"I've been here for four years, since they built the large sanctuary, which is called the Home for Hope." It's Dusty Hudgins talking; many in the industry will recognize him as account executive for Morpheus Lighting, but he also has another job, as in-house LD at Riverbend, an Austin, TX-based church that is a perfect symbol of the burgeoning church market that has recently begun to play a major role in the entertainment technology industry.

Riverbend, a non-denominational church, is, according to its mission statement, meant to "reclaim the bruised, battered, broken, and bored to the cause of Jesus Christ so that they might be restored to a committed, personal relationship with Christ and thereby, in the course of their own spiritual growth, become reproducers for the Kingdom of God." This end is pursued through an enormous number of functions, including classes for all grades, ministries to various groups, and many activities. The church's pastor, Dr. Gerald Mann, is a well-known preacher and author; Riverbend Church was built in part to provide a locale from which to broadcast services featuring Mann's sermons (The large sanctuary seats over 3,200. Church events staged there include regular services plus large-scale Easter and Christmas shows).

The church's equipment package, which was selected four years ago, includes 200 conventional units--largely PAR-64s and 10ยบ ETC Source Fours--along with 20 Cyberlight SVs and four Studio Colors from High End Systems. "We always leaned towards High End Systems units," says Hudgins. "When we put the package together, they had the Cyberlight SV, which is quiet," an all-important feature for a church application. The Austin-based Hudgins adds that High End's hometown advantage--the company is based in Austin, as well--certainly didn't hurt.

Originally, the lighting at Riverbend was controlled by an ETC Obsession II console. "It just wasn't practical for creating on-the-fly automated lighting effects," says Hudgins. "For the Sunday-to-Sunday lighting it was a workable choice because the regular service doesn't change that much. But when we had a bigger project coming in, we spent too much time on programming the automated effects."

In early 2001, Hudgins, looking for a new console to replace the ETC model, began to consider High End's Wholehog II. However, he says, "I attended a couple of trade shows where Bob Gordon [of AC Lighting] was showing his new console"--the grandMA from MA Lighting. "One day, I got a call from San Antonio, saying, 'You need to come to Texas Scenic and look at this new console.' They had a programmer from New York in town who was doing a show; he spent the day with me. It was essentially a no-brainer." In February, the board was purchased from Texas Scenic.

The grandMA, made by MA Lighting, is billed by AC as "a real operator's console." Its features include a three-color touch screen and up to two external monitors, which are said to make for an extremely comfortable programming environment. Other features, geared for ease of use, include 20 motorized faders, built-in keyboard, mouse, mousepad, and trackball along with four parameter encoders, giving operators and programmers a luxurious programming and playback surface.

As with any product, Hudgins notes, there was a learning curve. "The Easter show"--one of the church's biggest annual events--"was a challenge, but also a lot of fun." For him, "it's a very intuitive board, especially if you're used to working in a Windows environment. They have these little screens that pop up and say 'cancel,' 'reboot,' or 'override.' It's a very easy-to-run automated lighting console. It just made perfect sense. When you spend time with a programmer who really knows it, like Mike Falconer [of AC Lighting], you almost feel like you don't have to take notes."

Interestingly, Hudgins says, "The layout of the board is very nice, because there is none." In other words, "You can set it up the way you want. I like the touch screen, because it's faster than reaching for the buttons. With other consoles, your eyes look at the screen, which tells you to do something, then you have to look back at the buttons. With the grandMA, you're always looking at the screen."

Best of all, Hudgins says, the grandMA solves the problem caused by the previous board used at Riverbend: "The programming time is much less now--and it's fun, too, because I'm able to do more. In a moderate amount of time, I can create more complex cues, and more of them." Also, he says, the learning curve was not steep. "I pretty much jumped right into it. A representative from Texas Scenic set it up for me; he allotted two days to do that. After half a day, I sent him home."

The board's flexibility is good because services range from straightforward Sunday programs to holiday presentations at Christmas and Easter that feature a 150-member choir, a full orchestra, stage flying, and props. Furthermore, the Austin Symphony presents its annual rendition of Handel's Messiah there as well. In the future, Hudgins says, the church will be featuring Christian music acts, each of which, one imagines, will have a different set of lighting needs.

In spite of his fondness for the grandMA, nothing is perfect, however, and Hudgins says that the console has its irritations. "I don't like the fact that, when you try to load another show, it reboots the entire board. The board turns off, then turns back on. My problem is unique: The automated lights here are powered from a relay bank controlled by a DMX signal through the console. If the console is turned off, there's no power to the Cyberlights. If you want to load another show to the board, it will power down the High End Systems units, and it takes about 15 minutes before they come back. We get around it, but I wish it were a little different."

But overall, Hudgins says that he is more than satisfied with his choice. "I've known Bob Gordon for 23 years, and I believe in what he sells, in his service and his backup." Also, he says, "Years ago, when I worked at High End, the company didn't have a console. A couple of guys came in from MA Lighting, with the Scancommander board," an earlier MA product. "We really grilled them but they had an answer for everything, and I was impressed by that. I had that in the back of my mind," when considering the grandMA.

Ultimately, Hudgins says, "For some reason, I was supposed to have a grandMA." Spoken like a true believer.