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Sat 13 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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The death of the lighting console

At least as we know it. The surge in lighting control software, allowing ‘virtual’ lighting boards, is keeping manufacturers on their toes as they try to keep up with new technologies and the demands of end users.

The death of the lighting console
Emiliano Morgia, a lighting designer based in Italy, has worked on projects across Europe and the Middle East for over 20 years.

Emiliano Morgia, a freelance lighting designer from Italy who
travels all over the world to produce shows is adamant that the dawn of the virtual
era is here, touting the cost and time benefits of software over an actual console.

“It’s now clear that in two years time there will be more lighting
software then light boards. The speed of technology can’t wait for the lighting
industry market to catch up,” he says. “Take the example of the grandMA 2, one of
the newest desk’s out. It is already old inside, the components are already five
years old. Today, the industry needs more flexibility and the price of EUR50,000
(US$69,149) for a PC wrapped inside a black box isn’t what the industry can afford.
Avolites have understood this and are now looking at external processing power and
a smaller, more economical board.”

Morgia suggests looking to related industries for tips on how
to overcome the disparities between hardware and software. “The lighting industry
needs to look at the way things are done in the world of cinema where they use targeted
instruments to easily save work and produce excellent results quickly,” he says,
ointing to the gap between the computing power of a console and the average lap-top
as the main reason that virtual versions will lead the way.

“My worries first began years ago when I realised the 368 processors
on some consoles were equivalent to the very first Pentium computers.  This anomaly continues today with the huge difference
in price and performance of many consoles compared to computers. Incredibly, the
computing power of a computer costing about EUR400 (US$533), far exceeds that of
some consoles costing EUR 50,000 (US$69,149)!”

Morgia concedes that console manufacturers are fast trying to
keep up with technological advances, but given the turn-over of new consoles compared
to new lap-tops and even iPhones, they will find it hard to keep the most cutting-edge
tech in the hands of end-users.

MA Lighting, however, which manufactures the grandMA, admits
that the introduction of lighting control software is changing the industry but
is adamant that there is a place for console desks and software to work side-by-side.

“Because of the disadvantages in only providing a control software,
we’re first and foremost pushing our hardware solutions and providing them with
up-to-date software,” says René Berhorst, technical sales and project coordination
at MA Lighting. “We were one of the first companies to develop the standalone grandMA
onPC software for laptops and personal computers that represents the full power
of our lighting systems in case of backup.”

“The grandMA onPC version can be used to program or simulate
any kind of operation that is possible on the real grandMA ‘series 1’ and grandMA2
consoles. Together with different versions of our networking products, for example,
a MA 2Port Node onPC, this software can be your first lighting console – really
affordable but with the full power of the large systems that the ‘big guys’ are
using. However for the real shows, especially in terms of control elements and pure
rock-solid reliability, consoles will be used.”

Berhorst stresses that the demand from clients for reliability
is ensuring that the lighting console market will remain strong. “By delivering
only software you can never ensure that the used hardware (and maybe additionally
the installed software) will not slow the system down. This affects your output,”
he explains.

“The worst thing to happen to lighting control systems is a slowing
or stuttering output. Therefore MA Lighting offers with the grandMA2 consoles, the
MA NPU (Network Processing Unit) and the digital installation dimmer dimMA a fully
integrated system that communicates via MA-Net2 (Ethernet).”

He says the quick changes in computer technology means that the
manufacturer has to stay on its toes and looks to industry professionals to help
to ensure this happens. “A couple of developers who are well known in the theatre,
TV and concert touring sectors are taking care of new types of user-interfaces and
functions/features to ensure the best possible results in anybody’s workflow.”

The company now has a fully-fledged software development department
including project manager who synchronises all development activities. “We now have
twelve high-level programmers working on the MA software. You have to invest in
good people and an appropriate infrastructure to ensure the constant high quality
of products. And that’s exactly what we are doing,” says Berhorst.

While some, like Emiliano Morgia, tout the ease of transport
as a major factor in the move towards software control, Berhorst says this logistical
benefit does not outweigh the benefits of hardware.“If I want to make sure that
any kind of output (e.g. DMX and video) is available in “real-time” and synchronous
– there must be decent hardware to process this. Still the best way to guarantee
this is to build your own hardware and sell it.”

Morgia is not necessarily convinced – “The only thing that is
sure is that the revolution has started; prepare your fingers to slide virtual faders!”

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