For as long as I’ve been going to gigs and clubbing, I’ve always been curious about Light Jockeying and VJing. I decided to investigate further, and got in touch with an old friend from school who works part time light jockeying at a local nightclub.

Technical Details

A light jockey is someone who operates the lighting at a nightclub or event. Traditionally this would have been done with a lighting desk, however modern approaches can rely upon any variety of hardware, from MIDI controllers (keyboards or other control surfaces) to touch-screen devices like PCs or tablets. Such is the flexibility of modern lighting systems, you can use an audio source for the lights to react to or even timecodes (SMPTE) in video footage to trigger certain actions.

The centrepiece of most lighting systems these days will be a PC running software like Martin Light Jockey. Martin Light Jockey is a software solution that automates controlling of lighting devices, and includes profiles for most of the popular lights on the market.

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Martin Light Jockey

Lighting devices are networked together by a protocol known as DMX (Digital Multiplex). DMX is a very simple protocol in which devices are linked together via daisy-chain, and each device is assigned an ID so the controller can distinguish it from other devices on the DMX network. Physical connectors can vary but are often standardised in either XLR3, XLR5 or occasionally RJ45 sockets (however this is physical only – the devices are not IP networkable). There are also wireless DMX solutions available.

Software like Martin Light Jockey interface with the DMX network via use of a USB-DMX converter.

DMX can also be used to automate other devices such as smoke machines.

So, a typical nightclub will have a DMX network with a mixed variety of lighting, a smoke machine, a PC to control it with light jockey software installed and a method of controlling it, be it a mixing desk, MIDI keyboard or tablet.

Types of Lighting

  • Spotlights – To illuminate a specific area.
  • Strobes – A sharp pulsing light to cause a “freeze” effect, very iconic in the rave era.
  • Lasers – Thin beams of light that can be arranged in patterns and work well in combination with foggers.
  • Floodlights – Powerful lighting used to saturate an area with light.
  • Black Lights (UV style) – Lighting that emits UVA light which highlights areas prone to fluorescence, like white clothing, teeth and anything painted with UV/ Glow Paint.
  • Floor Panels – Floor panels are toughened floor blocks with lighting built in.
  • Ceiling Panels – Similar to floor panels.
  • Moon Flowers – This light can project a stencil onto a target area.
  • LED Matrix – A LED Matrix is a grid of LED lights that can be set to display a pattern, logo or steady light depending on how it has been set up.
  • Wall Sconce – Not often DMX controlled, these lights are part of a nightclub installation to create ambience.

Other equipment includes:

  • Smoke Machines / Foggers – Devices that intermittently disperse a dense vapour that constrain viewing distance and highlight lighting effects, especially lasers.
  • Bubble Machines – Devices that use a soap and water style mixture in conjunction with a fan to disperse bubbles.
  • Projectors – Used with PCs and VJing software either to create visuals that react to the music, or are synchronised / played back according to the VJ.

This list is by no means comprehensive and what with innovations in LED and CFL (compact flourescent) technology, there are many other types of lighting and installations available.

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LED matrix and purple spotlights(Creative Commons Image, click for original)

Infinity mirror LED floor tiles. (Creative Commons Image, click for original)

Infinity mirror LED floor tiles. (Creative Commons Image, click for original)

Integration and Control

Much of the lighting in a nightclub (almost all dance floor lighting) will be DMX networked. Different lights have different options and modifiers – some stay still, where as others have multiple motors in to aid motion and positioning in varying degrees. Other modifiers include the colour being outputted, the speed a light is flashing, what pattern is being displayed (for moon flower lighting), intensity and in the case of lasers, whether they are set to illuminate a certain point or scan rapidly to create a horizontal light beam that works well with foggers. This list once again, is not exhaustive.

The light jockey desk or software can automate much of the operations of lighting devices into presets – so a fogger could trigger every five minutes dispersing for 10 seconds, or moving head lights can track the dance floor in a figure of eight pattern over a specific time period. Presets will consist of a combination of patterns to create a certain effect – but can optionally be modified in real time by a controller device to enhance an effect – for example, a build up of a track could be enhanced by tapping a strobe light in time with the beat and then a burst of light when the beat drops in conjunction with a burst of fogging. Colour can also be used to modify the mood of a room, so moving from song to song you can change the ambience subtly by choosing a colour signature of your choice.

The lighting performance and commercial concerns

Being on the other side of a nightclub operation was quite eye-opening. How many times have you had the conversation with a friend where someone has said “What our town needs is a club that plays music we like, and doesn’t allow idiots in? One that does X, Y or Z!”. From a club operators perspective, the highest priority is commercial performance to ensure survival – and this is achieved by maximising the amount of visitors, keeping them entertained for as long as possible, happily spending as much money as possible and leaving wanting to relive the experience again.

I remember when I was younger being quite annoyed at arriving at a club and hearing them play the same old R&B music over and over, while I was holding out to hear some quality dance music which generally doesn’t happen until the later hours at a commercial club. This approach is entirely intentional as a lot of the audience will be familiar with the music played earlier in the evening, however it won’t be as fresh and current as the current songs high in the charts. So when you hear “Umbrella” by Rihanna at around 11pm, you’ll find some people might be singing along quietly or tapping their toes – more likely they will be chatting with their friends and having drinks (money in the till!) and considering dancing at some point. It’s an often unacknowledged tactic to ensure drinks get sold, it generates comfort amongst club patrons who are familiar with the music played and also helps keep the experience positive as social contact amongst clubbers will be typically fairly conversational, bright and breezy. Lighting performance from what I see will be fairly linear and not particularly jazzy, often slow moving presets, no strobing, occasional fogging but nothing especially epic – just enough for it to be very clear what the dance floors purpose is but not to alienate anyone in two minds thinking about setting foot in there. It’s also a welcoming environment for the first movers and social pack leaders to move their group in.

As a night progresses the music will become more contemporary and mainstream so you could expect Top 40 tunes like “Burn” by Ellie Goulding to be played, as well as Avicii and DJ Fresh. At this point in the night people should have drunk a reasonable amount and inhibitions will have been suitably eroded so the dance floor has much appeal. The dance floor can be at odds with the bar however, as if someone is spending too much time dancing, they aren’t drinking. Such is life for any nightclub! Lighting at this point will be more characteristic and pronounced, so occasional strobing, lively presets and synchronised preset swapping will be used – if a song has a build up, lighting can be set to move or flash more quickly and conversely if a track has a breakdown you can slow the lighting down and make it less dramatic. These theatrical principles keep an audience engaged and feeling euphoric.

After the chart tunes have been mostly caned and towards the last two hours of a club being open, typically music will get harder and heavier, relying on dance floor remixes of commercial tracks and possibly some underground tunes as well should the momentum and crowd be right for it. Sometimes an underground or polarising tune can help the commercial performance of a club by causing a rotation of people on the dance floor – those who might say “Ugh! I hate this tune!” will often go to the bar, get a drink and soon forget about it once they have another drink in their hand. With regards to lighting, if the bangers are playing you can go all out with the effects available in your arsenal – just don’t overdo it with the strobe lighting or you could leave people feeling frazzled! At the same time, it helps to really know your tunes so you can react appropriately.

Of course, at the end of a night it might end with a slow song to tranquillise everyone, it has the benefit of calming the more frenetic clubber, causing less incidents when people are eager to leave, and subsequent anti-social behaviour problems once people have left the club.

Wrapping up…

This is what I could gather from one evening – it might be wrong in places but it certainly was interesting to observe and I hope one day to maybe run the lighting on a few events for myself as I find it quite fascinating. The next time you’re out clubbing you’ll probably notice more so some of the things I’ve mentioned, and see the guys at the back of the room tweaking the sound or lights to create an atmosphere. There’s certainly a lot going on under the surface of your typical nightclub operation.

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