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How the Dimmersaurs died out

Lance Stewart charts the end of analogue controls and the inexorable rise of digital dimming.

Sometime in the dim dark past – in the days when analogue controls ruled and mighty dimmersaurs hugged walls throughout entire continents – someone told me that the age of the phase-chopping behemoths would come to an end.

Analogue control cables would become digitally diminutive and every luminaire would have a microchip brain. Different tribes of lights and controls would commune openly and with complete understanding. The dimmersaurs would be extinct.

A decade or so later, as the last walls were being reinforced to support dimmersaurus ridiculous, DMX512 was spreading through the entertainment industry faster than a punter with a backstage pass.


Lance Stewart is an award-winning lighting designer, actor, inventor and playwright. He has been active in the IES since 1990 as a member, committee member, lighting lecturer, keynote conference speaker and MC. His company, Creative Lighting, is based in Queensland Australia.

Evolving to entertain

True, DMX devices were slavish things, but they were great listeners (they only learnt to talk back recently with the advent of RDM over DMX). They were quick to do what they were told and it didn’t matter if their controllers were Finnish or Australian or Chinese, as long as they were well made.

With 512 channels to a ‘universe’, DMX was the first truly open digital lighting control protocol to succeed on the global stage. DMX was even implanted into 12-channel dimmersaurs. In the world of entertainment, DMX became as big as a lead actor’s ego, and ubiquitous. But in the commercial sector, the rampant global success of DMX hardly raised an eyebrow. After all, there was no such thing as a DMX ballast. There still isn’t.

Proprietary digital protocols dominated well into the 1990s, jabbering away in fluent DyNetian and C-Bussian and Lutronish.

Of course, you couldn’t have a decent conversation with a DyNetian if you were from the Land of Lutron; the lights were kept dumb and the dimmersaurs hung on. Fast forward a few years and wiser heads prevailed with the rise of the Digital Addressable Lighting Interface. Ballasts were given brains and this new intelligence would, surreally perhaps, be known called DALI. Which hardly raised an eyebrow in the green rooms of DMX-land: after all, there was no such thing as a DALI moving light. There still isn’t.


Added abilities

DALI looked a lot like Tridonic’s DSI with its Manchester encoding and DC operating voltage, but with the added ability to address devices individually and in groups, plus bidirectional communication, distributed intelligence and loads of settings.

Suddenly, even C-Bussian and DyNetian were being translated into DALI, along with infrared serial and just about everything else. A DALI device (usually a luminaire) knew if its lamp had failed. It could belong to groups and store scene levels and it could have various other useful settings stored and individually adjusted.

The early days of DALI were … interesting. Those of us who were making DMX and had learned to add DALI to the mix found that not everyone made it to the same recipe – and some were deliberately poisoning their offerings to make DALI unpalatable”

Despite its operating voltage (9.5 to 22.5VDC at idle high) you could treat it as mains voltage so its cables could hang out with the big guys from the land of AC mains – which is just as well considering it is entirely possible for DALI cables to give you quite a shock if they are miswired (I have first-hand experience).

The early days of DALI were … interesting. Those of us who were making DMX and had learned to add DALI to the mix found that not everyone made it to the same recipe – and some were deliberately poisoning their offerings to make DALI unpalatable. But all that eventually ended and DALI began to work a treat, no matter whose DALI lights were connected together.

Analogue controls (like 0-10V), proprietary protocols and dimmersaurs are still clinging on. Hell, e;I still have one DyNetian dimmersaur from World Expo 88 dimming some dichros in my lounge. But I also have one that is only a shell – inside is a smaller, cheaper and smarter Control Freak DALI controller that is doing a lot more lighting control with a lot less of, well, everything.


Another byte for DALI

Nowadays there is e-DALI, which adds another byte to DALI’s 2-byte commands for manufacturer-reserved functions, and a suite of DALI sub-type standards for everything from LEDs to sequencers. Now at Version 2, there is even a Type 8 DALI which allows control of RGBW colour (or white) from a single address. Sure, DALI’s 64 addresses per line is more like a suburb when compared to a DMX universe of 512 channels. But you can have plenty of suburbs, so DALI is scalable to any number of luminaires. And if you don’t need DALI’s bi-directional communication, you can use broadcast mode, in which case nothing has to be programmed, it will all just work. Provided that the right people integrate DALI for you it will also be robust and reliable.

There are still DMX and DALI dimmersaurs and perhaps some of the dumber dimmersaurs are still being mounted on walls in Belarus and Cuba and North Korea, like the trophy heads taken by great white hunters in days gone by. Who knows?

So all power to the open protocols of DALI and DMX, where everyone’s an individual. And farewell to the dimmersaurs, long may they rest in pieces.

Lance Stewart is managing director of Creative Lighting