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Martin MAC Ultra Performance and Wash

This blog post is not affiliated, endorsed, edited, approved, marked up, marked down, concatenated, polished, or had its margins scribbled in by anyone at PLSN (or probably anywhere else). It represents my own thoughts1 as a lighting nerd. Those thoughts are frequently opinionated, and longer than your average Nolan film.

Feature parity is an inevitable feature of advancing tech. As the industry settles into something that resembles a standardized form factor for white LED spots and washes, we’re seeing an expected feature set emerge across all the major manufacturers. The necessary lumen output has finally come to a point where color mixing with a gobo and animation wheel in the optical train doesn’t result in unacceptable output drop, and most manufacturers offer lights that have all these features.

This is not to say that there isn’t innovation. For instance, with regard to wash lights, there’s been an interesting divergence where the “pancake” style LED moving-head washes (Robe Spiider, Martin Aura, and similar) have become a class of their own, completely separate from conventional-optics wash fixtures. Visible LEDs – once a design choice to cope with limited brightness – are now being used as an integral part of the fixtures, and we’re seeing advancement in terms of pixel-mapping, focused-LED-die gags, spinning lenses, and other fun oddities. These are a totally separate tool than the type of light we’re talking about today, whereas a few years ago I think there was some thought that they could or perhaps would serve the same role in the future. Innovation doesn’t always result in new standout effects coming out of the front of the lens. Sometimes, the basic “infrastructure” of the light is what gets the upgrades, and the many small improvements that get built up around the base lead to a large overall improvement. Such is the case with the new MAC Ultra Performance and Wash from Martin Professional.

One of the first things you’ll notice about this light is the rather funky shape, which started with the MAC Encore series. The exterior design is a result of changes to the way that Martin has configured the internal fans for thermal control – the cool look is just a side effect, and at any rate, it doesn’t affect how the light (that comes out of the lens) works.

These are both big lights, with a big output. According to the specs, the Wash version of the Ultra is only slightly dimmer than a Vari-Lite VL35000 Wash…with a brand new lamp…focused perfectly. This is easy to believe – the thing outputs a truly stunning shaft of light. If this assertion is true – and I have no reason to think that it isn’t – it represents a cool milestone for the state of LED tech – these workhorse lights are now at least as bright as the average “big” arc-lamp wash from a few years back. In fact, according to the spec sheets I was able to find online, a MAC Ultra Performance is brighter – lumen-wise – than the 1500-watt MAC III. Factor in that the light will not significantly dim over the course of the life of the fixture (more on that later) and the slightly lower output is more than made up for. The Performance version is much, much brighter than a Viper…and again, no lamp to change. Dimming is excellent all the way through the range, down to the very lowest clicks to blackout. Martin’s LED dimming has been consistently excellent for many years, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. It’s also nice that an LED light dimmed off uses much less power than an arc lamp rig with the lamps burning and the shutters closed, burning lamp electrodes and heating up the space. As for the source, this is their own proprietary in-house designed LED unit, they are not using an off-the-shelf (so to speak) Appotronics device. That’s fine – Appotronics makes a perfectly good LED array, but designing the array in-house allowed Martin to get the exact spectral and distribution characteristics that they wanted, and they also customized the output lenses to help achieve more uniform color mixing. Martin does claim this light engine as replaceable, but they hope you won’t need to. The array is being deliberately underrun by ~30% in order to squeeze a longer and more stable life from it. According to their testing, they believe that over about ten years of average show use, it will retain 90% of its brightness. Over the course of twenty years, running average shows, they think it should retain about 80%. Obviously, show conditions vary wildly, so it’s likely that for most users, users will get a very long life out of this product. The color temperature is rated at 6,000K, which I found to be a nice, pleasing white.

The Ultra’s optical system has a very narrow depth of field, and this leads to some design decisions that impact the characteristics of the rest of the light. In particular, Martin has chosen to put opposing framing shutters – in the Performance – on the same (opposing) plane, to help provide as consistent a focus as possible. I typically use framing shutters out of focus when trying to feather them for even, smooth front washes on corporate events, but I can see where being able to focus as sharply as possible would be a useful feature. One consequence of this is that you should avoid ramming the shutters into each other at high speed, which because they’re on the same plane, is absolutely possible. The light has some collision-detection software to detect when this would happen and prevent it, but of course this means that your carefully-lined up focus position might be inadvertently pushed out of the way by another blade via the collision-avoidance algorithm. Obviously Martin thought that the increased utility of being able to closely focus on all four blades won out, and it’s simply something to be aware of in your programming. The blades are nice and speedy, fast enough to do some cool faux-laser scanning effects. One other note is that the entire module can rotate ±83º. That’s quite a lot compared to most framing system rotations.

Both lights use identical color mixing systems, with the familiar Martin flag-style system, with four sets of dual color flags that close across the opening with a gradated pattern of dichroic color. I found the color mixing system to be not quite as fast as my “gold standard” for fast color mixing, the Clay-Paky Scenius, but certainly fast enough to use in color bumps, with the right programming. Both fixtures feature a color wheel with six replaceable trapezoidal filters plus open, including a minusgreen (Don’t call it a CRI filter. That is a depreciated standard, and with good reason) to help boost the TM30 values for times when color rendering is especially important. (Martin calls this a Spectral Enhancement Filter) Split colors are possible, but due to the location of the fixed colors in the optical train, you can’t really get a good focus on them; it’s just not as sharp as I was hoping it would be. Color mix in the projected beam and on objects was great. Obviously if you really try (as I did) to make the beam uneven by throwing zoom and focus to extreme values, you can get some unevenness in the beam, but it’s not something I’d expect to see happen in normal operation. Side note: almost every lighting manufacturer in the world provides videos showcasing their color mixing evenness by projecting a spot onto a white wall or surface and then showing how smoothly the color mixes. This is a useful metric, but it’s missing part of the story. What I would love manufacturers to do would be to take video showing the evenness of the color mix in the beam in a room with very even haze. One of the reasons I disliked the VL4000 color mix system was that its in-air beam was quite uneven in certain colors – at least, in my opinion, it stood out – and I’d like more manufacturers to realize the importance of showing this very salient feature of their lights.

An interesting feature of the Ultra Performance line is the automatic color correction for gobos. Martin engineers noticed that the color temperature was dropping when gobos were inserted. When they tracked down the cause, they realized that the reflective coating on the back of the gobos was causing reflected light to bounce back and hit the yellow phosphors of the LED array, exciting them to make more light. More light is good, perhaps, but the yellow light this produced dropped the color temperature. To compensate for this, the light will automatically slightly insert the cyan color flags to correct the color temperature when there’s a gobo inserted. You can turn this off via a control channel, but I think it’s an elegant solution to this issue.

I very much like the gobo set of the Ultra Performance. One of the complaints I’ve always had with the Viper Performance was that they’re basically unusable as a hard-edged fixture in a concert scenario – there’s no using one for the other. In other words, in the Viper Performance, all of the gobos were optimized for projection onto scenery – lots of detailed, patterned breakups that look fantastic splashed across a cyc or props, but aren’t terribly useful projected as beams in the air. Obviously, this was a choice that Martin made to appeal to two separate markets, and I can’t really fault them for it. Clearly, they realized that the Ultra had to do its best to combine breakups and gobos that would look good in the air, and I think they succeeded. Limbo (the bubbly glass) makes its return from – I believe – at least as far back as the MAC 2000, and the ever-present breakup that I think they used to call Ray Brush, redesigned and labeled “Brush Up”. (It reminds me most of Alpha Rays from the VL line, where I first saw it, but they are different. On a related note, all the gobos, including Brush Up, are actually all new for this light, but Starfield, for instance, is close enough to all the other Starfields(s) I’ve ever seen that I didn’t notice. This is not to the gobo’s detriment.) The others are clearly “in the spirit of” the Viper gobo set, but refreshed. I particularly like “Radar”, which looks fantastic in the air or with a prism.

There are additional effects as well, including a prism, variable frost, iris, and animation wheel. The animation wheel is fully-rotatable, and can be inserted into the beam either vertically, horizontally, or anywhere in between, then rotated in either direction, and provides nice water, fire, cloud, or other “organic” effects like ripples or waves.

There’s a variable frost included, though it acts as more of a contrast reducer (Mike Wood’s term) until it’s fully inserted, and then it blurs the edges of gobos. I do like the effect, though I think both (this effect and a true blurring frost) would be nice to have. What the included sort of frost does is make your gobos sort of “glow” by adding light in the negative space…think upping the bloom setting in a video game. What the other sort of frost does is softens the edges of gobos…it’s similar to (but not exactly the same) as defocusing a gobo. Both have value as an effect; I’d personally like to see more fixtures that have both. In particular, if you’re using a gobo with a half-mixed color, defocusing can lead to unwanted fringes (especially with LED systems like this), and so if you want to soften your gobo, a true light frost can be nice to have. I find the medium-to-heavy weight ones that most manufacturers use not as versatile as I’d like. I know I’m picking nits here; the frost is very usable and certainly in line with what the majority of this light’s intended users want.

The prism, is, well…a prism. It has four facets, perhaps a slightly uncommon number as far as prisms are concerned, but it gets the job done. I frequently use prisms as a sort of “extra zoom” or “the client wants that gobo to cover the ceiling of this 15-foot high ballroom” type effect, and it works just fine for that. It rotates and indexes, as you might expect it to. The iris irises, quite fast2, and the optical zoom is from 7.7° – 53°, and plenty snappy.

The pan and tilt looks to be a touch slower than the Viper, but not unreasonable for a light of this size. I like that there are included followspot handles. The fixture has a rather elegant way to get into and out of followspot mode – it can be activated from DMX or the menu system, and once you do, the fixture holds the last position it was to prevent the fixture from moving due to gravity. The operator has a quickly-selectable toggle on the menu to let them tell the fixture to hold position – basically locking the pan and tilt motors in place – which is very nice. If I were going to add a feature to that function, it would be to bring up the shortcuts menu (with the hold position option) as soon as the light got the DMX command to enter followspot mode, to make things easier on the operator. But overall, it appears to be a very thoughtful experience for using these as followspots – and certainly the reduced heat will be nice for our friends in the air, as well.

All told, the Ultra is a solid offering from Martin, and one of the best new “workhorse” type fixtures I’ve seen in recent years. I think the consolidation of the line is a good move, and the Performance really gives us the best of both fixtures. These are, I think, well-positioned as the backbone to just about any size show, and I’m looking forward to playing with them in a show scenario.

1. Conflict of interest note: Martin did give me a nice coffee mug for coming out to see their lights.

2. I find the claim in the reveal video that the iris adds a “1:10 virtual zoom” to be a bit spurious.

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