CPM Reviews: Elation Compu Ware Lighting Control Software
By David Martin Jacques
Copyright © 2003 by David Jacques
To be Published in the March/April, 2003, issue of Church Production Magazine
Ever since computer controlled lighting control became widely available, lighting companies have attempted to develop stand-alone software that would control stage lighting through the user’s personal computer. The advantages of this are obvious. You not have to purchase expensive specialized lighting control consoles that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, you can program the lights off-site at home with a copy of the software running on your computer, and you can easily upgrade the software.
Acknowledging this potential market, several companies have developed lighting software for personal computers that feature intuitive user interfaces, can easily control the user’s lighting system through the DMX protocol, and are relatively inexpensive. Rosco’s Horizon lighting software has been on the market for several years now, and is used in many applications including schools as well as professional venues. Elation Professional has recently introduced their Compu Ware PC DMX Lighting Software. This software is tailored for programming conventional lighting equipment and sophisticated moving lighting effects. It will also challenge Rosco’s dominance in this market.
Compu Ware differs from other PC software packages in several ways. In truth, the user-interface is quite distinctive and gets some getting use to if you come from a conventional lighting background. Similar to other virtual lighting consoles, instead of real faders and buttons, “soft” faders and buttons appear on your computer screen. Also, instead of having all the controls right in front of you, the small computer screen makes it necessary to move from page to page to access functions. This is why I always suggest that you use multiple CRT’s so that all the functions are readily available with a click of a mouse.
The key to most computer software is not only how well it does the job, but how easy it is to install and learn. The user interface of the screen and keystrokes must be intuitive. I found Compu Ware’s screens easy to navigate and its interface user-friendly. The screens can be easily rearranged to fit the operators’ and programmers’ individual preferences.
Working my way through the manual proved to be quite painless, and apart from learning some unconventional terms, it was extremely easy to install the hardware and software and to set-up the lighting system. Installing the DMX-512 interface to my USB port was just as Bill Gates dreamed, simple with no freezes or crashes. The software installed on the system with ease and I had no compatibility issues.
Once open, the software asks you what type of lighting fixtures you will be using and where they are located. The “Scan Library Wizard” is an extensive library of conventional and automated lighting fixtures. Once you choose your fixture type and how many of these fixtures you will be using, the individual control parameters and DMX values are automatically installed. This enables a very quick and easy set-up of automated lighting fixtures.
You choose your lighting fixtures from these libraries and arrange them on your screen in groups, or “Pages”. You may have separate pages for VL1000’s, PARS, Lekos, Cyber-Lights, etc. You move from page to page to control these fixtures.
The control screen is set up with a series of user-specified control “buttons”. These buttons belong to one of three families: Scene, Switch, or Cycle. In addition, soft-faders can be assigned for a Scene or Switch button. Scene buttons are basically light cues, Switch buttons activate and deactivate lights and devices, and Cycle buttons are basically macros: initializing a series of user-defined steps.
To set the levels of the individual lights, you enter the “Easy Time Editor” to set the pan, tilt, intensity, and other parameters. Pan, tilt, color, and intensity are “visualized” in the Easy View window, but other parameters are not. You must manually adjust a fader for each DMX value to control the parameter.
Once you set all your parameters for each fixture, then a scene can be created as a desktop button that include the parameters you just set up in the editor. These scene buttons then can act like cues, as you press each button to initiate the new cue. For instance, “Scene Button 1” can be “Light Cue 1”. A special fade toolbar can also be set in the main screen for ease of adjusting the fade and delay times.
One of the features of this software is its extensive effects library for both conventional as well as moving lights. Individual effects appear on the desktop and can be activated with a press of a button. The effects can also be adjusted for your specific needs and the fixture’s movement range. A fader appears below each effect so the speed can be easily adjusted. Sophisticated effects can also be created in the Easy Time Editor.
A 360 degree visualization screen called “Easy View” is provided to show you what the light plot looks like and which lights are on. In the case of moving lights, the screen shows the light beams moving in real-time. You add the lighting fixture locations through the coordinates screen in “Easy View”. You can also add objects to your virtual stage including trusses, beams, and limited stock furniture. This can become quite tedious to set up for large systems of lights as it will not import CAD files into the software. It is important to note however, that this screen is not meant to be an accurate representation of your stage and set (like the Electronic Theatre Control’s Emphasis and WYSIWG systems), but is only meant as a quick reference to what the lights are doing.
Compu Ware Professional also includes a sophisticated light organ generator which will allow your lights to react to music and other sounds, live control which allows you to manipulate the lights via a mouse, trackball, or joystick, and a follow-spot feature that links several lights to one master light. The software also allows DMX and MIDI inputs to control fixtures.
An important feature of this software is how it communicates with the DMX devices (lights, motors, special effects, etc.) in your system. A DMX-512 interface box is connected to the USB input of your computer. There are several different boxes available from Elation Professional, depending on how many features you wish to use in the software. Each box is priced differently and can be upgraded at a later time. A nice feature of this box enables a battery powered 255 scene “Stand Alone Mode”. This back-up can be quite useful in case of an unexpected computer failure (see side box below).
Although it can also be used to control conventional lighting fixtures, Compu Ware really shines in its moving light effects abilities. The program can easily create stunning effects and chases that can not only be manually manipulated, but can respond to music, MIDI, and DMX inputs. However, its use of unconventional terminology and recording procedures may seem challenging to some users. Like any potential purchase, you should identify your needs and see what products are available that will serve you best. The Compu Ware lighting control software may be just what you are looking for.
It is important to state that the cost advantage of PC-based lighting control software does come with a price. As the software is running on your personal computer, all the dangers that plague your PC such as operating system failures, viruses, and other insidious surprises, could cause your computer to crash in the middle of a performance. Although conventional hardware lighting computer boards have been known to crash too, the dangers of a PC crash is greater. Keeping that in mind, here are a few tips which will help minimize the danger.
1. Use a dedicated computer for your lighting control. Do not use this computer
for anything else!
2. Clear all non-essential programs from this computer. The only program you should have on this machine is the operating system and any dependent utilities.
3. Do not hook up this computer to the internet. Viruses are rampant and can easily infect your machine. It is best to quarantine your machine from these scourges.
4. Run an updated virus protector to make sure that your machine is not already infected. Viruses can lay dormant in your computer for some time, and like the Trojan horse, can appear at just the most inopportune moment.
5. Use a high quality line conditioner and battery backup for your computer. This insures that you will not loose your data due to power surges and/or blackouts.