Our test LD assembles his gear for a tough road tour — with results to come

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part article, in which LD Rusty Strauss tries out a number of automated lighting units in a real-life application. This first installment, devoted to the assembly of his rig, was written in November. The second part, in which he reveals his findings on the subsequent tour, will run next month. For the purposes of this article, he chose gear from some of the less-known brands, along with new units from higher-profile manufacturers.

Welcome to the first Lighting Dimensions Road Test, in which we take a look at some of the newest and lesser-known lighting fixtures now available. For the past few years, moving-head luminaires have revolutionized the theatre lighting industry. However, if you only read the industry magazines, you might think the market is divided between two or three manufacturers. That's because a few companies have risen to the top in terms of market share and advertising awareness. In fact, it wasn't until the last LDI that I myself became aware of the sheer number of companies producing moving-head intelligent lights in the 575 range — spots and washes, 400-700W, all DMX-controlled, and all looking for business. Some units offer more in the way of effects. Others feature electronic ballasts. Still others slash costs, offering fully-functioning units at half the going price.

But what are the risks of trying out a brand you've never heard of? Who do you believe? If you buy a less expensive unit, will you only get what you paid for? That's where the LD Road Test comes in. We've carefully chosen six of the newest fixtures to take out on the road for a three-month tour, covering 50-plus venues in 90 days.

There are two questions we hope to answer:

  1. Can a potential buyer step away from the major players (Martin, High End Systems, and Vari-Lite) and still expect a reliable, high-quality unit?

  2. If a company sells a unit for less, is it cutting corners that will affect the product's performance?

We will see.

ROAD RULES

Let's set the rules. First of all, this isn't a Timex commercial; I'm not going to beat the hell out of these things just to see if they will still work. Moving lights and grand pianos are two works of art that rarely get the respect they deserve. Since I have always purchased my own gear — and have generally purchased it used — I treat every instrument as if it's full of glass (which, of course, it is). Even when the local union is present, I (or one of my crew) will have a hand on each fixture each time it is moved. Good clean power will always come from my distro and not from the house dimmers. And we don't slam around any road cases.

Furthermore, as a touring LD, nothing could make me wish for a lighting unit to go down on the job. My idea of success is reporting back that there are six new intelligent lights for you to seriously consider on your next job. If, however, one or more of these units doesn't stand up, I will report it, thereby saving us all a lot of anguish in the future.

More considerations: I've read the brochure of each fixture. I'm not interested in their color temperatures, and I won't stand under each beam with a light meter. But during the course of the tour I expect some will outshine the others and will provide honest commentary about that. I'll also comment on things like noise, smooth movement, DMX anomalies, and, of course, tech support.

A while back, I read an article in LD in which a technical director bought 30 new High End Systems Studio Spots® and was impressed that they all worked out of the box. I'm going to need a little more than that. Moving-head fixtures have had several years to overcome the challenges of new technology. Anything coming on the market today should have the operational bugs worked out first. New effects are great but every time you add another prism wheel, you add a new motor. When that motor goes bad, the whole unit goes down (unless you don't mind being stuck in yellow). I frequently lose an entire instrument because of an effect that I don't even like.

INTRODUCING THE GEAR

For this year's lineup, we chose six instruments, both spots and washes. They're a mix of full-featured units with cutting-edge technology and price leaders, some of which cost less than half of their competitors. In no particular order, they are:

Studio Due Excess 700: Manufactured in Italy and provided by US distributor New Century Lighting, the XS 700 is a sleek-looking unit that is loaded with features. In addition to power zoom, focus, and more rotatable gobos and prisms than the average Pink Floyd concert, it boasts an electronic ballast (EB) that allows the user to choose his or her own variety of power, from 90V to 260V. You can also choose from a number of light bulbs, from 575W to 700W. In addition, you can plug it right into the wall via an Edison plug, if necessary. The EB also electronically dims the bulb up to 60% before the mechanical dimmer kicks in and dims down to zero. That translates into less heat, longer bulb life, and longer fixture life, too. The onboard LCD screen is practically a palm-top computer, offering tons of useful information, like lamp voltage (the higher your voltage, the closer you are to burnout). It even tells you how many amps it is pulling at any given time.

Prognosis: This is truly an electrician's dream come true. But what about all those effects? The question will be if all those wheels can reset every day without incident.

Robe America Color Wash 575: (www.robeamerica.com). Made in the Czech Republic, this is your no-nonsense, everything-you-want-in-a-wash fixture. It's got CMY color-mixing plus a dichroic color wheel, as well as beam-shaping from 0° to 180° and zoom from 78° to 28°. The unit offers full 16-bit pan and tilt. The electronic ballast gives flicker-free operation, lowers the overall weight, and allows you to choose power from 100V to 240V — all at a price that's very competitive.

Prognosis: I really look for this unit to make the grade.

SGM Giotto 400 Spot: Back to Italy for this one, supplied by US distributor Techi-Lux. The Giotto 400 has lines just like a Ferrari, and I, for one, can't wait to get this baby out on the open road. When I told Alex Gonzalez of Techni-Lux about the test, he couldn't wait to show his 400W against the competition. He virtually offered to rent me a MAC 500 and a Studio Spot, just so I could see them side by side. This is another full-feature spot, but the big hook is the reduction of almost all noise, even during rapid movements. You stand right next to this thing and you think to yourself, is it on?

Prognosis: If your application calls for a quiet fixture, you will certainly want to give this one a listen.

Yoke Scan's 575 Spot Unit: Supplied by Chen Imports, this one is so new it doesn't even have a name yet. The Yoke Scan is manufactured in Asia and is the company's first fully-featured spot in this class.

Prognosis: With nine colors, two gobo wheels, one rotating, 630° pan, and even prisms, it is designed to compete with anything on the market, at a price that will leave the folks from the big three companies shaking their heads.

MP 250 from EMO and Moonlite Industries: The MSD 250W bulb in this moving-head fixture doesn't qualify it to be part of this group. But this little unit has something going for it that I couldn't resist: It retails for around $500. That's right, folks: For the cost of one name-brand unit, you could buy 10 of these. It's got color and gobo wheels and runs on DMX. True, it looks a little like something I made in high-school metal shop, but who cares? EMO is supplying two of them and they'll set nicely on the back truss for beam effects.

Prognosis: If the lamps still strike in April, I'll line up for a dozen myself.

Coemar iSpot 575 EB: Coemar is hardly an obscure brand, but the iWash and iSpot are its latest models. I chose this unit as a kind of standard, so everyone else would have something to stand against. With full iris zoom and focus, 12 colors, and 12 spectacular gobos, the iSpot is truly everything you could ask for in a moving-head spot. Coemar has a reputation for introducing new technology, and my impression is that, before one of its new products hits the market, the bugs are worked out.

Prognosis: I'll be surprised if this unit gives me any trouble — but stay tuned. We'll be going from -10° in New York City to the humidity of Fort Lauderdale to long drives in the Rockies; if this light has issues, we'll find them.

THE CONTROL SYSTEM

After years of lugging around bulky lighting boards or a full-size PC, this year I went for a controller that runs on a laptop. The conventional lighting will be run from the house board, so the software is needed only for moving lights. I considered several programs. DMX512 Creator, from VXCO, has one of the shortest learning curves you could want, but it is geared to clubs and rock concerts. My project has certain basic theatrical requirements, like a standard go button and individual fade times. The Hog PC, from Flying Pig Systems, is a great program if you are proficient on the Wholehog console. But faced with programming so many different units, learning the Hog system seems like another hill to climb. In the end, LightJockey from Martin Professional seems to have the most user-friendly environment, and still offers all the features of a full moving board.

In fact, even if you're not an LD, having the Martin LightJockey on your home computer is a great way to learn programming without ever striking a lamp. Just get the free download from www.martin.dk. (Make sure you get the version with the offline visualizer.) You can make complete moving light shows on your own computer and at the same time learn most of what there is to know about programming.

THE SHOW

The Peking Acrobats are an Asian theatrical circus playing in performing arts centers across the country. The cast consists of some of the finest acts in the world today. The production has been on the road for decades; this is its seventh year of touring with moving lights. The production is designed to show off people and props in rich colors with dramatic flair. The lighting plot calls for roughly 200 conventional units for front, top, and side wash. There are three set gaps in the first and second electrics for the moving units. We hang our fixtures right on the pipes next to the PARs. The challenge of lighting this production is that the stage area is very three-dimensional. For example, at times the only person onstage is 20' in the air. So, instead of using the intelligent lighting units for effects or backlighting, these units sit right up front and cover every special in the show. Each fixture will have to cover no fewer than 50 preset positions. The Chinese choreographer will spike the stage during setup. It's my job to program each unit to each preset position. My assistant, Daniel Montes (known as Lucky), moves around onstage with a 25' pole with spike marks on it. He stands at each position, holds up the pole, and I light the proper spike mark on the pole for each act. The real trick is that all this has to be done every day in a six-hour call.

All the gear will arrive at the Eldorado Showroom at the Eldorado Hotel and Casino in Reno in December for setup and programming. The troupe will begin in early January. Shortly thereafter I'll be filing a report, which will run in April's Lighting Dimensions.

Rusty Strauss is the technical director for the Peking Acrobats. He can be reached at cirqmaster@aol.com.