Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Category: Lighting (Page 2 of 9)

DMX Over Cat5, Pt. 1

 

DMX. That now ubiquitous way of controlling our lighting fixtures. While the standard of DMX is pretty well established—at least in terms of the speeds, number of channels and controls—there are still plenty of variables. Fixtures can have 3-pin XLRs on them, or 5-pin. Or both. Sometimes, the in and out jacks on a fixture are simply wired together and it doesn’t matter which is which. Other times, they are active and you can’t plug in to the out jack and visa versa. And while you can get away with running DMX over mic cords for shorter distances, it’s not recommended for longer runs. 

Over the next two posts, we’re going to talk about a few ways to run DMX from FOH to fixtures. In this post, we’ll look at using Cat5 cable instead of DMX cable. Next time, we’ll consider using a DMX networking system, which also used Cat5, though in a very different manner. 

Now, I should point out that when we’re talking about using Cat5 for DMX cable, I am referring to the longer, backbone type runs in a system, not fixture-to-fixture jumpers. In most DMX systems, you will have a run or two (depending on universe count) from FOH to the stage, then the signal hits an Opto-splitter and is distributed throughout the stage and house lighting. At least that is what should happen; I have seen systems where there is one run from the console to the first fixture, and the DMX is daisy chained throughout every single system in the room. 

While that can work, it’s not ideal. Once you get past about 18 fixtures in a DMX chain, things can get weird. Not always, but sometimes. For this reason, it’s better to keep the fixture count lower and use a proper splitter to give you multiple branches of the DMX universe in your room. 

I should also point out that a terminal block or wire nuts do not a proper DMX splitter make. You really want an active signal splitter that not only sends out an exact copy of your DMX signal to each port, but also isolates the ports from each other. That way if you have a problem on one branch, the whole system doesn’t go down. 

With those disclaimers and background, let’s consider the first way we can use Cat5 cable in our DMX system. 

Cable Substitution

The most straight-forward use of Cat5 in a DMX system is just a simple cable replacement. Instead of pulling standard DMX cable through the conduit, pull Cat5. There are several advantages to this. First, Cat5 is a lot cheaper than DMX cable. Second, it’s a lot easier to pull than most DMX cable due to it’s slippery outer jacket (one that’s designed to be pulled through conduit). Cat5 is also readily available in long lengths just about anywhere. 

Pinouts

When using Cat5 cable in a DMX system—really any cable—it’s important to follow proper termination procedures. You can solder Cat5 cable to XLR plugs, but it’s important to pay close attention to the cable pairs and pinning. The folks at Pathway Connectivity provided this chart, which I’ve used for all my jobs with great success.


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Example System

So let’s look at a simple system as an example. We would come from our lighting console to an opto-splitter, then out to each branch of fixtures over the stage or house. This is a simple, single universe system, so we’ll pull one run of Cat5 from FOH to the stage where the opto-splitter lives, then run standard DMX cables to the fixtures. 


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As you can see, it’s pretty simple. Next time around, we’ll use Cat5 to it’s full advantage, and I’ll show you how you can get 64 universes on a single Cat5.

By the way, I built this whole post on my iPad while stuck in an ice storm in Nashville.  

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

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.

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

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.

Today’s post is brought to you by Elite Core Audio. Elite Core Audio features a premium USA built 16 channel personal monitor mixing system built for the rigors of the road. For Personal Mixing Systems, Snakes, and Cases, visit Elite Core Audio.

CTW LDI 2014 Coverage: High End SolaSpot Pro 1500

The new SolaSpot Pro1500 is an amazing LED-engine moving head. With an 8-45 degree zoom, a 400W LED engine and full effects and a very fast pan/tilt mechanism, it’s quite remarkable. And, it has a price that is remarkable as well. To learn more, visit their website.

“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.

This post is brought to you by Shure Wireless. The new ULX D Dual and Quad wireless systems feature RF Cascade ports, a high density mode with significantly more simultaneous operating channels and bodypack diversity for mission critical applications. Visit their website at Shure.com.

CTW Coverage of LDI 2014: Chauvet Ovation FD-165WW and ED-190WW

The F-165WW and E-190WW have been extremely popular and effective LED Fresnel and Leko-style fixtures, respectively. But for the venue that already has a solid installed base of dimmers, these new fixtures make 1:1 replacement easier than ever. By creating a power supply that works with line-voltage dimming, the new fixtures deliver the same great results we’re used to, without the hassle of switching to relays or running DMX everywhere.  For more information, visit www.chauvetlighting.com.

“Gear

Today’s post is brought to you by DiGiCo. DiGiCo audio mixing consoles deliver solutions that provide extreme flexibility, are easy to use and have an expandable infrastructure, while still providing the best possible audio quality. Visit their website to learn more.

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.

Gear Snobs

JesusPresleyArtCologne2008 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Martin Terber, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Audio guys can be snobs when it comes to gear. But the reality is, we can’t always have our favorites. Sometimes, it’s a simple budget issue. For Coast Hills, we didn’t have the budget for Meyer, d&b or L’Acoustics. If I had held out for those brands because they have more cachet, we would not have a new PA at all. The money is just not there. But the church can afford RoomMatch. And having heard it, and after some considerable evaluation, I’m convinced we haven’t sacrificed that much. 

Is RoomMatch as good as a L’Acoustics Kara rig? Maybe not. Will the average person notice a big difference between those two? Probably not. Will the average person notice the upgrade from what we had to RoomMatch? Absolutely. I’ll take that outcome over no change at all.

Be Open

Lighting guys can be snobs, too. Some will say, “If it’s not Varilite, it’s not in my rig.” Or Martin. Or High End. Whatever. In the past, we’ve rented about 6 VL2500s for Easter. Those are great fixtures, to be sure. But this year, we rented 18 Elation Platinum Spot 5R Pros. Are they as good of a fixture as the VL2500? Not really. The panning isn’t as smooth, the color mixing isn’t as nice and we had one go flaky on us. However, we made a bigger visual impact with 18 of them than we ever did with the 6 VLs for the same money.

And you know what? If I were buying moving head fixtures for Coast Hills, I would probably go with Elation. No, they’re not as rugged as a Varilite. But, we can afford more of them, and they would be fine for what we’d need them for. 

Use What Fits

When I say “fits” I mean both budget and application. If you’re at a big church with big budgets and can afford the best gear, go for it. But if you’re at a smaller church with small budgets, don’t feel bad about going with brands with lower cool factor. Sometimes, the smaller companies innovate really well and come up with great solutions at great price points. Don’t discount them because they are not what the big church or big tour is using. 

I’ve talked with guys who are at smaller churches with all volunteer tech teams who are convinced they need a Digico at FOH and a Grand MA at lighting. Those are great pieces of kit, but they do have a steep learning curve, as well as big price tags. In a smaller setting with lower production demands, there are better options. Never feel bad about choosing the best option for your church; even if it’s not what all the cool kids are using. 

Get Good Advice

In my new role, I find myself helping churches decide what to buy. While I have my preferences on what I like, I have to set those aside and make sure I’m recommending what is best for them. I recently steered a church toward a Yamaha QL away from a Digico SD9. Personally, I would prefer the SD9 any day. But in this setting the QL makes much more sense. Not only is it considerably less money—and they were already at the top of their budget—it’s much more friendly to non-professional operators with zero digital console experience (and 20 years of analog experience). 

When purchasing equipment, make sure whoever is recommending what they are recommending knows your situation and how it will be used. Make sure they aren’t just giving you their stock solution. It would be a lot easier for me to have a “small church package” of gear that I can price and sell. But it would not likely be the best fit for everyone. So we stay custom for each church. 

I’ve always been a contrarian, so this concept is not foreign to me. But I write this to encourage those of you who are nervous about not doing what everyone else is doing. They used to say, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” That may have been true, but a lot of companies missed out on better options because someone took the safe route. 

Don’t be a gear snob. Get what works for your church. Everyone will be better off for it.

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.

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