Cameron MacNair

Integrating DMX Lighting Configurations in Real Time Performance Systems – Cameron MacNair, s1300547


This article will investigate various ways of controlling DMX lighting configurations in a real time musical performance environment. Integrating a system of DMX lighting into musical performances allows opportunities to represent performance elements and gestural content in a creative way. When controlled by digital audio signals, mapping visual cues and parameters to the lighting system can be utilized to realize performance action events as categorized audio/visual objects.

The methods described here were incorporated into the Action Sound 2014 group performance for the Digital Media Studio Project course at The University of Edinburgh. For a video capture of this performance, documentation of our system, and Max patches, please see the corresponding media available on the website.

Aesthetic advantages

In what way can we use perception to represent sensory information? How can this be creatively utilized in a real time musical performance?

To introduce aesthetic advantages of a DMX lighting system in a real time musical performance environment, I would like to share this quote by Albert Bregman from his text Auditory Scene Analysis [1].

“The best way to begin is to ask ourselves what perception is for . . . The job of perception, then, is to take the sensory input and to derive a useful representation of reality from it.

An important part of building a representation is to decide which parts of the sensory stimulation are telling us about the same environmental object or event. (pp. 3).”

Creating meaningful representation in any creative environment requires an awareness of the two part system mentioned above. Sensory information is how we, as humans, relate to one another and our environment. If we utilize this highly complex ability as a creative platform for performance, we can represent abstract ideas and actions in new ways. Experimentation with various combinations of sensory data in an ecological method can elaborate an intimate creative practice.

Incorporating DMX lighting into a musical performance allows a “scene” to be constructed by reinforcing and contextualizing the attention of the audience. Do not work against their perception, provide a focus of visual information to represent the scene. Ambient and sporadic lighting techniques can allow a rich visual texture to accompany the auditory events, representing any desired detail of (or relationship between) performance actions and gestures. Bregman identifies this method of utilizing audience awareness, which reinforces the utility of sensory categorization in performance.

“Apart from the role of effort there are other signs by which we recognize the presence of attention. One is that we have a more detailed awareness of things that are the objects of attention than of things that are not (pp. 399).”


Understanding the technical integration process of a DMX lighting configuration is essential to creating a meaningful scene representation of the performance actions. I will not go into technical details in this article, however there is a guide available on the Action Sound website that outlines our specific technical setup for the final performance.

Gestural information in a performance environment can be represented, abstracted and magnified with visual cues. A musical performance inherently contains many gestural definitions, identifying these definitions as control data can be used to create the visual scene. Alexander Refsum Jensenius introduces three categories that can be used to investigate gestural definition in his PhD Thesis, Action Sound: Developing Methods and Tools to Study Music-Related Body Movement [2] by introducing three categories.

“Communication: using gestures to denote aspects of human communication, focusing on how they work as vehicles of social interaction.

Control: investigating gestures as a system, focusing on computational models and the control possibilities of gestures in interactive systems.

Mental Imagery: studying gestures as mental processes, which may be the result of physical movement, sound, or other types of perception (pp. 36).”

How can a DMX lighting configuration become a meaningful representation of the gestural definitions in the musical performance system? In what ways can this be constructed to identify auditory and gestural data? Using intelligent mapping techniques can be a vehicle of communication, control and mental imagery when designing this system.


Parameter mapping in a digital system can be used to identify relationships within the scene in a creative way. John Croft’s Theses on Liveness [3] considers two different types of mapping, procedural and aesthetic. Creating this connection in a digital system can allow the computer’s responsiveness to become ecological and creatively biased, to develop an intimate relationship between attention and content within the performance structure.

“The onus of justification of liveness is shifted to the causal link between the performer’s action and the computer’s response. (pp. 61).”

When defining this connecting between the computer’s response and the audio environment, choosing performance relationships with streams of data is the heartbeat of the scene’s construction. D. Wessel and M. Wright make this consideration in the article Problems and Prospects for Intimate Musical Control of Computers[4] featured in the Computer Music Journal.

“All music, in the end, exists as sound—that is, continuous variations in air pressure. However, the notion of discrete events is a very powerful and effective metaphor for musical control, providing much-simplified reasoning about rhythms, entrances and exits, notes, and many other aspects of music.

Our solution is to represent continuous control gestures as audio signals . . . We can multiplex lower-rate control gestures into a single audio channel (pp. 13).”

Creative mapping techniques allow the scene to be a synchronized, elaborate, and metaphorical representation of a gestural system. Pairing the visual stimulus and auditory environment is a way to grab the attention of the audience, shift their awareness, and propagate deeper meaning into the performance. Roger Dannenberg researched the connections between visual and audio scenes in his article Interactive Visual Music: A Personal Perspective [5] featured in the Computer Music Journal.

“Make connections between deep compositional structure and images. . . By tying visuals to this deep, hidden information, the audience may perceive that there is some emotional, expressive, or abstract connection, but the animation and music can otherwise be quite independent and perhaps more interesting (pp. 28).”


DMX lighting configurations can be used to develop a strong representation of hidden information, gestural definitions, and performance actions in a real time musical performance environment. Integrating this system with sophisticated mapping techniques and perceptual awareness allows a scene to be constructed that utilizes sensory information and the complex association that the human mind creates from it. Pairing these systems in an ecological way is a method of integrating a new dimension of meaning, representation, and gestural content into the performance environment.


[1] Bregman, A.S. (1990). Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford Books, MIT Press.

[2] Jensenius, Alexander. (2007). Action – Sound: Developing Methods and Tools to Study Music-Related Body Movement. University of Oslo, Department of Musicology. Retrieved from

[3] Croft, John. (2007). Theses on liveness. School of Arts, Brunel University. Retrieved from

[4] Wessel, D., Wright, M. Problems and Prospects for Intimate Musical Control of Computers. Computer Music Journal, 26 (3). pp. 11-22.

[5] Dannenberg, Roger. Interactive Visual Music: A Personal Perspective. Computer Music Journal, 29 (4). pp. 25-35.

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