What are DMX Controllers?

Mal Baxter

Digital multiplexing, or DMX controllers, are desktop electronics systems used to control lighting for stage and show. These rectangular switchboards connect with a stage's individual lights in order to control them individually or in clusters. The board consists of knobs, sliders, and switches, which allow the operator to customize lighting effects. The main feature of these devices is that they permit the networking of many different brands of lighting equipment in order to put everything under one master control.

DMX technology be used to control the lighting in a laser show.
DMX technology be used to control the lighting in a laser show.

Lighting effects might consist of live and preprogrammed adjustments to brightness, movement, and strobe effects. Other applications can include color blending and video. Some controllers even allow networking additional equipment, such as fog machines. The electronics come in small, medium, and large sizes to accommodate shows from the local club or playhouse to the giant arena.

DMX controllers can be used to run fog machines.
DMX controllers can be used to run fog machines.

Industrial standards such as DMX512 create interoperability between different brands and makes of lighting equipment. These consist of mechanical and digital technologies, electrical capacities, and connectors. They also sometimes include data formats and protocols.

Implementing these standards allows DMX controllers to incorporate anywhere from a few to dozens of lighting units. The versatile technology can adapt to lighting shows large and small. The proper equipment for a particular venue is that which can accommodate maximum requirements, which are then scaled down.

A popular application for DMX controllers is controlling light emitting diode (LED) lighting. This efficient, bright signature lighting allows for great precision in customization. Modern controllers create a fixture personality, or DMX map, which tells the controller what the channel is used for, such as fading or blending. These lights can also be controlled with a conventional or manual DMX lighting desk regardless of whether the controller has a scene memory. The controller enjoys a certain amount of future proofing, as lighting technologies may change but still adhere to the familiar DMX standards.

The types of lighting equipment that DMX controllers can operate are more a question of what technologies and products are available in the performance lighting context. From disco and stage lighting to star cloths and lasers, possibilities are practically incalculable. Other lighting types may include ultraviolet and filtered lights as well as three-dimensional effects. Typical mid-range controllers can manage about 25 lights, while higher-end units support 50 or more moving fixtures. They can also be preprogrammed for hundreds or even thousands of scenes.

Other DMX controllers are designed with disc jockeys in mind. These lighting boards possess additional controls to enhance music performance. Along with effects such as conventional red-green-blue faders and strobes, tempo tap syncs align the changes to the beat of the music. While this technology offers a powerful addition to any stage performance, it should be noted that these devices are typically not rated for use in pyrotechnics or other stage systems where safety is a factor.

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