Back in the days when Rock was young, long before moving lights, DMX, and Clear Channel, the world of club shows was not a place for the faint of heart. Picture a tiny, malodorous venue, a terrifying load-in, no stagehands, and an ancient, inadequate power supply, secured by hacking into the deep fat fryer of the Chinese restaurant next door. Cable runs several layers deep would produce a heartily satisfying buzz over the PA, guaranteed to start a fight mid-afternoon, with the sound engineer inevitably blaming the lights. “Ha Ha!” the cheeky young lampies would reply, while sticking their heads into PAR cans. “It can't be us, because lights don't make any noise.”
That was then. Now, there is barely an automated lighting fixture on the market without a slew of onboard fans to hum away as if they didn't know the words. Add to this a rake of color changers, dimmer racks, fog machines, video screens, inflatables, power supplies, and hard drives, and it can just become embarrassing. Far from being “somebody else's problem,” it's rapidly becoming something every LD needs to be concerned with. Being the source of noise pollution is, at best, impolite, but it can also result in the loss of some of the lighting system, should the problem be deemed sufficiently significant by the powers that be.
For a sound engineer, background noise must be the sonic equivalent of having to focus with the house lights on. To an LD concentrating on visuals, it may seem a less apparent problem, but we've all experienced that moment when the system powers down, the background hum ceases, and you feel like you've just gone deaf.
Contrary to the paranoid fever dreams of FOH sound engineers, I think we can assume that no one ever went out of his way to design a lamp specifically to be noisy. It's a simple enough equation. We want increased brightness, so along with that comes the increase in heat, which has to be disposed of somehow. Much of today's lighting technology was developed for concert touring, where background noise is simply not an issue, so the less costly design route was logical — far cheaper to insert a fan than to design a NASA-grade heat-sink.
Rock shows staged in sports facilities were never going to be disturbed by a few hundred whirring mechanical fans, but the problem is exacerbated by rooms with better acoustics. Ironically, these are invariably the kind of venues hosting performances where background noise is likely to be more of an issue.
We look to the manufacturers and vendors to solve these issues for us, their reward being that they get to turn a problem into a marketing opportunity. As concert touring becomes a less significant revenue stream for lighting vendors, the importance of infiltrating other markets has increased. It didn't take long to discover that traditional rock lighting fixtures may not be entirely suitable for theatre, musical, and opera applications, let alone classical venues or churches. Consequently, new fixtures are designed with this in mind, and there are already some moving lights being promoted as “ultra quiet.” We can only look forward to the day when this becomes reality.
The advent of LED light fixtures holds some kind of promise, but with increased brightness, the issues of heat extraction begin to reappear. Currently, most of the LED fixtures on the market contain ventilation fans.
R&D from the manufacturers and vendors requires enormous investment, which eventually filters down into the designer's budget. Consequently, we will probably end up with two grades of lamp: “cheaper with noise” vs. “quiet and costly.” As ever, application and available budget will steer equipment specs.
So, we will wait patiently for a clever someone out there to circumvent the issues of basic physics and design a lighting instrument that is enormously bright while remaining entirely heat and noise free. And while you are at it, if you can also produce a beam of light which travels 30' and then stops, I dare say there'd be a market for that, too.
© Willie Williams 2004
Willie Williams designs and directs multi-media events. His work has included rock tours with R.E.M., U2, and The Rolling Stones; performance pieces with Kronos Quartet and La La La Human Steps; the stage musicals Barbarella and We Will Rock You, plus installations at Experience Music Project, Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland, and Canterbury Cathedral, UK.