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The Genre Series: Concerts

by Brad Schiller • in
  • Current Issue
  • February 2018
  • Feeding the Machines
• Created: February 16, 2018

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Cosmo Wilson used 272 GLP X4 LEDs to emulate par-can looks for Aerosmith’s 2017 Aero-Vederci Baby tour. Photo by Ralph Larmann

One of my favorite things about working as an automated lighting programmer is that there is a vast array of different types of genres to work within. While the basics of programming are the same, there are certain things that are unique to the various types of productions. Over the course of the next few months, I will cover some of the distinctive attributes that you must be aware when programming on specific types of shows. For this edition, the programming procedures and operations common for concert and live music type productions will be discussed.

‡‡         Let the Music be the Guide

When working on any production based on music, one must always, first and foremost, listen to the music. If preparing for a concert tour or event, you should try to listen to as much music from the artist as possible. This way you will understand how their songs are structured and can begin to think about how to break down the songs into lighting cues. The music will also provide you with details such as tempo, meaning, solos, key sounds and much more.

If you do know the songs that may be played, start charting those out to determine the cues you plan to build. Then move on to the rest of their songs that they might play. This may be done by the LD, or by the programmer, or even with both working together. I find it best to put blank cues in the desk that I can later fill in with actual programming. Furthermore, some desks allow you to create these lists in Excel or other programs and import them directly into your console. In either case, be sure to clearly label your cues so you can remember your intentions.

‡‡         Preprogramming

Often with concert tours or events, you will have an opportunity to pre-program with the actual rig and/or with a visualizer. This can be very beneficial as you can build actual looks and adjust the timing of transitions. Note that there will always be additional work required once the full (real) stage is set with all elements in place.

I have preprogrammed in many diverse locations including arenas, lighting shops, living rooms, airplanes, hotel rooms, tour buses and more. If you properly prepare your show file with presets/palettes and understand that the real stage will differ from your preprogramming session, then you can easily get lots of data into your desk from anywhere. During the preprogramming sessions, try not to get too caught up in the details and finesses of the looks. This will come later during rehearsals. The preprogramming time is primarily for getting the cues and basics of the looks organized and stored. Think of it as writing a rough draft.

‡‡         The Best Tool

When doing any programming, presets/palettes are your best friend. This is no different when preprogramming for a concert. You will need to create presets/palettes for positions and probably other attributes such as color, beam, gobos and more. Position presets/palettes are the most important for many reasons, but mostly because when the show tours, the lights will be hung differently each day. Although the rig may be the exact same and the lights are fixed to the truss, this does not mean that they will point to the perfect position each day.

The lighting director (or perhaps yourself) will need to update all the positions every day once the rig is built and ready. Depending on the tour, this may leave anywhere from four hours before doors to mere minutes before doors. As a programmer, you need to be aware of the time constraints on the lighting director. As you build your show file, you don’t want to leave the show with hundreds of positions that need to be updated on a rig (especially if the rig consists of hundreds of lights too). Be considerate and logical and keep the number of position presets/palettes reasonable.

Furthermore, you need to be sure to label the presets/palettes in a manner that makes sense to anyone that might need to update them. Clear definitions such as “CS mic” or “Drummer” are much better than “squiggle” or “fast zap”. You may also want to document the original positions via sketches or photographs in the event that the tour continues at a later date (or the person updating the positions changes). For instance, this documentation helps explain the difference between “stage wash 1” and “stage wash 2” to whoever needs to know.

‡‡         Distinctive Organization

Sometimes it feels like a production is very disorganized, but this is no excuse for your show file to be a mess. You need to organize it for easy playback and selection of songs. Most bands will play different sets and often change the order or selection of songs. The most common way this is handled on lighting consoles is through the use of pages/banks.

Typically, the programmer will assign each song to its own unique page/bank. Then all cuelists, cues, chases, macros, etc., are laid out on this page/bank that relates to the specific song. Before each production, the lighting director can re-arrange the order of the pages/banks to match that evening’s set list. During playback, at the end of each song the LD can simply switch to the next song, to get all the cueing
needed for each song. This organization method works extremely well and is commonly used on the majority of concert-type productions.

‡‡         Automation

Many concert events make use of audio tracks or click tracks to keep the band and show elements synchronized. Usually this means that SMPTE or MIDI timecode is available to the lighting department. When input into the lighting console, playback of cues can be automated so that they trigger perfectly with the music every time. The lighting director will do very little button-pressing during the show, but the cueing will be impeccable. It is important for programmers to understand working with timecode and how to program a show to respond to it.

Many consoles will allow you to “stamp” in your timecode values by simply playing the cues back while the clock is running. This makes it very easy to get the data into the desk, but you also need to understand how to edit the times to get the cueing perfect. Do you know how many frames to reduce the trigger time value by to make it trigger half a second earlier? Think about it!

‡‡         Prepare for Busking

Busking, or punting, is simply the act of live lighting playback to music. Instead of working from a preprogrammed cuelist or set of cues, the lighting director will utilize a set of common playbacks to build lighting looks on the fly. Every concert-type show file needs to include at least one busking page that contains universal playback elements, allowing an operator to make up the lighting on the spot.

When programming for a concert tour or event, you should always build a busking/punt page in the event that the band plays a song that you have not already preprogrammed. Trust me, they will, and you have been warned!

‡‡         Rock On!

While the majority of lighting programming is the same regardless of production genre type, concerts do have some unique idiosyncrasies. Understanding the music, properly organizing the show file, making use of presets/palettes and more are all-important processes for every programmer to understand. Whether programming for a concert tour, a music festival, or just an evening of music, you must always think about the best approach for the given show. By making use of the tools discussed here, you will be one step ahead and ready to enjoy the concert.

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