1976 and all that
The AVO meter
The AVOMETER (AVO for Amps, Volts, and Ohms) started life in 1923 and was possibly the most ubiquitous piece of electronics testing equipment ever invented. Alongside the iconic design (though you really have to hold the unit upside down to appreciate the full impact of the two switches and the ‘smiley’ meter scale), AVO multimeters were renowned for their reliability and robustness, and boasted features that endeared them to generations of electrical and electronic engineers.
By 1965, the company had already created over one million AVOMETERS. Though production of the iconic Model 8 finally ceased in 2008 when the last Mk VII meter rolled off the production line, the company, now called Megger, still manufactures the AVO800 series of digital multimeters. There are meanwhile plenty of the original units in varying conditions available on eBay.
Diamonds, Sapphires, and Pearls
Douze points for Avolites
Eurovision 1989 was one of those landmark events in the company’s history where its technology was given the appropriately large stage and a big audience — 500 million was claimed at the time — to really show off its capabilities. Held in Lausanne, Switzerland, thanks to Celine Dion’s victory the year before, it was won by Yugoslavia’s Riva with the song ‘Rock Me’.
Basel-based Power Light used primarily UK-based companies to fulfil its lighting, rigging and trussing contract. At the centre of this was control by Avolites with the first of the QM500-TDs to be deployed in anger. In fact, so new was it that a QM500-90 and a Q-Patch were on standby in case of any problems (they were not needed) Hardware designer Richard Salzedo together with the company’s senior software engineer at the time Shahid Anwar spent 10 days in Lausanne offering support making instant modifications as needed to the code, using invaluable feedback from its operator, Power Light’s Felix Riva.
Lighting design was by Claude Egger and Nicholas de Courten, and the result of the system they put in place was an at the time game-changing flexibility that allowed them to stage various scenes in a huge number of permutations. “Egger and de Courten could produce the ‘look’ they wanted by changing colour, movement, and setting to suit the situation, and the flexibility of both the instruments and the design was the key to the show’s visual success,” wrote Lighting & Sound International at the time.
Such flexibility is a given in today’s industry that it is hard to put it into context quite how revolutionary all this was. But the way that the mood of the show could switch from the high-tempo introductory run through of Dion’s previous year’s winner, to softer slow-tempo ballads with hands on instant intervention enabling “plenty of room for more subtle movement and colour variation” the combination of programmed and hands on control was something new and something exciting.
“All in all it was a successful launch for the QM500-TD to a worldwide audience,” commented company MD at the time, Derek Halliday, with a nicely nuanced degree of understatement.
The original QM500 was genuinely ground-breaking; a two metre long, 180 channel Goliath with two fader banks that could be configured to operate as twin 90-way or one 180-way presets.
It was based on the analogue 80-100 but added a microprocessor, in this case the Motorola 6809, which had enough memory — 64kb — to store 500 states. The resulting show storage for the very earliest models was via standard cassette tape, a system that will be familiar to anyone who came across a Commodore 64 around the same time period, while later models shifted things up a gear with the 3.5in floppy.
One other innovation it introduced was programmability. Indeed, it had to be programmed rather than just busked, which had profound implications for the way that show rehearsals were managed both then and into the future.
A massive 660-channel version was built specially for the Hippodrome nightclub in London, while there was also a theatre desk version designed and built, the QM500-TD, where faders were replaced by a central screen, which proved to be just as influential in its field as the original unit was in the rock lighting space.
The 90s was a challenging decade for the industry, but also a hugely exciting one as a new breed of intelligent lighting products made their way into the Lighting Designer’s toy box. The result was a steady trend of bigger and more spectacular shows that started to hint at the multimedia extravaganzas that were to come.
For Avolites itself it was a time of change too. The company — along with a whole host of other media tech companies, including, Quantel, SLL, and Technicolor — had been bought by a rapidly expanding media company in the late 80s, but the relationship didn’t last and it quickly returned back to private ownership in 1991 following a MBO led by three employees: Richard Salzedo (who is currently Chairman), Steve Warren (currently New Business Director), and Meena Varatharajan (retired Finance Director).
It hasn’t looked back since.
The new intelligent lighting products needed equally intelligent consoles to control them, and during that decade the company introduced new products aimed to do just that, releasing the Rolacue Sapphire, Pearl 2000 (released 1995), Sapphire 2000 (released 1998) and Diamond II/III consoles. These consoles were based on the Motorola 68340 processors combined with a TI Digital Signal Processor which was a new innovation at the time. In 1996 the company updated the FD dimmer, replacing it with the all digital Art 4000.
During the 2000s the dimmer product range was upgraded, resulting in the Art 2000 series of racks; the Art 2000i installation racks and – in the later part of the decade – the PowerCube dimmer/distribution units. In 2001, Avolites launched the Diamond 4 range of control consoles, which was based on an industrial PC motherboard instead of custom-made hardware reliant on Motorola and TI processors.
This was an important inflection point for the company. Although the custom hardware consoles were sold and updated in stages during the 2000s, in common with a lot of other tech companies at the time Avolites decided to pivot towards using off-the-shelf robust industrial design motherboards and communication protocols and standards. Letting go of the proprietary, bespoke electronics was not an easy decision, but the pace of technological change was accelerating to such an extent that there was no way that even medium to large sized enterprises could keep up. For an influential yet still relatively small specialist such as Avolites the choice was simple: hitch up to the technology bandwagon or slide into niche insignificance.
Avolites decided on the former approach and moved software development towards the Windows platform running on industrial grade PC motherboards. This raised some interesting challenges. The Pearl Expert was the first console to utilise the new electronic hardware approach, with the Diamond 4 on the roadmap for soon after. Previously each console had had bespoke software written for each console, writing specific code for propriety designed electronics hardware was time consuming, inflexible, and made iterating the code difficult. So a modular approach was taken with the Pearl Expert featuring an array of USB-connected panels, that ensured it was going to be flexible to adapt and evolve as technology changed, as well as meaning that the software development for the Diamond 4 and subsequent consoles didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
This deliberate switch went on to lead to the birth of the Titan software platform in 2009, with version one switchable between the “classic” Pearl software but running on a PC or the new Titan software. This software-centric approach over a hardware-driven one meant that future innovations and feature development were much faster, while the modular approach allowed for new features to be easily replicated across the console range.
The next major development was the introduction of the Tiger Touch control surface for the Titan software, which added the flexibility of a touchscreen to the normal armoury of physical buttons and faders, giving its users greater functionality and paved the way for a flexible software design and future developments. Indeed, many of the features that have become well known and used throughout the industry, as well as across many other lighting control software platforms, were first introduced in Titan, to name but a few, the Colour Picker, Key Frame Shapes, Quick Sketch, Pixel Mapper, and Scene Master.
A dozen years later, it is still being aggressively developed. Titan v15, which was released early in 2021, includes the highly-anticipated Timeline feature set that essentially allows timecoded shows to be programmed and edited using visually-led tools. This dramatically increases the speed with which users can set up the full range of Avolites lighting and video effects for a project, giving designers more time for creativity and experimentation.
The next 45 years
As befits a company with such a storied history as Avolites, it has absolutely refused to stand still. A move into media servers saw the launch of the ‘Ai’ range, which was used in the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics to perform video mapping across the audience seats, setting an as yet unchallenged Guinness World Record for the largest landscape video display consisting of 634,500 individual light sources.
Meanwhile, reflecting the almost ubiquitous use of video alongside lighting, the pioneering, industry leading Synergy software feature set included as part of Titan, was launched in October 2019, allowing video and lighting to be used as one for the first time by everyone, and not just programming professionals. This was a true Avolites innovation, and demonstrated the company’s continued commitment to fully integrating the visual canvas through one control solution.
And 2021 saw the launch of the new flagship console, the Diamond 9, created in consultation with leading visual and expert industrial designers. Born out of all of the company’s 45 years of experience in control and designed with eyes fixed firmly on the future, the D9’s programming surface features vast screen real-estate in the shape of 11 ultra-bright touch screens, including 3 main workspace screens, 3 for media preview, and specific screens for attribute control and softkey short cuts. The new motorised touch sensitive Penny & Giles faders and new encoders each have their own RGB bar graphs so levels can be monitored at a glance. There’s a return of the backlit integrated keyboard. And perhaps the most interesting side of the D9 though, is the right-hand side with 5 encoder wheels, a T bar for controlling scene masters and a new set of bespoke buttons carefully positioned so that finding them is second nature. All are, of course, seamlessly integrated with the Titan software.
The D9 bridges to the past and is the future. It features updated versions of the sort of physical controls that would have been familiar to most of Lighting Designers that first worked with Avolites equipment in the 1970s, while boasting the sort of advanced capabilities that mean it can sit right in the centre of 2021’s increasingly breathtaking shows; where lights, video and special effects are orchestrated in complete sync with the music and stage performances that drive them.
Where the industry goes next and the degree to which virtual environments will start to impinge on the physical is a matter of some debate. But one thing is certain, Avolites will be at the heart of the most creative shows and the very forefront of lighting design, as it has been for 45 years so far: driving the technology forward and empowering Lighting Designers to create ever greater visual spectaculars.
An old advert from a 1980s magazine for an Avolites QM500 bears the slogan ‘making light work’. It’s about a lot more than that now, it’s about making light and the whole visual canvas dance.