CTA Review: Pathway DMX Ultimate Converter

It may seem like DMX is the universal language of lighting control. And for just about any fixture or dimmer made in the last 10 years or so, it is. But there is still a pretty large installed base of older dimmers and probably a few fixtures that speak another language. A few months ago, I ran into such a system. The church was built in the 70s and had an old dimming system that still worked, and that they couldn’t afford to replace just yet. But they needed a new console, so we installed a Jands Vista S1. That worked just great with the new LED lights we installed on stage, but when it came time to tie into the existing dimming system, I discovered it wasn’t DMX, but AMX. 

Enter the Rosetta Stone

It was just a few months earlier that we met with the Pathway Connectivity rep. We were looking mostly at their DMX over Cat 5 systems, which are excellent. Almost in passing, he mentioned that the also had a translator box that would convert DMX to just about anything else. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that conversation came back when I saw that 4-pin XLR starring back at me. 

Van and I have long been asking for a Rosetta stone for the audio world; one that would take in any digital format and spit out any other digital format. Aside from licensing, it doesn’t seem that hard. But what do I know. While that doesn’t really exist in the audio world—save perhaps for the KlarkTeknik DN9652—it does in the lighting control world. 

Protocols For Days

The DMX Ultimate Converter will convert DMX into the following formats:

  • DMX512/1990 and DMX512-A
  • AMX192 - all versions
  • Kliegl( K96 & K100)
  • Colortran (CMX & D192)
  • Electro Controls (ECMux)
  • Micro-Plex 1 & 2 (NSI and Lightronics/Leprecon)
  • Strand D54
  • AVAB - 240 & 252 channels

The back of the unit provides several 5- and 4-pin output connectors for the various protocols, as well as a DMX through. The front of the device has an easy to read LCD menu and a set of controls for selecting the various modes. After a brief skim through the manual, it’s quick and easy to get what you want out of it. 

Helpful Tools, To Boot

It is pretty much a plug and play operation, but they have thoughtfully included several tools that will make your life a lot easier. There is an Analyze Input mode that will show you the values of your incoming DMX signal so you can be sure you are sending what you think you are sending. This is especially helpful when setting up the patch for a legacy system. 

The tool I found the most helpful is the output test. This enables you to send level information individually to the channels of the output. So if you are working in an old dimming system, it’s much easier to figure out which lights are patched to which dimmers. By scrolling through the outputs, and lighting them up one at a time, you can easily construct a light plot that can be written into your new console. 

Sometimes the older dimmers and protocols don’t work at the same speed of modern gear, and to that end, you can adjust the timings to keep the buffers from overflowing. The instructions provided give you a clear procedure for making adjustments if needed. In my case, I simply plugged DMX in and out (this lived inline on the way to the DMX distro at the stage) and AMX out. I selected a DMX to AMX conversion and started turning lights on. It was surprisingly simple. A lockout function is also provided so no one accidentally adjusts the settings once everything is locked in and working. 

I spent a fair amount of time testing the system for lag or dimming curve anomalies and found none. When I moved a fader on the console, the lights responded immediately. If I programmed a long fade, the lights dimmed properly without any stutter. I couldn’t test this on all protocols, but for AMX, it worked great.

Saving the Day

When I first saw that 4-pin AMX connector, my heart sank. Initially I thought our installation was doomed. But when this little box showed up, it truly saved the day. After several months of continuous operation, I’ve not received a single call from the church that they’ve had any issues with it. While it’s not cheap—it lists for $1595—it’s well worth it as we didn’t have to spend tens of thousands on new dimming or all new LED fixtures. At least not yet. This isn’t a box everyone needs, but when you do need it, it saves your bacon.

“Gear

Today's post is brought to you by Heil Sound. Established in 1966, Heil Sound Ltd. has developed many professional audio innovations over the years, and is currently a world leader in the design and manufacture of large diaphragm dynamic, professional grade microphones for live sound, broadcast and recording.

Can We Really Please Everyone?

Photo courtesy of DaveBleasdale.

Photo courtesy of DaveBleasdale.

The other day I was involved in a conversation in which someone said, “If someone leaves because it’s too loud, we haven’t done our job properly.” Now, I’ve heard this philosophy espoused on more than one occasion, and you probably have, too. It’s a commonly held concept that as tech people we should be invisible and no one should really notice we’re there. And I agree with that, at least in principle. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves, or the technology; we want to call attention to Jesus. I’m on board with that. 

However, does that really mean that if someone leaves because it’s too loud—for them—that we’ve failed? I’m not sure I buy into that concept. 

We have to establish our philosophy of worship; and that includes volume. I get so sick of the endless volume debate, and especially pastors throwing their tech guys under the bus because it’s too loud; especially when those same pastors have never established an explainable philosophy of worship. And by explainable, I mean that someone could explain it to a mad congregant who thinks it’s too loud. 

Pastors, if you’ve never sat down with your music and tech teams and established a good set of guidelines for how loud worship should be, you have no right to complain about the volume or send angry people back to the tech booth to complain. And by the way, this policy should be written down. And it shouldn’t be a single number; e.g.. “Worship shall be no louder than 90 dB.” You have a lot more work to do if you think that’s all it is.

Some congregations like it loud; and that’s OK. It’s also OK if some people are bothered by that. I know some churches who believe that during musical worship, they are celebrating the work God has done on earth through Jesus, and that celebration should be loud. To that I say, Amen! Now, there are other churches who prefer a more subtle, laid back and contemplative approach to worship, with more space for quiet and silence. To that I say, Amen!

I honestly have no problem with either approach, and I enjoy both at times. What I do have a problem with is a person who prefers quiet worship going to a church that worships loud and complains the whole time. Just because someone doesn’t like a particular expression of worship doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that the tech guys have failed. 

You really can’t please everybody and it’s foolish to try. If your philosophy of worship is to not offend anyone, you will either end up offending everyone, or just doing a really poor job. It’s much like a football team that is playing to not lose; they rarely win. You have to decide who you want to be as a church and go all in with it. To do anything less is to squander the gift of uniqueness that God has given your congregation. 

Figuring out who you are as a church takes a lot of work and prayer, but the payoff is so worth it. When people know what you stand for, they will lock arms with you and work tirelessly to advance the cause. But when you are wishy-washy and can’t articulate why you do what you do, people will come and go without any real buy in. Figure out who you are, and own it. 

Well, at this point, I’ve probably offended more than a few people. But that’s OK. You can’t please everyone…

“Gear

Today's post is brought to you by CCI Solutions. With a reputation for excellence, technical expertise and competitive pricing, CCI Solutions has served churches across the US in their media, equipment, design and installation needs for over 35 years.

Building Proper Gain Structure Pt. 2

Image courtesy of Stuart Cunningham, used under Creative Commons. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Cunningham, used under Creative Commons

Last time, we talked about why we want to have proper input gain structure. Today, we’ll talk about how to actually do it. This may not be the only way to accomplish it, but I’ve had great success with this method for over 20 years. 

Here’s how I approach the process.

Gain setting in the digital world

For each input channel, I would have the musician play their at their loudest level. I then dial up the input gain until I’m within about 8-12 dB of full scale (minus 8-12 dB on the meters). I like to leave a little room for the musician to play louder when the lights go up (they always do). Many digital boards also have a trim (or attenuation) control in addition to the input gain. I use my trim to dial the level back to where it should be in the mix with my faders at unity. Because I’ve gained my entire system properly, my main fader is sitting at unity as well, and all is right with the world. I am also using VCAs to manage groups of faders (drums, guitars, keys, BGVs, etc.) and those live at unity as well, at least to start. All of this ensures that my signal to noise ratio is optimized at the A/D stage (just after the mic pre), and my starting point for my mix is faders at unity. 

Now, if you don’t have a digital trim control on your board, you have a decision to make. You won’t likely be able to run the mic pre’s hard without having too much signal at some point, so you’ll need to dial the level back somewhere. Of course, you can always turn the fader down, but then you lose fader resolution. A better alternative would be to use a VCA to keep your fader at zero. That can get tricky, however. Take a drum kit for example: If you optimize the gain on the kick, snare and hat, chances are, the hat will be way too loud in the mix. But more than likely, you’re using a single VCA for the entire drum kit. So now what? Well, you could break the drums up into zones and use one VCA for each; kick & snare, toms, hat & overheads might work. That way you can pull back the faders at the VCA level (a VCA is really an electronic remote control of the faders), and maintain fader resolution. You could do a similar trick with groups if you have them.

If you run short of VCAs, I would suggest breaking my rule and set the input gain up so that the fader remains around unity for a proper mix. Audio is a lot about compromise, and in this case I’ll give up absolute input S/N to gain faders at unity. I have found that to be the wiser trade, especially for things like cymbals.

Gain setting in an analog world

Really, the process is much the same, though you are much less likely to have a trim control after the gain control. In that case, the same rules apply as a digital board without a trim knob. You still want to have good input level coming into the channel (at least as much as you can), then turn it down as needed later in the mixing stage. You also want to keep your faders running around unity. Make the trades where you have to.

In either the digital or analog world, what you don’t want to do is under-drive your mic pre’s and have to add a lot of gain down the road. Sure you can push a fader up for a guitar solo, but you don’t want to regularly run your input faders at +8, your groups at +10 and your main at +5 because your input gain is set too low.

The exception to the rule

Now, all of this assumes you’re running on a professional grade mixer that has a mix structure with enough headroom. If you find yourself mixing on a Mackie or Behringer (or similar music store brand), chances are you’ll run out of headroom in your mix bus very quickly. If you set input gains on a Mackie the way you should, when all those hot signals hit the mix bus, things tend to go south quickly. The busses saturate and you lose all sense of dynamics. In that case, you need to really keep an eye on your overall output level and run input gains down accordingly. This isn’t a dig on cheap mixers—you can only expect so much for what you pay for them—it’s just reality. 

That’s a quick guide to setting up your gain for an input channel. As I mentioned earlier, if you go through this whole process only to find that your overall SPL in the house system is either way too loud or way too soft, you have some work to do at the system processor or amp level. But that’s another post...