History Of Disco Lighting

By Kevin Hopcroft, NJD Electronics


The first effects lighting appeared long before disco's started. Before the war it was discovered that if you shine a light on a ball covered with mirrors that you get one beam off every mirror. My earliest recollection of a mirror ball was in the 1942 film Casablanca, with Humpfrey Bogart. So when disco's came along in the late sixties the mirror ball was the first effect to adopted. General lighting was provide by red bulbs, to give a warm glow to the room and a spotlight with a spinning wheel in front of it, with a hole in it, provided a strobe effect. Soon after that a photographic lamp "Ultra Violet", which made white things glow in the dark, was quickly transferred into the disco's when some bright spark found that you could see ladies underwear glowing straight through their clothes. Unfortunately it also made everybody's teeth glow green as well!

The first real dedicated disco lights were invented in about 1968 when someone decided to control lighting using electronics (Transistors and Thyristors in those days, no silicon chips) the idea was to flash lamps to different frequencies, originally three channels. Basically one lamp would flash in time with the Bass frequency, one in time with the Middle and one in time with the Treble. For the first time Sound To Light was born.

Apart from a brief period of popularity for the "oil wheel", from 1968 to the about 1973 Sound to light was King! And it soon progressed from 3 channel to four channel, using Bass, Lower Middle, Upper Middle and Treble. However Sound to light had a basic problem, whilst the lights were following the music and reacting to different frequencies, the human eye had great difficulty in relating the visual effect to the music. It was just too complex.

In 1973 a new idea was born. Instead of flashing each channel to a different frequency the new idea was to make the lights only react to the bass beat but to light each channel in turn (e.g. First Bass beat = light channel one, next Bass beat = light channel two, next Bass beat = light channel three, next Bass beat = light channel four, next Bass beat = back to channel one etc.) This gave an easy and dramatic sound activated effect that the eye could follow easily and the Sound Sequencer or Sound Chaser was born. This is still the most popular way of controlling ordinary spot lamps for effects lighting and NJD's EURO 4E is an excellent example.

The next big change occurred in about 1978 with the arrival of the "Smoke Machine". The Smoke Machine brought a whole new dimension to lighting and for the first time produced 3D effects. Instead of just seeing the lamps flashing, provided you used the right kind of lamp, you could see the whole beam passing through the air. This heralded the reign of the "PIN SPOT" (PAR36) with a narrow concentrated beam. Ordinary spot lamps (PAR38, R95 etc.) produced only a soft flood and could not give the effect needed in smoke, but the PAR36 Pin Spot was perfect (It's also the right lamp for use with mirrors). Sound Chasers were used to create stunning effects, sequencing and patterning Pin Spots in smoke.

Until now every effort had been made to make the lighting interpret the sound, but things were afoot to change that! The Pin Spot starter to be used in Motorised Effects, these effects either spun the lamps, the Helicopter, or swept them from side to side, the scanner. The job of turning these stunning effects on at the right moment became the job of the DJ, along with playing the records, and in bigger night clubs they even employed a "Light Jockey" (New Job!). With this came the requirement for more technology, there had to be ways of switching these effects on and off at the right moment, without all the clicks and bangs through the sound system that you would get with ordinary light switches, whenever the DJ required and the Switch Panel joined the market (See EURO 6S).

The Pin Spot ruled supreme until the early eighties when a new invention hit the market, the Flower Effect. The principle of this was to produce the multiple beams, made on a mirror ball, and force them in one direction through a lens. The beams could be individually coloured and made to spin in time with the music. These Flower effects were very expensive at first and only the largest clubs could afford them. These days technology has progressed so far that they are now small and cheap enough to afforded by the mobile DJ and are even brighter and more exciting that the originals. (See BLITZER)

As you can probably see Disco Lighting has been a steady progression of modern technology combined with earlier ideas. Incorporated three earlier principles, Multiple beams of the mirror ball, 3D "in air" beam projection and sound activation.

The next step was the most dramatic and would not have been possible without our friend the Silicon Chip! Until now the DJ's control was limited to switching effects on and off or choosing the pattern for the Sound Chaser to flash the lamps. At last the DJ could be given a free reign to let his imagination run riot. In 1990 Intelligent Lighting hit the market.

Intelligent Lighting worked on a new principle: Send a beam through a colour filter and a shape (called a "GOBO") then project it onto a mirror which was fixed to two motors (One which moved the mirror left and right ["X"] and one which moved the mirror up and down ["Y"]) which could be controlled by the DJ. This allowed the DJ to chose the colour and shape of the beam and, by moving the mirror, where in the room it would be projected. Originally named the Intelligent Scanner, it's name has gradually changed to that of it's unintelligent predecessor "the Scanner" Just to confuse you! (Be careful when buying!) This revolutionary invention was incredibly expensive at first but like all things has been simplified and miniaturised and is now easily affordable (See MICROBEAM 100).

With intelligence came the need to control these new effects and a whole new system was adopted called DMX and saved dozens of wires connecting all the lighting effects. In stead of sending voltage to an effect to control it, the new system sends a digital language, called DMX. Each effect is plugged directly into the mains and contains it's own microprocessor which can decode the DMX and follow the DJ's instructions. This means that only one wire needs to be sent from the DMX controller to the first effect all subsequent effects are just linked together from the first in a "Daisy Chain". The effect, being "intelligent" knows whether the information it is receiving is for it or is to be passed on to the next effect in the chain, cleaver Eh!

I suppose the final step in the story was inevitable. In 1994 NJD Electronics, of Nottingham, invented the Intelligent Flower. Now instead of projecting one beam the effect would project 20 beams of a colour and shape of the DJ's choice and move them in time with music. Voted "The Best Lighting Effect in the World" in 1995 this product is possible the most stunning disco effect ever produced (See DATAMOON)

Intelligent lighting is now finding it's way into "Live Bands" as the old PAR Cans are replaced with intelligent spotlights, like the CHROMA HX, and this is only the beginning! This is a constantly changing and exciting field as entertainers continuously search for the latest and most stunning effects with which to entertain and amaze people and I am sure that there are many more new effects just sitting on the Drawing board as you read this article.


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