What It Does
The ETC Congo is a preset-style console that is designed for total flexibility and is geared to live event and theatre applications. It is a comprehensive console that easily handles both moving lights as well as conventionals. There are 999 sequences (cue lists) per each show file. There are 999 master pages with 20 faders of content each. The Congo has two universes of DMX output for a total of 1,024 outputs on 3,072 channels. You can easily expand the outputs up to 12 universes of DMX. The console can distribute ETCNet2 protocol for easy networking and is ready to implement Remote Device Management (RDM) and Advanced Control Network (ACN).
The console supports track editing as well as synchronized backup between two consoles. At the moment, it does not support multi-user setups in the same show file. This will be added in the future. It is not a dead-end console product; it is intended to grow through updates. For memory storage, the USB memory stick is the preferred method of portability of the show files.
Congo's fixture library is extensive. “By using a simple, spreadsheet-like definition of fixture attributes, and by copying the fixture templates into the show file as they are patched, Congo offers a flexible and direct fixture definition that the user can edit on the fly,” says Sarah Clausen, product manager for ETC. “New fixtures can be patched or imported into a show file at any time, and users can create their own fixture templates if needed.”
The console supports up to three monitors. The GUI utilizes OpenGL, so the channel views can be zoomed and sized to suit each user's preferences. If you want, you can squeeze all of the information into one display screen. “We worked very hard to eliminate the need for a mouse or pointing device in Congo,” comments Clausen. “Mouseless Navigation is provided using the keys around the level wheel. One can navigate the graphical user environment very quickly using the navigation keys and wheel without having to break focus from operating a lighting console.”
Also cool are the six rotary faders and three switches that allow a user to assign any channel to them, so you have easy access to house lights, an effect like a fog machine or confetti cannon, or a special that won't get accidentally recorded into cues.
The console retains the Reverse Polish Notation, or RPN as it is usually called, that Avab consoles are known for. This method of control may seem backward at first, but as you get used to it, it can be easier and faster to program a show. With most consoles in the US market, you would type [Time]  [Enter] for a five-second time. With the Congo, you type  [Time] saving one keystroke. The keystroke savings can add up quickly and give users what Clausen describes as “a stream of consciousness console.” She sees the Congo much like Vari-Lite consoles where it is direct, hands on, and syntax-free. “Everything is within two to three button hits.”
How It Came To Be
ETC designed and manufactured the Congo console, but it is built on Avab heritage. The console was developed over the last two years and began shipping in June. ETC gained Avab and its technology with the acquisition of Transtechnik last year.
“The ETC console product line was aging, and ETC desired an increased presence in Europe,” says Clausen. “In Europe, some will buy into an American product; however, many will not.” The Congo was originally designed for the European market and for the working methods of the European theatre, opera, and television market segments, but as it began to be shown in the US, people seemed to like it.
Avab's consoles were aging, but the software engine was sound. Pronto was the core engine of the Avab consoles, but it needed new hardware and graphics interfaces. “It was a plateau to easily grow from as well as the fact that it already had wide acceptance,” says Clausen. “Pronto has been in existence for six years and was fairly well accepted and used.” It served as a baseline for the console development team.
Clausen speaks about the initial development of the Congo console. “Initially, we surveyed around 200 end-users in Europe about what they wanted to see, what the desired features were, and what kind of problems they had with previous versions. This console was designed with a lot of user input and was not designed only by an engineering or marketing department.”
“Congo is intended to be a family of control products,” says Clausen. “Currently, the Congo console is partnered with the Congo Radio Remote Focus Unit (cRRFU). In the future, we plan to expand the line with a smaller-footprint version of the console as well as a rack-mounted LPC.”
In the near future, Congo will use the Carallon fixture data service (Carallon is a London-based consulting firm that consists of the former Flying Pig Systems team) for increasing the number of fixtures in the library, as well as additional features such as a color picker.
What End-Users Have To Say
William Kenyon, lighting design advisor and head of Penn State's BFA Program in Theatre Design and Technology, had an opportunity to recently use the Congo for their first show, Bat Boy. Kenyon's students had time to acquaint themselves with the console's operational syntax and functionality. They quickly adapted and found that many processes were now easier.
Kenyon had also wanted to see how the console would work with intelligent fixtures: “The way that Congo interacts with moving lights is far easier than with conventional theatrical consoles. Rather than painstakingly assigning channels to all of the discrete parameters on your intelligent fixtures in a channel-chomping ‘horizontal’ manner, Congo assigns the device itself, doing all of the DMX addressing in multiple ‘vertical’ channel stacks in the manner of a dedicated moving-light console. At the same time, Congo transcends being a hybrid console [a moving light console that can do conventionals as well] by being, at its core, both a theatrical console and a multimedia system.”
Kenyon was especially pleased with an invaluable function on Congo called “Freeze,” which goes well beyond the usual submaster for blackout. “When you switch to Freeze,” explains Kenyon, “it freezes and maintains the output in that moment of time for every single DMX channel out of every universe that is being output and maintains that state — with no change on stage — no matter what's happening on the console. Among other things, this solves the problem of having to go to blackout with people on stage, specifically during tech rehearsals, which I never like to do. On other consoles, I could write a blackout in blind as a workaround, but you always have to be concerned that bad stuff may track through. We used Freeze in so many situations. That one extra feature allowed the designer to continue to work efficiently throughout the rehearsal process without interrupting what was going on stage. This is a very cool feature that I've never seen on any console before.”