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When it comes to stage lighting, the first and somewhat obvious priority is the light fixtures. Today, there are dozens of choices a gigging musician can make about light fixtures. The two most popular types of stage light fixtures are PARs and Fresnels. Parabolic Aluminized Reflector (PAR) light fixtures are the most popular type of light used on music stages. The biggest reason for this is their relatively low cost compared with other types of fixtures. PAR fixtures come in many sizes, with the PAR number relating to the number of eighth-inch increments in the diameter of the PAR lamp, inside the fixture. For example, a PAR 56 fixture has a 7" diameter lamp (bulb) inside. Lamps for PAR fixtures are usually available with various grades of narrow (spot) to wide (flood) light dispersion patterns. For most modest band stage-lighting needs, a medium to wide flood pattern is used. PAR fixtures commonly used for stage lighting are the PAR 56 and PAR 64 types with 300 and 500-watt lamps, respectively.

For a little more money per fixture, Fresnel light fixtures offer a more compact light than PAR fixtures, with the ability to adjust the amount dispersion with one lamp type. The fixture gets its name from the Fresnel glass lens mounted on the front, with its circular serrated pattern for evenly dispersing a wide area of light. Unlike the PAR fixtures, Fresnels are used exclusively for washing (flooding) a stage with its light. Fresnel fixtures come in 6" and 8" lens sizes, with the 6" the most popular, using 250 or 500-watt lamps.

PAR and Fresnel fixtures usually come with features on the lens openings for holding gel frames, gobos and barn doors. Gel frames are square pieces of tin with a circular opening that holds sheets of colored gel plastic, to tint the light. Mainly used with spotlights, gobos are similar to gel frames except they're opaque to all light, with the exception of a silhouette pattern cut in them that's transferred onto the stage. Barn doors are pieces of sheet metal that extend out from the fixture to partially block the conical light beam, for fitting to the stage area.


Other types of fixtures like ellipsoidals (lekos), border lights, scoops, intelligent lights and follow spotlights are available as your stage lighting desires expand. Most of these are more expensive fixtures, with specific purposes that can be added to the more general purpose PAR and Fresnel fixtures.

As opposed to theatrical work, stage lighting for gigging bands requires a portable means of suspending the light fixtures from the sides or overhead of the stage. To accomplish this task, tripod-style stands and webbed metalwork (trussing) are employed. For smaller lighting setups, a simple tripod with a matching "T" bar for each side of the stage may suffice. Optionally, single horizontal bars attached to the tripod's extendible vertical bar can be used to hang more fixtures and become a "light tree." A number of manufacturers produce these tripod and bar combinations, and even include accessories for hanging portable dimmer packs for neat and compact stage lighting.

As your light fixture needs grow, running trussing between tripod stands permits an attractive and flexible means for mounting many light fixtures for more precise location and aiming. Today, light trussing is available in a variety of lengths and shapes with provisions for secure assembly, quick tear-down, and transportability.

The ways of getting power to stage lighting hasn't changed much in about a century of electric lighting. For light fixtures, three types of power connectors are in common usage: Edison, Stage Pin, and Twist-Loc types. The standard and familiar three-prong Edison plugs and receptacles are the most common for portable stage lighting. Because light fixtures are also used in commercial and theatrical settings, Stage Pin and Twist-Loc plugs and receptacles are also used. Most people have seen the curved prongs of a Twist-Loc plug, but fewer still have seen or noticed Stage Pin plugs and receptacles.

Cables for conveying AC power from dimmer circuitry to the light fixture plugs are standard three-wire, stranded copper conductors similar to types used in extension cords. The two most popular are the rubber (Type S) and thermoplastic (Type SJT) jacketed cables. Most cables for lighting usage are rated for 1,000 watts and are sized for 16 or 18-gauge conductors, depending on the length of the cable run. More professional (and more expensive) cabling will contain a few more circuits within the cable jacket, with purpose-built connectors for termination at dimmer racks and flown stage trussing. Beware when replacing or rewiring the short cables between a light fixture and its plug. Do not use standard insulated wires or cabling since the fixture's heat requires that special high temperature (Teflon) wiring be used.


Most stage lighting is controlled by circuitry units called dimmers. These dimmers are much more robust than the household dimmers used for the dining room table. Multiple dimmer circuits are usually contained in rackmount enclosures or in compact boxes called dimmer packs. Dimmer packs will contain power and controller inputs and one or more dimmer circuit receptacles. Again, dimmer packs will be available with Edison, Twist-Loc, Stage Pin, or terminal strips for connections to cabling. Most dimmer circuit ratings will be in the range of 600 to 2,400 watts per circuit.

For power distribution to dimmer packs, each pack will have one or two Edison plugs intended to connect to the venue's receptacles. If you have a pack with two plugs, connect both plugs into the same duplex receptacle outlet for safe operation. The reason for this is that each plug and receptacle connection is only good for 15 amperes, even if the venue wiring is 12-gauge to the receptacles for 20-ampere (2,400-watt) service. Dimmer racks are usually provided with higher amperage connections that demand more robust connections. Always have a qualified electrician make the power cabling connections within the dimmers and racks to assure safety when using the equipment.

A dimmer pack also needs the control information for each dimming circuit. Today, the means of transferring this information has evolved from separate 0 to 10-volt analog control signals per channel to a digital means of setting several dimmers from a pair of wires. For portable stage lighting, two digital interface standards have evolved: MPX and DMX-512. The Micro-Plex (MPX) method is aimed at low-cost, short-run, dimmer control applications where standard XLR mic cables can be used with the dimmers and the controller chained in a way that's very similar to MIDI communication. Digital Multiplex (DMX-512) light control protocol is a second standard that has been adopted by industry professionals for theater and other live performance events. DMX-512 cabling uses a five-pin XLR format with a balanced digital transmission similar to MPX, but with controlled impedance cables for chained connections. The DMX requires a termination load at the end of the chain and allows for up to 512 dimmer addresses to be controlled.

Controllers for stage lighting come in a wide variety of configurations, depending on your control requirements. Bands starting out with stage lighting may opt for a foot-operated controller box to switch between a few preset combinations of lighting (scenes) with blackout (all off) and scene-chase capability. If you have the luxury of a production crew (soundman, lightman, roadies, etc.), a more complex controller can be employed to change scenes on the fly and aid the performance beyond static scene arrangements. Better controllers provide more scenes plus crossfading between scenes and "bump" buttons to flash on individual dimmer channels. A good lighting operator can raise the level of entertainment by providing a little "light show" performance.

See also:
Lighting Tips

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