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Musician Tips Tips & Suggestions, Part 4: LIGHTING

Lighting crews aren't necessarily the best people to tell you - the musician - everything you need to know about lighting. After all, they've got their own vested interests to defend, and the fact that someone can hump a few PAR cans into the back of a Transit doesn't automatically make them a talented and imaginative lighting designer. How often have you watched a pub or club gig where the flashing lights and awful colours are more of a distraction than an enhancement ?

Obviously if you routinely play in stadiums or even large theatres you can hire capable lighting designers and let them get on with it. But most of the time most of us work in much smaller venues. Since lighting vitally affects the way your performance will be perceived it's worth taking at least a passing interest in the subject. There's no point working hard on your image and delivery if you're going to keep disappearing from sight in a lurid nightmare of flashing green and orange.

Four lamps a side is the usual minimum most of us will need to deal with - and, used properly, it can achieve an astonishing amount. A rig this size is cheap and doesn't require a genius to operate it - just reasonable common sense. Each lamp consists of a black tin can (with, effectively, a car headlight stuck up one end of it) known as the PAR-64. The bulbs come in two basic intensities: 500 and 1000 watts. 500 watt lamps are good because they won't fry your hair on small club stages.The advantage of 1000 watters is that you can use deeper, more intense colours and still be seen. PAR cans are available in several different widths of beam, but with budget rigs it's a bit of a lottery which type you'll get on any given night.

First off check and adjust where each of the lamps is actually pointing. Get somebody to stand in at each band member's stage position, and make sure they're lit and can be seen. Most PAR cans are actually directional, with a wide horizontal beam whose angle can be rotated by a porcelain mounting strip at the back of the bulb. So you can usually clamber up behind each lamp and adjust the beam angle for maximum effect. You'll need a heavy glove or thick piece of cloth to avoid frying your hands.

While backlighting is the mainstay of conventional rock n'roll illumination on large stages in big venues, in your local pub it will tend to blind the audience and turn the band into silhouettes. On the other hand don't worry too much if you yourself get dazzled when on stage - it actually means you're is definitely lit. It's much more important for the paying public to see you than for you to see them.

Check what colours are in your eight available lamps. Do you really want to be lemon yellow or violent mauve all evening ? If the colours supplied with the rig are awful, it's better to take them out altogether and use open white - which at least gives you good clean illumination. You can then vary intensities on your dimmer board to achieve changes in mood. If you really get the bug, buy your own filters and take them around with you: nuances of colour are so emotive and the gels are so cheap that it's well worth experimenting.

Finally, keep the lighting plot appropriate to the size of your rig. At a Wembley or NEC gig the batteries of lights in rows flash on and off several times a second. But with eight lamps in a pub flashing lights just looks stupid. With even the tiniest rig you can still achieve quite a wide range of atmospheres to enhance the mood of your music. But remember the primary function of lighting is to illuminate. It's something inexperienced lighting operators can often tend to forget.

All the above is easy enough to achieve when you're paying for the lights yourself. But more often some form of lighting will be supplied by the venue. This has the advantage of being free, but the drawback that it may be very basic and in poor condition. Worst of all, some local timeserver will be in charge of it and will probably want an easy life without too much hassle. If you run into the "we always do it this way" attitude, you'll need all your tact and diplomacy to get things changed around to the way you want them - rather than to suit the local Jobsworth's personal convenience.

Two final points. Think about sight lines and make sure the PA speakers don't obscure the audience's view of the stage more than they have to. Sound crews don't give much consideration to visuals and PA stacks can often be moved back to give a much wider, clearer view of the stage (and your wonderful lighting) without much affecting the sound. If they say this will cause feedback, try moving your microphone out in front of the speakers by the same distance to see if they're right. Nine times out of ten, they won't be. And the tenth time ? Hey, turn the PA down a bit.

The other thought - already mentioned in the piece on solo gigs - is to consider carrying black drapes: cheap offcuts of cloth from your local department store. The smaller the venue, the bigger difference this will make, because of the amount of stray light that gets thrown around. Cover the back wall, plus any flightcases or other junk, with plain black material so that the background disappears, and your lighting will look 200% better. Guaranteed.


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