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A Guide to Stage Lighting Systems

ActiveMusician.com carries a wide selection of stage and theater lighting equipment to meet the needs of almost any situation or configuration. For anyone who is starting from scratch or replacing an old stage lighting system, the best way to go is generally to purchase a complete stage or theatrical lighting package.

For schools, churches, clubs, theaters, coffee houses, DJs or bands that are looking for a complete stage lighting package, we've got a great selection of stage lighting systems for use in small to medium-sized venues. This buyer's guide is designed to help you select from among the pre-packaged stage lighting systems that we offer. If you have any questions or need further assistance, don't hesitate to contact us.

In the first section below, we will describe the components of a typical stage lighting package. In the second part, we discuss some considerations to take into account when planning your stage lighting system. The third section will recommend specific stage lighting packages to consider, ranging from complete stage lighting packages for school theaters, to small, budget lighting kits for mobile DJs, bands and small clubs.

What is a Stage Lighting System?
The stage lighting packages that we carry generally contain the following elements:
  • Par Cans -- The light fixtures themselves, these come in various levels of brightness, from Par38 (least bright) to Par64 (brightest). We also have some systems that offer LED par cans, which will be discussed a bit more below.

  • Lighting Stands -- From which the par cans can be suspended

  • Dimmer Packs -- These provide power to the par cans, and hang with them from the stands. Note that LED par cans do not require dimmer packs because they consume less energy

  • Lighting Console/Dimming Controller -- From which the lights are controlled

  • All other required accessories, such as cables, gels, lamps for the par cans, and brackets to hang the dimmer packs

When you assemble your stage lighting system, the par cans will be suspended from the lighting stands and plugged directly into the dimmer packs, which will also be suspended from the lighting stands. If you have a system with more than one dimmer pack, they will be daisy-chained using DMX cables, which are the same as standard 3-prong XLR microphone cables. There will then be one DMX cable running from the first dimmer pack directly to your lighting console, from which the lights are controlled. The dimmer packs have switches on them which allow you to assign a channel to each par can, so that they can be controlled directly from the controller. Note that it is possible to assign more than one light to a channel if you wish to control multiple lights simultaneously.

Note: The equipment in our lighting systems all plugs into standard, grounded wall outlets. In general, you will need to plug in only the controller and the dimmer packs. The par cans themselves plug in to the dimmer packs, usually four each. If you have a system with Par 56 or Par 64 par cans, it's recommended to plug the dimmer packs into separate power circuits. This does not apply for LED par cans, which have much lower power consumption and do not use dimmer packs, but come with one power strip for each lighting stand, which the LED par cans plug into.

Should You Buy a Prepackaged Stage Lighting System, or Buy the Components Separately?
In general, if you are starting from scratch or completely replacing an old lighting system, it is best to purchase a complete stage lighting package, because the stage lighting packages that we offer include everything that you need, including the light fixtures, stands and controllers, plus all required lamps (bulbs) and cables.

If any of the following apply, you probably do NOT want to order one of the stage lighting packages that we carry:
  • Your stage is wider than 30 feet and/or deeper than 15 feet
  • You are adding to an existing system
  • You are purchasing lights for a specific performance/event and may require a different lighting configuration for future events
  • You expect to add more stage lights or expand your system at a later date - most of the systems that we offer include a controller made for the exact number of lights in the package, so if you plan to add more lights later, you might be needlessly constrained by the controller in a complete system
  • You have special lighting needs that are not met by a standard 4-light or 8-light configuration
  • You plan to suspend your lights from ceiling pipe or other equipment, in which case you do not need a system that includes lighting stands

Finally, please note that the stage lighting packages that we offer are suitable for small to medium-sized venues, these systems are not suitable for large theaters or professional-level productions, which will require higher-end equipment and custom lighting configurations.

What Type of Light Fixtures Do You Need?
Almost all of our pre-packaged theater lighting systems use par cans, which are the most economical theater light and therefore tend to be favored in small and medium-sized venues. Assuming that you purchase a stage lighting system with par cans, the main question to ask in determining what types of light fixtures to use is how far away the lights will be from the area to be lit.

Par cans come in several varieties, the stage lighting systems that we carry generally use Par 38 or Par 56. As a rule of thumb, Par 38 par cans can be used in smaller venues where they will be up to 10-12 feet from the performers, while Par 56 par cans can be used up to 15-20 feet from the performers. Par 38 par cans are much cheaper, but beware of economizing -- lights that are too strong can always be dimmed down, but if you purchase lights that are not strong enough for your production, there will be nothing you can do.

We also have one popular package which has stage wash lights instead of par cans. This package allows you to bathe the stage with bright light and manage the color of that light, but will not allow you to dim or focus lights on any particular part of the stage. (see Stage Wash Package, below)

If you are interested in other lights such as Ellipsoidals, Fresnels, Follow Spots or Border Lights, these are described elsewhere on our website and can be bought individually, but are not contained in a particular lighting package.

How Many Lights Do You Need?
Our stage lighting systems include either 8 lights on 2 stands, or 4 lights on 1 lighting stand.

Generally, small to medium-sized venues will want 2 sets of lights mounted on lighting stands, with one lighting stand on either side of the stage and a total of 8 par cans. This is sufficient for stages up to 20-25 feet wide and 10-15 feet deep. For larger stages, such a system may be complemented by additional lights, borderlights and/or a spotlight.

DJs and bands that are buying a smaller set-up might want to purchase a system with only one lighting stand and 4 lights, which is more portable and much cheaper. This also could be the choice for a smaller stage in a coffee house type setup.

What Type of Stage Lighting Controller Do You Need?
The main choices that you must make in selecting a controller are how many channels you need, and whether you need a controller that allows you to dim the lights or not. Most of the stage lighting systems that we offer include a dimming controller with the exact number of channels to manage the lights included with the system, so if you feel a need to expand beyond 8 channels you will most likely need to purchase your system as separate components.

Almost any theatrical application will require lights that can be dimmed and controlled individually, but bands or DJs that are looking to economize can consider a lighting package with a controller that only turns lights on and off, but does not allow for dimming (a "chase controller"). This is a good way to save money as chase controllers are much cheaper than dimming controllers.

Another option especially for bands and DJs are systems that include a foot controller. This allows one to control the lights with one's feet even while the hands are busy. While convenient, foot controllers usually offer only basic chase functionality and do not generally have dimming (since it is not possible to control dimmers with your feet).

Should You Get LED Lights or Not?
LED-based stage lights are a new advancement in stage lighting technology and are quickly becoming very popular. There are several advantages to LED lights which make them a great choice in certain situations, however there are also certain disadvantages to take into account when deciding about whether LED lights are best for your purposes.

The advantages of LEDs include the fact that they use much less energy than standard par cans, they do not get nearly as hot, and they include built-in functions that are DMX-controllable, such as color changing and in some cases strobing and other functionalities. Since their energy consumption is so low, they also do not require the use of dimmer packs, which is the reason why LED-based stage lighting packages are not much more expensive than other lighting packages even though LED par cans are pricier than standard par cans.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages, too -- LED par cans are generally not as bright as standard par cans; they are more expensive; and they require a more sophisticated controller because each LED par can operates using several different channels. While a standard par can uses only one channel (brightness/dimming), an LED par can usually uses one channel for brightness, one channel each for red-green-blue colors, plus additional channels for strobing, etc, so it is normal for an LED par can to require 5 or more channels to operate. In such a case, a standard 8-, 12- or 16-channel controller cannot be used to operate LED par cans.

Note: Most of the LED stage lighting packages that we offer do NOT come with a controller that can operate the lights individually -- the LEDC controller (which comes with the LED Pro Pack and TRAVELED package) can only be programmed for chase and color changing, but cannot dim each light individually.

If you are running a production that requires the lights to be dimmed individually, then we do not currently offer a suitable LED package for you -- this may change as technology develops in future, but for now you would either need to order a non-LED package, or you would need to purchase components separately, including a multi-channel controller such as the MBT CA1612 or American DJ DMX Operator, which are capable of managing up to 12 LED par cans at one time.

What Other Stage Lights Might You Need?
It is quite normal to use additional lights outside of your basic stage lighting system, especially if you are planning specific types of productions or if you have a fairly large stage. Depending on what you are planning to do, you might find the following additional products useful:
  • Spotlight (Follow Spot): Since par cans cannot be moved, the lighting system is often complemented by a follow spot or two that can be used to highlight individual performers. Note that follow spots cannot be operated through the lighting control board, they must be operated manually. We offer a wide selection of spotlights at the following page:

    Spotlights and Follow Spots
  • Borderlights: If you position your lighting stands on the sides of the stage and find that the center is not well lit, you can consider a borderlight, which sits on the floor in the center of the stage. This would not plug into your lighting board as they are not dimmable. Note that borderlights shine up at the performers from below, for children this can be somewhat blinding, often a better solution is to suspend par cans from pipe or from the ceiling above them, if possible.

    Border Lights
  • Ellipsoidals or other stage lights: Ellipsoidals are the choice of stage professionals worldwide, and are only left out of this discussion because they are quite expensive compared to par cans. They are much brighter and more versatile, as well as providing the possibility of projecting logos or images.

    Ellipsoidal Lights

Our Lighting Packages
Now that you're up to speed on most of the issues relating to the selection of your stage lighting package, here are links to several of our most popular products:
Sort by:  Editor's List | Top Selling | Title | Price: Lo-Hi | Price: Hi-Lo

For Medium-Sized Venues - Schools, Churches, Small Theaters, etc.


For Smaller Venues, Bands, DJs, etc.


Budget Systems For Bands, DJs, and Small Venues

MBT Lighting DJ416 DJ Lighting Package with Footswitch MBT Lighting DJ416 DJ Lighting Package with Footswitch - $235.99
Our most popular system at this level features 4 par cans with foot controller at a great price.
MBT Lighting Par Pack Stage/DJ Lighting Package MBT Lighting Par Pack Stage/DJ Lighting Package - $161.99
Our most affordable system at this level features 4 par cans with chase controller.

Jim Burger is convinced he was a bluesman in a previous life.
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