All In Time: Timecoded Lighting Programming for Umphrey’s McGee

Ben Factor, Contributing Writer and Lighting Director for Umphrey’s McGee

Just about every mainstream pop, country, hip-hop, or rock show is linked to backing tracks or a click track in some fashion.

From a live production standpoint, one of the biggest advantages this provides is the ability to accurately sync the lighting to the backing track. Complicated cues that no human could make happen in real-time can be pulled off with serious precision. This approach is called timecode.

For those that are not familiar with this approach: the computer handling the musical backing tracks (the playback station) sends an additional audio signal, the timecode, to the lighting console, letting it know where in time the song currently is. Once the playback station hits play, the lighting console is prompted to start and runs on its own for the duration of the song.

Essentially, lighting designers who are operating timecoded shows can do the whole thing without touching a button, depending on how detailed the programming is. Given the improv-heavy nature of each Umphrey’s McGee show and the fact that they don’t play to click tracks, I cannot pull off this style of lighting. Everything I do is in real-time along with the band - I am truly jammin’ with them.

Occasionally the band will start the show by walking on stage to a prerecorded track playing over the PA. Gradually, each member plays over it until the full band is hitting, and Chris Mitchell (UM front-of-house audio engineer) fades the track out. The intros create awesome drama and dynamic build. When I learned that the band would be recording an entire album of these intros, an opportunity to program timecoded lighting arose.

“Leave Me Las Vegas” is the first single released from the forthcoming album, YOU WALKED UP SHAKING IN YOUR BOOTS BUT YOU STOOD TALL AND LEFT A RAGING BULL. To plan most shows, I import our lighting rig into a virtual 3D space which allows me to visualize how everything will look in real life. This is a really helpful tool for creativity, pre-programming for festivals and bigger shows, as well as timecoded shows. Below is the programming I did the week leading up to this weekend’s shows in Pontiac, Michigan. A few of the effects on the K20 B Eyes don’t really work in the visualizer, but it gets the point across.

It was surreal to watch the programming execute without having to touch a button. While the side washes pulsing in white with every snare hit turned out real sexy, things got a little messy once the full band was in. Brendan [Bayliss, guitars and vocals] played the whole-tone riff in 5/4 against the rest of the band, which was playing in 4/4. This timing was the biggest challenge to making timecode work in a live show. In fact, it was the first time timecode has been used at an Umphrey’s McGee show.

Umphrey's McGee: "Leave Me Las Vegas"

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A fun fact about this specific intro: The lighting rending for the 2021 version of “Leave Me Las Vegas” is now the Spotify canvas for the song.

I am looking forward to diving in even deeper with these intros. There’s bound to be some really cool stuff on the way with bigger rigs and indoor venues. Can’t wait to see how they turn out!

Ben Factor is the lighting director for Umphrey’s McGee. He explores the ever-changing relationship between technology and music through his work. While operating the show, Ben leans on his background as a musician to help ensure the lighting is as tasteful and dynamic as the music on stage. He is based in NYC.

About Umphrey’s McGee
The music of Umphrey’s McGee unfolds like an unpredictable conversation between longtime friends. Its six participants—Brendan Bayliss [guitar, vocals], Jake Cinninger [guitar, vocals], Joel Cummins [keyboards, piano, vocals], Andy Farag [percussion], Kris Myers [drums, vocals], and Ryan Stasik [bass]—know just how to communicate with each other on stage and in the studio. A call of progressive guitar wizardry might elicit a response of soft acoustic balladry, or a funk groove could be answered by explosive percussion. At any moment, heavy guitars can give way to heavier blues as the boys uncover the elusive nexus between jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity and airtight songcraft.

Umphrey’s McGee is a touring powerhouse, performing 85+ shows per year, headlining annual shows across the US including Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado and the Beacon Theatre in New York. Umphrey’s is a constant US festival staple, with performances at major events including Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Rothbury, and Bonnaroo, as well as international festivals Fuji Rock Festival (Japan) and Byron Bay Blues Festival (Australia). The band hosts their own festival in Illinois, Summer Camp Music Festival, where they perform three nights and have hosted the likes of Primus, Jane’s Addiction, Thievery Corporation, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. Umphrey’s McGee has also hosted and headlined Jam in the Dam (2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010), a three-night mini-festival at the Melkweg in Amsterdam.

Video Captured by TourGigs
Photo by Tara Gracer