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Lighting Network Basics

PLSN Staff • Feeding the Machines • April 9, 2015

Automated lighting programmers are constantly using new equipment and setup configurations. It is very important for programmers to understand how networking has become an integral part of many systems. While a full understanding of computer networking concepts, equipment, and topographies is not required, there are some basic networking principles that you need to be familiar with. The number of lighting devices connected together with wired or wireless networking equipment is growing on a daily basis, but the general purposes can be broken down into three unique situations. However, before exploring these categories, you must understand some basics of networking.

Networking Basics

Most lighting consoles have at least one network connector on the back of the console. In fact, it is now more common to find two or more on newer consoles. This is because there are two general uses for network communications that work best when they are separated from each other. Typically one is for a proprietary network protocol unique to the console and its related devices. The other port is used for communication with other protocols (such as Art-Net, sACN (E1.31), KlingNet, or Kinet). Before you can actually utilize these plugs on the desk, you must configure the ports accordingly with specific network information.

First, you will need to assign an IP Address to your console. This is similar to a DMX address, as it uniquely identifies each device on the network. You will likely also need to configure a subnet and gateway. However, your network could be utilizing DHCP, in which case these aforementioned settings will be automatically configured. If you are configuring the second port to work with a protocol such as Art-Net, then you will also need to assign DMX addresses, cast type and other unique settings.

Although it all sounds very scary, the configuring of networking settings in your console should be fairly easy to use and understand. As always, every console is different, so refer to the user manual for exact details and terminology. Then there is the matter of the actual networking equipment. You will likely need to get a switch, router, or hub, and that, too will need to be configured for your specific network. I suggest reading up on networking basics; there is plenty of free information available on the Internet.

Console-to-Console Networking

The most basic lighting network system is two lighting controllers connected together. When two consoles can communicate directly with each other, an entire host of features becomes available. The most common use is for one console to act as the primary and the second as a backup. A network tracking backup system will mimic everything that happens on the primary desk onto the second desk. If something fails on the primary, then the backup will automatically take over control of the output.

Another favorite use of console-to-console networking is the use of multi-user programming. In this case two or more people can work on the exact same show file, but from independent desks. This is commonly used to divide the workload among several programmers. For instance, one person can program the automated lighting and another the conventionals. They both are working on the same show file and storing data into the same cues and cuelists. At a later date, one can log-off the network, and because all the data remains in one file, the show can be run from a single console. Most consoles also allow you to set up unique user profiles so that each person can log in and restore any console to their own personal setup of views, layouts, zones/worlds, and more. The profiles can also be given certain permissions by a “admin” programmer so that each user can only access certain data and may or may not be able to make changes.

Console-to-console networking provides several other features as well, including remote capabilities, file sharing, and messaging. When a wireless access point is on the same network as a console, then a wireless device such as a phone or tablet can be used as a portable controller to access the show file and data. These are extremely useful tools that allow the programmer to move away from the console while still retaining programming and control abilities. Furthermore, when consoles and/or remotes are networked together, they also have the ability to directly share information such as show files, media clips and notes from one console to the other. In addition, some consoles allow users to enter chat sessions so that another layer of communication is possible over the network.

Console-to-Fixture Networking

The next type of lighting network is console-to-fixture networking. Here, the console uses a common Ethernet standard to distribute multiple DMX universes over the network. Imagine that a giant bundle of DMX cables running from FOH to the stage can be reduced to a single network cable (and hopefully a backup cable too!) By sending many DMX universes over the network, you can now have any universe available anyplace that a network cable runs. At the far end of the lighting network (away from the console) you will need either fixtures that have Ethernet plugs or a Node to convert the Ethernet cable back to standard 5-pin XLR DMX cables.

Each node or fixture will need to be configured to work with the network so, again, you will be working with IP addresses and more to configure your devices. You also need to ensure that the protocol you are sending from your desk is compatible with the fixture or nodes that you plan to receive it. Remember that at each fixture or node, you will need to choose the DMX universe that you intend for it to use.

When you start running network cables into your lighting rig, there are many things to consider. The network topography, backup scheme and failure points must all be considered along with the type of Ethernet cable and connector. If you plan to have a network cable run to multiple Ethernet enabled fixtures, you will need to run a single cable from a switch to each fixture. The placement of this switch must be considered as well as the power going to it. You probably do not want a switch sitting on the truss without a UPS or other physical protections. Some fixtures do include a built in switch allowing “daisy-chaining” of Ethernet from fixture to fixture which is helpful but also comes with its own set of problems (typically the switch does not function without power to the fixture).

Console-to-Devices Networking

The third type of common lighting network allows communication to a wide array of devices. These devices can include visualizers, media servers, show control devices, wall controllers, motion tracking systems and much more. Some use proprietary protocols while others utilize industry standards such as Art-Net. Often these systems do more than just send triggering information from the console to the device — they have two-way communication features. For instance, many media servers now use CITP to send thumbnails and playback imagery directly to lighting controllers.

One of the most common lighting devices found on a lighting network is a DMX processor. As the size of shows continues to grow, lighting consoles simply do not possess the processing power to facilitate millions of DMX channels crossfading simultaneously. For this reason, most desks use distributed processing where the desk sends raw data over Ethernet to an external box that processes the data into DMX, Art-Net or other protocols. As the system grows, you only need to add in more processors to gain full control of lots more DMX universes. Networking consoles and processing units together is a key function, and all programmers should understand how to configure for their given console.

Keeping It Simple

There is nothing simple about networking. I have only provided a cursory overview of how networking is commonly used in lighting systems. Lighting programmers need to have a basic understanding of standard networking terminology and configurations, in addition to the specific requirements for their console. Some lighting networking systems can become very complex very quickly, and it helps to have a good technician take the lead on the network setup and configuration. If you wish to learn more about networking with Entertainment systems, I suggest reading Wayne Howell’s book, Rock Solid Ethernet.

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