I’m a big fan of Chamsys MagicQ.  It’s a professional range of lighting desks that are used in the theatre, broadcast and live music industry for controlling intelligent and conventional fixtures as well as media servers and LED video matrices.  They’re a British company and provide everything from a fully featured large format desk down to small ‘wings’ that can be used with a laptop computer.  They even sell a USB dongle for only £10 that will get an amateur started with their software.

There are a number of similar offerings from various companies, but I think Chamsys stand out by providing software that makes sense running natively on a PC rather than appearing to be an emulation of a hardware desk.  I think they are also quite fair in how they handle licensing, providing the software for free but requiring a piece of their hardware for things like audio triggering, MIDI in/out, iPad/tablet remote and wheel-type controllers.  Even with the £10 dongle, you get a hugely versatile piece of software that will allow you to programme really quite impressive lighting.  The latest version of the software includes a basic (but rapidly improving) 3D visualiser for offline programming of shows.  A lot of other companies either charge a lot of money for a basic dongle, provide very limited versions of their software, or charge extra (a lot extra) for visualisation.

My MagicQ setup includes:

  • popup wheeled rack case (designed for mixing desk) – from eBay
  • small form factor PC running Windows 7
  • 17″ touch screen monitor with rack mount kit – from eBay
  • Chamsys USB dongle (the non time-limited version)
  • DMX distribution amplifier – from eBay
  • jog/shuttle wheel controller (Contour ShuttlePro)

Although Chamsys don’t support this, it is possible to get a third-party wheel-type controller to work with their software.  Since their business model works by selling their wings, I’m not going to share how I got this working.  Suffice to say, it doesn’t involve hacking the MagicQ software in any way, or pretending to be a MagicQ Wing, and would be very hard to prevent.  I set this up at a time when the mouse control of the on-screen wheels was very ropey and really made it impossible to program moving heads, and using the ShuttlePro was the only way to make the software usable.  Chamsys have vastly improved the way the mouse interacts with the on-screen wheels and a jog/shuttle controller isn’t essential any more.

Building the system was simply a matter of screwing everything down onto a spare piece of wood, then using a high-strength impact adhesive to glue the wood to the inside of the rack case.  Previous attempts to secure the wooden base using cable ties etc. didn’t work out and I ended up with the components rattling around inside the case.

What’s the point of using a rack mount PC instead of a laptop?  Well, touch-screen laptops are more expensive for starters.  You generally have to lean over the keyboard to use the touch screen which is going to be slower and uncomfortable for a long show.  Laptops are  generally more vulnerable in a production environment – it’s easy for power leads and USB connections to fall out, and for drinks to be poured over them.  It’s also messy carrying around the USB dongle, power supplies and all the other bits and pieces – you’re going to end up with a case nearly as big as my custom desk anyway.  The desk gives me the confidence that everything will work straight away and not fail on me because of a loose cable.

On the software side, I enabled the Windows 7 accessibility features to get the on-screen keyboard, and I try not to plug in an external keyboard or mouse as the Chamsys software works very well using on-screen buttons and it’s quicker to get used to using the touch screen than to keep jumping over to the mouse or keyboard.

I’ve found the cheap Chinese DMX amplifiers to be quite reliable and I haven’t had an issue yet (to my knowledge) caused by dodgy DMX.

I’ve used MagicQ to run rigs with 18 conventional fixtures (i.e. dimmer pack channels) plus 4-6 moving heads and a number of LED fixtures.  For my last show I added in 6 LED bars that are actually 34 channels and I did start to see a few issues that I think are related to the USB dongle not quite keeping up with the software.  The cheaper USB dongles rely on the PC to do all of the heavy lifting, and really just convert the data to the right format for the wire.  The more expensive DMX interfaces are fully isolated (so a dodgy fixture can’t damage the computer) and offload more of the processing from the PC.  Yep, I’m saving up…