The concert lighting designer’s job is to complement the song and enhance the experience, not overshadow it.
While doing the layout and color chart, it is important to think ahead on how the cues will work with your overall concert plan. Does the layout give you the degree of flexibility you want? Does the color chart work as a palette in harmony with the music?
A separate design skill now enters the picture. The lighting designer must take the raw data from the light plot and make the design come to life in the same way a musician does with notes in the score.
From the first time you hear the artist’s music, you should be mentally planning the choreography of your lighting, breaking down the music into cue points. Songs are like movies and novels; they have formulas. If you listen to a song all the way through first before writing anything, you will hear the formula or flow of the sound.
The usual formula can be identified as intro, verse 1, verse 2, bridge, and chorus, which repeat, followed by verse, bridge, chorus, and a buildup to a guitar solo or instrumental melody, bridge, chorus, and end.
Each and every song has some variation on this formula — not exactly as described here because some portions will be reversed or added in a different order — but most commercial pop songs have what is referred to as a hook. This is generally the title of the song and is the part of the song that fans remember and sing.
Often, the hook has an anthem style and is considered to be the chorus. The bigger the anthem, the bigger, more intense, and more animated the lighting and effects should be.
Cues, Song Punctuation
There has been concert lighting where every song looked exactly the same with lights flashing to every drum beat and guitar riff. The artists spend considerable time writing their songs, rehearsing them, producing and recording them.
This labor of love has structure and deep meaning to the artist and loyal fans. It is not possible to take short cuts in writing and producing music and have it be successful to the degree that people will pay to see their favorite artists in concert. Concert lighting is a visual translation of that music, and the lighting requires an equally professional approach to the process of creating cues, just as much as much it did to create the music.
Sometimes a song is easy to translate into lighting, such as a ballad or an anthem, and a sometimes it isn’t, such as a complicated rock song that is thematic with extreme highs and lows, even tempo changes.
Regardless, each song requires attention to detail so it will not be anticlimactic and you will have something left in your bag of tricks for the ending. The only way to accomplish that is to be patient and take the necessary time to structure the song and schedule effects for the entire song set.
The first time, listen to the song for the sheer enjoyment, and the second time try to pick out the cue points, accents, verse and choruses, and tempo changes. The last time, listen for the “color” of the song: happy, yellow and orange; moody or melancholy, blue and lavender; fiery and hot, red; soothing, green and blue – green. Listen to music with your eyes closed, and try to visualize the colors that might be associated with it.
Picking The Console To Match The Cues
Analyzing a song helps you determine the type of lighting console you will need. Manual consoles are almost a thing of the past, but many hybrid consoles allow manual operation with recorded cues that can be accessed when needed.
Find Your Looks
1. Listen to the song; try to pick up a lyric, a musical phrase, or the dynamics that make the general statement of the song.
2. Translate the song into a primary color.
3. Find the high point of the song (it may not be the end).
4. Find the repeating portions of the music, such as the choruses and verses.
This process will probably lead to four or five looks: the opening, the chorus, the verse, the solo spot, and the ending. Changes between verse and chorus may be repeated several times.
Another cue may occur at the turnaround, a musical device found in most pop music that allows the songwriter to repeat a melody by interjecting another musical phrase between similar themes. Are the cues going to be bumps or slow fades? It does not matter what they are. What is important is that they each act as musical punctuation not just flashing lights. After doing this for all of the songs, look at the song order, or set . See if you have the same color patterns for songs that are played back-to-back, and do not hesitate to change the colors to avoid repeating a look in two adjacent songs. Certainly, a look can be repeated later in the set. If the same color simply must be used, try to change the direction the color comes from; for example, use an amber backlight for the first song but an amber sidelight or an amber follow spot for the next song, with white as a backlight.
The Cue Book
Usually the lighting designer runs the console, except on the biggest tours. If not, the person doing so is traveling with the show and is as familiar with the cues as the designer is. So, if the designer is with the show and knows the music inside out, why bother with a formal cuing method?
Take a sheet of paper and listen to the song. Count out each eight bars and then strike a line, put another line after the next eight bars, and so on. If something changes before you get to your count of eight, strike a line and insert the number of bars above it. This way, even if you must call the cues after months or years, you should be able to count out the measures and get the timing right. It is also a great method for knowing when the end of a solo that does not present a nice clean tag is coming to an end — that is, if the artist always plays the song the same way.
The way you communicate to a house light operator, a board operator, or a follow spot operator will directly affect the smoothness of the show and accuracy of the cues. It is truly an art form unto itself.
Dr. James L. Moody, Ed.D is the head of the Technical Theatre Program, technical director and lighting designer for The Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College. Considered one of the founders of concert lighting, he received the first Concert Lighting Designer of the Year Award from Performance magazine in 1980. He is a member of both USA 829 (Theatrical Lighting Designer) and IA 600 (Directors of Photography). Paul Dexter began lighting in Los Angeles when he was sixteen (1970), making 42 Hawaiian pineapple cans into lights and operated them with variacs and crude double pole switches. At 18, he was asked to tour with Elvis. A colorful history of worldwide concert touring ensued as a lighting designer and stage set designer with the likes of Rick James, Motley Crue, DIO, Ozzy Osbourne, and Elton John.