In the current era of commercial dance music, producers and DJs have enjoyed life at the center of the spotlight. But it wasn’t always that way. Before the early millennium aughts, producers took a backseat to pop performers, often relegating themselves to the behind-the-scenes technical work in the studio. They were busy mixing, mastering, and synthesizing the musician’s body of work to perfection as artists enjoyed a front stage life of fame. In turn, the producer’s work would make pop artists more famous and further push them out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
With the “EDM”-boom of 2012, however, that all changed. Now DJs and producers enjoy rock-and-roller status, celebrity levels of fame, and pervasive influence beyond the decks. Little times, though, do audience members and music fanatics pause to reflect on those responsible for creating our beloved dance music artist’s spectacle spotlights.
Nowadays, one particularly vital and often overlooked piece of the live music experience are the lighting designers, creative directors, and stage technicians. Without them, there would be no stage spectacle. Without them, sound would have no visual dimension, and artists would just be performing in a dark room. Lighting is magical—particularly, lighting musical performances is majestic.
Therefore, Conscious Electronic is paying homage to the people behind the booth, the mathematicians and geometrists, the energetic light workers and visible light benders, the movers and shakers of the visual wavelengths. This is an ode to the industry professionals who bring us the 400nm to 700nm dimension—in fully radiant display, full definition, along the full ROYGBIV light spectrum.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are CE‘s Top Ten Lightning Designers in EDM.
Michael Smalley & Gabe Fraboni (PHNTM Labs)
Has worked with: Martin Garrix, Shakira, Alison Wonderland, Pitbull, Bassnectar
Michael Smalley and Gabe Fraboni are names that reverb far and wide across the world of stage production. As award-winning lighting designers (LDs), they’ve worked with just about everyone in the music industry—often switching between Pitbull and Bassnectar to working with Shakira and Martin Garrix simultaneously. But Smalley and Fraboni are so much more than your run-of-the-mill LDs.
“It’s not a bunch of buttons. It’s listening and being open,” Smalley said in an interview with We HOWL. “It’s about an LD opening themselves up to this greater energy and servicing the music industry with as little ego as possible.”
The two are also the brainchilds behind PHNTM LABS, a Los Angeles-based design firm creating immersive, story-driven experiences.
Between the two of them, Smalley and Fraboni have been Creative Directors on huge music videos for Martin Garrix and Alison Wonderland, helped design the Pretty Lights Episodic Tour stages alongside TheLazerShark, and toured the world with the likes of Mariah Carey, Die Antwoord and EDEN.
In the broader festival landscape, Fraboni has designed installations at Day For Night. Smalley has likewise contributed to the stages of HARD Summer and Electric Forest. Show business came naturally for Smalley given how he grew up as a theatre kid, had college scholarships for choir, and describes himself as a Phish head. “Chris Kuroda, the lighting designer for Phish and other artists, has been a huge inspiration for me,” Smalley onced told Samsung Harmon. “When he builds a moment, it’s not just about the cue hitting on time; it’s about the journey as well.”
Before he starts setting up the lights, Smalley says he always closes his eyes, listens to music and imagines what it will look like with lights: “I communicate a lot of intention with the physical focus of the light. Then, color combinations on top of that seal the deal.”
Everyone knows that feeling of transcendence in the live music experience. The lights are so critical to this feeling. It’s as if all the physical senses perfectly sync up to move audiences onto the ethereal, other-wordly planes. When asked how he contributes to this feeling, Smalley told us rather point-blankly, “in all things I do.”
Greg Ellis (TheLazerShark)
Has worked with: Pretty Lights
Words by: Chandler Hyatt.
Greg Ellis, more commonly known as TheLazerShark, has gained quite a lot of popularity and traction after spending many years touring as a part of the Pretty Lights project – more specifically, as the one and only Derek Vincent Smith’s lighting designer.
Ellis opened up in one interview, saying “The Pretty Lights project started really small in 2006 with college parties and small bars. The biggest misconception is that Pretty Lights is named after the stage show. Pretty Lights is Derek’s concept of observing the beauty in life, noticing the little things. His idea was much grander and the stage show just sort of followed suit as his popularity grew.”
Although Ellis falls under the lighting designer title, he does so much more than just that. Geoff Hanson, a writer for the Telluride Daily Planet, said after interviewing Ellis that “He [LazerShark] is responsible for everything that is visual in the show, from stage design to video, lasers to set pieces.” Under Ellis, there’s an eight-man crew that works with the lights and stage production.
On average, it takes about three or four semi trucks to move all of their extensive gear around from place to place. It’s honestly mind-boggling just how much goes into the production, but the hard work so clearly pays off. The amount of time and energy that they spend making sure that these shows are as special as they are doesn’t go unnoticed, and as Pretty Lights gears up for a comeback Ellis will be right back to doing what he does best.
Steve Liberman (SJ Lighting)
Has worked with: EDC, Ultra, Coachella
Words by: Maggie Johnson.
Steve Lieberman, head honcho of SJ Lighting, is a true industry titan. Serving under the official production company for world-renowned festivals like Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Coachella, as well as iconic nightclubs from Miami’s LIV to Las Vegas’ Marquee, Lieberman personally designs more than 70 lighting setups a year.
It wasn’t always that way. Flashback to 1995 in New York, Lieberman would be tearing up the streets via rollerblades, knocking on doors for any type of back-of-house gig he could get his hands on. “I fought really hard to get where I am, nobody handed me anything,” Lieberman said in an interview with Vice. Little did he know, five years later he would sign with EDM giant Insomniac Events, striking the deal that would lead to his eventual empire.
Some of Lieberman’s proudest projects have been for his longtime client Carl Cox, a pioneer of acid house and techno beats. While other artists have more singular tastes (take Knife Party and their affinity for red lights), this British DJ gives Lieberman the creative license to work his magic, as demonstrated in this video:
Alexander Hesse (Fagerhult)
Has worked with: Swedish House Mafia, Kygo
From small underground warehouse techno shows to touring with Kygo, Alexander Hesse has had creative endeavors that both surprise and inspire. After starting off 2020 with assisting in the stage design performances at Disney World to designing lighting systems for names like Eric Prydz and Swedish House Mafia, Hesse has truly brought forth his creative dreams to fruition. Now serving as a media manager at A Light Productions, Hesse assists artists everyone across the dance music world knows and loves with taking their productions to the next level across the globe.
While oftentimes the main focus is on the artists touring during these events, the production requires extensive planning and coordination across all facets of the industry. Hesse gives us a glimpse into the creative process that goes on behind the scenes before preparing a production of this calibre:
Most well known for his artistry on Kygo’s Cloud-Nine world tour, Hesse explains the technicalities of what goes into producing such a high quality, never-before-seen lighting production.
“I had 188 GLP fixtures to work with, so the trick was to outline the trusses with LED panels on them,” explains Hesse.
The fixtures were divided across eight screens known as “trusses”— all equipped with X4 S and LED panels. The fixtures were set to provide a smooth and beautiful viewing experience with an up-close-and-personal view of what Kygo was doing on stage.
All the fixtures were programmed by Hesse himself. “Having so many fixtures I could use them both for stage lights or crowd highlighting. I had a lot of options and the dynamic feel worked very well,” he stated.
Ian Davis (Voyage Productions)
Has worked with: GRiZ, Jack Ü, ODESZA, Will Smith
Most sets aren’t complete without an incredible display of lasers, visuals, and synced lights at varying speeds and planes that can seem out of grasp to the average human. In spite of how unbelievable some live production appears, it’s all very real and very intricately designed by passionate, technologically savvy artists. One of those talents is Ian Davis, an employee of Voyage Productions who’s landed time working with many of the best musicians in the electronic sphere.
The Denver, Colorado based creator has been working on well-known productions for over a decade. He’s hit major festivals like Spring Awakening, Sonic Bloom, and North Coast as well as doing individual projects for artists ranging from Skrillex to Bassnectar to Diplo. After attending art school in Chicago, he went on to do video design and visual jockeying for several years before graduating to where he is today: as Lighting and Video Designer for fan-favorite funk/bass artist GRiZ.
Davis and GRiZ have been paired up for over eight years, growing immensely together throughout the scene. Anyone who’s attended a GRiZ show can attest to the spectacular and flawless designs in his visuals and lights, and how well they often complement each other. In the past, GRiZ was more dubstep heavy, and Davis used less LED screens with a focus on dominating light fixtures. More recently, though, GRiZ’s sound is known for being psychedelic, positive, and highly upbeat. and Davis evolved right alongside him by playing into this vibe with bright, high contrast colors and specialized features like LED bars. GRiZ has been on a steep uphill climb for years. And everywhere he goes, Ian Davis is with him: quietly making madness and bringing those trippy visions into reality.
To achieve the dynamic look for GRIZMAS II, Davis created an asymmetrical design that included 90 LED Tiles and 60 LightSlices. “Grant [GRiZ] loves the asymmetrical design, as it is not the norm. He is tired of the typical designs with a big video wall and a bunch of light,” Ian Davis explained to Live Design.
GRiZ’s inspiration for the set was to create a completely new experience to ensure that fans would get a show never seen before. “He [Grant] wants his audience to enjoy new and creative things…a work of art, not just a concert,” continued Davis.
Davis has also worked with Bassnectar’s NYE 360 event, Jack Ü, Big Wild, ODESZA, and more commercially mainstream acts like Will Smith and The Revivalists. He’s been a force-to-be-reckoned in the music industry, which is why Davis cracks our Top Ten.
Has worked with: Zomboy, Louis The Child, Anjunabeats, Dillon Francis, Alan Walker
No show is complete without a colorful array of lighting and lasers. Some might even argue that a set’s visual components are as important as the music being played. That’s what Christian Jackson would have you believe in his online video tutorials, where he routinely uploads media to YouTube for others to learn production techniques, troubleshooting issues, and more. One might even call him an “influencer” given how he has upwards of 94K YouTube subscribers and his videos have hundreds of thousands of likes.
Christian Jackson is a lighting designer and programmer based out of Seattle, Washington. Widely respected across the dance music industry, Jackson’s passion and commitment to his practice shines through above all else. He’s dedicated his life to carving out a space for himself on the production side of the industry.
As an LD, Jackson has worked with many big-name artists like Zomboy, Alan Walker, and Louis The Child, including their sold-out 2019 Red Rocks show. As a professional world traveler, he’s even helped in designing the main stage for the 2018 MIA Festival in Shanghai. Jackson goes at length during his time in China in the below video tutorial
(Rare Life Design)
Has worked with: Excision
Christopher Pekar, owner of Rare Life Design and member of The Hauss Collective, is the wizard behind the lazers and lighting for Excision. Chris grew up in the Chicago concert scene, starting as a technician at 13 and working his way up to becoming one of the top professionals in lighting design and programming based out of Los Angeles.
He has been the lead lighting designer for Excision since 2015, including the Paradox tour that took America by storm, as well as several festivals. In 2017 he designed and operated Die Antwoord’s world tour and in 2018 led Snails Shell 2.0 tour. From earth-shattering dubstep to freaky hip hop, it’s safe to say his range of experience for putting on a top tier lighting show is unmatched.
Has worked with: Eric Prydz HOLO, The Chainsmokers, deadmau5
Ross Chapple is one of the top lighting and production designers in the electronic music industry. He worked with artists like Eric Prydz, The Chainsmokers, and deadmau5. A visionary at heart, Ross Chapple’s concepts go beyond being a simple lightning designer. His ideas combine creative direction, visual development, and multidisciplinary design.
His most impressive and ambitious project to date is the work for Eric Prydz’s show EPIC v6.0 Holosphere, where the artist performs inside a sphere made of thousands of LED’s that hovers over the crowd in a true display of awe. It’s paired with animations and holographic projections as well–all reacting to the music in real time.
In one article, Chapple spoke briefly about his process:
Once we had come up with the Holosphere as the central show concept, it was my responsibility to work out how we would light Eric as he performed. My design aimed to emphasise the form of the sphere and give it some spread into the arena, bringing extra energy and big motion right out into the audience.”
Chapple lets his work speak for itself, with his website featuring little other than an impressive résumé of photos.
Tyler Ellis (Singingwithlights)
Has worked with: Chance The Rapper, Gramatik, Summer Camp, Space Jesus, Snails
When lighting designer Tyler Ellis, AKA Singingwithlights, steps behind his desk, you’ll want to have an extra pair of socks handy. Because he will literally melt you into your shoes with his orchestra of lasers and paralyzing light shows. While he is most appreciated for his live skills with the GrandMA2 console, Ellis is one capable lighting designer, with experience in live music production, concert touring, theater process, video playback, interactive technology, and even equipment repair. Because who knows when a crowd-surfing fan might break a light on tour? When you’re doing shows with the likes of Snails, Space Jesus, and Gramatik, that incident might happen more often than not.
But times haven’t always been so high-octane for this LD, as Ellis got his start lighting musicals and smaller concerts at the Glenbrook South Variety Show at a high school in Glenview, Illinois.
“Glenbrook Souths’ Variety Show Heros was my first major show behind a moving light desk, programming and operating the show run,” He says on his website. “I learned many of the core skills I use daily as an operator today here, working with the fine arts professionals to realize a show compiled of dozens of acts.”
But Ellis has certainly graduated from Glenbrook, as the past decade has seen him grow his craft at festivals like Summer Camp and Electric Forest while also touring with Gramatik twice and Space Jesus several times.
Singingwithlights’ work at lighting company Intelligent Lighting Creations also helped him grow his familiarity with lighting rigs and let him get his hands on the latest technology. It’s a day job that recently afforded him a particularly interesting opportunity–one in the form of 32 rotating LED lights.
Along with longtime friend and collaborator, James Gately, who he met standing behind the lighting booth at an Umphrey’s McGee concert, the two began constructing and programming this magnificent eye. Using B-EYE K20 lights from Clay Paky, the pixel mapping feature in the GrandMA2 system, and the Resolume software, they were able to bring this incredible rig to life.
Despite the effort that was put into this passion project, it seems as if it was just that: a pursuit of self-pleasure. Just a couple of lighting designers who got bored and wanted to play with some toys in an empty warehouse. Now, only ILC, Tyler Ellis, and James Gately knew what happened to the giant eye of Sauron lighting rig. Only time will tell where fans will see this incredible display next.
Mike Morgensen (Quantum FX)
Has worked with: CloZee, SunSquabi, GETTER, Jauz, Migos, Thriftworks
Morgensen has been a champion of CloZee’s online fan community. In the Facebook group, CloZee’s Tribe, he is often applauded for his amazing lighting displays. Over quarantine alone, Morgensen designed CloZee’s many, many live streamed stages—from her Wormhole Wednesdays and Knew Conscious performances, to her stunning LiB DGTL appearance, and most recently, her fusion ShambaROO set.
As Morgensen looks to the future, he continues to work full-time for CloZee at her many recent drive-in shows and her infamous four-night runs at Mishawaka Amphitheatre in the mountains of Colorado. He is also the owner of Denver lighting and special FX company, Quantum FX, formerly City Boy Lasers, where he has become known for his perfectly geometrical laser shows that pop and please to no end. He’s been a true lighting up-and-comer and tour-de-force lately, which is why Morgensen cracks our Top Ten.