Lighting: A Guide For DJs, Part 2


Want to take control of your lighting, or understand what that 'lighting mixer' is doing in the DJ booth? Then you need to understand DMX, which is what we look at today.

In Lighting: A Guide For DJs, Part 1, we made the case for knowing your stuff when it comes to lighting, and introduced the idea of "intelligent" lighting. Now in this part, we dive into the world of DMX. It may seem a complex subject on first read, but persevere: A DJ or VJ should always have full control of what is going on, and only DMX will enable you to have total control over your lights.

As a reminder, this guide is separated into this written guide and a video. The video is a hands-on guide that shows you elements mentioned in the written part, so please read this whole section before diving into the video, which appears at the end.

What is DMX?

DMX512 (Digital MultipleX) is a standard for digital communication networks that are commonly used to control stage lighting and effects. It was originally intended as a standardised method for controlling light dimmers, which, prior to DMX512, had employed various incompatible proprietary protocols. It soon became the primary method for linking controllers to dimmers and special effects devices such as fog machines and intelligent lights. DMX has also expanded to uses in non-theatrical interior and architectural lighting, at scales ranging from strings of Christmas lights to electronic billboards. (Well, that's what Wikipedia says... )

So there's the background. From a DJ's point of view, what that means is that DMX is used to communicate to lights in a standardised matter. So no matter what manufacturer your lights or DMX controller are from, as long as they are compatible with DMX they will work together. Think of it as "Midi for lighting".

DMX controller

A DMX controller. It looks a lot like an audio mixer, and it does much the same thing, giving you control over your individual lights, connected together by daisychained cables.

Now, the second very important thing to note is that DMX is a "bus" system. This means that you do not need cables running from your DMX controller to each and every light. Only one cable is needed from the controller to the first light, then you go from the first light into the next one and so on. So simply put:

Controller -> Light 1 -> Light 2 -> Light 3 -> etc.

DMX uses standard XLR cables, which you can get in many shops and which you may well know from our PA system or even DJ controller. In many cases even XLR microphone cables will work, however if you are running lots of lights, I recommend getting special light XLR cables.

(By the way, you may encounter on rare occasions lights that need a five-pin XLR cable. I try to avoid these as the five-pin XLR connectors are rare and hence expensive to get.)

Get the address

For each light to know when it is its time to be controlled, it needs an "address". This is because basically all lights get all the information, and so they need to know which information is for them. The addressing schema for DMX is really simple. For example if your first light can be controlled via 16 channels and your give it address "001" then the next light needs to be at address "017" (16 channels later). If this uses 16 channels again the third light needs to be at channel "33" and so on.

DMX lead

This is a DMX lead. Looks familiar? That's because DMX leads are basically the same as audio XLR cables.

Most new lights, like the ones from ADJ we use in our video, have an LED screen where you can simply adjust the address by pushing the designated buttons. Some older lights use dip switches that are binary encoded. To know which dip switch to put in the on position for the address you need, ADJ has a simple table for you here. Hence in my above example if I wanted my second light to have channel "017" I would need the dip switches 1 and 5 to be in the ON position and all others in OFF. It's a little bit more hassle as you need to check the table for tuning the address, but you can simply print out the chart before you set up.

And this is basically it. No magic and not as complicated as many may wish you to think. If you understand the basics of daisychaining the lights with XLR cables and the need for each light to have an address, you are ready to go on and watch the hands-on stuff in this week's video.

One bit of advice at the end: If you are using a lot of lights and you get a lot of XLR cable length you might need to use a so-called "DMX terminator" on the last light. That terminator is a simple DMX plug with a resistor in it, so you get less signal loss when daisychaining so many lights. You can get such a DMX terminator from most stores that sell you XLR cables or lighting gear. I always have a few in my "tech case" and I recommend you have at least one.



Next time...

Next week we'll look at how to programme your light show. I'll also give you advice on how to choose lighting gear, should you be in the market for owning some lights of your own (rather than just understanding that esoteric lighting desk in your local DJ booth!).

• A veteran DJ and Digital DJ Tips’s resident PA and lighting specialist, Terry can also be found moderating the Digital DJ Tips Forum.

Check out the other parts in this series:

Got questions, queries or comments to do with lighting, DMX, cables, daisychaining, or anything else to do with setting up lighting? Feel free to ask away in the comments.

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  1. This was very helpful being a DMX novice who knows that how I can expand my wedding / private party business. Thank You!

  2. Only one thing missing that this series needs, quotes from lighting techs;)
    I'm very interested in this series by the way, excited to see where it goes.

  3. DJ Marcel says:

    Thanks Terry, I am finding this series very useful!

    Maybe this is a stupid question but I am new to lighting...

    I am thinking of buying a Chauvet Obey 10 DMX Controller and I assume that after going to the trouble of programming scenes these are all saved the next time I turn the controller again? Also, as a mobile DJ, would this be the right controller to buy?

    • Yes scenes should be saved in the controllers memory even if you turn it off. I am not familiar with that Chauvet model, but it works flawless on any of the many many controllers I have used over the years.
      I cannot comment on the Chauvet controller as I am not familiar with it, in the series I use an Elation DMX Operator II and it is excellent for beginners and pros alike.

    • I can't comment specifically on the Chauvet controllers, but I'd suggest your scenes would remain after power off. That's a pretty standard feature of even the crappiest of controllers, and Chauvet gear is far from crappy.

      The important thing to remember with these low-end control systems is that for your shows to work, you always have to use the same lights on the same channels. There's usually no option to transfer designs done with one light to another like you can on the high-end gear. e.g. If you have a Chauvet Intimidator Spot moving head pointing a green beam with a gobo in the middle of your dance floor, you can't just plug in a Martin Mac and expect it to do the same thing.

  4. Very good info.. Thank you for your time.

  5. As a mobile DJ who spent a lot of time programming lights I would actually advise not to buy a controller. They're not needed. Most units have built in chase programs which are more than adequate. The controller pictured in the article is representative of many controllers out there around the 90-100 euro mark (I've owned 3) but it is way more than is required. Unless you're going into serious light show work I would suggest run with the units in built programs. Even more so if you're new to djing. Apart from cost and learning curve (which of itself shouldn't put you off) it's 1 more piece of equipment you have to rack, carry, cable, setup and maintain. Run without until you find yourself wanting more. My 2c

    • Well it certainly is one way of looking at things and a valid point. Many users are OK with just using the built in sound to light or automatic modes.
      But I also have made the experience that even if I only have very good shows programmed to 2-4 songs in my set I can get an AHHHH effect that will make people happy, or have a show for that perfect wedding dance and you will get booked over and over...

      It is like with a firework. Most people are happy just lighting up some pretty rockets, but if you ever saw a timed show by a good pyrotechnican you will not want to go back...

    • Surely the problem with not having a DMX controller is that you cannot dim lights when you want to (at least you can't on the ADJ Fusion Bar & Revo 4 which I own). The only way to do this is to turn each unit off at the power source or buy a UC3 hand controller. Neither option is great because you have to program to sound active mode each time you turn your unit on again (this is not practical if the unit is up high on light portable trussing) or buy multiple UC3 controllers.

      As I am only likely to acquire more lights (thinking of getting a couple of Chauvet Slim Par 64 wash) it seems cheaper in the long run and way more practical to buy a basic DMX controller to help with dimming...

  6. DMX programming is rather easy. I used to be intimidated by it but once I had a system to use, I found it very straight forward.

    I use the American DJ myDMX system which is software with a hardware box that is a USB to DMX set up. I run laptop separate from my dj laptop with a midi controller (Novation Launch Pad) to trigger my lighting scenes, strobes, etc. It's super fun to "play" the lights on a midi controller while I'm DJing.

    • I agree that simple scenes are pretty easy to set up, but there are times when you implement some more advanced scenes that things get a little more difficult... such as color chase lighting or control of intelligent light positioning.

    • Yes myDMX works really nice and I like to use that too. For an intro a hardware controller is just easier to explain things. But if you figure out the DMX Operator you can do it in software easily...

      • I am using a DMXIS and i have it running with Traktor and Ableton. I have the traktor Midi clock sending msgs to ableton just for bpm control for dmxis. It's just running though the banks i have made, but i am going to make a few clips for key songs like Grand Entrance and first dance. I am excited to use it in this way for the first time in Jan.

  7. If we're going the USB route we may as well start mentioning the luminaire and enttec apps. Hit YouTube for these to see what's possible to control your dmx with Apple apps. It's the future train really. If I was going to invest 1-200 bucks and a weeks learning curve. That's where I'd do it.

    • Yes many of the iOS to DMX apps show a lot of promise and there are even some that come with their own tablets. But there is still a lot of proprietary things going on, but I have high hopes for such solutions in the future as well.

  8. Most DMX controlled lights (and Dimmer controllers) use some form of button interface with an LED or LCD display so you can select (and assign) the program mode and DMX channel number. I generally do not see a dip-switch display anymore.

    I'm not trying to be difficult or contrarian, but in my experience with DMX and intelligent lighting (A/V Tech work), it's pretty much understood that 5-pin wires are the industry standard for DMX, but 4-pin DMX and 3-pin XLR cables can be used as well (mainly for LED up-lights) after the "brain box", and there are some rare cases of CAT-5 cables and even fewer uses of wireless DMX. I'm going to disagree with the statement: "(By the way, you may encounter on rare occasions lights that need a five-pin XLR cable. I try to avoid these as the five-pin XLR connectors are rare and hence expensive to get.)"

    Do a search and you'll find that the cables are pretty close in price, but you'll also find that there are no lighting controllers out there with 3-pin DMX out, not Chauvet, Elation, American DJ, Behringer... no one, because DMX is 5-pin.

    • For Professional work I agree that 5-pin XLR is the de-facto standard (I never see the 4-pin stuff) and there are some proprietary solutions with CAT-5e and CAT-6.

      However we are talking about the pro-sumer market that will get lights for mobile DJ applications from companies like ADJ, Elations, Choveaut, Eurolight etc. that cost well below the premium light prices (a Pro Moving head costs well over 1000 bucks) and those 90% of the time use standard 3-pin XLR or have a 5-pin adapter but actually do only use 3-pins (because that is enough for their address space).

      And my Elation DMX Operator II has 3-pin XLR so do all the lights I have from ADJ, Eurolight and Chauvet... none of those new LED lights even have a 5-pin plug. Look at some of my review videos and you see the plugs...

      • Jam-Master Jake says:

        Spot on, Terry. In fact, other than some of the real high-end DMX boards, I don't think I've seen a DMX board that DOESN'T feature a 3-prong DMX output. I use ADJ, Chauvet, and some Elation fixtures and they ALL have 3-prong DMX. In fact, out of all the different DMX units I have, I only have ONE product that features a 5-pin DMX connector, and that's my Chauvet fogger (Hurricane 1800 Flex).

        By no means am I saying DigitalTiger is incorrect, as I have virtually zero knowledge of the premium high-end/professional DMX and lighting market, but for those of us out there using the "prosumer" products as Terry mentioned, Terry's 100% correct in this article and his above statement.

  9. djMichou008 says:

    Hi Phil! on YT, the link in the Description is wrong!
    The correct link is:

    But YT states:

    2013/10 instead of 2013/11!

    Made it a comment there! :)

  10. Chad New Phone says:

    I'm using controllers and dmx as a mobile DJ for 4-5 years. I know they exist but I've never seen a 5 pin dmx either in or out and I own Chauvet and adj LEDs and controllers. I've never used anything but XLR. Maybe hi-end they're required to send more signals but most certainly not at the mobile market.

    • Yes indeed, there are high-end stage lights for pro use (like big concerts and festivals) that use the 5-pin connectors, but many even moved to proprietary systems with CAT-5e or CAT-6 cables... But we are talking light systems where the operator unit will cost 10k plus...

  11. I use DMXis which is a pretty basic windows/osx dmx controller.

    Super smooth and you can use touchosc to make your own MIDI controller to program your own dmx controller.

    Internal programs and sound programs are super, but once and a while you need to make the venue red or green and than your own programmed scenes come in very handy.

  12. Angel Entertainment says:

    As a mobile Dj, I've invested $??, ???.?? in LED lights, lasers, Scanners n such... I run some fixtures on auto mode and I have a DMX controller I use for LED pars, mood lighting n such... I offer two different lighting packages... But I'm not sure if my rates are appropriate? much do you charge for your lighting services? Is it safe to charge a percentage of the retail cost of the light fixture itself? ...and what percentage would you charge? ...and do you charge an extra fee to run the lights per hour in addition to what your Hourly DJ service is? What's a good formula for estimating what to charge for mobile lighting services?

    • Well rates depend hugely on where you live in the world so I cannot give you exact numbers, however I can give you this much advise:
      Check what other local PA and light rental companies charge and do not do any price dumping. Lights cost money and renting them for your gig is costly, so I usually charge what the rental company would charge me if I did not have the lights myself.
      Yes I add an additional fee to my DJ fee when I also have to setup and operate lights. Depending on how much effort is needed (bringing 3 lights on auto mode is easier than for example program a show with 40 lights) it can be a minor addition like 10-15%, but on more major accounts it can go to double and also charging preparation costs (programming special light shows).
      Hope that helps.

  13. Great to see an article about lighting on this blog, as both a DJ and professional lighting tech I know how much lighting adds to music. I would like to correct you on DMX cabling though. You should never use mic cable for DMX, it will only be a matter of time before you have issues. And when you do you will end up chasing your tale trying to fix them. Also 5pin XLR is the standard for DMX you will find that all high end fixtures and lighting controllers use 5pin XLR. In fact in my company that is all we use and we will swap any 3pin connectors to 5pin if only to avoid audio and lighting cables getting mixed up on gigs.
    As for lighting control I recommend using a computer based controller. These days you can get software versions of all the big lighting controllers. These are way more powerful and easier to program than the small hardware desks. Most companies have a free or very low cost 1 universe version which will do for most DJ setups. The bonus being that if and when you increase the size of your lighting rig (its as addictive as DJing!) And need a professional console, you will already be familiar with it. My recommendation would be chamsys MagicQ It's free to download and you get 64 fully working universes. You can buy a cheap enttec pro or ODE box to output DMX for under $200. The software is easy to use once you get to grips with basic lighting programming. I hope this is helpful.

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