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How dynamic lighting control systems enhance the live music experience

Today, it’s so easy to access streaming, on-demand content in our pockets and on our TVs, the fact that anyone still attends live concerts or theater performances might be seen as a surprise.

But we still love live music. There’s something magical about watching a unique performance; even the most choreographed and well-rehearsed show isn’t identical to the previous night’s run or tour. 

We talked with Jon Hole, product manager for Eaton’s Zero 88 Entertainment Lighting Controls, about ways dynamic lighting control systems are changing the way we experience live music.  

What are specific examples of ways lighting systems take music performances to the next level?  

JH: Despite the convenience of lighting controls that can be programmed and simply replayed, day after day, we want to enhance the live aspect of a performance rather than fight it. That’s why we aim to provide the operator with as many tactile, front-panel controls as possible. These can include banks of buttons, faders, encoders and touchscreens, all of which can be set up to allow the operator to interact with and shape the lighting design in real time. Triggers can help automate this process, and tools such as click tracks, sensors and even social media trends allow lighting designers to make preprogrammed lighting design schemes both flexible and responsive.

Over the last decade, entertainment lighting has become an immersive experience by breaking down the metaphorical fourth wall that separates a performance from its audience. Low-power LEDs and improvements in wireless technology have each played a role.

The period of 2011-12 arguably served as a tipping point. During that time, while on its Mylo Xyloto tour, the band Coldplay gave each audience member a wristband, called a Xyloband, which was wirelessly controlled to light up and flash in synchronization with the band’s set list. In 2012, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London featured 70,500 paddles distributed throughout the audience. Each of these paddles contained nine high-power, RGB LEDs, thus turning the whole auditorium into a giant, 360-degree screen built around and within the audience. In both of these instances, the audience became an active part of the performance rather than a collection of passive spectators.

What are things to consider when lighting indoor vs. outdoor music venues, or small vs. large venues? 

JH: Today factors like power and heat, which were once areas of concern for smaller venues, have become slightly easier to manage due to the superior efficiency of LEDs. 

Audience expectations are higher than ever, as they easily and regularly watch large-scale spectacles on TV and online. These expectations don’t necessarily scale down when people visit smaller venues with smaller budgets; they’re often addressed by attempts to squeeze more features into moving lights, which makes them expensive, difficult to maintain and physically heavy. All are new problems we didn’t encounter in the days of the humble Tungsten lamp. 

In entertainment lighting, we spend a lot of time obsessing over the beam of light in the air rather than the source of light or the surface the light is illuminating. We often focus light into concentrated, long-throw, narrow beams, but these have minimum throw distances of up to 12 meters to ensure the beams don’t burn anything in their path. Smaller venues such as TV studios or local music venues simply don’t have that kind of distance, especially in height. We also scatter that beam with artificial haze in order to make it visible. Most venues are set up for this; but in some unconventional venues, it can lead to issues with fire detection systems, requiring dedicated risk assessments and method statements. Of course, outdoor performances create the opposite problem, and we have to pump enough haze to make it visible onstage before it’s blown away. 

For large outdoor events with audiences in the tens of thousands, much of the audience is often a long way from the stage, and live TV feeds present the performers in close-up on large side screens. These screens are a necessary part of the performance; but the lighting is also essential, because it compensates for the distance and still immerses the audience in the overall sound, look and feel of the event.

Moving lights started to appear around 1985. While initially expensive, they provided huge advantages. They brought movement to what were otherwise static light shows, but they also reduced the number of lights and the total amount of equipment needed to put on a great light show. Smaller rigs meant smaller trucks; this made smaller venues more viable and thus broadened the number of venues able to afford to take a show. Technology once only affordable for a few soon became affordable and usable by many. So, it’s not surprising that in the last 30 years, live shows have moved from break-even or subsidized events that helped music CD sales, to now the principal method by which artists make a living. And live performances have never been more popular than they are today. 

How does the type of music (rock, pop, classical, country, etc.) influence the lighting on the set?  

JH: Music type determines the audience, which influences how we want that audience to react. And lighting can definitely influence an audience’s reaction. Simple and arguably overused tools such as strobes, blinders and audience ballyhoos can engage an audience at a music festival, helping to provide an unforgettable experience.

In contrast, the audience and musicians of a classical concert might see that same lighting as a distraction or hindrance. So for this performance, our aim would be to enhance the orchestra and the story behind the composer’s music, with anything more than subtle lighting taking more of a backseat.

Is concert lighting design an art form? 

JH: No doubt. The equipment we produce is user-friendly and reliable, with flexible controls. The ways our customers use the equipment excite, surprise and amaze us on a daily basis. 

A lighting designer unlocks the potential of controls and is a crucial member of the creative team who can make or break a performance. In fact, lighting designers who push boundaries and improve performances are recognized through the Academy Awards and Tony Awards as well as industry-specific competitions such as the Parnelli Awards.

What’s on the horizon? How will lighting design continue to enhance live music performances in the future?  

JH: For many years, creative teams have been trying to blur the line between video and lighting. Improved GPU processing power is allowing us to generate live video based within the changing environment rather than having pre-rendered content. This is another step toward a fully immersive, completely unique experience.