Zero 88 have long been a manufacturer of lighting control equipment, they have a huge market in the education sector, and for many people a Zero 88 product will have been their first experience of a lighting desk. For me personally I started on a very old 2 preset desk with just 6 faders per preset, I have no idea who made it, but it was very basic. However, my first taste of a memory desk was the Zero 88 Sirius 24, and being entrusted with the key was the greatest honour I could have imagined then!
Since those early days I’ve gone on to use consoles from various manufacturers, including the Strand 500 range, Jands desks the ETC Eos/Ion, ChamSys as well as PC based solutions like Cuelux to name just a few! One thing I’ve always used throughout the years though is a Zero 88 console in one form or another. Whether that be a Sirius 24/48, Sirius 250, Fat Frog, Leap Frog 48/Solution, or Jester.
One thing that has consistently impressed me with Zero 88 is their support, I’ve always found them exceptional. Currently Jon Hole and Keith Rogers and before that Peter Kirkup were and are a true credit to the company, they answer emails and phone calls at all hours of the day and any day of the week.
The last console to come out of Cwmbran (however you pronounce that) was the Orb XF, a revision to their flagship desk the Orb which released back in 2010. They did release the Solution/XL more recently, but that was just a re-branding of the Leap Frog 48/96 which are positively ancient now! Therefore the FLX is a very exciting release and shows a renewed interest in the development of ZerOS and the Zero 88 brand in general.
My first impression of the FLX was the excellent build quality and the premium look and feel of the product. While the packaging was underwhelming being shipped in a plain brown box, once I got my hands on it everything seemed to ooze quality. This can’t really be said for other desks from Zero 88 in the past. While they have always produced very reliable hardware, the parts used have often prioritised function over form.
On the FLX, everything looks nice and has a “premium” feel, the faders are smooth and offer a nice amount of resistance and the keypad has a good clicky response. The chassis is made of metal, but is incredibly light. It should offer a good amount of protection to the internals and the slight texture on the front panel looks very classy. Gone are the days of the bright green colour scheme!
Let’s briefly take a look at the FLXs specifications before we take a deeper look at the console. It’s a 2048 channel desk with two universes of DMX output from two 5-pin Neutrik XLR connectors on the back and 4 universes over Ethernet using Art-Net or sACN. There are no fixture or patch limitations, a really nice feature for a desk at this price. It features 241 playbacks via the 24 multi functional faders, these are accessed via 10 virtual pages to give you 240, the last master playback is on its own dedicated fader. It features a built-in 7″ capacitive multi-touch screen along with 4 encoder wheels/buttons. There are 4 User Definable Keys (UDKs) as well as what for me is the greatest asset this desk has which is the syntax keys for command line operation.
The desk itself will support 10,000 cues, it has 960 palettes shared equally between Colour, Beam, Shape and Position along with up to 240 effect palettes, 240 groups and 240 macros. It also features colour pickers, auto palettes, gobo previews, move while dark and will operate in tracking or non-tracking mode. There are other extras too, it supports one external monitor which can also be touch enabled via a DVI-D & USB connection, there are also Midi In & Thru connections as well as a 1/4″ jack for sound to light operation.
The FLX runs ZerOS which is the same operating system used by Zero 88 on the Solution/XL and Orb range. ZerOS itself is certainly no spring chicken, it’s been around a long time now and in some ways is showing its age, however on the FLX is does seem to have found a new lease of life. I’m not sure what it is, but it all just looks nicer and cleaner. I know it’s the same OS on the Orb and Solution, but there’s just something about the FLX version that I can’t put my finger on! Perhaps it’s just something as simple as a higher resolution, or the faster response times.
It’s perhaps not quite up to the standards of Eos with their magic sheets and tombstone design, or some of the other high desk manufacturers. ZerOS is still more reliant on text and Ascii than a more aesthetically pleasing graphical representation than I’d like. However, it’s functional and all the information you need is available.
It’s worth noting that this version of ZerOS has been completely rewritten for the new hardware platform that the FLX runs on. Under the hood they are using an ARM processor together with Fe-RAM which is a non-volatile RAM as opposed to a more generic DRAM. This offers lower power consumption and faster write performance along with a far more write/erase cycles. As a result the desk is faster than any of its predecessors and totally silent in operation as it features passive cooling with no fans!
So far so good, it’s ticking all the right boxes, you should all go and buy one tomorrow right? Well yes… and no. You see, the FLX seems to be following the new (and worrying) trend of release it now and fix it later. Essentially what you have if you do go out and buy this desk tomorrow is a beta product! Some of the features are a bit broken, some don’t work at all and other areas are still in need of a lot of work. Look at the picture to the right. This is what you see if you press the “Shape” button, I don’t know what it’s supposed to do, but whatever it is, it’s “coming soon”.
Some of the other features missing in action are blind mode, “go to cue”, flash button for playbacks, inhibits and various other niggles like setting cue timings, copying cues and auto-follows. If you take a look on the Zero 88 forum you’ll see what the users are asking for.
This might be alleviated somewhat if it weren’t for the complete lack of a manual, you get a very brief “quick start” guide, but that’s it. You’re pretty much left to fend for yourself from that point. If you have some previous experience with a ZerOS console then you’ll pick up most of the operations fairly quickly. But even for the seasoned pro there will be a few gotchas where things have changed subtly.
What’s more worrying is that the firmware that ships with the console is prone to crashing! You won’t want to run it on a production in its current state. There is a beta version of the new firmware available on the Zero 88 website, but again, do you really want to be running beta firmware? I know I wouldn’t trust it.
To give credit where it’s due, Zero 88 are reacting quickly to bug reports and requests for features, and as I mentioned earlier, their support is outstanding. Personally I have every faith that Zero 88 will address all the issues and develop an excellent product over the next few months. But can you afford to take the risk when there are alternatives out there that already have a proven track record?
Let’s forget that for a moment though and concentrate instead on some of the encouraging things. I’ve already covered the hardware so let’s take a look at some of the new features of ZerOS. The first is the colour picker, there’s the familiar colour picker and gel libraries you’ll have seen on other desks, but the FLX features a few slightly different methods too. There’s the Colour mixer, which offers virtual faders on the touch screen for RGB, CMY and HSV values. You can move any one of the 9 faders and the others all react accordingly with your chosen colour shown at the top right of the display. There are also “Mood Boards” by Lee Filters which give you suggested colours based on a certain mood, be it sad, hot or excited etc.. This is perhaps not a feature many professional lighting designers will find themselves using, but it is great for someone who is learning the art.
Finally there is my personal favourite, and that’s the image picker. Using the USB port and a memory stick, you can load an image on to the desk and use the picture to select your colour. This is fantastic if you do corporate functions because you can easily load a company’s logo into the desk and get their corporate colours into your fixtures quickly and easily! What’s more, using the multi-touch screen you can even select a range of fixtures and spread the colours across them by selecting various points on the image.
Another feature that I think is exclusive to the FLX is the “stage sizing” which allows you to take a picture of your stage and load this on the console via USB. Once this is done, you use your “Beam” page to calibrate your moving lights to the four corners of your stage. Once you have set these 4 positions you can then select a fixture and tap anywhere on the image of your stage to send the light to that location. For example, this could be useful when lighting a band and you want to send all (or some) of your fixtures to the drummer. You can just select the lights and tap on the drummer in the picture. If you wanted, you could then record that quickly as a new position palette.
One of the areas I thought this desk stood out, was the inclusion of a keypad for command line operation. If you ever tried to use the command line on a Leap Frog console you’ll know just how frustrating it was and probably never tried a second time. The FLX gives you a keypad with access to the most commonly used commands. There are keys for ‘Record’, ‘Update’, ‘Name’, ‘Delete’ and ‘Copy’. There are also the regular numeric keys with the addition of ‘And’, ‘Except’, ‘Thru’, ‘Group’, ‘@’, ‘Clear’ and ‘Enter’. The command line interface is very intuitive and you can type commands such as “1 Thru 10 Except 8 @ 70 Enter”. One thing the command line lacks which was very good on the Orb when learning is the “suggested command” feature. It showed you what commands you could use next which really helped you get to grips with a command line interface. This made it perfect for the education market where students are able to learn by themselves just by playing with the command line to see what’s possible. It’s a shame this hasn’t been implemented on the FLX.
There are also several omissions from the key pad. Presumably this was a deliberate design decision to give the Orb XF a place in the market still. This is understandable, but some of the omissions are quite painful. For instance, there is no ‘Time’ button, so changing the default time of a cue means having to navigate the cue stack on the screen. There’s also no ‘Cue’ button so there’s no way to enter a cue number directly, again you have to navigate your cue stack. Some of the other buttons are available to put on the 4 UDKs, but given there are only four of them (and you can’t label them) it’s tricky to use them. It should be noted you can also use the ‘Shift’ key on the UDKs to double up. For example UDK 1 could be ‘Park’ and ‘Shift’ UDK 1 set to ‘Unpark’.
There’s usually a way to achieve all these functions, it’s just a bit more long-winded and requires more thought.
While I’m on the subject of things missing, there are a few features the FLX doesn’t have which have almost certainly been omitted on the grounds of cost, but would have been nice to see none the less. There are no LCD scribble strips on the playback faders which is a real shame. With 10 pages giving 240 playbacks, you’ll go insane trying to keep track of where everything is. It would have been lovely to see motorised faders too so you could hop between pages and have your faders keep track of where they were. The other thing I’d have loved to see is a backlit keyboard, so many desks lack this feature and it makes such a huge difference for plotting when you don’t need to have a light shining on the desk. These are things that I hope we might see in a future revision and the fact they aren’t included is clearly to keep costs down so they can be forgiven. However, these extras could have really made the FLX stand out from the crowd! To be honest, I would have been happy to see the desk cost a bit more to have these extras, but I imagine Zero 88 were worried about pricing it too close to the Orb XF.
In summary, can the FLX step out of the shadows, until now Zero 88 have mainly been consigned to the education market and small venues on a tight budget. There’s nothing wrong with that, and they’ve filled that gap in the market admirably over the years. The question is, can the FLX be a killer console and take on the might of ETC, Avolites and GrandMA? Is it the X32 of the lighting world? A relatively cheap offering that can do it all and more?
Well in its current state sadly the answer is no. But don’t count it out just yet, it certainly has the potential to be a big player. The truth is, the launch of the console has come too soon, they should have developed it in-house for another six months and then hit us with a finished product. I hope this early release doesn’t do any long-term damage to the console, it really is a great bit of kit. The time I’ve spent with it so far has generally been very positive and I’m excited to see what the future holds for the FLX. It just needs a few issues ironing out and a bit of spit and polish applied.
Essentially what I’m saying is don’t buy it yet. Wait for ZerOS to get a few updates and then take a serious look in a few months. I think you might be pleasantly surprised with what you find!