Spotlight on my ignorance!
January 20, 2012 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Can you explain to me how the lighting works for your average touring rock club show? Two specific examples for you to consider inside.

Both examples from shows I've seen in Boston in the past year:

Echo & the Bunnymen at the Paradise (mediumish club): There weren't any amazing light effects, but there were light cues timed to some key moments in some songs. Throughout the concert, the lights cycled through various setups that didn't seem wholly computer-randomized, but also didn't suggest serious work was put into it.

Yelle at the Roxy (largerish club): Lots more lighting effects, much more timed to the music--cascading lights and strobes timed to the beat, different spots coming up and down etc.

How do bands touring clubs deal with this kind of lighting?
  • Do they travel with a lighting person (if so, how does that work with unions)?
  • Is there a cue sheet that they hand out to the club's lighting person to work through?
  • Do they play the whole set in soundcheck and have the lighting person improvise a set of pre-programmed actions to be triggered later?
  • Is the lighting board linked to the soundboard so that certain sounds (i.e., snare keeping the beat) trigger lighting effects?
To be clear, I'm only interested in these kinds of club shows, not Lady Gaga touring stadiums.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I happen to know there are a few IATSE lighting and sound people on MeFi, if one doesn't appear soon I'll try to summon one when he gets off work a bit later. Please excuse the bookmark.
posted by tigrrrlily at 10:22 AM on January 20, 2012

If there is an electronically controlled aspect (as one would expect with Yelle for example), there are MIDI to DMX converters. I have seen an act that tours with his own lights, and controls them with the same controller/sequencer that is making music (one of the channels is dedicated to lights). I don't know how common this is though.
posted by idiopath at 11:30 AM on January 20, 2012

Best answer: IATSE sound guy here, I can't speak to every show out there (and I'm sure a lighting person could do a better job than me), but I've seen shows done a couple of different ways.

Most bands I've seen that are touring nationally/internationally will have a lighting supervisor/traveling designer. There are general looks that are set for certain songs, there can be specific cues that define certain moments in each song, or this can be live-mixed on sub masters.

If it's a real band playing (eg - no backing tracks) generally the lighting person is running it and it's not connected to the soundboard. Usually things like that are saved for shows that are tied to time-code and backing tracks. It's a pretty common thing to do that in shows that are permanently installed in amusement parks.

One of the last shows I worked on (in theater), the lighting designer had also designed the lighting for [decently known indie band]. He went to see the show a few months in to the tour and came back saying: "well there were certainly a lot more strobes than I originally designed". I don't know if this was the lighting person re-programming cues, or mixing in effects live.
posted by aloiv2 at 11:58 AM on January 20, 2012

Best answer: You have two basic set ups for small/medium venues. You already touched on them:

1) The band could have its own lighting guy that goes with the show (this is much more common with big shows like lady gaga), if this is the case then he is going to have a whole choreographed effect show pre made for the tour that changes little from gig to gig. This type of show is much more expensive as it requires not only having a full time lighting dude, but also hauling a shit ton of lighting gear around, as you can never rely on small venues having even halfway decent equipement.

2) The venue has its own in house lighting guy. Most venues in the San Francisco area for example use this set up. This places a larger burdon on the venue, but they are assured to have quality lighting effects for the show. If a Type 1 event comes through the two lighting guys get to hang out together and talk about how much they are under appreciated, and how the whole show would fall to pieces with out them (this is a favorite topic of lighting/sound wo/men). In the case that the band doesnt bring its own dude, then the house lighting guy has the responsibility to throw something together for the show. If its a modern venue then the lighting board will be programmable to the degree of allowing it to run the lights in sync with the beat. The lighting guy will pre-program different effect classes, and then manually move between them when songs change.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2012

When I DJ'd at clubs alot, I used to play with the lighting systems when my friends were mixing. Usually there's some software running different pre-programmed patterns, and you can sync it to the beat. Plus you can play with individual lights, strobes, etc, using various knobs and sliders. I mostly just messed with the strobes because that was the most bang for the buck, in terms of getting crowd response. I knew most of the songs my friends would play backwards and forwards, so I'd time the strobes to the build ups, etc, and would turn the lights off when it was just a dark, driving beat. Same deal with smoke machines during breakdowns, etc...
posted by empath at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2012

Best answer: IATSE, lighting, for way too long - aloiv2 and KeSetAffinityThread have it.

As far as the unions go - the usual way of handling it is that the traveling lighting person has what's termed a 'road card' - they're a member of the IA in another state, they pay their dues there and get a card that allows them to travel with shows.

You rarely see lighting directly slaved through MIDI above the low-end club DJ equipment. MIDI can't reliably handle the distances involved in the larger club venues.

Audio triggering is available on several different consoles, IIRC, but IME, it's a last-resort option used by people who are doing a show cold. The only board I've used that came with it stock was a Leprecon LM850, which is also the only board I've used that did MIDI.

I've never seen a band play the whole set and walk the LD through what they wanted - It's usually guidance like "Can I see a color wash? Can you make it redder? I'd like that for the first two songs.", at most.

And, yes, being under-appreciated is the squint's(lighting) second favorite way to pass idle time, next only to picking on the squeaks(sound) - Who, oddly enough, usually have about the same priorities. :)
posted by Orb2069 at 3:53 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm partial to "noise boys" and "sparkies" myself...
posted by aloiv2 at 5:17 PM on January 20, 2012

Best answer: Disclaimers: IANALighting Tech, as you can see by my user name, although I've certainly faked it a bunch of times and I've known and worked with a quite a few (heck, I even count some of them as friends.) I'm also not an IATSE (union) member, although again I've worked with union guys many times.

The shows you describe - yeah, that's pretty much what I do. I have a somewhat different take on it than the above answers, and I think your two examples are slightly different, so I'll take them one at a time. (Warning: long.)

Echo and the Bunnymen @ the Paradise:

If you're interested, you can get a pdf of the Paradise's gear on this page under "Production Contact & Venue Specs." Looking at it I see that they've got a fairly standard "rock club" mix of moving and non-moving light fixtures permanently installed, along with a lighting control board (or "desk".)

Do they travel with a lighting person

Hmmm. The Paradise's capacity is 900, and a tour that's playing those size venues is kind of right on the border of being able to budget for a lighting tech (soundguys, tour managers and backline (instrument) techs tend to take precedence). So maybe, maybe not. They're more likely to bring one if they're also touring with some of their own lights (usually moving lights) to add to the club's house lights. Touring light guys also often travel with their own desk, as lighting boards tend to be pretty idiosyncratic - while they all do pretty much the same thing, each manufacturer has their own terminology and workflow and little quirks on the desk, so a lot of light guys are really only familiar with one or two.

Given how you described the show, my edumacated guess is that they weren't touring with their own light guy - they were using the house tech. Depending on talent/experience/enthusiasm, light guys can often do a good job making the lights "match" the music, even if they're not familiar with the act. If they're at least somewhat familiar with the band's music, so much the better.

(if so, how does that work with unions)?

A lot of rock venues, maybe even "most" or "almost all", are non-union.

If they're playing a union venue, my experience has been (and seriously meaning no disrespect to any IATSE members here) that the shop steward is mostly concerned with making sure enough of his guys are on the job - as long as nobody's losing out on a day's pay, the band can bring in all the additional people they want. I've never seen anyone be asked to show their union card, and I've never been asked for one, either on the road or locally.

Is there a cue sheet that they hand out to the club's lighting person to work through?

Nope. As Orb2069 mentioned above, they might talk about general guidelines and moods, maybe hand them a copy of the set list with some scribbled notes on it ("quiet song, lots of blue"). At most, they'll have a couple of bits where they want something specific, and will note that on the set list. Given the wide variety of skills & attitudes encountered in house techs, asking for anything more complicated is unrealistic.

Do they play the whole set in soundcheck

Almost certainly not.

and have the lighting person improvise a set of pre-programmed actions to be triggered later?

You're actually kind of on the right track here - the general concept is a bunch of pre-programmed stuff that the light tech triggers & manipulates or alters live during the show (as empath described). The catch is that creating this pre-programmed stuff is a fairly tedious and time-consuming process - you can't really do it as the band rolls through the set once at soundcheck. Light desks have made a lot of advances in the last few years in attempting to simplify this and reduce the time, but I still regularly see light guys frantically pushing buttons and twisting knobs all the way until the doors open.

So at the Echo show, what seems likely is that the house tech had a bunch of things pre-programmed which he selected as he felt appropriate. If the band was touring with their own guy, things probably would have synced up a little better.

Is the lighting board linked to the soundboard so that certain sounds (i.e., snare keeping the beat) trigger lighting effects?

Again, almost certainly not, although as idiopath mentions, if an act is working with pre-recorded tracks, it is possible to have the lights synced to the music using Linear (SMPTE) timecode or MIDI timecode. Orb2069 is not entirely correct - lots of current high-end lighting desks still have MIDI sync capabilities. He is correct in that MIDI signal can't run long distances, so a MIDI to DMX converter is placed close to the MIDI source and DMX signal is used for the long cable runs. Also, wireless DMX is becoming increasingly common. (Warning: you may find the above Wikipedia links too technical. I did.)

Which brings us to . . .

Yelle @ the Roxy:

I wasn't able to locate any tech info on the Roxy - Googling led me to The Royale which is . . . . the Roxy renamed ? The Roxy's a bar in the Royale complex ? It's not really clear.

But looking at the Royale's website they seem to pull double duty as a dance club that also does live shows, especially stuff that's heavily electronics-based. So I think a somewhat different situation than the Echo show.

Wildly generalizing, acts that rely heavily on electronics tend to be more interested in their lighting than "standard" rock bands, so it's somewhat more likely that Yelle is touring with a lighting tech.

Then, as a dance club, the Royale's gonna have a LOT more lights than the Paradise, especially moving lights, and they're probably going to be newer and more capable. Also, dance clubs generally tend to go for more extreme lighting effects than rock clubs, which is what you seemed to describe - lots of rock bands can get pretty annoyed if their faces aren't visible a good portion of the time; electronic acts & DJ's, not so much. So a house lighting tech at the Royale is probably going to be willing to do a more, erm, fancier show. And even if there's no real house lighting guy there, they probably pay someone a pretty good buck to show up at the club every so often and re-program the lights.

Finally, as Yelle is obviously playing along with pre-recorded music, there's the strong possibility that they were able to send a timecode to the house lighting system, so the lights sync up with the music really well.

tl;dr . . . . I guess there isn't one. Sorry.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:25 PM on January 20, 2012

Best answer: I've worked with a bunch of electronica live acts, and in my experience, if they're playing at a dance club, there's almost no co-ordination with the lighting techs and they don't bring their own, unless the light show is specifically their 'thing', like with Rabbit In the Moon.

Sometimes there are VJs, too, and they'll control the lights and video.

I think in 5 years of working with one of the biggest dance clubs in the country, I can count on one hand the amount of time acts brought in custom lights. We already had strobes, lasers, a 20 foot wide disco-ball, a huge moveable light platform, liquid nitrogen, smoke machines, etc. There wasn't much they were going to bring to add to what we could do on any given friday.
posted by empath at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all--this was really informative!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:42 AM on January 23, 2012

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