You Don’t Need a Superstar Budget To Make a Big Impac


Sound and lighting, lighting and sound. They’ve been inseparable since the first mirrored balls cast their spinning flurry of dots on the walls of the ballrooms of the 1940s. When your band takes the stage, you are the center of attention, and nothing makes that more apparent than when the house lights drop, the stage lights come up, and you slam down that opening chord. It’s what people expect. But where do you start when you’re not a group like TSO, with a monster lighting budget? It may surprise you to find that with a little imagination and careful shopping, you can create a light show that your fans won’t forget, and your booking agent will be able to use to leverage more gigs.


The cool thing about adding visuals to your presentation is that you can often make up for a lack of cash with out-of-the-box creativity. One of the very first lighting effects I ever had (and this goes waaaay back) was one that we made out of a beat up old 12” hi-fi speaker, a small plastic waste can, some cellophane paper and a light with the rotating color wheel. First, we put the old speaker in the waste can, facing out and punched a hole in the bottom for the leads. Then we taped the cellophane paper loosely over the top and placed it so the light reflected off the cellophane. Then, we fed in an audio signal to the speaker (I think we took it off the bass amp). As the old speaker thrashed about inside the can, the cellophane gyrated quite violently, causing the reflected light to create wild patterns on the wall that followed the bass beat. For the main stage, a common practice was to build “spotlights” by mounting a outdoor flood light fixture in a coffee can, painted black. Yea, they smoked a bit as the paint burned off and after the gig, it typically took a good 20 minutes for everything to get cool enough to touch.


Fortunately, times have changed and there are now lighting products available commercially that do way more, for much less, and much safer. So, where do you start? The first thing to remember is that lighting requires electricity – lots of it. Once you know you have enough power, how do you get the most out of a limited budget?


Cover Your Front And Back

If you are at your computer, go to our Web site ( and click on the “OnLine Extras” section for this issue (#52). There’s a short list of videos and suppliers referenced that accompany this article. Click the video link labled “Genesis.” This is a 1973 performance of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” Note that most of the lighting used is foreground, meaning that it’s coming directly toward the performers. There is very little background lighting, and for this song, it’s not needed as the shadows cast by the foreground lighting is creating a nice backdrop. In addition, Peter Gabriel has stepped up the visual effect a bit by performing this song in costume. What you can’t do with lighting, you may be able to do with theatrics-it’s all part of a good visual presentation.


What do you need for the foreground? Start with PAR Cans, the building blocks of any light show. PAR (short for parabolic) Cans are inexpensive, simple and rugged light fixtures that create a soft, unfocused wash of light. Beam sizes and patterns are determined by the type of and size of the bulbs. PAR Cans come in varying sizes, including Par 38, 46, 56, and 64 and can be easily mounted on tripod stands (typically 4 or 8 to a stand). Add some colored gels (one at time, or they get hot) and you have the beginning of a fairly decent light show.


If you were to start out with just a single stand of 4 PAR Cans, it may look a bit tacky, but I’ve actually used just two stands, for a total of eight lights, successfully (this was obviously NOT for a rock show). Which brings us to this. The lighting and visuals are there to compliment the music. An acoustic duet in a coffeehouse atmosphere could probably do fine with just one or two “trees’ of lighting. Using a simple controller, the different colors can be used to create “scenes” which would then change with the mood of the music. By contrast, can you imagine how tacky it would look for a five or six-piece rock band to use that same set-up?


PAR Cans fitted with incandescent lights and colored gels have always been the standard building blocks for a light show. While plenty bright, they also run very hot and are prone to breaking and burning out. The solution has been the LED. LEDs run much cooler and can last upwards of 30,000 hours. The LS70 LED System (pictured) from ADJ comes with 4 PAR 38 Cans, 4 screw-in LED bulbs (red, yellow, green and blue) a foot controller and a light stand. Having an MSRP of $469, per system (street price is around $299), makes this is a very affordable choice, especially if you just want to run with two or three systems.


If your goal is to eventually have a light show that blows away every band in your area, you may do better to design it and build it over time. This way, you can add to it as you have the available cash, and be able to take advantage of the latest technologies. Incandescent and LED PAR Cans designed for that very purpose are available from ADJ, Chauvet, MBT, Elation, Acclaim, Ominsistem, Irradiant and other companies. Prices start at less than $20 for incandescent PAR Can fixtures (without the bulb) and run to well over $600 for high powered LED fixtures. Just Google “par cans” or any of the suppliers mentioned. In addition to the fixtures, you will need some type of trussing or tri-pod stand for support, and a controller, so that you can change the color mix with the mood of your music.


With PAR Cans covering the foreground, let’s move to the background. What the audience sees behind your band will have much to do with the layout of the venue. If your dream is the School Of Rock solution, with moving video images, it’ll cost you, especially when you look at the price of high-powered projectors. On the lower end, you could use light panels or multi-light fixtures that can be set on the floor at the rear of the stage and wash the back wall with color. For something considerably more interesting, consider a color wheel effect which projects colors and patterns, or a wash type effect such as the Q-wash LED-36 from Chauvet. But your options don’t stop there. For something really show-stopping, check out one of the many moving beam effects which can be quite stunning when synced to your performance.


Lighting Dynamics

While a stage full of bright flashing colored lights may look stunning, the effect gets old fast. Even mega shows like TSO, with hundreds of PAR cans, lasers and effects at their disposal, seldom turn everything on all at once. Just as your music has dynamics, so should your light show, and that requires some method of controlling the intensity of the lights. Simple controllers which provide a easy way to turn individual lights on and off, and provide dimming and chase capability can be purchased for less than $200. For something more expandable, you would be wise to choose a DMX system. Digital Multiplex Signal, or DMX (actually short for USITT DMX512) can control up to 512 channels of lighting. DMX is a communication signal only and does not supply power to the fixtures, so all DMX light fixtures and dimmer packs require their own power supply.


Before DMX was created, the only lighting control system was analog which required one individual wire to be run from the controller to each light fixture or dimmer pack. Check out the “OnLine Extras / SAM#52” for additional resources and information on DMX. One product worth checking out is the new DMX-16 SW System from ADJ. Priced at just $419.95, this package includes everything you need to operate 16 channels of lighting and effects. That’s plenty to get you started, and it facilitates easy expansion.

Originally posted 2009-01-13 16:00:45.