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Console setup and palette theory

Today I want to dive into the nuts and bolts of laying our your lighting console and some of the tricks that I use when doing this. Note that I am primarily a grandMA programmer, and so these might not always translate to other consoles without a bit of modification. Also note that I am highly opinionated and have my own way of doing things. I present this as the way I would do things, and do not necessarily think that everyone should (or should want) to follow my workflows. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. I also assume a fairly advanced level of familiarity with common console parlance.


This is generally the first thing I make when setting up a show, and like most LDs I generally lay out my fixtures such that the onscreen layout is somewhat representative of the fixture’s locations in physical space. The grandMA has a feature where you can import a graphic of your stage layout and place the fixtures wherever you like – break out of the gridded preset window – which can be useful or overkill, depending on your rig. I’m also a fan of having multiple views acting as “layers” for multipart fixtures: Aura lenses and Aura beams, for instance. No real surprises in making your groups – just make them however it is fastest to access them.

I generally set up an entire screen (when using a grandMA, anyway) for groups and different views on that screen for fixture types, including some groups on the top page for entire types of fixtures. (All Vipers, for instance) If I have a media server, the master fixture and layers get a view as well, along with their associated palettes.

Pages and song cuelists

I use a page per song. In keeping with the terminology I picked up from the Hog, the first page of faders and buttons is named “Template”, where I keep everything that I want to stay on every page. Generally, this includes my BPM tap button, my “Sync effects” macro if I’m on an MA2 (which is ridiculously useful), my band and star lights on HTP faders, moles / blinders, any specials that are show-wide, and any bumps or hits that I want to be able to use on the fly. These are all fixed from the template page so that I don’t have to go hunting through multiple pages if I want to change something.

I usually have an intensity fader for my media server master in case I need to suddenly duck the intensity down for whatever reason. As I explain later, if a song has media server content that goes with it, I make a separate cuelist that goes beside the main song playback.

The transition look goes here too, which is just some lights in blue at a low intensity, set so that they fade up after the lights move into position. These are only so that the musicians aren’t flailing around in the dark after a blackout between songs. Depending on the show, I might have fixtures that specifically are only for the transition look, and therefore the look just goes back and forth between the “on” and “fade to black” cue during the show. Other times, I don’t have dedicated lights for the transition, so the command that turns it off at the beginning of every cuelist might include a fade time to keep things from looking too choppy.

My preferred method of starting songs is to use macros, which I think is generally the industry preferred method. Macros – particularly on the grandMA – are incredibly powerful: anything you can enter into the command line can be part of your macro, and they incorporate timing. My song macros for the grandMA follow a specific format:

  • Turn off anything else that’s running, except stuff on the template page
  • Start the transition look
  • Switch to the song’s fader and button page
  • Set the appropriate physical faders to 100%
  • Select the proper executor
  • Start the first cue of the song

The first cue of all my songs is labeled “MARK” and it presets all the lights in position, color, gobo, etc. Depending on what my lights are mounted on (truss versus pipes in a theatre) the mark cue might have a fade time or not. In theatrical situations, I add a fade time on both the on and off times of a cuelist so that the fixtures moving into position doesn’t make the pipes swing wildly to and fro. The second cue usually starts the song, and also has a command to fade the transition look to blackout, or snap to black, whichever the song in question requires. The last cue of every song is just a blank cue that contains a command to turn off the current cuelist. I can then hit the macro for the next song, and so forth.

For songs or cuelists with media, I make a separate cuelist that goes right next to the main playback and contains the video information. I then use commands in the main cuelist to fire the correct cue in the media playlist. This makes editing just the video information very easy, and firing the correct cue in the media cuelist is as easy as writing “goto executor 2.17 cue 2” (“GM17/2” or whatever on a Hog) in the main cuelist. This two-cuelist paradigm also makes it easy to edit the media firing on the fly, because it’s just a command in the main cuelist.


  • Dimmer palettes
    • These are fairly straightforward, and are almost always universal palettes – I go in descending order from 100% in increments of 10%. But I usually have some fanned palettes for some specific songs in there, where parts of the rig go from 0-100% for some interesting looks.
  • Position palettes
    • My first eight or ten position palettes are big “fans” or “rock looks” that are built with the console’s align (High End calls it “Fan”, which is more descriptive) function. I try to make it so that from each palette to every other palette, every light moves at least some appreciable amount. I’ve seen guys do just three or four of these, but I like to do more.
    • Some general stage areas, DSC, all the lights pointing SL and SR.
    • After these come some audience positions, at least three so you get some cool cross-beamage as the lights move.
    • After that, some “up and out” looks that move the all the lights above the point of any audience member. Again, I usually have about three of these to keep things interesting.
    • Three “band wash” positions. Generally, things like Sharpys or other beam / effect lights aren’t included in these. They’re for lights that have a large enough beam angle to cover the band. As before, I try to make sure that every light moves somewhat from position to position. The downstage lights are also included in these positions, and these three are the building blocks of my band looks throughout the night.
    • Band positions
      • During the course of the concert there will be times when I want to highlight a band member with the upstage lights, and not just a followspot look. For this, I have individual band member positions set up – but I don’t include every light, for a few reasons. For one, especially in a tour situation, if a preset like this included every light in the rig, they would be extremely time-consuming to update every day, and not every show plays in arenas or stadiums every day where their rig points are almost identical show-to-show. (It would further be completely unnecessary.) Therefore, to start out with I make blank (or using just one light) palettes for band members, as I go along and want to include lights for the band member in question, I move the lights into position on the fly and then merge them into the palette. This way during show days the palette can be double-clicked with highlight on, selecting all the fixtures in that palette and moving them into position for updating. (Both MA and Hog do the double-click thing, I believe.)
    • Special positions
      • At the very bottom of the preset pool I put position palettes that only apply to certain songs, or otherwise unique positions within the show. For instance, the palette that moves all the lights to the monitor guy goes here. 🙂
  • Color palettes
    • I’ve heard more than one designer tell me that “You should only use HSL color because it applies to all fixtures.” Sure, but any color fade will move the fixture through adjacent colors, leading to bizarre intermediate looks. I FAR prefer CMY and (less so) RGB to the HSL color space. And modern console software is almost always smart enough to allow the user to apply attributes into palettes that weren’t recorded for that fixture – grandMA2 calls these “Universal” or “Global” palettes, and I know there’s a similar feature on Hog4, though I don’t know exactly what name High End calls it. Further, it’s fairly trivial to set up color palettes for all your fixtures by type and merge them into a single preset. If there’s an advantage to HSL that goes beyond operator preference, I don’t know what it is.
    • My color palettes go roughly from low to high wavelengths, left to right in full saturation, then the “column” beneath each color decreases in saturation four or five times, so I end up with something like seventy-five or so color mix presets. I give them creative names to amuse myself and the occasional shoulder-looker-overer. See figure 1.
      • color palettes
    • I also have a “white” preset that I specifically mix with all the fixtures on, to ensure that the LED and arc-sources match as closely as I can get them.
    • I also make CTO full, ¾, ½, and CTO out presets for lights that have a variable correction filter. I spend a bit of time to make sure these match as closely as possible across arc and LED sources, too.
    • All the color mix presets are on one view on my console, then I scroll down to a blank part of the preset pool and make a separate area for the fixed color wheels of my fixtures, as well as half-colors for fixtures that this actually looks good on. (Sharpys do great half-colors.) This is saved as its own view so that I don’t get mixes and fixed colors confused.
    • I’ve known some LDs who made all of their colors song-specific. That is, they had a basic color-mix palette then did copies that they customized for each song, so that if they wanted to change the color for a specific song, it wouldn’t change that color everywhere else. I find that my seventy-five color-mix presets are usually enough to find the color I want, but your milage may vary. If I did make a color specific to a song, I’d make a preset for it and put it in its own special area, but I don’t do this by default for every song. Your milage my vary.
  • Gobos
    • Each light, of course, has presets for each gobo that they contain. A lot of lights have a different value assigned for rotating gobos to be non-moving indexed or rotating. I rarely use the indexing feature outside of effects, so my palettes for these are always set to “rotation” with the speed set to zero by default. When I use the indexing feature, I make a song-specific palette for it.
    • Each gobo wheel has its own nine rotation settings. Gobos rotating the same direction slow, medium, and fast, gobos rotation opposing slow, medium and fast, and the entire wheel spinning slow, medium, and fast. It bothers me when I see shows where the gobos just rotate the same direction, together, every time, so I usually alternate between rotation together and rotations opposing. (I use the even / odd selectors and reverse the direction for one of them.)
    • Most lights don’t have focus tracking, so my focus palettes are a grid of gobo wheel / zoom settings. E.g., gobo wheel zooms 100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, and 0%, repeated for each gobo wheel.
  • Beam
    • I have three levels of strobes for both random and synchronized, slow, medium, and fast. This is also generally where I put iris palettes, frost settings, and a palette for open and closed shutter for every light in the rig.
  • Media servers
    • Media servers are a special case. Depending on the fixture personality, things like bin and clip selection (or whatever your particular media server calls them) might be accessed as a gobo, or video, or whatever. The grandMA has a preset pool called “All” that allows information of any or all types to be stored within it, and this is how I generally do media server presets, because there’s often information stored across attributes relevant to the clip, such as effects or playback speed or whatever. Hog can do this as well, by essentially disabling the default “kind masking” when recording a palette.
    • I make per-song palettes for the media server so that I can just double-click a preset and go. It doesn’t make sense to program every clip the server might have in it, because most of them come with some built-in stuff that may or may not be relevant to your show. CITP can be a great time-saver here, as well, though sometimes it’s a finicky process to get it to work.

My right-most screen is always a cuelist sheet referencing whatever is currently selected, a clock display if the console supports it (I like having a clock to reference during the show) and a variety of views that include the effects pool, bitmap effects, the universe pool (on MA), raw DMX viewer for troubleshooting, and all my macros, including macros to lamp on / off all fixtures, and reset all fixtures.

As previously mentioned, this is how I go about setting up my console at the beginning of every show. And as I say in the article, your milage may vary. Do you have any tips or tricks for lighting console setup? Tweet me @blueshiftontour and tell us about them!

1 thought on “Console setup and palette theory”

  1. Thanks Craig, revisiting this after a couple years and still managed to find some interesting tidbits I’m going to be incorporating into my show file. You’re the best!

    Ps … love (and miss) the lighting nerds!

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