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.
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…).
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.
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!
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.
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.