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An LD Learns to Program Lasers

Nook Schoenfeld • Editor's NoteJuly 2020 • July 9, 2020

At the last couple of trade shows I visited prior to the Covid-19 shutdown, I always stopped by each laser booth to see what was new. Almost all of the laser manufacturers have figured out a way for LDs to run them from their own lighting console. This intrigued me, but at the same time, it also scared me. I have been using lasers for years on my designs, but have never programmed them and, quite frankly, the liability issues were a little concerning. So I always trusted my laser operators.

30 seconds to set up

‡‡         Learning by Doing

There may never be a more opportune time to learn how to do this, so I reached out to my pal Adam Raugh, the president of X-Laser, for a chat about how tough the learning curve really is. “Hey man, glad you reached out. Instead of us just having a discussion, why don’t I just send you a unit to play with. Then let’s set up a Zoom meeting, and I can talk you through everything in an hour.” A week later, I walked into my office at the Legacy Production Group in Minneapolis, and a 20-watt Skywriter was sitting there.

I have never set up a laser, and there were no instructions. But I had a fixture and a separate box with a kill switch that came with a couple cables. I patched a 28-channel fixture in the grandMA, enabled the Art-Net output — though I’m told most of their fixtures have a 5-pin DMX input as well. A single Ethernet cable goes from the desk to the box, then another connects the box to the lasers. A 110V Edison cable connects power. There are keys on both units to ensure additional safety, and I turned them on. Once Art-Net was established to the unit, I hit a reset button on the outboard box, and a little indicator LED turned white, telling me the laser was ready.

Simple looks in seconds

‡‡         A Multi-Part “Fixture”

“The laser is a multi-part fixture,” explains Adam. “The first thing we need to do is set up a zone.” By this, he means we need to dedicate the safe area in the event space where we can shine the laser — as in where the beam will terminate, by striking an object. In arenas, this usually means above the audiences’ heads, or the concrete barrier that separates mezzanine levels of seating. Any touring show will have to adjust these zones at every venue to prevent the laser from hitting anyone’s eyes. I shine a test pattern on the wall above me and adjust some X/Y coordinates and the zoom I desire, and I’m set. I am not concerning myself with audience scanning just yet.

Adam talks me through each function, and most of them are as easy to grasp as any moving light functions. Dimmer, Position, Color and Beam. The Gobo section is where you will find all your patterns. Simple geometrical shapes from a straight line, to triangles, pentagons, circles, and of course a single dot (for bouncing the laser off of mirrors). I can shine a shape, rotate it at any speed (if wanted), adjust the zoom and focus it. Easy peasy — where’s the intricate stuff?

Back to the multi-part section. This laser can separate itself into six separate beams if needed. Adam talks me through the LCD on the back of the fixture as I assign it to have six separate beams, through the personalities. So while channel 1 is the master, channels 2.1, and 3.1, and so on will be six separate beams that can each be controlled individually. I turn them all on, and all I see is one circle on the wall, as they are ganged on top of each other. With a quick fan of the pan encoder, I have six different beams. I write a red, white and blue chase in seconds. Beam-wise, each laser has a multitude of different prism effects one can apply to the output.

Colorful Laser look

‡‡         Special Effects

Lastly, Adam takes me through the special effects channels. These are divided into three groups — Motion Effects, Color Effects and Scan Rate. The motion effects can apply different waveforms to the output, allowing for dynamic liquid sky effects on the fly or complex abstract effects by changing just three parameters. The color effects are a whole lot of fun. I can choose to put the six beams in a fanned array and add in a “Center Rainbow” effect, for instance, that keeps the outside parameters red while the interior colors change to a complementary rainbow of oranges and yellows. The color effects can also split the beams into more shapes by blacking out certain parts of the output. The scan rate adjusts how quickly the laser emits its beam. This makes the beam able to sync with a camera’s frame rate for special effects captured on film that the eye may not be able to see.

I then spend the rest of the day making palettes for a future show I have in October. The next morning, I came in fresh and spent a couple hours just writing various cues so I would have a setup file ready so I could quickly choose looks for my first show. What everyone told me at LDI was true — running lasers from your console is incredibly simple for any experienced programmer.

For more information, visit www.x-laser.com. Reach Nook at nook@plsn.com.

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