There's a Console In My Computer

When I first stumbled into the art and science of lighting, I was a teenage electronics enthusiast with an interest in amateur radio. (Today that would qualify me as a geek or a nerd.) I voraciously read everything I could find on the subject, from yellowing 1930's books on wireless telephony and old issues of the ARRL callbook in the local library, to the hottest new issue of Popular Electronics from the newsstand. Naturally enough, I began to do the same thing with lighting and sound technology: following at a distance the new developments in solid-state thyristor dimmers, and a little later, the introduction of the first memory consoles.

It was a couple of years after their introduction before I actually had the opportunity to rent some thyristor dimmers to supplement our school's venerable resistance dimmers. However, by then, I had already read all about them and knew how to plot and operate the multi-preset console. Memory lighting controllers, however, were then completely beyond the reach of the school and community theaters I was working in, being installed in only a handful of the world's most prestigious venues. Many of these early consoles were effectively a custom interface for an off-the-shelf computer such as Digital Equipment Corp's inexpensive PDP-8 industrial minicomputer. In a time before the integrated circuit or the microprocessor, these computers, with a processing capacity around one percent of the CPU in your cellular phone, only cost about half as much as an average family home.


Of course, the invention of the microprocessor changed our world forever. Lighting enthusiastically embraced this technology, to the point where quite possibly the only device in your inventory without its own CPU is your pocket Maglite, and even then I wouldn't be too certain. Very early in their history, microprocessors were incorporated into lighting controllers, bringing their price down to a mere five times the price of a medium-sized car. Since the commoditization of the microprocessor, it is almost impossible to buy a lighting console without memory facilities. In some cases, prices are not very much more than you would pay for a set of tires for the family SUV.

Parallel to the development of the mainstream, dedicated memory console, has been a movement to employ the personal computer as a budget-priced memory lighting controller. Dating from before the microcomputer had even acquired the title "Personal Computer" from IBM's marketing department, the first such controller that I know of was the MicroStar from Weststar Corp. This was designed to plug into the peripheral slots on the Apple II computer. Each of the (up to six) MicroStar cards controlled 16 analog (0-10V) dimmer channels, while levels could also be read from another analog console and recorded for replay.

There have since been many lighting controllers built on this principle of using an existing computer to handle all the human interface and channel processing, while using some form of purpose-built peripheral device to drive the interface to the lighting system. Since the almost universal adoption of the USITT's DMX512 protocol during the last decade, the variety of offerings has proliferated. Controllers range from complete packaged systems like Horizon from Entertainment Technology and StarPort from Dove Systems, to such devices as the DMX Dongle II from Artistic Licence. The DMX Dongle is a DMX input/output device that plugs into a computer. However, rather than coming with a complete lighting control software package, it is accompanied by a kit of software developers tools, for those who wish to build their own control interface or DMX analysis software.

Although these computer-hosted systems give a lot of control for the dollar, they have some major shortcomings when it comes to using them in real productions, especially for live-recording or live-to-air situations. Perhaps the most crucial problems are the absence of dedicated and labeled buttons for critical functions and the operational limitations imposed by a keyboard and mouse for manual fade and movement control. Feeling your fade on a monitor is not easy without a fader or a wheel; a lead/lag manual cross-fade is simply not possible with a single mouse or trackball.

These shortcomings have been addressed in different ways during the history of the computer-hosted console. The MicroStar had an optional panel with two faders on it that (from recollection) connected to a joystick port on the pre mouse-era Apple II. Further down the track, at the end of the 1980s, when MA Lighting produced an astounding piece of IBM PC-based software to control the newly emerging moving-mirror luminaires, they very quickly developed an accompanying fader and button panel to act as a control interface. This interface almost immediately metamorphosed into a dedicated console with a PC inside it: the Scancommander, possibly the very first generic moving light console.


Meanwhile, across the way, in the world of the dedicated lighting console, the advent of the moving lights brought with it vast additional amounts of plotting time to create and modify increasingly complex lighting plots. Not only are producers unwilling to hire facilities for days or even weeks of lighting rehearsals, often the equipment, the LD and the talent aren't even in the same location until rehearsal day. One popular approach to dealing with these problems is for console designers to create an inexpensive, off-line version of the lighting console, usually designed to be run as an application on a personal computer. Using such a simulator allows the LD and/or the console programmer to prerecord everything from system patch setups to full running shows. Linking a simulator/off-line editor to one of the new generation of lighting visualization programs enables the production team to pre-plot a production at an incredibly detailed level, and may keep as much as 90 percent of the lighting plotting in pre-production.

It is a very short and logical next step to enhance the off-line version of the console by producing an output device to generate a stream of DMX512 data, thus transforming them into computer-hosted younger siblings of the dedicated console. These versions are very much less expensive than the dedicated hardware, while retaining many, if not all, of their features. There are of course, the previously mentioned shortcomings with regard to actually operating such a console under production conditions.

The next step has now been taken. At LDI in November, Flying Pig Systems released a programming and a playback panel to attach to any computer running their free WholeHogPC software. WholeHogPC is a very complete computer-hosted version of the widely-used WholeHog II console-the standard against which all other moving-light controllers are judged. These peripheral wing panels include virtually every button, indicator, wheel and fader found on the latest WholeHog III console.

I recently had the joy of specifying and commissioning a WholeHogPC system and all its associated peripherals and interfaces for a client. I was impressed with how well the system was accepted by experienced WholeHog programmers and LDs and how rapidly they were able to become productive on the new platform. It seems that finally, there is a computer-hosted console with almost all of the capabilities of a dedicated controller, at a substantially lower price. This one comes in at around the price of a cheap compact automobile, which is still only a fraction of an entire WholeHog.