Lighting control is an interesting sector. Even if almost every stage in the world, from the larger opera houses, theaters, television studios, clubs, schools and houses of worship has lights to enhance the experience they offer, and even if there is a lighting control system running every one of them – it is a small world.
Cobalt is a state of the art lighting control system by Electronic Theatre Controls in Middleton, USA – designed for theatre, television and events. It is a system that I have had the opportunity, pleasure and blessing to be a part of developing on a road trip that started in the late 80’s. I want to share my thoughts about why I feel this way.
For me, it all started with a combination of being a musician, having quit the army, which was compulsory at the time, and dating a theatre producer. I tagged along with my girlfriend at the time because she wanted to get a job with better pay than producing independent theatre, which at the time was any job. Any. She had a former technical colleague in the free arts who was working in a Swedish company run by theatre geeks and engineers, it was a pretty remarkable company in most ways – they were inventing and producing pretty awesome portable dimmers, portable sound mixers in sweet and at the time unthinkably compact aluminum cases and lighting control systems. Manual system, and something very new: memory systems. This company was AVAB – which translates into “Audio Visual technology Inc”. To make a long story short, I waited outside while she asked for a job – her friend asked her who the guy was pacing the sidewalk outside the window and she said
“Thats my boyfriend, he just came out of the military service after 18 months – he’s a musician”
“What did he do in the military?”
“He was a sergeant”
“Great, then he knows discipline and has stage experience, I’m sorry I don’t have a position for you, but tell him he can have a job in the rental services, I can use him there, we have a mess right now”
My girlfriend was maybe not thrilled, and I wasn’t really looking for a job, but when I saw all the cool equipment I thought “hey, I’m sure I’ll learn something useful here, that I can use on stage”.
My position was in the rentals department, and this was the time of the microprocessor revolution. It happened in many areas, and I was incredibly active in two at the time: synthesizers and lighting controls. Suddenly consumer prized equipment was available with professional functionality. It also meant a paradigm shift from manual lighting control to digital, from presetting to memories and memory storage – from voltage controlled dimming to multiplexed protocols. For the adventurous it was a moment of curious joyful pioneering – for those at the pinnacle of a long career where all existing tools already “did the job” it was a pain in the ass. These were the ones wanting to rent stuff – and preferably somebody who could program it for them – me.
To make a long story short, I ended up programming shows of any kind and importance during these years, and feeding back user interaction observations into the the development department, getting involved in the development and update of older systems and new ones – the 1000 channel talking Viking system – state of the art competitor to Strand Galaxy at the time – the touring 202, 201, 211, Expert series, VLC/Safari and then Presto and Pronto… during all this time AVAB became a German company called Transtechnik, and then ETC stepped in and bought both that company and AVAB. My closest colleagues in development at this time were Anders Ekvall and Bullen Lagerbielke (they still are, plus Sarah Clausen). We had been through quite a lot in terms of developing lighting controls by then – and the challenges of the market went from controlling gel changing scrollers to networking multiple workstations and moving lights. The main experience that I value is that we always have had very short iteration loops of communication in tight interaction with our users – plus being users ourselves.
Around this time I summed up my experiences so far by interviewing major historical manufacturers and pioneers user of lighting controls I could find and summed it up in a book with the hard-to-guess-title “Stage Lighting Controls”, that still is in use in universities and schools involved in technology for performing arts. This project gave me a great chance to “geek out” into the historical reasons and development of features. This is where I realized how the different standards of the industry, like MIDI, DMX512, ACN, etc, can be driving forces of development at first and major loopholes down the road. And this is the nature of it.
When AVAB/Transtechnik came under the roof of ETC, a lot of good things happened. First of all our users suddenly had access to 24/7 worldwide support – which, in this business, is a good thing to have. Secondly we were suddenly part of an international dealer network and experience of worldwide marketing, sales, service and support for some of the most advanced lighting control systems and dimmers in the world. Yay. I felt like a member of an indie-band that had been “promising” that suddenly found itself in Universal Studios, preparing for the next movie with a totally different infrastructure. Even cooler, this company cares about a lot of things companies usually don’t care about. Long term safety. Relations. Creativity. Thinking outside the box. Delivering the box. On time.
We got a chance to develop Congo, a hands-on control system mixing old school handles with memory speed and direct access to parameters in real time, which was received over expectations world wide, it made it into live television like the Eurovision, theatres, venue halls and houses of worship in the UK, the US and many other places – including lighting up the Burj in Dubai – which it still does, thanks to it’s versatile effects engine.
From here we moved on to develop Cobalt 20 and Cobalt 10, the current flagships with this particular DNA of fast interaction and powerful effects. The exciting thing about Cobalt is that it finally gave us a chance to house all the good stuff we learned over the years into a totally up to date hardware:
- Direct access to any parameter or piece of data
- Screen handles that allow adjusting all this on the fly
- Endless potentiometers that double the amount of control handles
From here on forward. There is more in the pipeline. 🙂