In the second edition of our special series on club lighting we spoke to Rob Leach of dbnAudile, and Spencer Heron of Rebel Overlay as we explore lighting rigs, design, and VJing.
By Callum Martinez & Tom Phillips. Image Credit: Jake Davis.
Welcome to the second half of this 2 part feature on the world of club lighting and design. In part 1 we talked to Natalie Heckl (Berghain) and Dave Ross (Printworks) about how lights are designed and operated to change our perception of space and music, as well as their approach to working with DJ’s and musicians. But before any of that can be achieved, they have to be set up correctly. Rob Leach is a part of dbnAudile, a Manchester based company that specialises in lighting, sound and rigging. Rob currently designs the lighting rig at Printworks. His role is important as he has the challenge of bringing the lighting designs and ideas into reality in a workable way.
Rob has to consider many different things when designing the lighting setup; What music styles will be played? Where is the light coming from? Who will be operating the lights and how do they work? Is it flexible enough for different artists to change if necessary? In 2019, The Independent said that the lighting at Printworks was “undoubtedly, the venue’s strongest asset”, an accurate consideration to the work that is put in by Rob and his colleagues. Rob was kind enough to speak to us and share his experiences and thoughts on the relationship of lights, music and visuals:
Festivals have shown the possibilities of large-scale lighting and electronic music performances. Do you think that has had an influence on the demands and expectations in clubs?:
Absolutely although it’s worth remembering that the festival shows have generally been derived from an artist’s show design at club/touring level. The scale of course has been uplifted to suit the audience size & setting, but a carefully thought-out design at club level can be far more effective than a festival design & the potential to immerse the audience is far greater at club level.
Some festival shows will pull out all the stops in terms of tech delivery just for the sake of it but completely fail to engage with the crowd. Others will, & have, thought about clever and unique use of the technical canvas and how to enhance the festival design with their show – and for me Disclosure at Parklife 2019 is a prime example of this.
A good show design will take into account the space, the audience, the music & the journey and in that respect festival-scale shows shouldn’t really influence a club design. However the reality is somewhat different.In my mind it is club shows themselves that have led to greater demands & expectations in clubs as audiences have become aware of the wealth of opportunities to captivate them.
When you think of lighting design for the events at Printworks, do you think of music and lighting as separate entities?:
I very much think of them together as they should work in tandem & the technology should compliment the audio experience. In respect of Printworks specifically a design needs to work across a season so actually I’m trying to create a design that then can be utilised in multiple ways to suit the variety of genres we hear across a number of months. I see it as a base-level installation that can be enhanced for specific shows. The operators, style of programming & incoming LDs for artists can then tailor the design & space to suit a particular show.
Aside from the music, where do you find your inspiration?
For the Printworks it’s very much about being sympathetic to the incredible surroundings of the building itself, using the equipment in an innovative way & evolving the design as the Printworks moves through it’s own journey. I find being in the space with the audience & sharing in their experience and reactions can be a massive inspiration for the future. The design needs to enhance & colour the emotions we all feel from the soundtrack.
Printworks operates on a seasonal basis. How do you keep things new and exciting each season?
As a production team we are often throwing ideas around & will also consider how we can push the boundaries of the experience further. We look at new technology as it arises, ways in which we can enhance & add new layers to the canvas, discuss the realities of budgets and the proposed line-ups for each season as the booking calendar gets filled up. We also need to take ourselves on a creative journey alongside the audience.
Are there any times where you fuse visuals and lighting together?
Ideally all the time, I’m a big fan of blending these disciplines so the lines between them are blurred. I like the crowd to be wrapped within one surface that envelops them and any distinction is removed. Certain products make this an easier process, the design is important but more than anything the programming & operating teams are crucial for this to succeed. Good communication, instinct & experience of working in harmony is vital between those in control.
From the comments above we can see how important a role light plays within a music performance, but we cannot have a legitimate conversation about the visual counterpart to music and not talk about the VJ.
From as far back as the 1500’s people have been musing upon the idea of visual music. Gregorio Comanini, Louis Bertrand Castel and Mary Hallock Greenewalt among many others all proposed and invented different variations of visual producing devices that were intended to have a symbiotic relationship with music. Mary Hallock Greenewalt’s colour organ was an incredible achievement of technological ingenuity at the time, but once again with the advancement of computer technology things have evolved. In the modern era it was MTV that catapulted the VJ into the spotlight after members of the organisation witnessed Merrill Aldighieri’s pioneering work at Hurrah club in NYC. After that the scene exploded as the possibilities of manipulating video to use creatively as permanent fixtures in clubs and on tv became apparent.
The earliest adaptation of the visual synth was in the 1960’s with the invention of the Animac by Lee Harrison III. This important piece of technology was a precursor to modern day computer animation that we see all the time, such as in movies from PIXAR. Some time later, in the 70’s, we saw more recognisable video synths such as Eric Seigel’s EVS Electronic Video Synthesizer & Dual Colorizer, which featured pattern generators, a trait that many of today’s available synths have maintained. These synths parallel modular audio synths as they can be connected in a similar way and even be connected to analog synths to create a blend between the two technologies – yet another link between the audio/visual realms.
Visual synthesis became more accessible, with companies such as Critter & Guitari producing affordable units, as well as computer programs such as Resolume which is used in large scale events and performances to this day. This had a similar effect to cheaper music technology in the sense that it has made the exploration of this art form more accessible for creatives to tap into, for club use and music videos alike.
Spencer Heron is an incredibly talented visual artist and founder of Rebel Overlay. Spencer’s visuals have been witnessed by thousands that attend Printworks, and he also produces visuals for the live shows of The Hydra as well as the grime superstar Skepta. He also had a hand in the captivating Tessellaser and Nexus light installations. Spencer gave us an insight into his workflow and some advice for those starting out:
How would you describe the relationship between music and visuals?
Music is a creative form of expression, and so is the visual arts. Listening, and feeling the music while also seeing the music represented in geometric lighting or some form of visual narrative, enhances that experience further.
Musicians and visual artists have been collaborating for some time, and the visual accompaniment can assist in communicating the music performers actions. The two go hand in hand and can take audiences on a sensory journey. The strobes hitting that drop moment in perfect timing, the visual loop catching every drum beat across the screen, the laser liquid moment for that euphoric musical breakdown, the visual aesthetic, especially at electronic music events has become synonymous and it’s hard to imagine a music event without it.
Technology will no doubt continue to drastically change your work in the future – what new technology do you find the most exciting and why?
I find the most exciting developments in the technology to revolve around real-time visual production, and how photorealistic design can be achieved and rendered incredibly fast and cheap. The live events industry is often working on last minute, or quick turnaround deadlines, so the ability to create content in a short time is very positive, and the last few years alone have seen huge improvements.
Some of the advancements in real-time graphics are largely due to game engine technology, and software like Unreal Engine is capable of not only creating games, but creating visual content for a multitude of uses. UE4 is also able to integrate with a vast number of other protocols and connections, like Midi, OSC or DMX for example, so you can create heavily synced audio visual shows using Ableton to drive visual parameters in UE4, or even to use a DMX lighting desk to control virtual lights in the game engine environment.
Software such as Touchdesigner also has some great content production features, but is capable of linking endless other devices or software protocols into drive parameters. Some other exciting developments in this world is the use of Depth cameras, or Lidar, to scan environments or subjects in 3D space and have them interact with the projected visuals.
Are there any times where you fuse visuals and lighting together?
At Printworks, working alongside Dave Ross the lighting operator, we often compliment each other’s workflow throughout the night. Printworks can often be 12 hour long days, and start quite early in the day. Together we try to find a balance, and follow the music together, giving each other breathing space at appropriate times, so if lighting is hitting certain musical moments better then we will ease off and give lighting it’s time to shine, and visa versa.
We will often program specific looks where the lighting and video are working in unison. We have a transparent screen at Printworks, with a rig of lights and strobes behind. We have specific content moments where the lighting has cues that interact with the video content, creating a layered look.
Often on other shows we work on integrating our own lighting design, and we control some lighting elements ourselves like pixel battens or other pixel mappable lighting fixtures. We like to drive lighting using video, where we can have a design raster that we can animate on top of, creating animations that work to a specific BPM structure, similar to how someone would make a drum loop for a song. These animations can then be layered up with the video screen content, and when played back together there is a kind of beautiful unison that’s feels quite unique, programmed but still live in the sense that we would have 100’s of these animations that we can fire off, or layer up with, a number of other animations to keep things fresh throughout a set.
What words of advice or inspiration would you give to a beginner with an interest in the profession?
First off I would continue to attend events and try to understand what is going on with the teams in the front of house area. Try to ask them some questions at the start or the end of the night to see if there’s anything about their craft that interests you. From that point onwards, you can find endless information online especially for the VJ or concert visual industry. There are facebook groups like VJ London, VJ loops, sell and share, and forums online where you can connect with others in the field. There are a number of software choices out there where you can learn media server or live jamming, or VJ based software and they often have free trials with saving projects the only limitation. There are also lots of free clip resources online, so you can try out other people’s content.
From there it’s just a case of sticking with it, it’s not a very difficult profession to get into as there are lots of events around the world. You can approach local promoters in your area and offer to provide visuals on the venues LED or projector screen.
Stick with it, it’s incredibly fun and is often different every time. If you’re lucky, you can travel the world and party every night!
Regardless of what extent the average punter understands what goes into creating these spectacular visual displays, it’s no secret that lighting and visuals have been and always will be a huge part of electronic music whether in the club or on YouTube. Even in the current age of live streaming, images often intertwine behind DJ performances in an effort to try and provide some gentle reminder of the sense of escape we gained from events in pre-COVID times.
Being attacked from all angles by the multi-sensory explosion of sound, light and colour have brought amazement, wonder and euphoria to millions around the world, and we can safely assume things will only get better thanks to the work of talented individuals within the scene. So the next time you visit a club, tune in to a live stream or watch a music video, pay a little mind to the incredibly creative people behind the scenes that help elevate your experience to the fascinating levels we are so fortunate to be able to witness in the world of electronic music.
We would like to give a big thanks to Rob Leach and Spencer Heron for helping us write this article.
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