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Platform Perfection and Pitfalls

Brad Schiller • Feeding the MachinesSeptember 2019 • September 9, 2019

There are several key manufacturers of lighting consoles in our industry, and each has its pros and cons when it comes to programming and operation (as well as cost and popularity). Besides sending out the same basic data stream to the fixtures, all these systems also share a common sales tactic: the platform. Each manufacturer will build variants of their console to offer a range of price points and feature sets. It is very important for every programmer to understand the nuances and pitfalls of each item in the platform.

‡‡         The Elements

Each console manufacturer generally creates a large software project that they then squeeze into a variety of products. In most cases, the options start with a full-featured desk that has all the bells and whistles. This main product is usually further expandable with wings, processors and other devices. Furthermore, it also generally has the most processing power and the largest number of screens, faders, and buttons.

Next in the lineup you will find lower-priced offerings with reduced feature sets. These will be consoles with fewer screens, fewer faders and reduced DMX output capabilities. In some cases, they also may have software limits that remove certain features or be lacking expansion and MIDI/timecode abilities. The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” certainly applies here. The lower the cost of the console, the fewer abilities it may have.

After a range of consoles, the manufacturer will offer a PC-based version of their software. In this scenario, you must supply the computer and then install their control software. Many will enable a DMX universe or two via Ethernet for no charge, but in most cases, additional hardware will be required to actually output a control signal. Common output hardware options usually include processors, programming, and/or playback wings, dongles, widgets and more.

‡‡         The Benefits

By offering a range of consoles, the manufacturer has opened the door to a wider range of customers while also allowing programmers to focus on a single platform of control. Once you learn how to program on one variant, then you should know the procedures, syntax and common features on any of the other models. In many cases, smaller versions in the platform are used for backup or tech consoles, as they offer a reduction in both rental costs and the space they occupy.

Another big factor is that your show file should be compatible, regardless of the hardware model. Although these scaled-back consoles may reduce the total number of universes available and reduce the number of screens, you should be able to load your show and get running across the console range.

As a programmer, once you learn a platform, then you can easily migrate between different versions of the console to expand your working opportunity pool. You won’t have to learn (and remember) many different systems in order to take more jobs. You can easily apply your console-specific knowledge and skill to other markets, events, venues and more.

‡‡         The Pitfalls

As great as it sounds to have multiple console models available that are all running the same software, you should be aware of some very significant downsides. The most troubling is that often the button layout varies between console models. Although we all wish this were not the case, it often happens as the manufacturer tries to reduce costs or overall size. They must eliminate certain keys and/or move them around to make them fit in the new chassis. This means that your muscle memory will be quickly broken. If you are used to a certain pattern of movement to type “1 thru 5 at full” and, suddenly, the “Full” key is in a different location, then your programming speed will suffer. It can be very unnerving to have to learn new key layouts.

Additionally, different items in the platform commonly have different screen layouts. There may be only one screen, when you are used to two or three. Now you will need to not only think differently when programming, but you will also need to adjust your screen views and the layouts within. Some consoles will allow you to save views per hardware model, while others leave you fending for yourself.

Another problem with various models in a platform is a different number of playbacks. You might have a main console that has two banks of faders, but your backup console is a smaller model that only has one bank. Should you need to switch to your backup, you will discover half the faders/buttons you planned on using are no longer available! You need to plan ahead for this by creating virtual playback layouts and/or ensuring that your important playbacks are stored on the fader banks that exist on all types of hardware.

When specifying different models within a platform, you need to be sure you understand the differences on all the aspects you will be using. Let’s say, for example, that the console model you’re now working on has a reduced feature and does not work with timecode. This will be a show-stopper if you plan to have your show triggered from timecode. Many manufacturers will have a chart showing the features available on each model of their platform on their website and/or user manual.

‡‡         Moving On Up

About every 10 years or so, your console manufacturer will likely come out with a totally new version of their hardware and software. When this happens, you need to prepare again to learn the distinctions of the new platform. You cannot expect the newest models to match the features and layout of the previous versions.

Moreover, the manufacturers will often release their new hardware ahead of their newest software. In many cases, they will allow the previous software platform to run on the new platform hardware. This sounds great and lets you get the shiny new toy in your hands as soon as possible. However, you will find this is very difficult to manage, as they are cramming a square peg into a round hole. For instance, the new hardware will be created with the new software in mind. Many buttons will be in different places and have new names. Some new encoders and buttons may go unused when running the older software version. While they will do their best to match the new hardware to the old software, it will not be a high priority for the software developers.

While it can be fun to jump on the latest platforms, often it is best to continue with the platform that was designed for the software intended to run on it. If you have to bounce between not only different platforms, but also newer and older versions, then you will certainly become quickly frustrated.

‡‡         Pick a Platform

I am glad to see that, for the most part, our industry has moved into a platform-based system for our control consoles. It certainly makes it easier to learn one piece of software and apply it to different hardware models. Some manufacturers have tried to create sub-platforms that operate similarly, but differently, than their primary platform. This resulted in upset users and poor sales. Try to avoid any sub-platforms that are not compatible with the core products.

Once you select a console system to master, take the time to learn the particularities of all the models in the platform. When you can, practice on the different models to ensure you are comfortable using the various types. Then make wise choices as to the model that is best for your production’s needs, and have fun programming.

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