In Defense of Plug & Play Visual Productions

By Lee Duck & Adam De Witt on Sep 8, 2016
Posted in Tips & Tricks


 

                                 I the Mighty performing as support for Cohered & Cambria in 2016 using a plug & play lighting setup.

Today we are joined in the Lounge by Lee Duck, Owner of Duck Lights, and Adam De Witt.   

It's an exciting time in the live event visual production world. Controllers keep getting better & cheaper, software is maturing and embracing more powerful features, and every day another ship load of ever cheaper and unique color changing lighting fixtures are delivered to our shores. It's more affordable and easier than ever to create a visual production to accompany a live performance. This ease of access has given birth to a relatively new form of visual production design and implementation, the "Plug & Play Visual Production."

New Form of Production Implementation

 

What is a “Plug & Play” visual production”? In its most basic form, a pre-programmed and automatically triggered visual production synchronized to an act's performance timeline, such as Ableton, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, or Reaper. What sets it apart from the traditional timecode show is an intent to be regularly deployed and performed without the presence of a visual production professional.

They Took Our Jerbs!

"Hold on there, chief" I hear you road-haggard LDs cry, "you're takin' our jerbs!" At first glance it would seem that way. Enabling your average bedroom producer to perform without a visual production professional sounds like giving away our gigs. We've found the reality to be quite the opposite. It's important to note that the majority of these productions simply would not exist without such an approach. Most of these productions are being applied to emerging acts, often taking an opening or direct support position on a tour. They couldn't afford a "real" LD if they wanted one, much less a bunk space. We're talking about a different class of production here, creating a lower "Entry Level" of visual production.

DIY to Professional

Whether a Plug & Play visual production is developed by a hobbyist or professional, there are some pretty significant limitations compared to a traditional operated approach. These shows are inherently smaller and less flexible than what a pro can pull off from night to night. As/if the act grows, they will inevitably reach a point where a traditional LD is both a financial possibility and an implementation necessity. Once they've reached that point, they've typically gained an appreciation of the role. At the very least they've acknowledged the importance of what a visual production can contribute to their show. They also know it’s no simple task, and are likely more understanding of the complexity and difficulty of the work they will be paying for. If the Plug & Play solution was provided by established professionals, they often get an early introduction to the process while learning good habits at a level where the stakes are much smaller.

           Andy Black Performing with a plug & play lighting system on a UK tour. Lighting Design & Programming by Duck Lights

Why it's Possible Now

Why now? What has changed to make such productions possible in the last decade? There are three key elements that have come together to usher in this new lower-level production.

  1. The proliferation of incredibly affordable, power efficient, and low maintenance fixtures.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned ship loads of mostly LED fixtures being cranked out of China lately, the options for lighting rigs at a sub $2k/wk rate are staggering. Not only are they affordable, but many of them require far less maintenance than our 'ole arc-lamp sources. The rise in popularity of pixel mapping opens a whole new world of visual styling that can be executed with merely a hand full of fixtures.

  1.  Tracked musical performances are now the norm.?
  • The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW for short) has completely revolutionized the music industry. Whatever your opinions on backing tracks, the fact of the matter is they're here to stay. Modern music artists of all genres are using software like Ableton, Logic, Pro Tools, and Reaper to produce their music. This usually results in the inclusion of sonic elements that are non-trivial or flat out impossible to perform live. From backing vocals to orchestral hits, drum machines to complex synths, most shows already have backing tracks. The drummer (if human at all,) probably uses a click and is likely pressing Play in some form at the start of every single song. The timecode is already there.

  1. Modern visual production controllers are flexible and more capable.
  • Thanks to the largest productions utilizing tracked automation for decades and the more recent PC+node options of powerful control systems, it's possible to design & program remarkably complex shows to later be automatically executed on budget friendly & more portable hardware. A capable LD can design and program in the comfort of their own home/office with previsualization, record the performance to rehearsal tracks, offload the showfile to a laptop & node, tweak & optimize the show in rehearsals, train a day operator, and see the tour off, freeing them up to start another show.

Challenges

There are, of course, challenges to this approach. Before addressing them, it's important to once again note that we're talking about a generally lower level of visual production here. By not involving a professional in the day to day operation, you're inherently introducing the possibility of things going awry with no one on site to resolve them. With careful planning and execution by an experienced lighting professional, most issues can be made easier to resolve or avoid altogether. While one could just take their trusty core show file and add a few automation macros, these productions warrant rather significant considerations and alterations to the normal workflow. Any automation obsessed or lazy-yet-clever LD can tell you that reliable automation is no simple goal to achieve. Programming a show to playback in the face of fluctuating set lists and song re-starts can be hard enough. While you can hopefully rely on a local LD to cover a new track or unexpected blackout, it’s not their job to make your wackadoodle show setup function when something goes awry, and it will. Good documentation can reduce or eliminate any frantic phone calls during sound-check. Ultimately, good planning, experience, and standardization should keep the show flashing fine every night.

The concept of a Plug & Play show is not a cure-all: instead of replacing what’s already working for our industry, it allows smaller artists to have visuals early in their career while their identity is still being defined. So, the next time you see an artist running their own lighting package, be rest-assured that as they grow, they will understand the importance of a good visual design.

Editor's Comment:

Duck Lights is a visual production company out of Los Angeles which has been servicing touring bands with both traditional and plug & play productions since 2007.

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