My interest in Grand-Master Flash! started some years ago. Simply bored with learning a new console almost every month, I started to look for one that I could purchase for less than the price of a large car. I received suggestions from a number of colleagues, but it was a sound engineer who showed me the way forward. He regularly used a fascinating piece of software designed to configure and control sound hardware using MIDI.

I hadn't considered it before, but why not use a PC for lighting control? I was about to start learning to program a PC when, thankfully, I visited PLASA about a month later. To my relief I found a company that was already developing exactly that concept.

Wayne Howell at Artistic Licence had developed a full moving-light console that used the company's DMX-Dongle. The DMX-Dongle is a device that plugs into the parallel port of a PC and not only transmits DMX but receives it as well.

Now, I hear you say: “Rely on a PC for a live show? No, thanks.” I had similar misgivings, but they were put to rest by my next production, a conference in Malta. This used a video wall controlled by a PC and displaying a PowerPoint presentation generated by a PC. Auto-cue prompting and specialist sound effects were also running on various PCs.

If the sound and video boys thought it was a good solution, then why should I worry? Grand-Master Flash! became my ‘must have’ purchase.

It must be said that the first release of Grand-Master Flash! was fairly primitive compared to the current version, but even that early version remains the most intuitive way I have found to light a show.

The key principle behind Grand-Master Flash! is that of palettes. The program's desktop is your “venue.” To start a show, you simply open the fixture palette from the tool bar. Next, select the required fixture type from the list and drag it to the desktop.

A patch window then displays automatically, asking how many fixtures to patch and offering sensible start addressing. Within a few minutes, the desktop looks like a rig plan and you're ready to start programming.

Programming couldn't be simpler. First, open the control palette, then “rubber-band” the fixtures to be controlled. Click on a color or gobo and the selected fixtures change instantly. The desktop mimic also refreshes to show the current color, gobo, intensity, and position levels, next to the fixture's icon. This in itself is great for pre-programming shows.

Once you have achieved the required look, simply hit the Record button. Depending upon the selected entry in the Stores palette, Record will store either memory, sequence step, or stack step. In essence, if you can drive Windows Explorer you'll have no problem with Grand-Master Flash!

Grand-Master Flash! is a very symmetrical system: To change anything, simply right-click on it. This will display a drop-down menu that provides a host of options; for example, to insert a step or edit timing.

One feature I love on the latest version is Mask. It does exactly as the name suggests. Consider this scenario: Record a sequence containing a number of fixtures with both color and gobos changing. If I change my mind and decide that I need two sequences, one color and one gobo, I simply duplicate the sequence and mask out color in one and gobo in the other. This feature alone can save hours of programming when you or the client change their mind.

One of the first projects on which I used Grand-Master Flash! was Olympic Spirit in Germany. This was an indoor theme park converted from the Olympic stadium as a celebration of the Olympiad. The concept involved various themed areas with different attractions spread over two floors. The lighting was all to be controlled from a central control room using Grand-Master Flash! To add to the complexity, a number of attractions were interactive.

Grand-Master Flash! provides two key features needed to deal with multi-zoned shows. The first is the ability to set dimmer channels to LTP or latest-takes-precedence operation. This allows the programming for each zone to be done without the usual worry of submasters affecting the levels in other zones.

The other key feature is the ability to limit playback to a specific group of fixtures. Once the groups are set to match the zones, programming is simplicity itself.

The interactive attractions were triggered using MIDI signals generated by built-in sensors. The MIDI was received using the MIDI port available on all standard PC sound cards, again reducing the cost and complexity of the installation.

In one example, a toboggan ride simulator in the Winter Olympics section used a MIDI-triggered stack to simulate the toboggan run lighting as it hurtled down the track, including blacking them out as it passed under bridges. All programming was synchronized to the video display in the front of the toboggan.

A good example of one of my more recent shows is a conference for Sony at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. The show consisted of 100 generic lamps controlled via two 48-way dimmer racks plus six Martin MAC 600s and four MAC 500s. The show included a number of speakers and a video-based reveal using multiple television screens.

After recording my cues and sequences (used for speaker walk-ups), I applied them to a stack making the whole show playback on the press of a button. The show was programmed using palettes. This had the significant advantage of allowing major changes to be accomplished very quickly. At the end of programming, we had some 60 cues in the stack. The ability to make changes quickly paid off when my client suddenly decided that he didn't like one particular color used at intervals throughout the show. The color change was as simple as re-recording one color palette; the change then simply tracked through all other programming.

I've also used Grand-Master Flash! for band work. The ability to record cues with just some lamp attributes, for example only color or position, makes busking a show great fun. Grand-Master Flash! has 12 playbacks, each capable of holding a cue or a sequence. The playbacks can be linked to the function keys for go, bump, or swap, so you can play the buttons just like a conventional console.

Ahhh, I hear you say, no real faders! I rushed out and spent $300 on a MIDI fader panel just to add real faders to Grand-Master Flash! Do I ever use it? Well, I used it just once. Not because it doesn't work well, just because Grand-Master Flash! runs the fades better than I could, so you have been warned.

Another excellent feature is the Effects Engine. Select a group of fixtures on the desktop either by rubber-banding or using the group palette. Then, from the effects palette, simply click on the required effect. The effects are all totally programmable. You can start from a blank page, modify one of the template effects, or download from the Artistic Licence website, www.ArtisticLicence.com. Whichever method is chosen, effects editing is a pleasure. Various mathematical functions are available, such as sine, cosine, tangent, etc. The editor also allows the effects waveforms to be drawn onscreen just like a paint package. The effects contain three channels that can be assigned to any type of fixture channel, for example pan, tilt, and shutter. These can then be modulated or shifted through the fixtures. The flexibility is mind-boggling!

By now you can probably tell that I am impressed with the product. I've used it on a variety of show types and Grand-Master Flash! has always risen to the challenge.

The new Version 4 is just out. It contains a host of new features that I look forward to trying on my next shows. The ability to control fixture pan and tilt by dragging the mouse should speed programming even further. Perhaps most useful for the future is the ability to output “Art-Net” Ethernet as well as DMX512. A number of manufacturers are now using Art-Net, so in the future this will give great benefits, particularly in venues that are already wired for Ethernet.

The software is available from the Artistic Licence website, and is fully functional apart from output and save being disabled. Why not give it a try — all those features are just a right-click away!

Chris Chew works as a lighting designer in theatre, rock and roll, and architecture, with particular emphasis on commercial launches. Recent projects include working with the Royal Opera House Theatre consultants on the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House in London. He can be contacted at ChrisChew@Compuserve.com.