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Lighting Controller Options

In this article, Duke DeJong explores some different lighting controller options and some questions to help you figure out what you need.

Lighting controllers come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets—from simple push button preset controllers to full blown moving light controllers that can handle dozens of DMX 512 universes. Whatever your lighting control needs, there is an option that will make sense for you.

Preset Lighting Controllers

The most basic of DMX controllers, a Preset Controller, simply allows you to create a certain number of preset looks with another lighting controller and save them to preset buttons on the controller. For example, the Doug Fleenor Designs Preset 10 Controller is a super simple way to give someone 10 preset lighting looks to choose from. Particularly useful when you only use standard looks all of the time, Preset Controllers can make lighting easy for children’s or youth rooms.

They also work great as a secondary controller in your main auditorium, offering a variety of looks for weddings, funerals, special events, and even cleaning without needing someone to turn on and operate the main lighting controller. While they offer super simple operation, the drawbacks with Preset Controllers is that they are typically limited to what is on a single universe of DMX, you need to use another controller to set it up and you are then limited to the presets you created, as you created them unless you have another controller in line.

Fader-Based Lighting Controllers

The old school method for controlling lights, fader-based controllers, was simple because most every light had a fader. When you pushed the fader up to a certain percentage, the light(s) on that fader turned on to that percentage. And many fader based controllers also allowed you to create looks and save them to a fader preset, allowing you to fade in or out of a preset look. The ETC Smartfade is an excellent example of a fader -based controller and is still a great console to use when you have a smaller, fairly simple lighting rig.

If you have 12 conventional white lights and 6 LEDs, 12 faders would most likely be taken up with the 12 conventional fixtures while the LED’s would be grouped and then addressed into an RGB mode. In other words, for every LED addressed to 13, fader 13 would increase/decrease red, 14 would adjust green, and 15 would adjust blue. It’s not necessarily the most powerful way to control multi-function lighting fixtures (like LED or moving lights), but for a small rig something like the ETC Smartfade 1248 can still be very functional and effective.

Small Format Hybrid Lighting Controllers

With more and more venues turning to LED lighting, some manufacturers have developed controllers that look to expand the capability of fader-based controllers without getting into the complexity of full function controllers. For example, the Jands Stage CL console offers the ability to run a large number of LED lighting fixtures in 12 groups, giving each group an intensity fader in addition to a hue and saturation knob to adjust the color. While limited in the quantity of fixtures and groups you can work with, for many churches this hybrid controller mentality will be the perfect blend of capability and simplicity.

Full Function Lighting Controllers

For lighting rigs that have a lot of fixtures or a variety of types of multi-function (or intelligent) fixtures, full function lighting controllers become critical to organizing, programming, and executing complex lighting looks and programs. Each featuring a built-in operating system running proprietary control software, brands like ETC, Jands Vista, High End Systems, and Grand MA are just some of the major players in this category.

These types of controllers are typically larger and feature-packed with the capability of controlling up to dozens of universes of lighting fixtures no matter how complex the fixtures are. You’ll find these types of full-feature controllers on most tours as well as in larger facilities, especially where complex programming is involved. Beginning in the low $10’s of thousands and going up from there, these controllers pack a punch and a hefty price tag.

Full Function Computer-Based Controllers

For those who need full programming functionality without the high quantity of fixtures or faders, manufacturers like Jands Vista and High End Systems have a step down from the full function controller where you provide a PC or Mac running their software with a smaller fader wing hooked up for playback and/or DMX output. For example, the Jands Vista S1 gives you all of the programming power of the Jands Vista L5 with less surface faders, no touch screen, and you providing your own computer at roughly 1/6th the price.

If your church is like mine, with 48-96 channels of dimming and a dozen or two LED’s, a Jands Vista M1 controller with a Mac Mini may meet your needs perfectly for less than half the price of a Jands Vista S1. If you have a big rig or are doing a high level of programming, this intermediate step probably isn’t for you. But for most of us, this newer category of lighting controller is making full function programming affordable.

So which console is right for you? I’d love to tell you console X is the right way to go but the answer truly is “it depends”.

  • What kind of lighting rig do you have now?
  • What kind of lighting do you plan to add over the next 3-5 years?
  • What kind of things do you hope to accomplish with your lighting?
  • What kind of capability and training does your team have?
    More complex systems require more training and capability.

Ask yourself these questions and compare your needs with the options above to find the right lighting controller for you.

Duke is passionate about equipping the next generation of ministry leaders, especially those serving churches with technology. He serves as Church Relations Director for CCI Solutions, a design build technology solutions provider. Follow Duke on Twitter: @dukedejong

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8 responses to “Lighting Controller Options”

  1. Josh Gilson says:

    We use Chauvet ShowXpress and it works great. The Software’s free, you just buy the boxes. 1 Box = 1 Universe of DMX or ArtNet. We’ve done 6 Universe Shows for Theaters, Concerts, Churches and More. Very great PC or MAC controller!

    • Paul Thomson says:


      I am building a lighting setup for my church and am considering using show express with the Doug Fleegor preset light controller. this I believe would help with ease of use for church members. do you know if this will work?

      If it does, do I have to build scenes to be triggered by the preset controller? Hope you can help, not getting much clear answers elsewhere.

      • Josh Gilson says:

        Hey Paul, there’s a few different options here.

        1. If you got DFD to make a DMX input you could output the ShowXpress controller into the DFD controller and then to your opto.

        2. If you buy the Chauvet ShowXPress Plus, it has inputs to allow triggers. This would need to be discussed with DF, but it’s possible.

        3. This option is the cheapest, most reliable and IMO the best option. Only use ShowXpress 512 and have preset buttons that people press to turn on scenes. I do this with 100% of church installs I do. Here’s an example: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151823374617113&set=gm.469132266529420&type=1

        Feel free to contact me for more info. I also sell Chauvet, ADJ & other lighting products direct. 619-855-5404

  2. Kyle Watson says:

    Currently we run the Chamsys MagicQ PC program. The program is free and can be run with a third party usb to dmx adaptor, such as the Enttec USB DMX PRO for about $160. You can run 1 universe and the software could be run on a cheap netbook. That is the exact setup we have in our Youth building, and in the main auditorium we purchased one of Chamsys’s wings.

    Chamsys Software

    Enttec DMX USB Pro

    Chamsys Quick tutorial

  3. Cody Woodlee says:

    We use MYDMX 2.0 Insanely cheap and works awesome

  4. Dan says:

    Hi.. My name is Dan.. I am an electrician. I am looking at modifying a system for a church. Their current situation is 23 switches on a wall together. Approx half or so are on dimmers. They presented a solution of me installing a programmable relay panel. I don’t like this solution due to exact timing and relay problems. They want simplicity and economical. Any suggestions? How would I convert 23 switches to be controlled by a console or computer program based controller?
    Thanks a bunch Dan

  5. Joe Schwartz says:

    Hello there!
    We are currently running an ETC system using an 24-48 Express console and the Emphasis software. This is the only system that I’ve used and know but we’ve been having some issues with some control functions and adding new fixtures (LED bars, moving heads, etc) and would like to know what we should do? We have had this since 2005 and wondering what else is available that we could upgrade to? Thats for your help!!


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