Monkey Business: LED Education 101

Article by Seth Scott, Monkey Wrench Productions

The founder of Monkey Wrench Productions, Seth Scott is a working professional technician with tremendous experience with all manner of lighting systems in just about every type of venue out there.
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The Storyteller looks on in   The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane   at Stages Theater. Pictured: Jennifer Kirkeby. Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography. Conventional Tungsten for highlight with LEDs for color. Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo.

The Storyteller looks on in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at Stages Theater. Pictured: Jennifer Kirkeby. Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography. Conventional Tungsten for highlight with LEDs for color. Lighting Design: Wu Chen Khoo.

Not since the invention of putting colored water in front of a light source (later colored gel) has something so single handedly changed the way we light our stage as the Light Emitting Diode. LED has become more than a fashionable buzz word in our industry, it has become a way of life. 10+ years ago we were lucky to find something that fit our needs let alone our budgets. Such a product seemed to be a figment of our imagination. Fast forward a few years and you can hardly swing a two-fer without hitting a LED fixture. It has reduced our power consumption, weight of transport, and brought the demand for gel to a steady crawl. I’m here to shed some light on the advancements of this technology and talk about how not all budget LEDs are bad.

First lets talk about the technologies. Gone are the days of 3/5/10 MM LEDS and what I lovingly refer to as the “tic tac” fixtures - LEDs that more resemble something you would find as an indicator light on a current model than anything you would want to light a stage with (10MM LED tic-tac Fixture). Gone too are the days of individual colored LEDs and the dreaded tri-color shadows they cast. Today most LEDs are a multi-color chip under a single lens. These multi-colors come in many flavors from the basic RGB to RGBW or RGBA to RGBAW to the now ever popular RGBAW+UV or HEX LED’s as many manufactures refer to them. This is not all that this lovely diode has to offer in recent years. COB (Chip On Board) technology has come on strong and has some great features that lighting designers, grips, and audience members alike will all appreciate. The largest plus being that you can use barndoors with the fixtures and get a cut with them. They also appear to be a single source thus removing the complaint of “I don’t like to see all of those dots.”

Manufacturing costs and overall fixture cost have come down in large part to demand and other industries taking on the green initiative and saving the planet one 60W light bulb at a time. I’m not going to do the cost comparison between LEDs and par cans / S4 pars (that’s a numbers game that will always be won by the LED), but I do want to talk briefly about the quality of light since this is something that always comes up in retro fits. I’m a big fan of seeing is believing, so please get a demo of any light you are planning on replacing in your current inventory and spend time with it or find 2-4 and do a shootout. You will quickly see every manufacture has things they do well and things they don’t. Don’t rely on online videos or a friend’s option that had them on one gig. Any retailer should be more than happy to provide you with a demo unit.

LEDs, like any other product, come down to a few definable variables - I’ll be using color, dimming, optics, cooling, and build.  

Color:  The most common objection to LEDs that I run into is just this: color. “How do I know that that color on stage is R80 (or insert color of choice here)?”  My reply is usually, “Why does it have to match the swatch if you aren’t using any lights with that color?” LEDs take us away from a cookie cutter way of designing and let us use our eyes to create whatever color or shade you want. We all have our go to colors that we use time and time again. If you have to match colors, I recommend setting aside an hour or so and set up a par with your gel of choice and your LED fixture, then mix until you match it.  Record the values and now you know that this matched your R80 or whatever colors you use the most. Colors do vary from manufacture to manufacture and can be an issue, but in large part LED binning (the process of matching exact colors in LEDs) has become an exact science and is no longer a concern from any reputable manufacture. 

Dimming: Dimming curves in LEDs are the 2nd hot button issue of contention and it’s true that they can strobe with the best of them and they do struggle with low intensity levels, but I ask you how often are you really using lights on stage at 15 % or less? If the fixture does not have a dimming curve that matches your tungsten lekos, then take this as an opportunity to learn how to make a split cue or use split timing and programming to make them match. Once you do it you will find that no one can tell the difference. As for the difference in programming time, just think each electric could be a single circuit vs 10-20.

Optics: Let’s face it, we have all tried to put a piece of diffusion on a LED fixture and have seen the output go from cyc light to flashlight. The problem is diffusion was designed for a large single source with punch and lots of visible light spectrum to see it through, so simply diffusing/spreading a tungsten source works great. LED relay on smaller power sources that have very narrow spectrums and many small point sources of finely chosen spectrum with very little unneeded light (this is the binning process). So you end up with a muddy mess when using diffusion. The solution comes to us from the auto industry. Many manufactures have taken to using holographic filters as a secondary lens option. These filters were originally developed for taillights.  If your LED fixture has a 30 Degree beam spread, simply add one of these and it will be 10 degrees wider in all directions or my favorite for washing walls is a 1x60, meaning your 30 degree par becomes a 31x90 degree beam spread! Because the filters are holographic, the transmission rate of 92% is much higher than diffusion so you don’t lose nearly the light output you do with diffusion (Filters).  This brings me to another misconception about LEDs. You need to think about your fixture as a system of smaller lights all working together to create one big one. If it has a 30 degree beam spread, each one of those lenses is 30 degrees making a 30 degree beam. Because it’s not a single source like a par can, every lens has the appropriate beam angle. This is the largest contributing factor to why barndoors don’t work with LEDs other than COBs I mentioned.  Zooming LEDs have been around for a few years now with varying degrees of success. It may add to the cost of a fixture, but makes it useable as a wash or a spot since many of them can zoom from 10-60 degrees. The zoom is achieved by varying the distance of a secondary lens from the lens that is mounted on the LED itself. Think of it as a motorized Fresnel lens (Zooming LED).

Cooling: Other than water, heat is the LED’s archenemy. Fans are a necessary evil. Even many budget level fixtures offer a fan channel to control fan speed. Some fixtures offer convection cooling or cooling without fans, but as we keep increasing wattage to get more punch, these are quickly becoming abandoned. Yes, in an empty theater with no one talking and only 2 people breathing, you can hear 20 fans running. By the time you add in audience noise, HVAC, and anything else that you are running, the chances are “fan noise” becomes a moot point in the save my 65Q crusade.

Build: Unlike conventional fixtures which are usually stamped and formed steel, LED fixtures can be made from anything from aluminum to plastic. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes from flat pars, that more resemble a pancake than a lighting fixture, all the way to fixtures that look very similar to a source four par. In most cases the size of the heatsink and number of LEDs dictates size, but the form is up to the manufacture. When selecting one for your application, keep in mind that not everyone needs a stout can. If you never change your Rep plot, why spring for a top of the line overly protected unit when something less heavy duty will do the job.

This is just touching on the surface on what LEDs have to offer. Cyc light replacements have long been in the cross hairs of LEDs and Elipsoidials are next on the list. I’ll save these are for another time, though.

There is no perfect replacement, but if you are willing to compromise on a few small details that only a select few people might notice, you can enjoy infinite colors, lower power bills, less maintenance, cooler actors, and more versatility in your rig.


Resources & Links of Interest





Monkey Business: Budget-Friendly LEDs

Article by Seth Scott, Monkey Wrench Productions

Many of us in the theater world turn-up our noises up at fixtures that contain the word “DJ” in their names.  In the past that may have been the correct response with their flash and trash attitude and sound activated modes. However in recent years many of the DJ companies have started to cater to a new clientele, crossing over into the theater world by adding smooth dimming and broader color ranges. This new sub category is “up lighting.” Up lighting has become big business for small wedding DJ’s and large scale event companies alike. Because as theater folk know that nothing makes an old dingy barn look better than columns of light on a textured wood wall or makes a boring ball room pop more than some color. Up lighting has opened doors and made the products we’ve been wishing for more affordable and easily accessible.  I’m not going to touch on the army of LED par cans that are out there, but rather on some other more specialized products.  Some great off brands have also been created that many might not know about, so let’s explore some budget and theatrer-friendly LED options.


Mega is a small, family-owned lighting company based in Houston, TX that offers great products and services, and really listens to what customers ask for.

Baby Q70 - This is a crazy small (5in cubed) and bright Multi-CHIP RGBW LED fixture that offers the best bang for its buck in its class. With a street price of $200, I have had theaters and churches alike buying these by the dozen to add punch in small places or replace conventional rigs all together.

The Vatz series from Mega offers a COB (Chip on Board) LED that offers an amazing dimmer curve, the ability to use barn doors, and the look of a single source. Not to mention great colors due to its RGBAW.


Years ago Elation was known as the professional line of American DJ. While the lines are still connected, Elation has gone on to become a brand name to be reckoned with in the professional moving light industry. They have been featured on everything from national tours to the Super Bowl. Elation has a wide range of fixtures that are a little more budget-friendly than what many would consider from professional brands. In my experience the savings and features more than make up for the few and far between shortcomings.  They offer a LED Leko and a long list of pars, but here are my favorites:  

Arena Par Zoom Q7 is the smaller of 2 in a range of fixtures that offer impressive output and a zoom range of 10-60degree’s, making them great for a down light special or for full on washes effects when zoomed out.  With a street price of around $650.00, this is may not be for everyone but does have more to offer than simply another LED par.

The Zoom Q7's Bigger Brother is also worth a look.

To complement its vast array of LED Pars, Elation has recently released the ColourChours line. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Chroma-q should be red with envy. These units are about ½ the price of their name brand pioneers and offer all of the features including some improvements.  $1600 for a 4ft unit is pretty great.

American DJ

ADJ has an impressive line of LED fixtures that might be worth putting in your space. They offer a complete line of COB LEDS. Although they don’t currently have barn doors, I am told they are in the works and with 3 models to choose from (50, 100. or 150W), there is something for everyone and every electric height. Prices range from  $150-350

COB Wash Units

The COB Cannon Wash 

The ADJ Dotz Par 100 

The ADJ Dotz Par 

American DJ also has a wildfire killer on its hands, The UV CON Cannon, an inexpensive UV LED COB fixture that is bright and dmx controllable. No more need to put a dowser on a UV fixture to deal with 4ft tubes or very expensive discharge lamps. With a price of $400, it’s worth a look.

ADJ also has a line of moving and zooming fixtures that are so well designed that the professional line Elation decided not to make something in the same size factor - since they knew it would only be a new sticker not a new product. Coming in at $850 and $1150 for the larger unit. And it’s bigger brother.


Chauvet has recently split into two distinct production lines, Chauvet DJ and Chauvet Professional. While the professional line has more of the crossover products aimed specifically at the theater market, the DJ line has one or 2 to offer as well.

Chauvet Professional has its sights firmly set on the theater market with a line of Fresnels and Lekos that are not as budget-friendly, but should be considered if you are going that route. In the cyc arena, they do have an offering that has impressive colors, punch, and a price tag that will shock you (in the good way).  $1100.00 for an LED cyc is a steal. 

Need a flame, but don’t have a big budget for an expensive flame effect? Give these a shot!

Chauvet DJ also offers a small frame zooming and moving LED head.

Something that Chauvet beat a lot of others to market with was a small LED image projector. These even offer framing shutters!  I’m not saying they will beat out a S4, but if you have a short throw or need a custom gobo you can print at home, they might make a lot of sense. Chauvet has a couple good options, the LFS-75DMX and the LFS-5D.

While none of these products are the perfect replacement for everything in your traditional rig, there are some very budget-friendly options out there that can not only improve your show, but hopefully make your life a little bit easier.

Monkey Business: Rigging Tips

Article by Seth Scott,  Monkey Wrench Productions

When most accidents or failures occur, most often common sense was the first thing thrown from the fly rail. In the live performance industry we constantly manage live loads above people’s heads. Because of this, safety, common sense, and being overly cautious needs to be the norm; and we can’t let time and budget constraints trump safety. 

Know your materials

Are you using rated materials? Most mass consumer hardware and auto stores stock hardware that clearly states, “Not for overhead lifting”. That’s more than just a liability waiver for the manufacturer; those materials were not designed for use when someone’s life hangs in, on, or under what you are rigging. Look for stamped materials that have clear ratings on them and buy from known suppliers.  Inspect your systems frequently by looking for frayed, nicked, snagged or knotted cables and ropes as well as rubbed links in a chain motor or anything out of the ordinary.

Everyone is on a budget, but it only takes the failure of one cheap item to cause a major accident. 

Know your weakest link

Rigging is a system of small components (with their own ratings) that all work together. Always take the time to identify your weakest link, whether the building structure itself or the 1/16th aircraft cable you used. This weakest point is the most likely to fail in the system and your gauge of the maximum load of the system. DON’T EVER count on the rating listed on materials to have 2 or 4 times safety factor.           

Know Fire Safety

While most of us have never been in a theater fire and we all hope we never are, think about fire safety when rigging. Many of us use span sets or nylon slings day in and day out, but forget to remember that they are just a stranded plastic sling. While they are inherently very strong, when in a fire that sling melts just like any plastic. What is supporting your load without that plastic? All loads supported by Spansets should have a secondary fire safety like a piece of aircraft cable or gak-flex/steelflex. This looks and acts very much like a Spanset, but has steel inside of the nylon sleeve that will hold up in case of a fire emergency. 



Know Speedy Rigging

Most spaces have items hanging that aren’t very heavy (<200lbs per point). Often riggers can create more work than needed by using a system of turn buckles, shackles, and custom crimped wire rope. Save both time and money by using Griplocks/ Verloks  with 1/8” aircraft cable. They are rated at 215lbs per point: more than adequate to support most flats, signs, or practical lighting fixtures. Simply crimp a loop at one end and then set your height, and they can be reused time and time again.

Verlock Sr.

Verlock Sr.

Griplock®  Glider Ring

Griplock® Glider Ring

Griplock®  Hook

Griplock® Hook

Griplock® PushMePullU Double Ended Grippers

Griplock® PushMePullU Double Ended Grippers

Know specialty tools  

Truss Push Pull Tool: All riggers have struggled with pin and sleeve truss (such as Global or Cosmic Truss) due to burs on the conical connectors. This tool helps you push the parts together or pull them apart.

Truss Push Pull Tool

Truss Push Pull Tool

Shackle buster: Stagejunk has a number of great tools. The shackle buster is specifically made to fit the pins on the shackle ranging from ¼”-3/4”. It gives you the extra grip and leverage, and it won’t mar the pins like a c-wrench or pliers.

Podger tool: This is a UK/European tool that came across the pond at LDI 2014. It has a 4-way ratcheting socket capable of fitting truss bolts 15/16”, nuts on cheesbourghs 7/8”, ½” and ¼” hardware. It also has a curved handle with a drift pin on the end to line up pin and sleeve truss OR pop out those stubborn pins. 

Podger Wrench

Podger Wrench

As an industry we need to move away from comments like “it’s good enough”, “hasn’t failed/fallen yet” or “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. We need to stay sharp and safe. With these tips I hope you have something to think about and a few new tools to use.