What we see in a club can be as important as what we hear. Angus Finlayson breaks down an overlooked part of a great night out.
Lights have been essential to dance music almost since the beginning. We live in a visual culture, and what we see (or don't) plays a big role in our mood, our thinking and our experience of sound. Good lighting can make the difference between a fun night and an extraordinary one. It can also say something about our clubbing values. Do you prefer a dazzling high-budget spectacle or a single light over the fire escape? Spotlights on the star DJ or blinding batteries of strobes?
There are also intriguing parallels between club lighting and the music it accompanies. Improvisers who read and respond to the energy in a club space, lighting designers have much in common with the DJs who overshadow them. And both disciplines are currently being reshaped by new technologies. I spoke to some of club music's best lighting designers to find out more. What follows is a beginner's guide to club lighting.
Let's start with some of the components that make up many club lighting rigs. There is no universal lighting setup: depending on the size and layout of the venue, the funds available and the preferences of whoever kitted out the place, the tools can vary widely. But here are a few of the basics, as found in London's Village Underground and demonstrated by the venue's lighting designer, Lewis Howell.
It all starts with the desk. This is the nerve centre of the lighting setup, and the place from which the lighting designer works during a night. In the digital age the lighting desk is a complex, specialised computer. Lighting designers will typically attend training courses to get to grips with them. Howell uses a ChamSys NQ60, which he describes as a "midrange" desk. At Village Underground it controls a couple dozen fixtures, but it could do much more. "I've done large shows for six thousand people and a couple of hundred lights with it," he says.
In music technology terms, the lighting desk is somewhere between a sound engineer's mixing desk and a sequencer. The lighting designer uses it to send instructions to the lighting fixtures via something called DMX (Digital Multiplex), a standardised digital language, equivalent to audio's MIDI.
As for what exactly the desk can instruct the lights to do, that depends on the light. Modern lighting fixtures vary widely in function and sophistication. The Arri 650w Fresnel is probably the simplest light in Village Underground's rig. It's a wash light, meaning that it produces a wide beam that washes over a stage or dance floor. (Fresnel refers to the lens, which was initially conceived to make lighthouse beams visible over longer distances.)
Nothing too flashy here: the lighting designer can control the intensity of the light and, to some degree, the width of the beam. The Arri Fresnel's diffuse light means it's more commonly used in film and TV. For club nights at Village Underground, Howell uses "barn doors," attachable shutters that help narrow the beam. In this footage, he explains, "the barn doors are tight together so you get a slice of light. Which gives you a nicer beam effect for raves. Because not everything should be bright and in your face."
A little more sophisticated is the ETC Source 4 Jr. Like the Arri Fresnel, this isn't a typical club light. It's what Howell refers to as a "special": a light used to pick out features in more conventional performance contexts. You might point one at the lead singer of a band, for example. (Village Underground hosts bands, too.) But a light like this does have uses in a club setting. You might want to light up the DJ while they take applause at the end of their set, or highlight the promoter's banner hanging on the back wall.
The Source 4 produces a circular spotlight beam. Its focus is tighter than that of the Arri Fresnel, running from 25 to 50 degrees. There's also a controllable shutter, which the lighting designer can use to tighten the beam further. As with the Fresnels, Howell has used the shutter to produce a narrow slice of light here. "It gives you almost a laser effect. You can see the beam and you can see the haze travelling through it, and it doesn't spray out too much light everywhere. Not everyone wants to see each other in a rave!"
The lights discussed so far fulfil pretty workmanlike roles. The Robe Pointe is the show-stealer, capable of a wide range of expressive effects. It can move along vertical and horizontal axes, so that its beam swings across the room or dances in time to the music. A colour wheel filters the light into a range of colours. Further effects come courtesy of prisms and gobos ("Goes Before Optics," metal or glass patterns through which the light passes). These can be placed in front of the light to make eye-catching shapes. There's also a strobing effect at the lighting designer's disposal.
Many club setups have a light more or less like the Pointe. Unlike, say, a band performance, DJ sets lack a visual focus, and a light like this can give the audience a visual analogue to the music. "They're the main ones you will notice in a club because they're versatile," Howell says. In many clubs you'll see the Sharpy fixture by Clay Paky, which specialises in a very narrow beam of light. The Robe Pointes can produce a wider, spotlight-like beam too, but in this footage Howell keeps them tight.
The Pointes are gas discharge lamps, in which light is generated via an electrical discharge in a gas-filled tube. (Think of a lighting strike, only the discharge is constant, rather than a brief flash.) The other fixtures mentioned so far employ the same technology as your traditional household incandescent light bulb: electrical current passes through a wire filament (in this case it's made of tungsten), which heats up and produces light. This is a more unwieldy technology, but it has its benefits. The following footage shows two light fixtures that make a feature of their tungsten bulbs.
The first is another Robe light, the PATT. Fixtures like the PATT have traditionally been used to light film and TV sets. Their extremely broad beam doesn't make them much use as a light source—it's more the fixture itself you're looking at. "They're a bit of an eye candy thing," Howell says. That familiar warm glow of an incandescent bulb sets off pleasing retro associations in the audience's mind. The other fixture shown is the Blinder by Showtec. Blinders do what you might think: flood the room with warm, blinding light. "They're for those big moments," Howell says. During a breakdown, "I tend to bring everything up so the room gets filled with white light. And as soon as the beat comes back in again you drop them back out, and drop the crowd into darkness."
Here's where the incandescent bulb comes in. Because the heating up and cooling down of the filament doesn't happen instantly, these dramatic flashes have a distinctive character. "You can flash them and you get a big hit and it fades back out," Howell explains. "It's not sharp—it drops back out quite nicely." (He often combines them with the other tungsten fixtures—the Source 4s and the Arris—to maximise the effect.)
In a gas discharge lamp like the Robe Pointe, on the other hand, dimming happens by way of a shutter brought in front of the light, meaning it's pretty much instant. This means that the Pointes can create precise, rapid flashing effects that the Blinders can't. Fans of music technology will be familiar with this phenomenon: the older technology is flawed, but its idiosyncrasies are exactly what make it appealing.
Alongside gas discharge and incandescent lamps, a third technology is on the rise. LEDs—in which light is generated by diodes connected in a circuit—use much less energy than other forms of lamp, and the bulb life is longer, making them more cost effective (not to mention environmentally friendly). But in the past they've struggled to match other technologies in terms of quality and intensity of light, giving them the feel of a cheap imitation. That's changing, though. "In the last ten years it's come on massively," Howell says. "The light output is good; the colour temperatures are great."
Many clubs feature LEDs as additional fixtures (in coloured strips running along the walls or ceiling, for instance). But they can also replace conventional fixtures. "Look at The Source 4 Jrs," Howell says. "[The manufacturer] has brought out an LED version which is actually fantastic." Newer LED lights, he says, can do many of the things the old technology does, even down to imitating the dimmer curve of a tungsten bulb. "It's getting to the point where every type of light is going to be able to have LEDs in it, and you probably won't notice much of a difference."
One light that faces competition from LEDs is the faithful strobe. This fixture might be surpassed only by the disco ball in its iconic status in dance music. Village Underground uses a "pretty much industry standard" gas discharge strobe, Martin's Atomic 3000. But there is now an LED version of the Atomic, and it's an appealing alternative. LEDs' power savings are particularly important in the case of the power-hungry strobe. LED strobes can also do things the old ones can't: change colour, and output a sustained flood of light, where traditional strobes are limited to shorter flashes. "A strobe's a strobe," Howell says, but thanks to LED technology, "it's now becoming something more."
You might hear a few words used to refer to this final weapon in the lighting designer's arsenal: "fog," "smoke" and "haze." Fog is the most instructive in terms of what's actually going on. The effect is created by vapourising a fluid so it hangs in the air as tiny droplets. (This is like the fog that occurs in nature. Actual smoke, on the other hand, is made up of solid, not liquid, particles).
A fog or smoke machine uses this technology for a shock and awe effect, much like the blinders and the strobes. It's that disorientating cloud that suddenly fills the dance floor before dissipating in time for the next drop. Hazers produce finer droplets that linger in a thin mist over the whole room. Haze is often present throughout the night, working as a subtle atmosphere enhancer.
Haze plays a crucial role in giving the lights their full effect. You can see how it works in this footage, which shows the same lighting sequence before and after Howell has run Village Underground's Le Maitre MVS Hazer. With no haze in the air, your eye is drawn to the light fixtures themselves; the beams they produce are a little dimmer. With haze in the room, the beams are more visible, and the patterns they create in the space more striking. "Haze makes such a difference to the room," Howell says. "It brings it all to life. That's what makes the lights into something animated, really, rather than just seeing lights flashing on and off without any beams."
Now we have an idea of the tools at a lighting designer's disposal. But the old wisdom applies: the kit you have is less important than how you use it. The stakes aren't quite so high here as for a DJ. If the music is truly awful then the punters will go home, but if the lighting engineer is phoning it in they might not notice consciously. Even so, poor, mismatched lights can have a subtle depressive effect on a night, dampening climaxes and draining the energy.
"If you have bad lighting people mostly don't really recognise that it's so bad," says Rob Grunwald. "But if your lighting is on point, and really fits to the music, then people come and say, 'Wow, that's really good lighting.'" At its best, good lighting can amplify the effects of the music in powerful and sometimes unexpected ways. Grunwald recalls a moment eight years ago, when he was working the lights for a Dixon set at Panorama Bar. At a breakdown moment, he spontaneously decided to turn all the lights off. "The bar guy recognised it and turned off the bar lighting too. We all got goosebumps and everybody was screaming. That was, even for me, a surprise."
Spontaneity is key to good club lighting. Where lighting in theatres or at big pop concerts tends to be planned in advance, club lighting is mostly improvised. But those magic unexpected moments don't come from nowhere. Just as a DJ spends hours digging and practicing in order to be ready for the unexpected, careful prep is a big part of the lighting designer's job.
Having previously worked at clubs in Berlin, Grunwald now works lights all over the world. He has a residency at Lisbon's Lux Fragil but is most often on the road, with Adriatique and Innervisions. (He appeared in our feature on the label.) Each club he works in will have a different lighting rig, so he requests the spec in advance. "Mostly I get plans or pictures before, then I maybe order some extra lenses. It depends what they've got in-house. But most of the clubs have a setup that I can work with. Sometimes it's bigger, sometimes it's smaller."
Grunwald adjusts his desk settings—using a virtual "user profile" that can be prepared on software at home and brought to the club on a USB stick—to seamlessly communicate with the club's lighting fixtures. This patching process will be familiar to anyone who's tried to get music gear talking to a computer or sequencer. Only, where most synthesisers take pretty much the same few MIDI commands, lighting fixtures can be controlled in a wide range of ways. Some might have as many as 35 controllable parameters, each requiring their own DMX channel—movement, colour, focus, zoom, the position and movement of prisms and gobos, and so on. "It takes some time, for sure," Grunwald says.
When working with multiple lights, each with multiple controllable parameters, directing each light individually soon becomes impractical. (Remember, spontaneity is the goal.) Modern desks are highly customisable and offer many smart shortcuts to expressive results. One of the basic techniques employed by a lighting designer is the "scene," a pre-programmed freeze-frame of a particular light configuration or behaviour. Your scene might involve all of the beam lights snapping into a certain eye-catching pattern. Or maybe it will set them rotating while your spotlights slowly fade on and off. These scenes can be composed beforehand and saved to the desk, ready for quick recall during a set. For a more dynamic effect, they can be daisy-chained into a choreographed sequence—a "chase"—which runs at a speed of your choice (perhaps in time with the music).
This all takes time, as fabric lighting designer Chris Binks explains. "If you can imagine having to move every individual light to a position—ten lights, ten positions—then record that as the first step in a chase. Then ten lights, ten new positions, and record that as the second step, and so on and so on till you finish the chase." It's easy to see how a lighting engineer could spend as much time preparing for a show as the DJ does going through music.
For Grunwald, working on the road, the prep continues on the day of the show. "As a light guy you need more time than a DJ at the club. I'm always at least five or six hours earlier in the city so I can check in at the hotel, then go to the venue, and maybe program [some more light] positions, see how the lamps look in the room, what I can do with it."
Binks, who has been working at fabric since it opened, follows a rigorous maintenance regime. "I clean every fan, every lens, every mirror and reposition lights for the coming shows. The rest of the time is spent fixing anything that has broken the night before. If one light isn't working then for me it's two lights, as I have to turn off the one that it mirrors."
On the night itself, a lighting designer's job begins as soon as the door opens. Lights can make a crucial difference in the first few hours, helping early arrivals settle in and luring them onto the dance floor. "I like to keep things dark and minimal so everyone feels warm and welcome when they first walk in," says New York's Ariel Figueroa, a renowned lighting designer who works with the likes of Body & Soul and Masters At Work. "I think people prefer to hide away when they first arrive."
Binks calls the opening "the most important part of the night." He makes the club "look as warm and inviting as possible. The idea is to not scare people off the dance floor with flashing lights but attract them with subtle trickery. I'll have all the colours set the mood perfectly with little or no movement." This will "make people enter the dance floor, even for a couple of selfies in the lights. It's not long before two become four, become eight."
From there things could go in any number of directions. "If the night begins calmly, I start calmly too," says Natalie Heckl, who regularly works the lights at Berghain, Printworks for The Hydra and Afterlife at Hï Ibiza. "If the night develops quickly, I follow accordingly." Like all of the lighting designers I spoke to, she said that she primarily follows the DJ's cues. "For me, light is the multiplying factor, which should visually emphasise and strengthen the music." She tries to "understand the structure and the story of the DJ set and to translate it visually in such a way that it conveys the mood and the message of the music to the audience."
But clubs are about more than music, and good lighting pays attention to the many extra-musical factors that feed into a good night. Binks takes it all into consideration, "even to the point of how cold the air conditioning is. You may laugh but the entire environment is my concern. For me it's all about creating the perfect clubbing environment." Grunwald describes his goal as transmitting "the philosophy of each club in an accurate way."
There are also some instances where the lighting designer might deviate from the golden rule of following the DJ. "A very good friend of mine was once playing an amazing set, but it was just short of the BPM required to lift the crowd," Binks recalls. "So I literally ran a shutter chase two BPM faster than his music—painfully, as it meant it was out of time, but subliminally long enough that he actually caught up, and the crowd went off. So that's the effect lighting can have on the dance floor."
There's a strong subjective element to this. Just as three different DJs might respond to the same room and crowd in three different ways, lighting designers bring a trademark feel to their shows. "I like everything to be geometrical and symmetrical," says Village Underground's Lewis Howell. "I don't have any lights going onto the wall or anything. It always sits within the dance floor, and moves between those four or eight points." Figueroa, meanwhile, combines modern equipment with an approach developed over a career dating back to the '80s. "The style in which I match the lights visually to what's going on sonically is old school. But what I'm working with is basically all new technology."
For his part, Binks prefers to use an older kind of moving light, in which a static beam shines onto a moving mirror. These have a different quality of movement than the moving head lights popular today. Grunwald, meanwhile, feels that his preference for lower-intensity light shows sets him apart. "Maybe because I'm a smoker, I always do more chill, relaxed light. Even if the music is pushing, I recognise that you don't always have to have all ten strobe lights on."
Another of Grunwald's trademarks might be warm, rich colour. "I remember when I was in Detroit for Movement Festival three years ago, Maceo Plex was playing on the main stage and I was dancing after my show. For half an hour there was just red visuals and lighting, and I thought, 'What a boring concept.' But then everything changed slowly to white during the synths of 'Solitary Daze' and I thought, 'Wow.' Colour can have so much influence. But only if you use it well and in the right moment."
Restraint is essential in effective use of colour. "All colours can work, but not at once," says Heckl. "I usually combine at most two colours and their respective shades. In rare cases I'll add in a third colour." Binks also preaches the two colours rule when training lighting designers at fabric. "It's the first thing I say to someone. What happens if you mix two colours on a canvas? You get a third. So if you use more than two you get six, nine, 12 and so on, till you have a Christmas tree. And I see it too often in clubs."
Binks follows a strict synesthetic code when choosing colour: blues and cyan for techno; blues, cyan and green for acid; ambers and reds for house; reds, magentas and deep purples for R&B. "The problem today is most techno is blue. Blue is a calming colour that actually slows your heart rate. Not what you want on a busy dance floor." When working the lights he's careful "not to fall into the trap of blue music and to bring in whatever colours possible when possible." For example: "If there are horns in the track you'd better make sure you have amber come on prism at that point to create a little lift, or you're in trouble."
Figueroa, meanwhile, uses certain light fixtures to mimic the sounds in the music. "I tend to use specific lights to sing the vocal parts and others for the different instruments in the record. When I'm at [New York club] Cielo, we have some LED wall lights, so I'll use them for stuff like piano parts and some vocals. I'll use the strobe light to accentuate drums and use sweep-type motions for strings, etc."
Sooner or later, of course, a night has to end. The lighting designer has work to do here, too. They can help prepare dancers for a return to the real world—perhaps one in which the sun has now risen. "I try to avoid fast movements and high shutter effects, and start to slowly use brighter colours the more the sun comes up," Grunwald says. If the DJ ends with a mellow pop or disco track, he might throw in some rainbow colours. He'll continue to use smoke though, complementing it with neutral, natural-looking lights, like Blinders, to gently prepare people for "seeing the sunlight and fresh air again."
Binks, meanwhile, aims to "slow everything down to a standstill"—providing the DJ is taking a similar approach. He has a couple of strategies to achieve this in fabric's room 1. One involves shining a Sharpy into the half-rotating mirror balls mounted on the room's walls. "I start on a minimum dimmer setting and slowly bring that up throughout the length of the track. It all depends on the song choice as to what colour I use."
The other strategy involves pointing the moving lights at a pre-programmed position on the dance floor and overlaying "two gobos and a prism." ("I won't say which, it's a trade secret.") This creates "really thin spindles of light in white that create a web or nest cluster in the middle of the floor in front of the DJ booth, where the remaining few public are at that time of the morning."
Not all lighting designers develop these sorts of personalised touches. In the same way that mass-market music production technology, while offering infinite possibilities, also coddles users with formulaic presets, the modern lighting desk can sometimes hinder creativity.
For instance, modern desks feature a powerful effects engine, giving lighting designers access to a palette of pre-programmed tricks and techniques. As Howell explains, effects can have simple practical applications. A light like the Robe Pointe has two movement parameters, pan (horizontal) and tilt (vertical). Programming complex movements using these two parameters can be fiddly, but "an effects engine will give you a circle or a figure of eight or something. Lots of people use engines and they can get you a look pretty quickly."
But overuse of pre-programmed effects can also lead to formulaic lighting. Binks feels that many new lighting designers "have no feeling for the music, no style of their own. They've done a two-day course, learnt how to use a computer program and effects engine in the desk, and that's that. I and everyone that I teach don't use the effects engine. When I learnt lighting there was no such thing, so you had to tell the lights everything you wanted to do. Almost all [new lighting designers] look the same, as they are using the same effect engine as everybody else."
Complex modern desks can also have a distancing effect, putting a layer of programming between the lighting engineer and the music. "When I first learned, they stressed the importance of mood and matching the lights to the beat, whereas now I think the focus is more on technical aspects," says Figueroa. "As a matter of fact someone recently said to me that today there are more trained technicians than lighting jockeys. It may be visually beautiful with stunning colours but you're not seeing the music. The lights are going in their own direction."
The producer and DJ François K tackled the issue in a recent column for New York zine Love Injection. (He gave a shout out to Figueroa, a collaborator, in the article.) "Back in another age, clubs had light systems that were mostly operated manually," he wrote. "Even with an extremely cheap setup, it was very easy to do lights in sync with the music." With today's sophisticated lighting desks, on the other hand, "Something consistently strikes me when I see most light artists use them: they just play presets most of the time, and more often than not these presets invariably get boring. As a touring DJ, I've encountered many situations where I felt it was necessary to ask the light guy to play in time with the music, and in almost all cases, they just weren't able to... making a series of excuses but never delivering the goods."
Kevorkian compared this to DJs crafting flat, dynamic-less sets using the CDJ's "master tempo" function, taking both to be a "sign of the times. People may not always be in full control of what they do any more. The real issue in my mind is whether we remain conscious of these wondrous software tools being at our service on our terms, or do we abdicate control and take the easy road?"