Most mobile DJs will need some form of lighting to illuminate the guests and the dance floor. This guide is intended to help beginner mobile DJs design their first lighting rig by considering some of the less obvious issues that become apparent only after working with a mobile lighting rig for some time. Tempting as it may be, the best option is not to jump straight in to buying the latest and greatest lighting effects. By taking a step back and planning the overall package, you will be able to design an impressive, practical setup that serves you well for a variety of functions and won’t break your back or your bank balance.
There’s no right or wrong way, and the relative importance of each of these issues will vary depending on the type of functions at which you perform, your preferences, and even your transport. You might choose to ignore some of them altogether, but it’s important to give them some thought before you start assembling your equipment.
Mobile DJs perform in all sorts of different venues, with wildly varying dimensions and facilities. One day you might be in a hotel ball room with all the space and power you need, and the next in a marquee with a low ceiling, uneven floor, and restricted power supply. Most of a DJ’s equipment is adaptable enough to fit into most spaces without too much trouble. Speakers, whether they’re on stands or not (and in most cases they should be), can be positioned independently of each other so they don’t need a space of rigidly fixed dimensions. However the lighting rig can often be the largest item to be set up and might need a significant amount of power, and can therefore be the most difficult to accommodate in a variety of venues.
The layout of your lighting rig needs to take into account various practical considerations:
- Size when packed — will it easily fit into your vehicle?
- Size when set up — will it easily fit into most venues, or be adaptable enough that you can quickly modify it if necessary e.g. by using a shorter length of truss or just one T-bar?
- Weight — some lighting fixtures are heavy. Can you carry all of the components without hurting yourself? Are your lighting stands strong enough to support them all safely?
- Carrying in/out — how many trips will it take to carry all of your equipment into/out of a venue?
- Speed to set up — you’ll often find you don’t have much time to set up, and nobody wants to wait around for hours while you pack down at the end. How long will it take to assemble/disassemble?
- Power — how much power will be required to run all of your lighting combined? Finding more power sockets takes time and power supplies are sometimes limited (e.g. in a marquee running from a generator). Modern, LED-based lighting effects use very little power and can be a great help here.
Lighting effects work best when raised up high so that the beams shine down from above and are in a good position to cover a wide area. While others do exist, the types of lighting stand that are most practical for a mobile DJ are:
- T-bar — a horizontal bar mounted on a tripod.
- Truss — a horizontal metal structure mounted on two vertical stands, consisting either of tripods or more truss sections.
Both can be very effective. Trussing can look very impressive but is generally more bulky to transport, takes longer to set up, and is less adaptable. T-bars are easier to transport/setup, and can be positioned independently to allow greater flexibility when setting up. Depending on your transport arrangements both types can sometimes be pre-rigged with cables and even lighting effects, saving time and effort when setting up and packing away, although in the case of trussing this can make it even more bulky and difficult to set up in a tight space.
Not only will your lighting rig need to be adaptable enough to physically fit into a variety of venues, it also needs to be adaptable in terms of the effects it produces. Including a variety of effects will mean you have something appropriate to all events and types of music, and also helps to keep the show interesting by varying the effects throughout the party.
The main types of effect to consider, in order of importance, are:
- Colour wash — PAR cans, LED bars, etc. to throw coloured light over a wide area.
- Room-filling effects — twisters, gobo flowers, etc.
- Scanners/moving heads — scan beams and patterns around the room / dance floor.
- Special effects — lasers, strobes, etc.
A haze or fog/smoke machine helps to highlight the light show by making the beams visible in mid-air, but beware of using them in venues with fire alarms. The consequences of triggering a venue’s fire alarm system could include an evacuated venue, a ruined party, and a visit from the local fire service!
Controlling the Lights
Having a variety of effects is no use without a way of controlling and switching between them. This can be as simple as a power switch panel (19″ rack-mount versions are available), or for better control use a DMX controller. With a suitable DMX controller and DMX compatible lights, it is possible to control your effects such that they synchronise and complement each other. Although it is more complicated and requires more effort and equipment, this is the best way to create a truly professional looking show.
Use gentle, slow-moving effects for slow music, and more energetic effects for faster music. Everything gets boring after a while, so vary the effects throughout the event and use special effects sparingly at appropriate moments.
The look of your system is important. Although most people won’t recognise specific makes/models of lighting fixtures, they will notice if your setup is untidy or unprofessional. Try to aim for fairly consistent looking fixtures. Stick to a colour scheme if possible — most lighting effects, clamps, and stands are black and silver. Use all black cables and keep them tidy by taping or strapping them to your lighting stands. Try to set up the effects so that they are evenly distributed and symmetrical on your stand(s).
Although they might not be visible during a performance, the look of any boxes or cases is also important. A neat row of professional flight cases gives a far more professional appearance to guests and venue staff than a pile of tatty cardboard boxes.
There’s a vast array of lighting effects available, ranging from very affordable to extremely expensive. Be realistic about what you need and what you can afford. Set a budget and try to stick to it. Buy the best you can afford within your budget — you’ll regret buying cheap equipment if you’re quickly forced to upgrade to something better. However, don’t worry about getting the best of everything — a well designed setup of consistent quality is what’s most important.