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Time for an Update

Brad Schiller • Feeding the MachinesNovember 2019 • November 9, 2019

I recently purchased a new “smart” television, and now it wants me to update the software. Reading over the release notes, I see that it fixes some features I never use, and the update also has “various bug fixes and updates.” This vague information makes me very concerned about performing the update, because I am not clear what exactly will change. Luckily, when updating lighting consoles and fixtures, our industry is usually very good about providing clear details as to what the update entails. In today’s modern software-based society, we are often confronted with updating our equipment, and it is important for lighting staff to make informed decisions when it comes to the software we rely upon to make our shows happen.

‡‡         Timing is Important

Before updating any software, you need to consider the impact on the production. Obviously, the best time is before the pre-production period. All lighting fixtures of the same model should be running the same version of software. Otherwise, some fixtures may behave very differently than the rest of the rig. With fixtures, upgrades are typically accomplished through a USB stick, a proprietary upload device, or via a crossload from another fixture. When preparing a rig or quality checking (QC’ing) fixtures in a shop, the software version should always be checked. Generally, the most current version should be installed (unless there are known bugs or a production requires a specific version).

Lighting console software updates are much more of a personal choice as the differences may change behaviors, procedures, or introduce new bugs. Typically, you never want to change the software version of your desk once a show has been programmed. Of course, if there is a major bug that is affecting the show, then a software upgrade mid-run may be required. This should only be accomplished when there is sufficient time to test the operation of the show after the upgrade. Also, allow time to revert back to the previous version if needed. Many long running shows continue with the original software version from the time of programming, as there is usually no need to update the desk. Never update the software on a console just because new software is available. Be sure to save a copy of the original version software installer in the event of a hardware malfunction.

Some lighting shops require that their desks are always on a specific version of software that they agree is working to their satisfaction. If you are updating (or downgrading) a rented console, you may need to alert the owning company of your intentions before changing the software on their expensive desk. Anytime you do update software in a console or fixtures, be sure to test your show file and look for any unexpected results prior to a performance.

‡‡         Know the Differences

As with my television, it is essential that you understand the changes and improvements that will be provided with the software upgrade. Nearly all software is provided with a form of release notes. You should always download the release notes and read through the entire document to become aware of the changes. Sometimes there are very impactful alterations that could come as a surprise if you don’t read the release notes.

For instance, one console manufacturer released a version of software that added a long anticipated new color mixing methodology. Many programmers raced to install this software without reading the notes. What they soon discovered was that the software also changed the values within some of their color palettes/presets! While the release notes included a clear warning that this might happen, a great number of people were caught off-guard and only discovered the problem when they ran their show. Suddenly many colors looked different on stage than before the upgrade.

Most release notes will begin by listing new features along with a description about how to use them. The document will also clearly warn of any drastic data changes. Then there will be a list of bugs that were fixed. Many times the bug fix listings are cryptic one-line descriptions. However, the list can be very useful if you are looking to see if something that has bothered you has been fixed.

‡‡         Stay Current and Get Notified

Anyone working regularly with lighting fixtures and/or consoles should ensure they are made aware of software updates and releases. First, you can head to the manufacturer’s website and click on support. There you will usually be able to drill down to a page that lists the current software version for each specific product. There should also be a link to the current release software as well as the release notes. Furthermore, there will typically be an archive link offering various older versions of software and notes.

In addition to the software downloads, most manufacturers also offer a registration link where you can become part of a mailing list. This list generally will be different from a marketing list, and will be used only to notify you of software updates and other support information. It is highly recommended that you sign up for these notifications so that you can stay informed of the latest software versions and changes.

‡‡         Automatic Updates

My phone, apps, computer software, and even my television have continuous connections to the internet. Most are set to automatically check for software updates, and will pop up with requests to update from time to time. Some can even be configured to automatically update in the background without any interaction from me! I find this type of setting very dangerous as I like to know when and why software is changing as well as the specific changes that come with the update.

In our industry, most of our gear is not continuously connected to the internet, and thus automatic updates are rare. However, there are some lighting consoles and software packages that do get connected online and may update without your involvement. I find it best to change the settings to disable all auto-update functions and instead require you to activate updates. Besides, you don’t want your console auto-updating during a show!

‡‡         Software Rules Everything

As we continue to evolve in the digital age, we are seeing more and more devices that depend upon software. All software will require updates to solve problems and add new features. With lighting fixtures and consoles, it is very important to make informed decisions before updating any software. By reading the release notes and choosing a good time to upgrade, you can have success with new software. Be sure that you always have a path to revert back to the previous version if needed, and try not to be scared of making changes. However, if your show is working perfectly on its installed software, then remember the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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