Putting Lights to Music: A Guide for DJs and Entertainers

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Putting Lights to Music: A Guide for DJs and Entertainers

Music and lighting go hand in hand. The image of a dance club or rock concert in most people's minds is as much about the lights as the music. Nothing says dance music in quite the same way as light flashing off the facets of a disco ball. Concerts work in the same way, many acts are as famous for their light shows as they are for their music. Not every DJ or entertainer works on that scale, but almost every musical entertainer can benefit from using lights as well as music. The key lies in how those lights are arranged and controlled. It is not enough to simply bring in a handful of motorised lights and have them send beams of light around the dance floor at random, the lights have to be synchronised with the music. Otherwise, rather than adding to the music, the light show detracts from it, driving the audience off the dance floor and possibly out of the venue.

A Brief History of Putting Lights to Music

While some of the simpler lighting effects such as the mirror or disco ball, predate the Second World War, the majority of components now seen as a musical light show only dates back to the late 1960's and the application of electronic controls. The first discos predated the use of electronic controls and used a combination of soft red lights, disco balls, mechanical strobes, and slightly later, ultra-violet lights. While the combination helped set the mood for dancers, it really did not involve setting lights to music so much as simply using them to try and create an atmosphere.

What really made the difference was the introduction of electronic controls to lighting, which happened in the UK around 1968. These controls allowed the lights to flash in time to the music, bringing the beat to the audience's eyes as well as their ears. Initially, the idea was to use three lights, one timed to the bass, a second to the mid-range, and the third keyed to the treble. This worked well, but many people found the three, and later four different beats too complex to follow. Because a single beat was seen as too simple, a compromise was reached: everything was keyed to the bass line with the lights running in sequence. The first beat activated the lights on the first channel, the second worked with those on the second channel, and so on in a repeating cycle.

This innovation set the basics for all that was to follow. Smoke machines brought the possibilities of 3D to the dance floor, turning spotlights into visible columns of light. Later additions brought more colours and controls, allowing for a greater variety of visual effects than ever before. Switches and mirrors not only brought more variety to the dance floor, they also brought it under the control of the DJ. Now the music had become a tool, using three-dimensional shapes and eventually computer controls placing complete command of ambient lighting into the hands of DJ’s.

Basics of a Light Setup

The first thing for any DJ or entertainer to do is sit down and determine exactly what they intend to do with their light setup. They need to know whether they intend to make it small and portable or whether they are looking for a larger, fixed installation for a more permanent venue. Whatever the person's needs, the first step is always identifying them. Then, once the needs have been identified, the next step is to set a budget, as that determines what limits the person has to work with. With the budget in place it is time to decide on what lights to use, and how to control them...

Choosing Specific Lights for DJs and Entertainers

There are several different kinds of lights that are used in a modern light show, ranging from the relatively simple to the extremely complex. Which ones an entertainer uses depends on the lighting arrangement they have designed. The following list shows just some of the lighting options that are available:

Type of Light

Description

Use

Pin Spot

Tight-beam spotlight

Smoke & Mirror effects

Flower

Multiple beams through one lens

Multi-coloured light patterns

Scanner

Directed, shaped, coloured beam

Provides DJ control of lighting

Intelligent Flower

Multiple computer-controlled, directed, shaped, coloured beams

Automated system to combine scanner and flower effects

These are the lights that make up the majority of disco and entertainment light shows. Other options such as strobe lights still exist, but they were relegated to a secondary role after the focus shifted to computer controlled light shows.

Choosing How to Control the Lights

There are three basic ways to control a lighting system: manually, let the music do it, and via computer. Many basic systems are designed to be acoustically coupled and simply flash in time to the beat. These systems are inexpensive, and work well enough but do nothing to create a memorable experience for the audience. The next option is manual control. This came in with the development of more complex lighting systems and allowed much greater flexibility. The one drawback was that the complex systems required more effort to run, and in some cases necessitated a dedicated light jockey, just to run the lighting system. This obviously was not an ideal situation, and so the computerised control systems came into use as they were developed. Computer controls give the DJ or entertainer the ability to plan the show in conjunction with the set list and then let it run without the need for user intervention once the show actually starts.

One huge advantage of modern computerised control systems is that they are cost-effective for the user. Rather than choosing a highly priced dedicated light control board, many entertainers prefer to use software and their existing laptops. Advances in interface technology and dedicated light-management software have made it possible for DJs and entertainers to not only avoid the expense of a dedicated light board, but in many cases it may actually lead to better results due to the greater flexibility that is possible with a computer.

Putting Lights to Music

Once an entertainer has all the equipment they need, the next step is to take the time to lay out a coherent light plan. While computerised systems do allow the DJ a lot of control, they also require a lot of preparation.This is because the entertainer needs to know the exact programme as they can only do one thing at a time, limiting their flexibility. One option is to programme the system on a per track basis, giving the DJ full flexibility in choosing tracks, while still retaining the ability to take advantage of synchronised lighting.

Buying DJ Lighting Equipment on eBay

eBay is an excellent place to buy DJ lighting equipment for all your entertaining needs. You can find everything from light boards to lights and controllers in one place. All you need to do is enter the keywords you want in the search box, there is one on every page. Then, once you have the results on your screen you can take advantage of the many tools eBay offers to narrow the search down to just the gear you want. You can filter by anything from price range, to brand, and even the seller location. After narrowing your search, you can also use the sort function to ensure that the ones that most appeal to you are at the top of the list. You can sort by price, by best match, and for those in a hurry even by distance.

Once you have found the gear you want, the next step is to determine which of eBay's many reputable sellers is your best match. The best place to check them out is at their profile page where you can see everything from their feedback to their location. You can also see if they offer any bundle deals such as combining several different kinds of lights in one shipment. Some sellers may even allow local buyers to pick up their gear in person.

Conclusion

The use of lights in addition to music adds another dimension to the music experience, and for many audience members it can make the difference between a simply good experience and a great one. Disco lighting has come a long way from the days where the only thing it had to offer was the occasional spot bouncing off a mirror ball in the ceiling. Nowadays, music can flash to the beat, rhythmically combining light with sound. The advent of 3D images, computer-controlled intelligent flowers and pre-programmed light shows has created a new era in both music and entertainment. The combination allows a single person to create a multi-media experience for the entire audience, which can be replayed at any time. Shaped and multi-coloured lights can completely transform the audience's sense of place and allow the DJ to create an experience that was previously impossible. The key is taking the time to determine what one needs and going from there. It is all about knowledge.

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