Don't Forget to Check the Cable

We’ve been talking about the transition to IP-based networked AVL systems for quite some time. I just finished up a big install for a church in which every system is IP-based. Audio is Dante, lighting is Streaming ACN and while video was SDI, the router and switcher lived on the network and were remotely controllable. All these systems are extremely flexible, powerful and offer the church great capabilities. They also come with some setup and configuration challenges. I spent as at least 2-3 times the as long getting everything playing nicely as I did actually tuning the PA and building show files.

These system can also be challenging to troubleshoot. And with everything now in IT switches, it’s easy to assume that any problem you have is IP related. However, sometimes, it’s something far more simple—and frustrating. Here are few examples of things I ran into that turned out to be a lot simpler than we originally thought. 

Is It Getting Power?

We installed an RGBW house light that was driven by DMX. The fixtures have their own control box that sends out a proprietary control signal that we initially had some challenges with. Once we worked that out, it all seemed to be working, until we lost half the lights in the youth room. The lights were split into two circuits and two runs of control. Those runs coincided. I spent a few hours trying to troubleshoot the control signal, wondering why it wouldn’t turn on. 

Finally, I grabbed by non-contact voltage tester and found out they weren’t getting AC. I went back to the relay rack and found a fuse blown on the relay tray. Curious as to how the fuse was blown, I shut power off to the relay panel and tested all the hot busses for shorts. Sure enough, we had a short in a different circuit. The electrician accidentally landed a neutral on a hot lug and when we put the relay tray in, it blew the fuse. We didn’t know that, as we hadn’t used that circuit yet. And when we pulled the trays out to connect DMX, we mixed up the order and ended up with the blown fuse in the house light slot. Before you go spending a ton of time trying to sort out IP/IT/DMX/SCAN issues, make sure the fixtures are actually getting power. Lesson learned. 

Is the Pinout Right?

In this same system (it was a frustrating day), we came out of a SCAN gateway to DMX to drive the control box. The gateway used a terminal strip, and the control box used a 5-pin connector. So, we cut the end off a 5-pin cable and landed the wires. My installer had done the exact same thing in another room in this install, so it seemed logical to land the wires the same way.

Three hours of troubleshooting streaming ACN, DMX, gateways and all that nonsense and one of my guys suggested opening up the 5-pin to verify the pinouts. Sure enough, the manufacturer of this 5-pin cable (who will go unnamed, but will not see a ton more business from me) decided that sticking to a single color scheme for all DMX cables is simply too much work. In one cable, shield, data + and data - were bare wire, black and red, respectively. In the other room where I had so much trouble, it was bare wire, red and green. Once I swapped wires, all worked fine. 

Lesson learned; never trust a cable manufacturer to do a good job managing colors in 5-pin (or even 3-pin for that matter) cables. 

In each of these cases, a simple analog cable caused me a ton of headaches. I should have checked them first, but I was sure it was a network issue. When troubleshooting newer systems, don’t forget the basics. Is it hooked up properly? Is it getting power? Is the In cable going to the In port? Often, we spend a lot of time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.


Why Make it Beautiful?

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I recently happened across a discussion that was started by a pastor who was looking at the bland, white walls of their sanctuary with terrible acoustics and struggling with the why of making it look nice. Thankfully, he understood the need to fix the terrible acoustics. But he was legitimately struggling with the why of making the room look better than blank white. 

Now, as a technical artist, you might think my first thought would be to attempt to justify the need for a ton of LED lights, environmental projection and cool stage sets. And while I think there is a place for that, I didn’t go there first. My first thought was the great cathedrals of Europe. Then I thought of what the Temple of David must have looked like. I’ve seen some artist’s renderings of the temple, and it had to be amazing. 

Who Do You Worship?

Looking at those temples and cathedrals, one has to ask, “What is the motivation to create such an awe-inspiring structure?” In the case of the temple, David wanted to create a temple that was as amazing as God himself. That’s probably not possible, but he sure gave it a shot. The great architects and builders of Renaissance tried to build spaces that would put all who entered into a state of awe and wonder. They figured that since we worship a great, awesome and amazing God, the buildings where we worship should be great, awesome and amazing. 

When you enter such a building, or even see pictures of them, you can’t help but be inspired. The longer you spend in them, the more the Gospel story unfolds itself. Those architects were master story tellers and managed to tell a complete story with the building itself. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the artwork and paintings that often filled the space. 

Little White Boxes for You and Me

Fast forward to today and what do we have? White boxes. Instead of creating buildings that inspire wonder and awe, we build the cheapest, most boring church buildings we can. Well, not all of them, but many fit this description. Contrast this to the mall or the Vegas strip. If one were to evaluate what we value based on the time, energy and money we spend on the architecture, one would potentially come to the conclusion that we don’t really value our God much. 

Spend Money on Ministry!

The cry we often hear when it comes to not spending any money on the building is that we should be spending it on ministry instead. While I think spending money on ministry is a good thing, I think that argument is based on a fundamental lack of faith. The great cathedrals of Europe cost a small fortune to build, and often took a century to complete. But look at the results! Hundreds of years later, they’re still wonderful. 

Today, we live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and we scrimp and build our “houses of worship” with the lowest bidder. The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’s not really concerned about finances. Yet we pinch every penny and build the most boring, uninspiring building to worship the God who created the entire universe. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? 

Strike a Balance

Now, I understand we live in a different time and place. A $100 Million cathedral might not be the best idea today. However, our buildings don’t have to be ugly and boring. I think it’s more important to be intentional about creating a space for worship than it is to spend a lot of money on it. 

I travel to a lot of different church buildings and I’ve seen the ugly white boxes and I’ve seen buildings that are incredibly cool and welcoming that didn’t cost a fortune. It’s all about creating a space that is inspiring, calming, welcoming or engaging—depending on what you’re going for. It could be as simple as a few thousand dollars worth of ultra short throw projectors on those blank white walls (they’re good for something!). Or it could be a paint and some cool found objects arranged in a way that tells a story. 

Technology is Changing

A few years ago, every church that wanted to be “relevant” (in quotes because it’s been so over used I’m not sure it’s relevant any more) put up a bunch of moving lights, fired up the hazer and tried to do a rock concert every weekend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you do a terrible job of it. Or it’s not at all the culture of your church. Some of the best worship experiences I’ve had were in very simple, but very intentional rooms. They used technology—lights, haze, video, graphics—but that wasn’t the focus. You don’t have to go crazy. But you can make it beautiful. You should make it beautiful. It should match who you are as a church. And it should reflect the God who created the universe all around us. How’s that for some inspiration!

DMX Over Cat5, Pt. 2

Last time around, we talked about using Cat5 cable to distribute DMX signals. In that implementation, it is really cable replacement. Instead of pulling DMX cable (not mic cable—there is a difference), we pull Cat5 for our backbone distribution runs. Fixture to fixture cables are normal DMX cables. Today, I want to talk a little bit about using Ethernet to distribute DMX. This will be an overview article as there is way too much information to contain in a single post. Also, some of the standards are still evolving, and it’s not always simple, especially when mixing multiple manufacturers. Come to think of it, we need to do a podcast on this…

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity. 

Here is a basic DMX network diagram. This is courtesy of Pathway Connectivity

The Original Ethernet—DMX Protocols

In the beginning, we had things like: 

  • Strand Shownet
  • ETC Net1
  • ETC Net2
  • ArtNet
  • Pathport

Each of those protocols use Ethernet wiring and switchgear to distribute multiple universes of DMX throughout a facility. All of them require some time of break in and break out adapter, as well as at least one Ethernet switch to get all the nodes talking to each other. In and of themselves, they were fine. The problem was, none of them talked to each other. Some devices could speak multiple languages, but the languages themselves were not compatible. If having an all ETC Net2 system was what you needed for example, it worked well. But introducing another standard into the mix was problematic. 

Still, those protocols worked well. They offered up to 128 universes, unlimited outputs, signal management (splitting, routing, prioritizing), and because it was all based on Ethernet standards, it was inexpensive to install and manage. So far so good. But you were using Ethernet, and RJ45 connectors aren’t the most robust. And Category cable is fragile compared to a regular DMX cable. 

The New Hotness—ACN

As often happens, when engineers see protocol soup like we have above, they look for a way to create a new one that will do everything the old ones would do, and more, and do it easier. That’s the promise of ACN. ACN stands for Architecture for Control Networks and defines a series of nested Protocol Data Units—a whole series of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) defining how data gets moved around.

What’s cool about ACN is that it is media agnostic; you can use whatever cable you want. It’s designed to be interoperable, so multiple manufacturers equipment can be used together. It’s supposed to be plug and play, which simplifies setup. It’s also two-way, meaning the end devices can report their capabilities to the controller, and the controller will know what to do with it. In theory, this means we can get rid of fixture libraries someday. 

ACN uses an Ethernet backbone, so configuration and system architecture is familiar. I’ve been telling you that as a technical leader, you’re going to need to know more about networking. We know that’s true of audio, and it’s becoming more and more true of lighting and media servers. 

What’s Available Now?

Like many new standards, it will take time to implement. While there are some media servers and the like on the market that use ACN, there are few fixtures that do. Hopefully that changes in the next few years. Right now, we have ETC’s variant of ACN known as Net3. Pathway Connectivity uses sACN (Streaming ACN) in their Pathport products. And believe it or not, these two can talk to each other!

The good news is that we can install ACN backbone systems now, and simply break in and out to DMX as needed. Someday when ACN becomes commonplace on fixtures as well as controllers, we remove the adapters and everything talks ACN. And this is happening; many of the Jands consoles for example, already speak sACN and will simply output their DMX universes straight to the network. 

This is an exciting time to be in this industry. I was with a friend the other day and he showed me an installation that required hundreds of universes of DMX to manage. There’s no way anything like that would even be conceivable using regular old DMX. But with ACN, it’s easily possible. 

If you want to learn more about this, check out Pathway Connectivities Resource page. They have some articles and a Power Point presentation with good info (it’s where I got some of this content—thanks for that, guys!). Now is a great time to begin learning more about ACN, as it will be the standard going forward. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait 10 years before we start seeing native ACN fixtures…


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