World Series Wireless

by Aron Altmark

The RC4Magic Series 3 family of productsTaking a close look at RC4 Wireless's new RC4Magic Series 3 line of wireless dimming and control products

When I first looked at the various items in the package from RC4 Wireless, I was unsure how groundbreaking this system would be beyond providing miniscule applications of wireless data and dimming. However, within minutes of watching the start-up tutorial videos, I realized that this product would be much more than that. The modern RC4 system is a highly-configurable, multi-functional, powerful set of tools that electricians, scenic/lighting/props designers and multimedia artists should definitely take note of. 

The RC4Magic Series 3 system I received for review included the RC4MagicPC dongle, Series 3 DMXio Wireless Transceiver, Series 3 DMX2dim, DMX4dim, DMX2micro, and DMXi2c. This set of tools gave me three different transceivers, a four-channel wireless dimmer, and two different-sized two-channel wireless dimmers for various purposes. The dimmers can receive wireless DMX and drive DC-current powered lamps, LEDs, etc., ranging from 6V to 35VDC. 

The entire system utilizes the common 2.4Ghz ISL radio band , and the transmitter chooses which channel in the wireless spectrum to use upon boot-up, scanning to find the least-trafficked frequencies to avoid interference. The RC4 system also sets itself apart from other products by utilizing Private IDs for each end-user system sold. Each device is given three unique hexadecimal ID strings. (The three IDs also give you the ability to use these IDs for three different universes of DMX.) These unique IDs mean the devices don’t respond to signals that aren’t specifically addressed to it. 

I set several scenarios to simulate how the gear would be used generally. In the first, I hooked the transmitter to my lighting console, one receiver (DMX4dim) sending data output to dimmer rack, other receivers (DMX2dim, DMX2micro) acting as receiver data nodes for LED wash lights. This was to simulate a one-off gig situation where there’s no time or room for unsightly cable runs or a lengthy home run from console to fixtures. In the second setup I kept the transmitter hooked up to a lighting console, used DMX4dim to run DMX LED tape and had the DMX2dim running some MR16s. This was to simulate a theatrical setup where wireless data is needed for battery-controlled props and scenic/costume lighting. In my third scenario I wanted to simulate a multi-room interactive media experience where versatility and minimal footprint is key. I used a DMX node (MA onPC Pro node) to send data to receiver units placed in various places across a multi-room venue, with some doorways and walls in between (no brick or cinder block, just hollow walls with studs). LED tape, dimmable LED lamps and MR16s were hooked to each receiver, with additional LED wash lights and a few GLP Impression wash moving lights daisy-chained out of the receivers as well. 

I wanted to test just how robust the wireless was, so I set it up in an environment that used a wi-fi system known to actively flood foreign wireless networks with packets to shut them down. Despite the best attempts of the system I had zero issues with lag or interference while using the RC4 Wireless system. 

I also had zero issues with drop-outs. RC4 touts that as long as you are working within the confines of 250-foot point-to-point distances between your transmitters and receivers, you will not have any issues with drop-outs. This was my experience, and I was impressed by the ability of the receivers to maintain signal through walls and doors—especially since the transceiver is the only box with an actual external antenna. (The tiny receivers have built-in antennae.) Dimming and DMX transmission rates were excellent, without any hiccups or noticeable flickering even while moving the pieces between rooms. 

 

But There’s More… 

RC4MagicPC software (Windows only) really unlocks the power of the system, though, allowing complete configuration of user ID’s, dimmer curves, channel assignments, LED frequency and virtual DMX control—to name just a few of the tweaks you can make. To do this, you plug the RC4 MagicPC dongle into your USB port and start the software. From the program you can access any of your RC4 devices. I found the initial setup and discovery process to be a bit complicated, though, and reading the start-up tutorials is highly recommended to avoid confusion. 

Once the system is configured and running, operation was seamless. I was able to access and configure each piece of my Series 3 with a variety of dimmer curves to change the desired look of my fixtures. This is a great feature, since it meant my LED sources could be curved at the dimmer to closely match the look of incandescent sources. From the RC4MagicPC software, the PWM frequency of the dimming outputs can even be changed to provide ultra-smooth and flicker-free dimming for LED tape or lamps. Another feature available through the PC software is HSL matching of different LED products. You can set a white point for each dimmer, which will then curve each source appropriately to match, something crucial in the modern day world of LEDs which often need little adjustments to truly match colors. In fact, RC4’s HSL curving provided some of the smoothest LED dimming I have ever seen, both in person and on-camera. The ability to change PWM of the dimmers enables interfacing of LED products for film and TV environments, where absence of on-camera flicker is critical.

But even without using the PC software, you can still configure the RC4 equipment via tiny buttons on the units themselves. A paperclip will be your best friend here—much more helpful than the Microsoft Office paperclip of old, but at times equally frustrating when it comes to clicking tiny buttons. Dimmer channels and curves can be assigned by pressing one of the dimmer buttons on a unit and bringing up the desired channel on your lighting board. This is called RC4 OneTouch and it is a very easy feature to get things up and running quickly. Selecting various modes, like HSL mentioned above, can also be assigned in this same manner by using a combination of the function and dimmer buttons. The devices’ private IDs are also set upon boot by using the paperclip method and reading the start-up sequence of the LEDs. 

Another cool feature of all the units is that any of the units can also send or receive hard-line DMX by using stereo-plug to 5-pin DMX adapters from RC4, giving you multiple ways to get small runs of DMX to odd positions if needed.

I did have some usability issues with the system—at times my PC would not connect with the devices through multiple restarts; the initial start-up and configuration was somewhat confusing due to so many options; and the use of paperclips for setting devices at times left me wishing for another set of hands. A Mac version of the PC app would be great too, although BootCamp works just fine. 

But despite these difficulties, once the system is up and running, it is virtually seamless and very easy to use. The tutorial videos and manual that RC4 has put together are an excellent resource in getting to know the product, and are crucial to getting the full power out of the system. But once you do, your imagination can take over. Over the course of my time with the RC4 system, I continued to dream up more and more scenarios where I could spec such a system: dimmable, controllable EL wire built into costumes for dancers; flying scenery and props that can run complex chases and reliably work untethered; interactive large-scale multimedia installations spanning tens of thousands of square feet all tied together by DMX. The DMX2microand DMXi2c allow integration of wireless DMX and dimming into tiny handheld props, and work with processors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, where it’s traditionally been too difficult or expensive. The stereo to DMX adapters allow these to also pass DMX data to other devices. I’ll definitely be playing with these in the future on some of my multimedia and interactive art explorations.