Hands On Developments came into the field of MIDI‑controlled lighting very early, with their sophisticated Limelite controller. Now the Starlite offers even the most fiscally challenged the opportunity to add another dimension to a live performance. Martin Russ seeks enlightenment.
Hands On Developments have a policy of making MIDI gadgets to accompany their MIDI File activity. On Stage, the simple LED display intended to make using an Atari computer live easier, had a close tie‑in to their MIDI Files: with the addition of an Atari computer to play back MIDI files, this basic black box provided enough information to get by — removing the need to use a fragile TV or monitor on stage.
The latest product from Hands On is Starlite, a versatile MIDI‑to‑Light converter. It allows up to eight channels of lights to be controlled from a small and relatively easy to use box, with up to 300 watts of lighting on each channel, making a total of 2.4kW overall. The box has the bare minimum of controls — none! All the controlling is done via MIDI so, apart from the mains indicator, the MIDI Input and the eight channel LEDs, the front panel is one of the least cluttered I have seen in quite some time. In fact, it is so open that I would have preferred slightly larger LEDs — the ones fitted to the review model were small, and none too bright either. With all the red LEDs flashing on and off in the average MIDI system, a little more prominence would have helped, although in practice, a couple of kilowatts of light is going to be quite noticeable!
Starlite uses a combination of two methods to control lights. MIDI Note messages are used to control individual channels of light, whilst Program Change messages are used to select and program the unit itself.
So how do you program it? You first need to decide on your MIDI control channel. The unit comes with channel 1 preset as the control channel, but an internal DIP switch lets you select any of the other 15 MIDI channels. The control channel is used for Program Change messages, which either set up how the unit will respond to incoming Note messages, or select preset scenes, chases or parameters.
The 'Program Changes' box shows the assignment of the Program Change messages. Basically, the first program restores the unit to a 'do nothing' setting, and the next nine (2‑10) are GM programs designed to interface with the various drum kits. Two sets of four programs deal with Yamaha (11‑14) and Korg (15‑18) drums, and these are followed by twelve programs (19‑30) which give single octave direct control of individual lighting channels — one for each of the major keys. I would have preferred to see a 'wraparound' scheme here, where all the octaves had the same effect, but by referring to MIDI Note Numbers, Hands On have avoided any of the potential confusion over exactly where C3 or C4 are on a keyboard. The unit maps Note On velocity to brightness with 32 levels, although Hands On told me that they are working on a software update with 64 distinct levels. Starlite responds to both varieties of Note Off indication: a Note On with zero velocity and a Note Off. I prefer this 'normal' implementation of MIDI to any of the alternative schemes which rework the meanings slightly to enable continuous control via velocity. With the Hands On scheme, you can take any sequencer track and transpose it to trigger the lights without any need for extensive editing.
The next fifty programs (31‑80) provide permutations of channels, and can be used as preset groupings of lights, or chained together in the form of preset chases. The majority of these preset 'scenes' have the channels either on or off, but there are a few with intermediate levels. I have worked on lighting changes where two people manually operated a couple of hundred channels at the rate of one or two cues per minute (and we only used off, middle and full), but this is a purely personal preference and some people will want finer control. Curiously, program 49 is used to turn all the lights off — not my first choice for easy remembering!
Sixteen preset chases are next (81‑96), where the chase rate is set by incoming MIDI Clock. Chases are started and stopped with program change messages 97 and 98, and strobing of lights is triggered by program 99 — although you can only stop them strobing by selecting another program, which loses marks for inconsistency of user interface. Programs 100‑116 set the rate at which the lights will change — program 100 is fast, whilst 116 is very slow. I felt that the range got too slow too quickly — 102 was already too slow for my taste, whilst 101 was too fast for some chases to look smooth. Program 117 does nothing useful in Starlite, since it is intended to set Hands On's other MIDI lighting unit, Limelite, into its preset mode, so that the same MIDI File can control either unit (you'll find Program Change number 117 built into the start of each Hands On lighting track for just this purpose). Program 118 (re)sets the MIDI Clock response to eighth notes, which is the default, while 119 and 120 set it to quarter or half notes, so that you can slow down chases and still have them synced to the tempo.
Since Starlite powers up in program 1, you need to send some program changes to it to make it respond to MIDI, which means that Starlite is not exactly suited to live control from a basic MIDI keyboard instrument. Setting up your sequencer with meaningful program names is an essential. It would have been nice to have some sort of front‑panel indication that MIDI messages were being received, but once you're used to controlling Starlite with program changes, you no longer need the indicator, and it would add expense. To keep the price down, I think users can put up with the minor inconvenience whilst they are learning.
Starlite has a captive, 2‑metre 13A cable, which avoids any of the problems with intermediate connectors getting hot when the full 10 Amps is being drawn. The MIDI Input is opto‑isolated (it has to be, the MIDI spec says so!), which should provide you with some reassurance when connecting it to the rest of your MIDI gear. The outputs to the lights are via two Bulgin P552 connectors, which require considerable care in wiring up, but have the advantage of combining four channels in one connector. I would have preferred some more explicit warning labelling about mains voltage being present on the connectors, but the manual does point this out quite clearly.
Like the On Stage MIDI File player, Starlite also has a link to MIDI Files. Future releases of Hands On MIDI Files will include a lighting track designed to use either the budget Starlite MIDI‑to‑Light converter, or the more sophisticated Limelite controller. If Starlite's front‑panel emptiness is not to your taste, then Limelite has the LCD display and switches that make it look rather like a synthesizer module. In fact, this is very nearly what it is, except that it synthesizes lights, not sound. Where Starlite has fixed presets, Limelite also provides user memories, so you have lots more flexibility in your control options.
The lightbar (see photo) is exactly what is sounds like — a bar of lights. It is intended to allow you to develop your lighting without the complications of setting up lots of lights — you merely connect the two captive Bulgin P552 leads to the corresponding sockets on the back of the Starlite box, and you have eight colour‑coded lights. The lightbar only uses 15W pigmy bulbs, but it certainly gives a good idea of the 'feel' of the lighting changes. Even a mere 120 watts of 'pygmy bulb' power gets quite warm after a few minutes, and so, although the lightbar is in a 19‑inch, 1U, rackmounting case, I suspect that it may not be a good idea to install it in a rack permanently without adequate ventilation.
Hands On seem to be determined to explore the outer limits of MIDI Files with their various gadgets. It's nice to see that some UK companies are still interested in producing hardware; you would have expected that a company selling MIDI Files would be very biased towards software. What next from Hands On?
Any MIDI box without visible controls normally rings alarm bells in my mind, but this is probably the exception that proves the rule. With a little work, it is quite easy to set up most sequencers so that either the Notes or the Program Changes have meaningful names, and once that is done, programming the unit becomes easy. Once you're set up to program the Starlite, you can hide the unit away in a corner and ignore it. Perhaps Hands On should consider including a disk with the necessary mapping files for the popular sequencers — so I'll start the ball rolling by sending my Vision maps to them.
For users who do not need the expense and complexity of a professional lighting system and operator, the 'DIY' approach using your own MIDI sequencer has to be a winner. I was sceptical when I was first asked to look at the Starlite, but after playing with it for a while, and especially at the asking price, I must admit to being very tempted to buy one. Go on, lighten up!
Although I have used Opcode's Vision as the sequencer in these examples, you could use almost any sequencer package with similar facilities. If you are choosing a sequencer for MIDI and lighting use, you'll need to look closely at the naming of Controllers, notes and program changes, as well as the editing, filtering and viewing options for them. The examples shown here apply to the Starlite MIDI‑to‑Light converter, but could be adapted to most other systems.
- SCREEN 1: CONTROLLERS
Using MIDI Controllers to control lights would allow easy on‑screen editing and make full use of definable faders. Here the faders have been colour coded to match the lights, and the Controller editing is done against a view of a note track so that synchronised sound and light can be achieved easily.
- SCREEN 2: MAPPING
Being able to give meaningful names to MIDI Program Change messages really becomes useful when you have a system which uses program changes to control lights. Here a '0' is used to indicate a lighting channel that will be on, whilst '‑' is used to show a channel that is off. This can make choosing a program change much easier — especially when designing chases of lights. Sequencers which have Cue facilities can make working with lights easier too.
- SCREEN 3: LISTS
List views of a track can quickly show the sequence of named events, which aids troubleshooting enormously. Imagine trying to find program change message 10 in the middle of lots of other program changes, and then imagine looking for 'GM Percussion 1'. I know which I prefer. Editing a list of events like the one shown is much better than a graphical representation for this purpose.
- SCREEN 4: SYNCHRONISATION
A graphical display can make synchronising complex lighting changes to a piece of music much easier, and having a simultaneous listing of the same events gives the benefit of precise numerical editing.
- SCREEN 5: SETUP
Vision, Notator Logic and some other current sequencers allow you to set up your MIDI connections with just a few mouse clicks. Here, the Starlite module has been tacked onto the MIDI Thru port of an Emu Morpheus synthesizer; a MIDI Monitor gadget has then been connected, so that the messages being received by the Starlite can be monitored during initial learning about the control messages.
It wasn't long after MIDI first became popular that people began to experiment with mis‑using it, and one idea which has steadfastly refused to lie down is the idea of using MIDI to control stage lighting. Like most 'obvious' ideas, the actual application is less than straightforward...
The MIDI Specification 1.0 V4.1 document does not actually define the use of MIDI to control lights, and even in the V4.2 addendum the references are somewhat sketchy. Let's start with what should happen, and then look at what really occurs in practice.
MIDI Show Control (MSC) version 1.0, is a Recommended Practice, which means that it is not actually part of the MIDI Spec 1.0, but is a strong suggestion for a defined way of working with MIDI in the theatrical, live performance, audio‑visual and multimedia environments. It uses Universal System Exclusive Real‑Time messages to control almost anything: lights, video tape machines, CD players, slide projectors, and more. MIDI Machine Control is a similar Recommended Practice, designed for controlling video and audio tape machines and similar devices.
Unfortunately for MSC, the lighting world has more than one standard. Just as there are many different types of bulb, housing, gobos, gels and connectors, so there are many ways of controlling them. Some systems use analogue control voltages — just like pre‑MIDI synthesizers (in fact, some laser controllers are very similar to analogue synths). There are digital control systems too, of which the most universally supported is probably the DMX system. DMX provides considerable control over lighting — offering such diverse possibilities as remote controlled follow spots, with no need for the operator to be stuck high up in the air for an entire performance, or a follow spot that tracks a performer using a radio tag. Just as with analogue interfacing before MIDI, lighting systems often offer compatibility with multiple control systems.
MIDI can be seen as an interloper on the professional lighting scene, but comes into its own for one specialist area of lighting: those users who already have MIDI equipment, but who also have a small budget. This sounds like most gigging amateurs, semi‑pros and even some professional musicians. Turning up at a pub with a lighting rig holding intelligent lights and a lighting desk that puts a 48‑track mixing desk to shame, is probably a little inappropriate. But spending a few hundred quid on some lights and something to control them with is much more like it. By using the same MIDI sequencer to play backing tracks and run your lights, you can produce synchronised 'son et lumiere' that looks much more expensive than it is.
Your first thought might be to use MIDI controllers to run your lights. After all, of the 128 possible controller numbers, only a handful are actually defined and in use. So redefining some of them to control lights should be easy.
Many sequencers have facilities for naming controllers and assigning them to graphical faders on screen. You may even be able to edit a controller using graphics, but the problem is that editing more than one controller at once is often not so straightforward. A cross‑fade looks really strange if it is not smooth, and trying to edit two or more controllers separately to achieve this is not easy.
Another approach is to use Note events as the triggers for lighting events, but there are a couple of problems here too. Firstly, trying to remember which channel of lighting maps to which note number can be difficult, especially in an edit list. Secondly, since Note On velocity is usually set so that it controls brightness, this parameter cannot be controlled once the light has been triggered. There are ways around this; you could use controllers to vary the brightness of lights, for example, but this is not very easy to edit.
One innovative method goes against the principles of the MIDI Spec, by redefining what some of the MIDI messages mean, but it does allow 'on the fly' changes to brightness. It involves ignoring Note Off messages and holding a triggered light at the same level until a new Note On is received, at which point velocity then controls brightness. This means that a fade in and out is just a series of repetitions of the same Note On message, but with different velocities. To turn a light off, you need to send a Note On with a very low velocity value, which is not that simple from most keyboard controllers, and often requires detailed editing in a sequencer.
Yet another method uses Program Change messages. By sending these on the MIDI channel allocated to the MIDI lighting controller, you can run the lights — and with 128 basic programs, and lots more available via Bank Changes, you have no real excuse for not being able to adequately control them. Instead of allocating Program Change Numbers to patches, they are allocated to lighting settings: mappings between incoming MIDI notes and lights, preset scenes, chases, parameter settings — anything!
For the 'completely correct but still proprietary' implementation, it would be possible to get a Manufacturer ID from the MMA, and then define System Exclusive messages to control lights as required. This is very similar in principle to MIDI Show Control, which is available to anyone rather than being owned by one manufacturer. I think I prefer a format which is usable by anyone.
One of the most important things to remember about using any MIDI to Light converter with a sequencer: make the most of the facilities for naming. Many sequencers will let you name Notes and Program Changes, and I have shown this in the accompanying screen shots. By naming events in this way, you automatically make it much easier to edit your lighting sequences, particularly when you come back to them at a later date, and especially if you use more than one of the many possible methods for controlling lighting via MIDI.
Of course, using the power of a modern sequencer extends beyond naming events. Installing a lighting controller can be accomplished with just a little rewiring of your MIDI system, though this is much easier if your MIDI switching matrix box is controlled by a computer. Being able to quickly wire up and verify that something is working in this way can save a lot of time and effort.
Stage lighting systems are a bit like a view into a world where MIDI was never invented. Several competing proprietary analogue and digital control systems mix and match with each other and also with some emerging standards. MIDI provides some hooks into lighting systems, but on a small scale, a stand‑alone, MIDI sequencer‑driven lighting controller box offers an opportunity to improve stage presence without breaking the bank. And there are probably a few fun things that can be arranged with switchable mains power supplies: bubble machines, TVs, sirens, explosions and flashes... If you were to go looking for a MIDI‑controlled flashing light, you would probably be unsuccessful, but with a 12V transformer and a rotating beacon from the RS catalogue, you can be there. It adds a new meaning to multimedia, doesn't it?
- 1 All Off
- 2‑10 GM Drums on Channel 10
- 11‑14 Yamaha Drums on Channel 16
- 15‑18 Korg Drums on Channel 8
- 19‑30 Keyboard maps for 8 notes (on control channel)
- 31‑80 Preset Scenes
- 81‑96 Preset Chases
- 97 Start Chase
- 98 Stop Chase
- 99 Start Strobe
- 100‑116 Choose Intensity Ramp (100 = fastest)
- 117 Select Factory Presets (no effect on Starlite)
- 118 8th notes MIDI Clock
- 119 quarter notes MIDI Clock
- 120 half notes MIDI Clock
- 121‑127 Future enhancements
- No frills lighting control.
- Eight channels of 300W = 2.4kW.
- Responds to MIDI Notes and Program Changes.
- GM Compatible drum mode.
- No mains power switch.
- Small channel LEDs.
Some initial effort is required to set up your sequencer with meaningful program names, but once this is done, Starlite provides a neat and very inexpensive way of adding a relatively sophisticated light show to your MIDI setup.