I suppose I should introduce you to AJ Pen. AJ has been doing lights for 20 years. He worked for Linkin Park for 13 of those years. His work is rhythmic, striking and totally appropriate for Linkin Park. Naturally, I was intrigued and called him immediately.
To understand what we achieved, you must first understand how modern concert lighting works. I'll make this short.
Prior to 1980, rock concerts were lit primarily with par cans. The control consoles that operated the dimmers were analog monsters. For each instrument in the lighting rig there had to be a single continuous control line from the desk to the dimmer. If you wanted to control 500 par cans (not an unusual number for a large tour) , you needed 500 individual control lines plugged into the back of the desk. These lines were usually ganged into multiple-pin connectors which could handle a subset of the control lines. In 1980 a startup company, funded primarily by the band Genesis, produced what is often referred to as the first computerized moving light. In 1986 they further refined their proprietary system using missile technology. Where there were previously many hundreds of wires running to the front of house console, there were now just a few. The console would broadcast instructions to the fixtures digitally using a simple addressing system. This idea of multiplexing and computer control is now ubiquitous.
The modern computerized lighting console has become a fairly standard item. All of the desks now available on the market are proprietary systems using expensive custom hardware for the user interface. Lighting consoles tend to be rental items as they are very expensive to buy. The top of the line control desk at this moment costs in excess of $80,000 and is in constant beta development. The software can take years to master and most users just barely get by on a minimum of knowledge.
Essentially a lighting console performs two tasks. First, it allows manual control of the fixtures in the rig. When lighting looks have been set, they can be recorded into cues that can be recalled later. Second, the desk serves as a playback surface. Most desks will have some configuration of buttons and faders that allow playback of multiple cues simultaneously to create new lighting looks from the prerecorded looks. Most desks hit some kind of balance between easy access for manual control and easy access for playback control.
One of the limitations of proprietary hardware and software is that it is difficult and usually impossible to customize the control surface. The console is the console and you just have to get used to it. This is where AJ and I set out to change our world a little bit. For years AJ had been watching the midi sequencer and midi control market grow more and more accessible and customizable, all the while wondering how he could leverage all of that fantastic musical gear in a lighting control setup. He showed me a setup he was considering that consisted of Ableton Live, the Novation Launchpad and the M-Audio USB Trigger Finger. This drum pad based setup seemed perfect for Linkin Park, especially since the Trigger Fingers he was using were PA of DJ Jo Hahn's previous touring setup.
We had a very important advantage with Linkin Park in that every song has a backing track that gets played back from ProTools during the show. Every song also has smpte timecode that is sent to the front of house audio console to control certain effects. Naturally, we decided we would like to try connecting Ableton Live to this timecode and synching a recorded lighting performance to the backing track. Recording the the lighting playback into the sequencer allowed AJ to stack up several discrete tracks of cues. In this fashion, he was able to have 100s of cues during a song with very little setup on the desk.
We spent a week in Los Angeles programming and came up with a workable method for midi playback of the lighting cues. Alas, the setup was tedious. While the lighting console we chose to use was excellent for programming cues and playing them back on its control surface, setting it up to respond to 64 different midi buttons for each song was a slow and difficult process. We did a couple of shows using this setup, but felt that it would take too long to program an entire touring show. So I went to the drawing board.
Following the idea of leveraging musical instruments to control lighting, I downloaded a trial copy of Max/MSP and began working with the midi tools that it provides. Wow! Within a couple of hours I had a working control interface. I could move a fader on a midi device and cause a corresponding fader to move on the lighting console. Importantly, this required no setup on the lighting console. By using MIDI Show Control I was able to address cuelists directly without first assigning midi controls on the console.
Once I had the midi faders working, i began thinking about the rest of the show. AJ wanted to be able to assign up to 64 custom lighting looks per song, each of which he could play back from a midi controller and record into Ableton Live. The buttons along with the rest of the playback controls had to listen to the timecode and had to change based on the current song. Automatically. Soon a new application began to form. Within a day, I had max reading timecode and changing the midi setup based on the current location. By the end of the second day I had the application setting up the console based on the current song. By the end of the week I felt that we could successfully record all of the playback for the entire show with virtually no setup in the console.
Our first couple of days in rehearsals in Berlin served to prove that the concept was working. We managed to program most of the show in those two days and, importantly, we recorded the playback for all of those songs. In 5 days we were ready to do a show.
I felt a strange calm as the houselights went out. I knew that i had spent weeks perfecting this system and that little had been left to chance. We had tested the system time and time again and it had never let us down. I watched as the first video element appeared on the projection screen. I watched the lighting follow the action on the video, perfectly synchronized. I grinned when the first light faded in on Mike S. The crowd went wild and the show began to run itself. After the first few minutes, the novelty had worn off. This had become a very real method for lighting control. What was at first simply a concept was now a full fledged tool and we had done a real job with it.