Contrary to what some sound designers may think, lighting designers are aware of the noise from moving lights and scrollers, and so are the lighting manufacturers. As well they should — it's an issue both sides have been dealing with in one way or another since approximately 1987. That's when Vari-Lite worked with Wally Russell, the technical director for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, to fully light a production of Tristan und Isolde using its automated fixtures. This was the first stage project to incorporate this new technology, and while many lighting designers viewed it as a glimpse into the future, those early fixtures had too many issues for theatre use at that time. One of the chief problems was noise.
“We lit the show brilliantly,” recalls Tom Littrell, technical marketing manager of Vari-Lite, “but nearly got thrown out because of the fan noise of the VL2s.”
Fifteen years later, automated luminaires are a must-have tool for an increasing number of theatre lighting designers, on straight plays as well as musicals, regional theatre as well as Broadway.
Since those early days, designers have been asking for brighter fixtures as well as for more features. Brighter lamps and more mechanics all require one thing: cooling. The fans on automated luminaires and scrollers are one of the major culprits with regards to the sound floor. You also have to take into account mechanical movement of irises, color-mixing systems, ballasts, as well as pan-and-tilt motors. Add in hard, reflective scenery as well as any number of architecture and acoustic variables and the noise issue is a hard one to pin down. “You know, the Cadac boards have a very loud fan in them,” jokes lighting designer Natasha Katz (Aida, Beauty and the Beast, Sweet Smell of Success), referring to a popular sound mixing console. “People say, ‘noise is noise,’ but there are some noises that are more annoying than others.”
Still, fan noise is the one that causes most of the dissension in the theatre, and it is something lighting designers maintain they are very sensitive to — even while continuing to specify more and more moving lights on theatrical projects.
“To me the amount of noise is enormous,” says Katz. “I'm trying to make a show a hit as much as anyone else, and to have all that noise does add a fourth wall between the audience and the stage. So separate of anyone else's complaint, I don't want that noise either.”
“The use of automated equipment is growing,” adds lighting designer Dawn Chiang (Dybbuk, Almost Heaven, and Crumbs From the Table of Joy), “and I welcome that. But they must be used with an awareness that I need to hide the noise. I have worked at houses where part of their rep hang has moving lights; sometimes I cue the whole show without them because they would be distracting.”
Chiang adds, “I also find that I need to exercise some choice on my part about which luminaire I am going to specify. I'd like to pick the best possible equipment, to take the noise into account, and make it work for the audience.”
Steven Shelley, associate lighting designer for Patrick Stewart's A Christmas Carol, Peter and Wendy, and lighting coordinator for Spoleto Festival USA, thinks long and hard about using automated luminaires at the regional level. “It depends on where you go and what shows they are doing,” he notes. “You have to be very careful about the fixture you use in the situation so that it will not be noisy enough to torture somebody.”
When he does opt for moving lights, Shelley has established a system for finding the units that satisfy all parties involved. “After finding out what the rental house has in terms of equipment, I will go and research the sound by doing side-by-side comparisons,” he explains. “The producer dictates the rental house, the house dictates what manufacturers' equipment I get to choose from as well as what is available at the time of my production. Then I try to find the quietest fixture.”
Lighting manufacturers are well aware of the designers' trepidations. “With as many designers as we have now complaining about noise, people like us look at this issue,” says Robert Mokry, who handles business development and technical marketing for High End Systems.
“In the case of Vari-Lite, we care about noise a lot,” adds Littrell. “Obviously, during years of putting lights in television studios, we have been listening to sound guys. We are trying to be as conscious of their needs as we can.”
Still, problems do arise. Chiang recalls a situation on the 1994 revival of Show Boat, a project on which she worked with Richard Pilbrow. “We had about three dozen VL5s, and we intentionally chose them because they were convection-cooled,” she recalls. “At the request of the sound designer, we systematically turned on each component to isolate where the noise was, and much to our surprise, in that particular system, the scrollers were noisier than the VLs.”
Sometimes, even when you do plan ahead, unforeseen problems crop up. For the recent production of Sweet Smell of Success, Katz used only units that had no fans in front of house, but director Nicholas Hytner still had a problem with the noise when the show reached Broadway. In the end, an acoustician was called in [see sidebar, below]. “There are some directors and producers who are more offended by the noise of these lights than others,” notes Katz. “On Sweet Smell of Success, the director really didn't like the noise.” She notes that on her next project, the upcoming Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, she is also using units with no fans in the front of house. “I pick equipment based on sound,” she says. “For me sound and function are on the same priority level.”
Katz also had a scroller noise problem on the recent Broadway production of Dance of Death; ironically enough, her husband Dan Moses Schreier was the sound designer. “It is easier on scrollers because you can turn the fans off,” says Katz. “You can't do that on the moving lights.”
Chiang, like many designers in recent years, has developed various techniques to mitigate scroller noise. “On Source Fours, I turn the fans off, because their gel strings are OK, especially on short-run productions,” she explains. “As far as the gel string is concerned, I think about the order of the frames, and if I have to make a fast move, I find a music cue and mask the sound.”
Scroller manufacturers, too, have continued to make improvements on their products to deal with the noise issue. Brandon James, sales manager for Wybron, Inc., fields designer complaints about the fan noise. “That is why we put in control of the fan,” he explains. “You can set a DMX channel on a Coloram to turn the fan off.” He has heard from some designers about the movement noise of the color strings, but this is less of an issue for designers. “Gel noise was a factor, so designers have just slowed down the movement of it, and think about when to move. People are more conscious about how they put their gel string together. We can make a scroller without a fan, but we would have to put a hot mirror in. Those are expensive, but it is something we can do.”
The Spectra-Q, available through Apollo Design Technology, uses a different approach to fan control. “The fan will always be on, but there are several speeds you can run them at,” says Keith Kankovsky, product manager. “We do offer manual dipswitches that allow you to chose from low, medium, and high fan speeds.” The Comspec II color mixing scroller, scheduled to ship soon, does change colors at a variable rate of speed depending on how you program it. “We are incorporating some heat management systems into this revision, so hopefully we can lower the fan speed to eliminate some of the noise without sacrificing the longevity of the gel.” The Comspec II will have two fans running at a lower speed rather than one fan. “You don't end up with the high-pitched whine that you get from one fan running at a high RPM.”
Generally though, as Katz notes, the noise of moving the gel is not the issue. “I can always hide the movement,” she says. “Although on a play it is harder, there is no question about that.” Chiang agrees, “In a house like Denver Center, it is only 20' over your head. We track noise and find where we can hide it. We did Hamlet and we backed light cues so they would hide in music cues. When you get into a LORT theatre doing straight plays, you've got nothing to hide behind.”
For their part, automated lighting manufacturers are listening to what the designers want and trying to implement those wishes into their development cycles through a variety of innovations.
“We see a big demand for quieter fixtures,” says Noel Duncan, production touring segment manager for Martin Professional. “Our MAC 2000s and 1,200W fixtures have a thermostat in the fixture that checks the ambient temperature and it will regulate the fan speed and drop the fan speed so it doesn't make as much noise. We have done really well getting around the movement noise; a lot of it has to do with the reset of the fixture as well as just general movement. The best compliment we have been getting on the MAC 2000s is that the pan-and-tilt noise is much lower compared to some of our older fixtures.”
“There is a lot of heat in the fixtures,” explains Littrell. “You have to be really bright, really small, and run without fans. Somewhere along the line, the laws of physics take over and compromises have to be made. Of course, the bigger the unit the easier the cooling is and it can run more reliably; that accounts for the size of the convection-cooled VL1000.”
“The problem with noise is the implementation of short-arc devices. They have to have forced-air cooling. Short arcs are a pain,” laughs Mokry. “It's the kind of output the users desire, but where will that end? Do we need to make a 1,800W or 2,500W hard-edge light? Obviously those units are going to need fans or it is going to be the size of my desk! That is the interesting compromise — where does the trade-off for noise vs. size end? Convection cooling is a really big deal to us. That is the only way to be really silent. That is why we struggled a lot on making the Studio Spot 575 convection-cooled and reliable.”
Chiang, for one, says, “My preference is to try and stay with the convection-cooled style fixtures, because there are great units out there and in most cases, unless I can justify where we can put the noise in, I need to look at that very carefully.”
Other manufacturers are taking a simpler approach, dealing with the actual noise of the fans. “Clay Paky came out with a new range of products called SV, silent versions, and they use fans that are significantly quieter than the previous fans,” says Norman Wright, vice president, Group One. “That, plus a re-look at how we were directing air flow to cool the lamp. So combining those two facts together and using multiple fans instead of one big one, the end result is a significant reduction in noise. When the lamp isn't struck, the fans go to 50% mode — in fact less than that.” He adds, “Even in blackout mode it is difficult to tell if the new ones are on or not.”
Coemar, for its part, now uses microprocessors in its fixtures to control the fan speed, depending on the ambient temperatures. “This allows us to do thermal control so they only come on and increase in speed with temperature,” says Marcel Fairbairn, recently departed COO of Coemar USA. “In most normal conditions, our fans are almost off in most of our fixtures in the 575W range and down. In the larger fixtures, the fans are on all the time but they're operating at a very low speed until you get into a situation where it is very hot. Right now I think most manufacturers can get a 575 pretty darn quiet; I don't think any manufacturer can get a 1200 really quiet. It is real easy to keep a 150 quiet, 250s are nice and quiet, and 575s no problem, but when you get into 700W short arcs and 1,200W short arcs, that is where all the noise comes in.”
All of these improvements are welcome news to theatre designers, who have made automated luminaires and color scrollers a permanent part of their toolbox. “In many ways, it is for the visual best,” says Katz. “I think there is stuff happening in lighting that couldn't have happened 10 years ago. It's really exciting. Every time I see a moving light, every time I say, ‘Focus a light over there,’ I think, this is a miracle!”
Still, such enthusiasm is tempered by the knowledge that more needs to be done to alleviate an issue that is now affecting all members of the creative team. “I sympathize with all sides,” says Katz. “I sympathize with the plight of the sound designer, I sympathize with the director as well as the plight of the manufacturers. We have to do something to make it better.”
Click here for Part III of "Whose Noise Is It, Anyway?"