If you’re looking to elevate your stage show, proper band lighting is a great place to start! In this guide, we’ll be breaking down the best options for band lighting, from simple LEDs and DIY options, to pre-programmed lights via DMX! Before we get into the best lights, DMX interfaces, and show design, let’s start out with some guiding principles that will help you create amazing band lighting, no matter how many fixtures you have!
Band Lighting Design Principles
When creating compelling band lighting, you’ll need to consider 3 key points.
1: The layout of your lights!
What do you want people to focus on? Do you want to have lots of backlighting, creating a silhouette of your band on stage? Or do you want lots of front light, making sure people can see you clearly? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but you can use the layout of your band lighting to create very different moods.
I’d suggest starting with a piece of paper, and drawing out some ideas for where you’d like to place your stage lights. Watch some clips of concerts with a critical eye. Where are the lights placed? What are they focused on? You might want to use some truss to get your lights up off the ground, or maybe you want to put them on top of your amps/keyboards! Get creative with it, because stage lighting is an extension of your art!
2: The color palates you’ll use!
Colors are a very important to creating a vibe. A great way to get inspired is to look at color palettes!
If you make moody or sexy music, maybe you’ll want lots of red lighting. If your songs are fun and upbeat, blue and purple might be the vibe. You can change this from song to song, fitting the mood of each track with different color palettes! One pro-tip: I’d suggest staying away from shining green light on band members. This tends to look odd in photos and in real life, especially for people with darker skin.
3: The medium you’ll shine the lights through
You’ll want to include haze in your setup whenever possible. The haze that hangs in the air is what your lights will shine into, allowing the colors to show up in mid-air. Without haze, you’ll basically just be projecting colors onto whatever the light is pointed at. With haze, you’re creating beams of light that illuminate the stage.
Pro-tip: make sure to use a HAZER, not a fog machine. Fog juice is notorious for making people cough, and you don’t need to give yourself a cough when you’re about to sing for a room full of people! Haze also hangs in the air much longer, providing a canvas for your lights to shine through.
Now that we have put some thought into these basic principles, we can move on the the technical side of band lighting.
An intro to DMX
DMX is the system that we will most likely be using to connect all of your lights and other fixtures. A DMX cable takes a signal from a DMX controller (what light to turn on, what color to flash, etc) and delivers it to your light.
DMX transmits that information in a linear fashion. That means you can connect a cable from your DMX controller’s output to your first light’s DMX input, and then your first light’s DMX output can connect to your second light’s DMX input, and so on. All of your fixtures can be daisy-chained. Each light has its own DMX address that you select on the light’s menu, and your DMX controller sends information to each address. If you have 10 of the same light, and you give them all the same address, they will operate together. However, if you give them all unique addresses, you can control them independently.
Most fixtures take up multiple numbers within the 512 available to you. For example, a light could have 1 as the setting for overall brightness, 2 as the setting for red, 3 as the setting for green, and 4 as the setting for blue. If you gave that light the address “12” then the #12 fader on your console would control the overall brightness, #13 would control how bright the red lights are, and so on. So, if you wanted that light to shine bright blue, you’d turn the #12 and #15 faders all the way up. Once you’ve given all of your lights addresses, you can start to turn the faders on your controller up and down to create different scenes.
If you have a hazer that connects via DMX, and the address is 7, sliding fader 7 up will probably cause it to start shooting out haze. If you slide that fader back down to 0, it will stop producing haze.
Once you’re happy with the colors of your lights, the haze levels, etc, you can start saving scenes as presets. These scenes are what you’ll combine to create your show lighting. For example, scene 1 could be a “blackout” scene with all of the lights off. This would be great for in between songs. Then scene 2 could be all of the lights turned red. Scene 3 could be all of your lights red and white. You can create scenes for different song sections, and then you can flip between them to create the mood you want to set in each song!
If you’re a little lost, don’t worry, because this is where things start to get interesting. DMX is kind of hard to explain in a blog post, but once you’ve got some lights in your hands, and you can start moving knobs and faders, it’s a lot more intuitive.
What gear will you need to create great band lighting?
Now it’s time to build that shopping list…
The first thing I suggest is a handful of lights and a hazer
When building a show, I’d start with some LED PAR cans from Amazon! These are the basic building block of a light show, and you can get some dependable ones for around $50 a pop! If you can afford to buy them in pairs or sets of four, I’d suggest that, since it’s nice to have a symmetrical look. PAR cans have brackets that you can use to clamp them to truss, or set them up to stand on the floor. Don’t worry about buying some cheap PAR cans. You’ll probably add more nice lights to your collection as you create your show, and it’s not a bad thing to have more options!
You’ll also want to grab a hazer. I have the Chauvet Hurricane, which has been super dependable. You may be tempted to cheap out on your hazer, but I suggest going for a nice one that you’ll never need to replace. Chances are you’ll only need one of these for your show, so grab a good one. Make sure you get a hazer that has DMX, so you can program it into your show. Also, make sure to get water based haze for your hazer. Don’t use the cheap fog juice from Party City in your nice hazer, because it will mess it up.
The second thing you’ll need is a DMX controller
Since you have a basic idea of what DMX is, it’s time for the first technical/gear decisions that you’ll need to make: do you want to use a DMX controller/console that’s run by hand, or a virtual system run via MIDI/USB?
A DMX controller or console is the more traditional way to control your lights. A DMX controller has faders and buttons, much like an audio mixer, plus a DMX output that you’ll use to run your first cable to your lights. A USB controller is a box that plugs into your computer, allowing you to use software with virtual faders to control your lights.
Here are some questions you’ll need to consider when picking a system:
1: Does your band already play with backing tracks on a computer? If yes, a USB to DMX interface is a great choice, since you can use MIDI within your computer’s DAW (Ableton, Logic, etc) to trigger the light show.
2: Do you jam/improv a lot? If your band doesn’t like playing with a click track, and you like to improvise a lot, having someone manually run lights is probably your best bet. They can ride the wave of energy that you’re creating, and make a once in a lifetime show every time you play.
3: What’s your budget for an average show? If you’re a wedding band with a sound guy in the budget, or you’re touring big venues, you might choose to go with a physical controller! You will probably need an LD (lighting designer) to operate the lights if you go this route. If you are playing clubs, and have limited crew, having a laptop run the lights with a USB controller is probably the way to go.
I personally have used both before, and I have a slight preference toward the digital option. I find that using MIDI to pre-program my lights gives me a level of control that you can’t get from letting someone else control your lights with a manual controller. However, if you trust someone else to run your show, or you’d prefer not to deal with it, a manual DMX controller can be a great option!
As far as manual options go, I’ve personally used the Chauvet DJ Obey 70 at theatre shows, and it’s a pretty solid option for someone looking to get into basic light programming. If you’re looking to go digital, Enttec’s DMX USB Pro is an amazing choice. You can use their Show Buddy plugin to create your show in advance, and sync it up to your songs via MIDI.
Once you have your lighting controller in your hands, make sure to read the instruction manual! YouTube is also full of tutorials for almost every lighting controller you can get your hands on, so watch some tutorials and see if you find the setup to be intuitive. Once you’ve got your controller and lights in hand, you can start moving faders and making scenes!
Your next purchases will probably be…
…some more unique fixtures. Check out this list of Amazon DMX fixtures to see the wide variety of options you can add to your show. LED bars, moving head lights, or even a mirror ball could be fun additions to your show! Any DMX compatible light can be added to your show easily, so the sky is the limit when it comes to buying stage lights!
As your fixture collection grows, you’ll find more unique ways to build a great light show for your band.
However, before you start building an epic show…
Here are some things to consider!
Are you being considerate with your light show? While it’s awesome to have great visuals for your band, nobody likes it when band 3 of 5 for the night shows up and takes an extra 30 minutes to set up. I’d suggest you build a basic and portable version of your show that you can easily set up and tear down.
You also don’t want to outshine a headliner. If you’re the local opener on a national tour, please leave the lights at home, or at least ask the tour manager what you should and shouldn’t bring. I’ve seen openers pack their trailer full of lights, only to be told that they can’t use them. Make sure it’s “that kind of show” before you pull up with tons of lights.
How helpful is your band? Everyone in your band should have some basic knowledge on how to set up and troubleshoot your light show. Nothing is worse than having to stop what you’re doing to fix a problem with the lights. If your band has a lead singer, make sure they know how to load and set up the lights, since they don’t have amps or drums to set up.
Can you go simpler? The lights in the photo below are not DMX controlled, saving lots of setup time. Could you make something cool out of LED rope lights? Or maybe you could cover your instruments in lights, saving setup time?
Use the information here to create your ideal band lighting setup! You can combine any amount of lights, haze, and even cool stage props to create an amazing show! As always, we hope you have a great time creating music (and lights)!