Published: Tuesday February 24, 2015.

…and now I know DMX

This is another post about The Craven Players, my local amateur dramatics group that I am a member of. I act, and will likely be directing an upcoming performance.

Like many similar amateur dramatics operations, there is a volunteer staff running proceedings for a willing membership who, in turn, pay a nominal fee for annual membership. Rehearsals take place, and performances happen. There’s money coming in, and money going out. In many cases, these two totals are very similar. I recall one recent performance made a total profit of about 5GBP or thereabouts.

There are copious cable ties, lengths of paracord, screws and other scrappy bits of stuff required for every performance to make it happen. There are north of 150 decisions made as the opening night approaches. People take on their respective front-of-house and backstage roles. Politics are pushed aside in favour of getting the job done. Everyone is mentally drained at the end of it all. And yet, every few months we reconvene and figure out what to do for the next show.

I look at the sound and lighting and it makes me sad. Not because it’s been abused, neglected or damaged, but because it’s stuck in the past and a long way past its recommended life. I wince when I see a stereo headphone out going directly into a mono line in (padded) and hear the hum of a broken/missing ground loop through speakers which are the wrong impedance for the aging amplifier.

The show goes on. I keep going back. And I love it.

The time has come, however, to switch things up and I’ve given myself the job of updating the sound and light. At the end of last year, I started to plan out what an updated audio + visual setup for the Craven Players would look like. I was given a budget to start getting new gear, and I’ve been ultra careful to spend as little as possible so far. It’s not because I’m cheap, or that it’s someone else’s money, but I’m confident that I can acquire the parts I want using grant money, fundraising and other sources that don’t involve decimating the hard-earned finances. Knowing that I was allocated 50% of the total Craven’s bank balance makes me uneasy.

An important step for this new gear is an updated lighting rig to replace the existing setup. Traditional PAR cans are expensive to buy and use bulbs that are costly to replace. They also generate absurd heat, use a lot of power and require a hefty power grid to run at full tilt. Just as domestic incandescant bulbs have been shunned in favour of more efficient options, PAR cans are gradually heading that way, too. Analogue lights are being phased out in favour of digital lights, controlled from computer or a dedicated control desk.

Last year, I saw a 24-channel lighting desk on Amazon for about 150GBP. There was one in the Amazon Warehouse for a bit less, perhaps 115GBP — I don’t recall the exact amount. I was debating getting this unboxed desk to teach myself how to setup and run digital lighting rigs. I uhm’d and aah’d over the holidays and ended up not getting it. Every week, I would check to see if it was still there. It was. Each time I checked, it was gradually getting cheaper. The dawdling became a game; how cheap would it be before someone snagged it? I promised myself I’d get it when it dropped below 80GBP. I was having a tricky time of things when it finally dropped to my target price, and I got cold feet. I walked away.

Life got very tricky for a while and I forgot about my Amazon game entirely. Two weeks ago, I remembered it and stopped by to see if it had been bought. It was still available and had dropped to under 50GBP. I bought it at 48GBP and change. I have no doubt that it would have fallen in price even further, but I was in the mood to seize the day and learn something new. It was boxed up in my office until the Cravens performance had ended, purely for available time reasons. Now it’s all done and I’ve had some decompression time, I spent a couple of hours learning how DMX works. It’s a clever system, actually. I knew very little beforehand, and the lighting desk isn’t very intuitive to relative beginners. I am pleased to say that I’ve figured a lot of it out, mostly by trial and error (read: learn by doing), and I can now control multi-coloured LED PARs. I can also explain to someone else how to do it, crucially, which means I’m not required to do lights all the time.

That’s the main hurdle taken care of. Now there’s the small task of finding money for replacement lights, a mixer, some mics, leads, speakers, and a bunch of other things. I’m really looking forward to a time where there’s much less of a need for cable ties, paracord and other bodges — at least on the audio visual side of things, anyway.