The Grandest Of Them All

by Brad Schiller
in Feeding the Machines
Grand Master Fader
Grand Master Fader

Magic fader on the desk, who is the grandest of them all?

The absolute worst moment for anyone at a lighting console is when you have been stumped as to why your fixtures have no output, only to discover that the Grand Master is down. If this has not yet happened to you, then be on the lookout because it does happen at least once to everyone.

Nearly every lighting console has at least one very special fader or knob often labeled the Grand Master (or GM). This single device has the power to control the output intensity of all the connected devices, and usually this authority is strong and overruling of all other intensity on the console. Automated lighting programmers need to understand the power of the Grand Master and how to use it to their benefit.

‡‡         A Bit of History

Long before automated lighting was even dreamed of, theaters used gas-fueled lights to illuminate stages. The early 1800’s marked the introduction of gas lighting to the theater. These systems were controlled by “gas-tables” which were essentially a series of valves that controlled the flow of gas to specific lights or groups of lights. The entire gas table also had a single regulating valve of all the gas that turned off output of fuel to all lights simultaneously.

As electricity was introduced into theaters starting in the early 1900’s, new methods of controlling intensity were created. The idea of a single, overriding control that started with the gas-table was carried over to the “new” electric control systems. Eventually, computerized consoles and automated lighting consoles appeared and continued to replicate this concept with a dedicated fader or knob.

‡‡         Beneficial Blackouts

The Grand Master can be very useful to an automated lighting programmer or operator. There are many uses for it, because it is always available to simply grab and turn down all fixtures. Anytime you have a need to blackout (or even dim) everything you can just reach for this control. If you walk away from the desk and don’t need light on stage, then you can lower the Grand Master and trust that most people wont be able to trigger any cues in your absence. Furthermore, you can use the Grand Master (or associated DBO Flash button) to create impromptu live effects by running the fader up/down or flashing the DBO. Since the entire rig is changing intensity or flashing on/off simultaneously, the look can be quite stunning. By the way, the DBO button is an instant on/off function that stands for Dead Black Out.

‡‡         GM Pitfalls

As I mentioned at the top of this article, the Grand Master is known for causing many headaches and needless calls to support lines. Because it is rarely used, it can often be easily forgotten and lead to quite a panic when the desk does not behave as expected simply because the Grand Master was not at 100 percent. Programmers and operators need to be aware of the Grand Master level at all times and ensure that it is properly set.

The Grand Master usually affects everything with intensity on your console. So if it is down, then your smoke machines may not work, backstage work lights may blackout, video might be black, and much more. Always think about this before grabbing the Grand Master to execute a blackout on stage. In addition, some LED lights that have only RGB or RGBW control will remain on when the Grand Master is turned down. This is because the console is treating them as color parameters and not intensities.

Additionally, the total overriding power of the Grand Master and DBO button can lead to devastating effects if broken. For instance, I was once working with an LD on a big rock show. He was really into a particular song and hammering away on the DBO button to achieve his desired look on stage. Suddenly he was screaming that the desk stopped working. A bit of quick investigation led me to discover that he had pushed so hard on the DBO button that it sank into its circuit board and now was locked on! It took several panicked attempts with a Swiss army knife before the button freed itself from its destruction of our show.

‡‡         Special Abilities

The real reason I wrote this article about the Grand Master is that many consoles provide unique abilities that a programmer can assign or adjust that are related directly to the Grand Master. A programmer with knowledge of these functions is much more powerful than one who is not aware.

First, many consoles allow you to define fixtures or cue lists that actually ignore the Grand Master settings. This is great, because it means that you can tell your smoke machines or backstage work lights to not be affected by the Grand Master settings. Now you can use that fader as needed without fear of causing mayhem backstage.

Second, it is often possible to totally disable the Grand Master and/or DBO button. This can be very useful in situations where volunteers or other inexperienced operators will be running the lighting. It will prevent them from accidently enabling the feature and not understanding what just happened.

Third, some consoles provide multiple Grand Masters or even no GMs at all. With multiple Grand Masters, you can assign certain groups or types of fixtures to each. This way, you can make one Grand Master for your stage lights and another for your backstage work lights. Alternately, at least one console does not even provide a dedicated Grand Master. Instead there is the ability to display a Grand Master in one of the locations used for normal playback or as a temporary override on top of a playback.

Lastly, networked multi-user systems provide options as to whether a local Grand Master overrides all desks on the network or simply that one console. Usually, there are different configurations that can be assigned, depending upon the usage. You probably don’t want your backstage tech console to always have the ability to bring down the Grand Master, but you certainly might need that functionality at FOH.

All of these unique functions provide awesome levels of control with the simple Grand Master. As I always state, please refer to your console’s user manual to determine exactly what functions are available and to learn how to configure them.

‡‡         It Goes To 11

The Grand Master on lighting consoles is here to stay. Some people never touch it, while others find it extremely useful. I like knowing it is there, and I do make use of it when necessary. Years ago, when it was removed from a new console, many people complained and the manufacturer was forced to bring it back on their next model. In fact, they even had an April Fool’s Day joke where they proposed a wing that only had the Grand Master on it! One other manufacturer still has consoles where the Grand Master level is indicated as 0-11 (as opposed to 0-10). This homage to Spinal Tap is sometimes lost, but I always wonder if lights are brighter on this desk than others when the Grand Master is at 11.