DMX512: The Greatest?


Someone once told me the greatest thing the United States Institute for Theatre Technology ever did was create USITT DMX512. I think “greatest” depends on your point of view. A technical director in his sixth year might find the USITT Tenure and Promotions Guidelines the greatest thing. A costumer trying to organize a shop might find USITT's Costume Job Descriptions Project the greatest thing. For anyone with a serious problem, the solution looks like the greatest thing in the world. USITT's DMX512 may not strike anyone as a solution now, but that's because it has made many problems go away.

It's useful to think back to the days before DMX512. In early 1986, I was working with two dimming systems. The portable system had 21 wires in its analog control cables. Often, one would come loose, and someone would have to resolder it to get us back to our full complement of 18 dimmers. The permanent system had fewer wires in its digital control cable and better strain relief, but there was the time the director tripped over the control cable, tearing all the wires out of the mini DIN connector. It was Friday night, and no one for hundreds of miles had a cable like it. Careful soldering solved the problem, but most of a tech rehearsal was lost.

It can be fun to be a Tech Hero, but none of these miracles wrought with solder helped make the shows better. They all represented lost time and effort, turmoil added to already frenzied situations. The audience never saw the effort we put into fixing things; they only saw the results of shortened rehearsal time.

Sometimes, people look at standards as volumes of rules to be mastered and overcome. However, I think the greatest standards are the ones that are used everyday to simplify our lives. They let us buy a nut from one store and screw it onto a bolt bought from another. They let a tired stagehand simply go home after a show when his hand slips off a wire rope ladder. They let an electrician connect a console to a dimmer pack with the reasonable expectation that the connection will simply work, and that's what USITT's DMX512 does. It simplifies life, so there is more time, energy, and money left over to deal with those things that are still problems. That has to be a great thing.