they long for. That may be true. But for the vast majority of applications, LED lights are good enough; more than good enough in most cases. They offer an excellent value proposition and often outperform non-LED fixtures. At long last, I think we can safely say the LED revolution we’ve been waiting for is here.

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Buy with Purpose

Though I’ve been doing this for a long time, now that I’m in the business of helping churches with their technology, I see a lot of depressing things. I’ve lost count of how many churches I walk into and see stacks of mismatched gear lying around, some of it not even connected. When I ask about it, the answers vary, but usually center around the theme of, “Yeah, that didn’t work like we hoped.” I’ve seen stacks of wireless mic receivers, their antennas touching and ask how they work. “Some work OK, but we get a lot of noise, dropouts and some don’t work at all.” Many of these tech booths are just a mess and to be honest, it breaks my heart. I see a lot of money wasted, visions not fulfilled and operator frustration. And most times, it could be avoided.

Beware the Internet

The internet has been a boon to the tech community. The relationships we have not with each other is fantastic and would not have been possible without the old inter-webs. The internet has made it possible for people to learn about products and processes they would otherwise have had a hard time with. It’s even possible to get advice from others. But, and this is a big but, not all the advice is good advice. In fact, I see a lot of really bad advice out there. Well-meaning people, with a very limited scope of knowledge want to help, but often end up steering people in the wrong direction. 

It’s also possible to simply go online and buy gear. Heck, Amazon will just about anything to you in 2 days for free. Again, unless you know what you are buying, you can make a lot of mistakes. Wireless mic’s are an easy example. I’ve found so many churches with wireless mic’s that don’t work because they just bought whatever they found online and didn’t bother to coordinate frequencies. My friend Karl Winkler actually took a support call from a church that didn’t even know the frequencies could be changed; they just used whatever the mic powered up with—until they bought another one on the same frequency. 

I’ve been telling people for years, get a plan together before you start buying stuff. Now that I’m in the business of taking out all this gear that doesn’t work, my resolve for spreading that message is stronger than ever. Don’t waste your church’s money; get some profession help first.

It’s Not More Expensive to Hire Professionals

A lot of churches buy their own gear because they think they are saving money. And maybe they are up front. However, in a few years when the professional is finally called in and all the mismatched, non-working and ineffective gear is taken away and replaced, how much did you really save? Here’s a secret, simple formula for you; 2x > 1x. That is, buying something twice is more expensive than buying something once. I hate telling churches, “Oh, I wish you had called us first before you bought that…” And I hate it not because we lost a sale; I hate it because I see money wasted. Please, call someone first! 

There are dozens of great integrators all over the country who make it their business to stay on top of trends in technology and can give excellent buying advice that I almost guarantee will save you money in the long run. Moreover, you’ll get better results with less frustration. 

This topic has been top of mind for me lately as we’ve been out visiting a lot of churches and I keep seeing the same things over and over. Now that we’re in the new year, with new budgets and everyone is itchy to start buying equipment, do yourself and your church a favor and get some professional advice before running out and buying stuff. It really will cost you less and deliver better results in the long run, I promise!

Roland

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CTA Review: Swisson XTM-120A DMX Measurement Tool

I love finding clever tools that solve problems. A few months back, I found myself trying to troubleshoot a DMX system with no tools. We were installing some new equipment and there were some…problems. All I had with me was a crappy little lighting board that wouldn’t turn the lights on to save our lives. When I got home that night, I started looking for a good DMX testing tool and came across a great one; the Swisson XTM-120. As soon as I saw the description, I thought, “That’s exactly what I need!” It was ordered immediately. That was about 6 months ago, and it’s more than paid for itself in that time. I figured it was time to tell you about this great little tool. 

Four possible states of cable testing; good, crossed, shorted, and open. 

Four possible states of cable testing; good, crossed, shorted, and open. 

It’s a Cable Tester

One of the big things I needed it for was testing the DMX cables. Now, I already have a Rat Sniffer/Sender set for both 3- and 5-pin cables, and while those are really handy, it can be tricky to decode the 3 lights without the chart. And for some reason, I didn’t have the set in my bag that fateful day. The XTM-120 will test the cable from both ends, and it gives you a nice graphical readout to tell you if each pin connection is correct, open or shorted. They thoughtfully include a nice belt pouch with 3- to 5- pin adapters for both genders so you can test all combinations of 3- and 5-pin cables. This little guy has been on my belt more than once when I’m up in a lift troubleshooting lighting rigs. 

While this is built like a tank in a heavy aluminum enclosure with a easy to read LCD screen, if all it did was test cables, it would be hard to justify the price. However, it does more; a lot more.

It’s a DMX Sender

This is probably the thing I used it for the most now that I have it. Connect the XTM-120 to your DMX cable to the stage and in a few button presses, you can send a DMX level to any or all of the 512 channels in a universe. This is incredibly helpful for testing, troubleshooting or verifying fixture patching. It’s also possibly the most convenient RFU (remote focus unit) I’ve ever used. As it fits in the palm of your hand, it’s very easy to take up in the rig, and turn on any or all the lights you’re working on for a quick focus. It would only better if it were wireless (though I suppose you could connect it to a wireless DMX transmitter…hmmm…note to self…).

At the bottom, we see fixture number, type and channel function. 

At the bottom, we see fixture number, type and channel function. 

I’ve used it to verify patching of fixtures, but it can be a bit of a pain to keep track of channel assignments for intelligent fixtures. Thankfully, the bobbins at Swisson thought of that. By connecting the XTM-120 to your Mac or PC, you can download fixture profiles into the unit, then “patch” them to the right addresses. Then, as you scroll through the channels, you’ll see an indication at the bottom of the display which fixture you’re looking at, along with the control (tilt, pan, zoom, color, etc.). They already have profiles for about 240 fixtures, but you can easily download your own. I’m in the process now of creating and loading profiles for fixtures we commonly use.

The software is not beautiful, but it gets the job done. It's not hard at all to create your own fixture profiles. 

The software is not beautiful, but it gets the job done. It's not hard at all to create your own fixture profiles. 

It can also easily select groups of addresses in 3s or 4s. In other words, you can grab every third channel (for all the reds), third plus 1 (greens) or third plus 2 (blue). Same for every fourth chanel. That makes it easy to quickly check your 3 and 4 channel LEDs. So that’s pretty cool, but wait! There’s more!

Multiple ways to view what's going on in your universe.

Multiple ways to view what's going on in your universe.

It’s a DMX Receiver (and More!)

Ever tried to figure out if your fixtures aren’t working right or if it’s the console? You can plug the XTM-120 into the DMX chain and quickly view all the current values of each channel in the universe. Moreover, you can see these values on a channel-by-channel basis, in a table or as a graph. It can also trace a channel, giving you a graph of the channel’s value as it changes over time. You can also evaluate the system’s timing, which is useful for troubleshooting systems that are misbehaving, but you aren’t really sure why. 

It’s a Playback Device

When in Receive mode, it can record all the values in the universe, then store it to a scene. You can then easily play that scene back, or sequence it with other scenes using the sequence mode. In this way, it could function as an emergency backup or even a simple show playback. I’m not sure I would use it for anything elaborate, but it would be a quick way to test a new rig. You could, for example, program a few scenes from the board back at the office, then once the fixtures are in the air, run them through some simple test scenes via the XTM-120 to make sure it’s all patched and working properly. You can also edit the scenes, so if something needs to change on the fly, it’s possible. This is not a lighting console, but it’s cool that you can run simple things with it. 

A spring steel belt clip holds it securely when you're climbing around in the truss.

A spring steel belt clip holds it securely when you're climbing around in the truss.

It’s Well Made

As I said, it’s built like a tank, and mine has already survived a few drops to the floor. I like the belt pouch and use it often. It runs on a single 9V battery, and apparently uses very little current as I’m still on the original battery six months later. You can set the auto-off time to conserve the battery. A micro-USB port will supply power if you need to run it longer, and enables the software connection (now available for both Windows and Mac OS).

The buttons are membrane style, which are probably my least favorite type of button ever, but these aren’t too bad. They are raised up enough that you can find them by feel. The layout is logical and it’s easy to start using quickly. I’ve handed it to a few guys and in every case, they are getting around in just a minute. The display is backlit, and easy to read. 

It’s Not Cheap

If there is a downside to this little gem, it’s the price. You can find them on the internet for about $425, which as I said earlier, is a lot for a cable tester. But since it does so much more, I think it’s worth it. Being able to walk into an unfamiliar venue and immediately start testing fixtures is a huge plus for me. And being able to focus easily in the lift without shouting back to the lighting desk is another huge plus. In 6 months, it’s proven it’s worth and I’m sure we’re just getting started. 

You can learn more at Swisson’s website.

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CTA Review: Sonic Nuance Tuner/DI

I’m not a guitar player, nor do I play one on TV. So when companies want me to evaluate new guitar pedals or other guitar do-dads, I normally decline. I was just about ready to decline this one as well, but I took a closer look at it and decided that it may be worth a look. As a TD, I was always trying to find ways to make my stage cleaner and more efficient. I was also trying to improve the sound whenever possible. So when a box that can accomplish the work of 2 or 3 other boxes shows up—and claims to sound really good to boot—I had to give it a look.

It’s a Tuner!

Almost anyone who plays a guitar on stage will use a tuner (and if you don’t, do us all a favor and get one). Tuners are not fancy or glamorous, but they should tell you when the instrument is in tune and when it’s not. The TDI does that. In addition to a note readout, it also has a 5 LED scale to tell you if you’re on the note or a bit sharp or flat. So far, so good. There’s not much more to say about the tuner; I don’t have a good way to tell if it’s super-accurate or not, but the players that I tested it with it to had no complaints. They were able to get in tune quickly, so that’s good. 

It’s a DI!

Most times when you’re using an acoustic guitar, you’re going to use a DI. That means the player will have a tuner in front of him (which usually needs a 9V power supply because their battery is dead), then you’ll come out of that into a DI. The DI may be active or passive, but either way it requires a second cord. 

The TDI is also a DI. From a stage set up standpoint, this is cool. A single 1/4” cable goes from the guitar to the TDI, and you plug a mic cable into the snake from the TDI. That’s it. Did I mention that the whole thing is phantom powered so it needs no power supply? Yeah, that’s nice, too. 

It’s a Mute!

I feel a little bit like Ron Popeil here; it’s a tuner, it’s a DI, it’s a mute! But wait, there’s more! Actually, that’s it. It mutes the guitar when tuning. The mute switch is a big, beefy model that is chrome plated. I suspect it will last a long time. The only downside is that it’s a bit loud. We used it in a very traditional chapel with marble floors and the click was pretty audible each time. It would probably not be a big problem in many settings, and it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker; just know it’s not a silent switch. 

The Bottom Line

So the question is, how does the DI portion sound? It’s sort of hard to tell on this one. I wasn’t able to evaluate it in any of my normal listening environments where I’m really familiar with the rest of the system. I used it for one gig at my daughter’s college, and when I listened to the guitar soloed in my UE Reference Monitors, it sounded very clean, detailed and rich. 

The DI portion is a passive Jensen JT-DB transformer, so it will work with or without phantom. Jensen transformers are used by many of the big names, including Radial, and I’ve never had a beef with them. So unless you are looking for a particular sound from your DI, I would propose this sounds just fine. They also included a 1/4” output on the unit, so if you want to drive an amp, a powered monitor, or wireless transmitter, you can.

The manufacturer says they spent a year and a half on the design, working through many components and details to make this the best it can be. It does indeed feel well made. It’s in a steel case, with heavy rubber feet and bumpers protecting the switches. All the jacks are panel not PCB mounted, which means they will last far longer. I opened it up, and the inside components are very clean and well thought out. This is a quality product.

The cost of the unit is $300. At first, that might seem high; at least it did to me. Then I did some math and realized that by the time you buy a regular tuner and power supply, plus a good DI, you’re in the high $200 range. And who among us hasn’t seen a Boss TU-2 give up the ghost during a service? The benefits of phantom power, a clean stage, one fewer cable to manage and a high quality DI, all in a single package justify the price for me. 

You can learn more about the product at the Sonic Nuance website.

“Gear

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