When the Xtreme Muzik tour kicked off in Springfield, Missouri on July 18, 2011, country music artists Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson were once again teamed up with lighting designer Mike Swinford, programmer Mark Butts, and supplier Morris Light and Sound. This would be the second time that the co-headliners have embarked on a tour together, and while they were familiar with each other and their production crew, there was one untested member of the group making its concert touring debut; the VARI*LITE VLX3 Wash luminaire from Philips Vari-Lite.
“Both Mark and I have worked with Gretchen and Big & Rich for a couple of years now on all their headlining tours” began lighting designer Mike Swinford. “The main difference between this tour and those in the past is that the artists would now share one eight-piece band and the stage for the vast majority of the show taking part in each other's songs. While this may not seem like too much of a challenge, we had to find a lighting design that could complement their varying styles.”
“With Big & Rich anything really goes as far as the lighting design,” Swinford explained further. “They like wild colors, abstract color mixes, and can never really get enough. With Gretchen, she prefers a true rock-n-roll feel with deep rich colors and a lot of power. So in order to accommodate them both, we wanted an all automated lighting rig for the best in color, movement, and the ability to have multiple looks.”
As Swinford and Butts got to work designing the ideal lighting plot to help them capture the full essence of both artists, they knew that combining the two would require using instruments that would give them multiple options, but they also wanted to use LED light sources that would give them a broad range of beautiful colors.
“During the initial design phase, we spoke about using LED wash lights for their broad range of color, but we didn't want to see the direct LED pixels,” continued Swinford. “I had first heard of the VLX3 Wash through Thommy Hall when he sent over the initial specs which showed how it works from the same LED chip of its predecessor the VLX Wash and you don't see individual pixels, but you still get beautiful LED color. So although I had never seen one in person, I knew that with it being a VARI*LITE luminaire, it would be good.”
“We first saw the VLX3 Wash at Philips Vari-Lite while we were in Dallas with the Kenny Chesney tour,” said David Haskell, President of Morris Light and Sound. “Since we knew that Mike wanted to use an LED Wash for the Xtreme Muzik tour, and since we have had a 20-year commitment to using VARI*LITE luminaires, we were excited to see the VLX3 Wash and it did not disappoint. With it being based on the proven technology inside the VLX Wash, and with it being a VARI*LITE product, we knew that it would work exactly as we needed it to. And that's why we purchased the fixtures for the tour, and in the process became one of the newest Authorized VARI*LITE Dealers.”
At less than 61 cm tall and only 20 kg, the VLX3 LED Wash boasts 6,000 lumens using three 120W replaceable custom RGBW LED chipsets with a 10,000 hour source life. But before the new lights would actually arrive at Morris Light and Sound in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Swinford and programmer Mark Butts got together with the Philips Vari-Lite engineering team to take the new lights to an even higher level.
“I had heard about the VLX3 Wash through Thommy Hall, but in the beginning I was skeptical that a three LED light engine could do anything for concert lighting,” began Butts. “But before the light even got to us we got the opportunity to work closely with the engineering team from Philips Vari-Lite to get the profile written for the desk, and to also write software code for what we all felt would be a fantastic addition; individual LED control.”
“When we found out that the possibility of individual LED control existed, we knew instantly that we wanted it,” added Swinford, “Since the light was in the final design stages itself, Mark actually wrote the effects for individual LED control and then the Philips Vari-Lite engineers worked over the weekend to update the software code inside the light for the new effects. Mark did a wonderful job and because of the outstanding support from the Philips Vari-Lite engineering team it all worked out great so that once the lights arrived onsite, we were ready to go.”
With the new software code written and installed, and the a profile written into the control console, the 36 VLX3 Wash luminaires were delivered to the rehearsal studio where Swinford and Butts would begin putting the lights to the true test inside a concert lighting rig.
“I have seen the VLX Wash numerous times, and was also a bit concerned about the VLX3 brightness in a concert application since it only has three LED engines, as opposed to the seven inside a VLX Wash,” admitted Swinford. “But I was pleasantly surprised with the output coming from the small package. Because of their smaller size we were able to hang all 36 as backlight in the curved overhead truss and their output holds up very well against the rest of the concert rig.”
Butts added, “When we loaded it into the first rehearsal, it looked great and because it could produce such a strong output it was the perfect light for this rig. It's fast, has great color, and the individual LED control is truly unique.”
Swinford agreed, “This is the first time I have ever seen individual LED control such as this. Being able to create an LED chase around the face of the fixture in different colors is an extremely interesting and unique look. While they are also very useful as a scenery wash because of the smooth color field, we used them mostly for the LED chases and it made a great effect. They are a very fast light and they all arrived working 100 percent out-of-the-box.”
As the Xtreme Muzik tour continues across North America, VLX3 Wash luminaires are now shipping to other Authorized VARI*LITE Dealers around the world. As the first designer and programmer to work with the new luminaires in a concert application, both Swinford and Butts knew that using a new technology was a bit of a risk. But with a successful track-record of working with VARI*LITE luminaires, it was a risk that both were willing to take.
“When you added all our lighting needs together it made sense to go with VARI*LITE luminaires,” said Swinford. “The VLX3 Wash is powerful with consistent and broad colors and has a fantastic zoom. You can also do very fast color snaps and great strobe effects. Plus, the VLX3 Wash is extremely quiet. I don't remember hearing any fan noise.”
Butts concluded, “I always enjoy working with VARI*LITE fixtures because their performance is consistent, and it was no different with the VLX3 Wash. But the characteristic I love most about this light is being able to use the LED's with each in a different color while zooming-in to tighten the beam. We created great scenes with this effect and it's like no other light out there. I love the whole idea of a moving LED wash that's also doing great tricks. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this light, and we got a lot of insane looks out the VLX3 Wash.”