Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Lighting Lamps

This has been a challenging and sobering time for lighting.

I'm about to go into tech on a micro-budget show, and I've been up for four hours wrestling with drivers before I finally got the dimmer pack to talk to my laptop. Not fun. I did a lot of calling around and pulling favors and so forth, and I've managed to rent a pair of Elation 4x dimmer packs and several lighting instruments to go with them. The sole lighting equipment the company owns is an Enttec DMX512 interface.

Enttec is a good company. A lot of companies would chose to make their hardware proprietary and closed-doc and force you to use only their software. Not only does this company allow third parties to use their hardware, they also understand and accept that companies move on and they are making sure to make the hardware documented enough so it can still be used even when that line has been discontinued.

One wishes Apple would act that way sometimes. Instead of pretending that no other Mac existed prior to the one they are selling now (so much does Apple have this attitude, they make it difficult to even figure out if the model you have is actually different from the model they sell...little details like model number are made purposely obscure.)

Anyhow. There was a very nice project known as QLC, which forked and stuck around a little at SourceForge as QLC+. It is a Max/MSP flavored free-form open source lighting controller.

Apple's craziness with how they support FTDI drivers nearly did me in, but finally through either doing a manual uninstall (typing sudo stuff down at the UNIX core -- always a scary business) or running a nice little helper ap created by one of the Enttec programmers I finally got DMX flowing through the box.

What's also nice is the forensics are clear. Not just what failed, but how it passed the pre-test. Well before the dimmers arrived, I plugged in the interface to see if the software would see it. The software recognized it was connected to hardware and displayed the correct hardware name. I didn't see an issue until I (fortunately!) took the dimmer home with me last night in order to confirm it responded to the upstream hardware. Good thing I forgot my USB cable, eh? Otherwise I would have been at the theater all night struggling with it, instead of home where I have wifi and could look for help.

So what happened? Simple. Hardware name is in the basic USB stack. And the lighting software was only using that as a hardware check (it wasn't actually looking for through data.) The DMX functionality, however, has to pass through the FTDI drivers. And that's why the interface recognized and displayed okay but there was no DMX passing through it.

This is going to be a tough show on my computer. I'll be running video through QLab (or possibly just VLC), sound effects through QLab (likely triggered via MIDI so I don't have to lose focus from the lighting console), and of course lighting. Which meant I also had to juggle video cables, finally finding a mini-DVI to VGA adaptor (for far too much money) after being confused by both the existing DVI connector I had and the mini Firewire connectors I'd also purchased recently. Stupid Apple and their ever-changing connector types!

And what is the lighting? Turns out the lights that came with the rental package are a pair of Source-4's -- in 19 degrees. Oops. I think I can still use them as a long raking side light. Then there's two Source-4 PARS: thankfully with all the lenses still in the box, so with WFLs in them I should be able to get a decent backlight. That leaves two generic 6x9's I picked up at another place (and have to put Edison plugs on, still). And my own little 6" fresnel. With no better choices, those will have to do for all of my front light.

It is a very strangely-shaped space, with pillars in the way, and it is going to be pretty ugly no matter what I do. I do wish I'd managed to score the smart light I was asking for (a Studio Spot 250). Unfortunately, that fell afoul of politics. The theater that owns it would be happy to loan it to us, but the theater that currently has it upstairs and unused in their loft doesn't want to let it leave the building.

I did manage to hoosier another company around to loaning a scroller or two, but backed off when I realized I didn't have any five-pin DMX to spare. I also tried to talk them into letting me have one of their broken ones so I could see if I could repair it. I'll try that negotiation again another time.

One of the eye-openers in QLC+ is seeing just how many automated fixtures, color changers, LEDs, and so forth there are, and how much more evolved the software control of these has gotten since the old 2-scene preset days. But this was already underlined for me; I worked two lighting calls over the weekend, and both spaces had ETC Ions and wireless RFUs (both running on what looked to be Apple products). Even the RFU was confusing to me; it presented lights not just in dimmers and channels but in groups as well, and multiple universes were visible in a way that makes it obvious that multiple universes are expected as part of a standard plot.

I got to talking to one of the techs at the second house. Since I last designed sound there, they upgraded the sound board -- and added full digital snakes on Cat-5 to backstage and the pit. Plus finally installed the new speakers they'd been holding on to when my company was in there. I didn't see a hot controller for them, not even a Galileo (or, pasta forbid, a Drive Rack). But according to the tech they had gone for a full Dante system so maybe that was the controller. It looks like a hot system now, and I wish I was designing shows on it now. With, however, the budget to get some decent microphones!

(This was the company where I was babying a grab-bag of aging body mics, down to such horrible things as old Telex's -- built like a tank with a steel frame, and using a 9V battery -- and even a trio of Sampsons. Oddly enough, the least trustworthy of all these mics was the more recent and expensive Shure SLX. Shure? Unsure! And I'm not talking the T4f pulling out; we had solutions for that. I'm talking multiple RF issues.)

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