Product Reviews

Drafty Interview – part 2

Welcome back to the second installation of my interview with Lucas Krech, one of the creators of Drafty, a new online CAD application. If you haven’t read Part One, you can do so by clicking here.


 

4. I notice that the program is delivered as a web app through your web browser. Why did you take that route?

Ease of deployment.

Our first paid customer was the Technical Design program at Bath-Spa University in the UK. We were still in Beta and had a ton of bugs. Being web-based we could see errors appear on our server logs and analyze the problem in real time. Fix the problem in real time. Deploy a software patch to our servers that the browser picks up automatically in real time. And then watch the errors disappear from the logs as each work station grabbed the new code. All in real time. 20 plus users every Tuesday working hard with Drafty for like two hours. It was amazing.

There are also a ton of ancillary benefits. Imagine your fancy computer crashes the day before you are about to go on tour with a ballet company (happened to me once). Or worse you are on tour and have no time to get to a store. Currently you are out at least a $1000 on hardware and better hope your software works with the current OS or you may be out thousands there too. With Drafty you just grab any old laptop, open an Incognito window in Chrome to keep all your info private, and keep drafting. Also, because it leverages the web you don’t need to pay for those top end graphics cards to support the 3D engine you are never going to use anyhow. So Drafty works as well on a $400 laptop from Best Buy as it does on a fully tricked out MacPro Tower. Just another way we can save our users a few dollars.

Also cloud sharing. All the Google Drive file sharing tools work for Drafty. Make a pre-plot and share with your assistant to finish off the data entry. Share the plot with your electricians and let them enter all the dimming and circuit information. No more “Passing the football.” You just work.

dancingLights

5. Is there a mobile app for Drafty?

It is on our development list but currently you need a laptop or desktop. That computer can work on or off-line and Drafty syncs to the cloud as soon as it has an internet connection again.

6. I know that the program is still quite new. Do you have any ”big names” using it yet?

Richard Pilbrow. I met him at USITT this year. He’s a real advocate for new technology which is wonderful to have in a field so reliant on technological advancements. When we met, he seemed almost more excited to meet me than I was to meet him. “You’re Lucas who made Drafty? Brilliant!” His enthusiasm is so infectious I forgot to be nervous.

He really put us to the test. The largest file I had tested with Drafty before he got on board was in the 400-450 unit range. He was putting out a plot well over 600 units. We added a bunch of symbols for him too. The Robert Juliat 700 Series? You can thank Richard for wanting those.
7. How does the program deal with generating paperwork? I know it creates lighting paperwork, but are there other applications for sound or video?

Our Signal Flow tool is getting a fair bit of attention. Simple drag and drop interface for doing all your signal routing diagrams. We have a rack builder on deck but it may be a couple months yet to really get it right.

We just partnered with Sam Kusnetz of Team Sound NYC, makers of Go Box for QLab, to deliver high-quality real-world accurate speaker symbols available as an in-app purchase in Drafty. Those ought to go live very soon.

teamsoundpr-01.png

A few examples of the Team Sound-generated speaker symbols

We will be deploying a Screen tool for Projector calculations with our next revision at the end of May. Again, simple drag and drop to resize your screen and move the screen and Projector independently with a real time readout of the minimum lens necessary.

We have a one-click Hook-Up generator for lighting that outputs a pre-formatted Channel Hookup and Instrument Schedule. On our development list is a similar set of paperwork for Audio. I hope to see it live some time this summer. We have a long list and a small team.

The application is in very active development. We are on a monthly revision cycle and try to provide a solid combination of performance enhancements and feature additions with each release. Sound and video design paperwork tools in general are not as sophisticated as what lighting designers have available to them. We are actively closing that gap.

8. What is process like to transfer work from another CAD program?
You can import PDF currently. Most CAD programs have some kind of ‘viewer’ tool that will let you format the native file into a proper PDF to draft a plot.
DXF I/O is on the list. But honestly redrawing a plot is probably your best bet because it really is that fast. Chances are you would spend more time on cleanup of an old file than just drafting it new. There’s a learning curve as with any piece of software but it’s a shorter curve with Drafty than most other graphics programs, and once you get the swing of it, making a lightplot is at least 3-6 times as fast as other CAD programs.

Tools of the Trade: Drafty (part 1)

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 1.28.30 PM

Drafting has always been one of those important catch all skills that is important to people in a wide range of design / tech jobs in the entertainment industry. Lighting designers, scenic designers, technical directors, props artists, even sound guys will all have to generate some type of mechanical draftings at some point in their careers. Traditionally speaking, this meant hours spent hunched over a drafting table with a T-square, triangles, pencils, and high threshold for pain and frustration. With computers becoming a ubiquitous tool in every design studio, most designers these days have left behind their drafting boards and traded them in for some type of a CAD (computer aided drafting) solution. While there have been dozens of programs over the years to offer a digital replacement for hand drafting, in the entertainment industry the two most commonly used programs are AutoCAD by Autodesk and Vectorworks made by Nemetschek. Both of these programs are robust, powerful CAD solutions that offer 3D rendering capabilities and a wide range of add-ons for just about every use one could imagine. Not surprisingly, both of these applications are as expensive – in the thousands of dollars – as their options are extensive .

Recently, a newcomer to the field called Drafty is challenging the notion that a CAD solution has to be either bulky or costly. The Drafty model is to offer a computerized drafting solution that feels like as much like the old pencil and paper model as possible. I recently sat down for a chat with Lucas Krech, one of the creators of the software, to chat a bit about their program and what makes it unique. The following questions are the first half of that interview.


1. If you had to sum up Drafty in an elevator pitch, what would you say?

 Drafty brings the ease of hand-drafting and the precision of CAD to the 21st century mobile designer living in the cloud… Is this your floor?

layers

2. What are the origins of the program?

I used MiniCAD and then its rebranded Vectorworks incarnation, becoming a power user up to and including having my 3D drafting featured in several getting started guides. I remember the excitement when they came out with their ‘Spotlight’ module as it appeared they were giving real attention to theatrical designers. Sadly, it turned out that despite the additional cost of those tools you still needed to spend hundreds of dollars on 3rd party plug-ins just to make it mostly work. And it was still slower than drafting by hand a lot of the time. Certainly for beam sections and layouts.

Plus the cost of the software is just unreasonable for a theatrical designer. It is priced for their core market of architects who make hefty 6-figure salaries. And I can respect that. But, I’ll tell you a secret, I’ve never made 6 figures with my design work. I know people regularly working on Broadway who don’t. So how can I justify paying for software aimed at that market? I can’t. We did it because there were no other viable options. But I wanted to see a good, dependable tool for the hardworking artists out there who may be taking gigs for $500 or $1,000 dollars. Or less! You shouldn’t have to work hard for two months creating art to barely afford a tool that you then need to rebuy in a year or two because they don’t do patches for OS upgrades.

I’ve also done some teaching and seen really bright, intelligent students with an affinity for light become blocked when presented with traditional CAD programs. I wanted to remove that barrier. I wanted it to be easier to draw a light and a pipe and have them intuitively relate to each other in a way a novice could understand.

Further, in a real world scenario I would use, as a power user, maybe 10% of the tools. If I only need 10% of the tools why not make a program that has the 10% I actually need, is built from the ground up to make a plot, and costs 1/10th the price? And that’s the seed of Drafty.

I know a lot of people in the software industry. My wife is a lifelong tech veteran having worked for OSC, Apple, and others. She also develops independent apps for iPad. Watching her work on her iPad App, The Recipe Box, got me thinking about an easier interface for drafting. I knew what should be possible, I just didn’t have the skills to do it.

I stewed on the idea for about three years and then chatted up my friend Max, who I knew had a keen interest in graphics programming, while we were out camping last summer. I pitched him the idea and he told me to send him a functional spec. I dutifully went home, researched “What is a functional spec?” and “How do you write a functional spec?”, wrote one up and sent it off. He took a look, thought it could be a fun project, and we began prototyping.
3. There are a lot of solid, time-tested drafting applications on the market. What sets Drafty apart from those?
I would actually flip this question around and ask what makes every other graphics program on the market the same? Vectorworks, AutoCAD, CorelDraw, Photoshop, SketchUp, Illustrator, you name it, all do more or less the same thing. Sure, the tool sets are slightly different and they are optimized for different versions of precision (pixels, inches, percentages) but they are all essentially a big box of pencils, pens, drawing templates, and paper.
devices

Drag and drop one or more lighting fixtures at the click of a button

Drafty is an HB Pencil, Drafting Table with Drafting Machine, and a Lighting Template. You can’t really do much with Drafty other than make light and sound plots really really fast. This is by design. A lightplot, with very few exceptions, is actually an incredibly simple document. Broadway, Grand Opera, touring Ballet all happened with a pencil and paper until very recently. My favorite plot I ever got from a designer was literally sketched on a napkin with a Papermate Flair pen. We offer a napkin to sketch on at our landing page too. 🙂

Dimensions

Dimensions are a snap, literally.

We don’t have arcane graphics relating to myriad versions of the same tool for slightly different purposes. We have a button called ‘Pipe’ which you press and get a rectangle whose length can be scaled and whose depth is fixed at 2.5”. We have a button called ‘Light’ which you press and get a realistic looking outline of a Source-4. Grab the light, move it on to the pipe. It snaps into place and gets numbered ‘1’. Duplicate the light and the copy is numbered ‘2’ and duplicates along the pipe by default.  Drag the pipe, its lights follow.  Students can begin learning the basics of graphic layout for Lighting Design by using the program because we intentionally made it hard to do your paperwork wrong. We have a ton of overrides, and more coming, for users who want more control or to cover edge cases but 90% of the time the tool just does what you want it to do and saves you a bunch of time on data entry.

SymbolKey

The symbol key updates seamlessly when you add fixtures

4. I notice that the program is delivered as a web app through your web browser. Why did you take that route?

Ease of deployment.

Our first paid customer was the Technical Design program at Bath-Spa University in the UK. We were still in Beta and had a ton of bugs. Being web-based we could see errors appear on our server logs and analyze the problem in real time. Fix the problem in real time. Deploy a software patch to our servers that the browser picks up automatically in real time. And then watch the errors disappear from the logs as each work station grabbed the new code. All in real time. 20 plus users every Tuesday working hard with Drafty for like two hours. It was amazing.

There are also a ton of ancillary benefits. Imagine your fancy computer crashes the day before you are about to go on tour with a ballet company (happened to me once). Or worse you are on tour and have no time to get to a store. Currently you are out at least a $1000 on hardware and better hope your software works with the current OS or you may be out thousands there too. With Drafty you just grab any old laptop, open an Incognito window in Chrome to keep all your info private, and keep drafting. Also, because it leverages the web you don’t need to pay for those top end graphics cards to support the 3D engine you are never going to use anyhow. So Drafty works as well on a $400 laptop from Best Buy as it does on a fully tricked out MacPro Tower. Just another way we can save our users a few dollars.

Also cloud sharing. All the Google Drive file sharing tools work for Drafty. Make a pre-plot and share with your assistant to finish off the data entry. Share the plot with your electricians and let them enter all the dimming and circuit information. No more “Passing the football.” You just work.


Thanks for reading. If you like what you’re reading, please share it with a friend and follow my blog. In part 2, we will be talking with Lucas about paperwork, signal flow, and importing from other CAD programs. There’s also news about Drafty’s new partnership with Team Sound and Field Template for high quality CAD symbols available through Drafty as in-app purchases. See you then.

 

 

The Lost Art of Research (Digitally Rediscovered)

As a theatre artist, research is central to my work –particularly visual research. As a teacher, I can also say that it isn’t always the easiest thing to teach. Substantive text-based research itself seems to be a dying skill. Looking for that perfect image that communicates information about color, texture, or emotional response – well there aren’t many research classes that teach that skill. After seeing many of my own students turning in undersized, pixilated, non-evocative images, I decided that it was an important topic worth addressing.

In researching this topic for my own classes, I discovered some highly sophisticated internet-based tools for locating imagery that just couldn’t be replicated in the traditional library. The best such collection of tools I found housed in a singular website, labs.tineye.com. Tineye Labs (formerly called Idée labs) has a simple goal – to make images more searchable. While this may sound similar to traditional search engines, it has two great toolsets particularly useful to design research.

Multicolor Engine is an interface that searches for images specifically within a selected range of color. It is connected to the Creative Commons images from FLIKR, giving you literally millions of image possibilities. The interface is user-friendly, allowing you to choose up to 5 colors to generate the response. The Multicolor Engine searches FLIKR archives for images displaying the selected color palette. For more saturated colored images, only select one hue. In the example below, I clicked on the same yellow hue three times to create a color composition of 77% yellow and 23% red. My lighting design students have found this to be a particularly useful tool.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 12.29.09 PMThe second toolset, Tineye, is a combination of a image upload / URL-based image search. It is a simple tool with remarkable results. If you upload your own image or image URL, it will find visually similar results.  This is most useful in finding images of similar colors and contrast, not similar theme content. I have found this particular tool useful when you find that one image that’s close to what you want, but not a perfect fit. The website is online at www.tineye.com or it can be added as a plugin for your Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, or Opera web browser

Though there is no replacement for the library, the internet offers up many options to supplement traditional research methods. Online toolsets, such as these offered by Tineye Labs, are certainly making the job of visual research a more manageable task for everyone.

 

Indispensable: Great Products We Can’t Live Without

Image

QLab 3 is developed by Figure 53

QLab 3 Show Control Software

PART I: Audio Control

Welcome to the first of an ongoing series of product reviews I will be running on here. Like the blog itself, it is my intention to cover a wide range of products, both new and old, that have made my work easier. This first installation covers the newest version of QLab* recently released in May 2013.

In a span of roughly 7 years, QLab has evolved from a sound playback program for Mac OS X into an industry standard show control platform featuring a robust package of functions, featuring cue-based sound and video control, MIDI and OSC integration, video and audio effects plug-ins, surface-based video output for projection mapping, and more. Used in applications from Broadway to Britain’s West End, churches, museums, art installations, and more, QLab makes it easy (and affordable) for anyone to put together rich multimedia designs for live performances and installations.

For this review, I would like to talk a bit about the new audio tools available in Version 3. In later installments, we will look at video and show control.

V3 Audio Additions at a Glance

  • Up to 24 Audio Inputs / 48 Audio outputs per Cue.
  • Dynamic Audio Effects: Built-in Audio Unit (AU) capabilities for applying audio effects to individual cues, cue outputs, or even audio device outputs. These effects (EQ, reverb, pitch bend, and more) each have adjustable, real-time parameters, as well.
  • A new Mic Cue, offering up to 24 channels of live audio input for each Mic Cue (also featuring audio effects).
  • Unlimited slicing of Audio Cues, with each slice having an individual loop count for internal vamping possibilities.
  • Easy manipulation of playback rate for speeding up or slowing down the playback of an Audio Cue (with or without a resulting pitch shift).

In short, audio capabilities have improved and you now need a lot less external equipment. With the addition of Audio Effect plug-ins, you can say goodbye to many of the signal processors once needed (EQ, digital delay, compressor/limiter, etc.) In addition, there is a new level of function with slices and playback rate that allows for greater flexibility once you get to tech. Does the director want four bell clangs instead of three? Add a slice. Does the set designer need 10 more seconds for that scene shift? No problem. Just slow down the playback rate a bit.

Obviously, the new features for V3 are a great selling point. One of the other big plusses for this software is the company itself. Figure 53 stands behind its product 100% and has some of the best customer service you are likely to ever come across. It is a small company and you will talk to the programmers on a first-name basis. What’s more is the user-base of fiercely loyal QLab users on the QLab Forum. Go to figure53.com/support and select the Discussion List to either ask a question or look through the archives to see past requests. This has helped me out of a tight spot on more than one occasion (even at 11pm on a Saturday night)!

Cost

Unlike many other show control applications, QLab offers a number of features for FREE. For many of the high-end features you will have to buy a license, but there are a number of options that make this a cost-effective program. The licenses are split into 5 tiers (Basic Audio, Pro Audio, Basic Video, Pro Video, and Pro Bundle) so you can choose to pay for the number of features needed for your project. In addition, there are rental licenses for as low as $3/day, so you can try out the full package at a small cost. Educators should be aware that there are reduced costs for schools, as well.

Requirements

One important thing to know is that QLab is for Macs only. In addition, you will need to be running OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) or greater to utilize QLab 3. The good news is that the licensing activates both QLab 2 and 3, so you could use V2 on your 10.7 or lower Mac.

Closing Thoughts

The bottom line is that audio control just got a lot more powerful with QLab 3. For those Mac users looking for a cost-effective and user-friendly application for live audio, this program is a Godsend. The free version is likely powerful enough for most small companies, featuring many of the new additions. Notably, the audio effects are missing from the free version, though, so those serious about the full audio capabilities of version 3 should look into licensing.

Part II will look into the video advances in Version 3. Tell a friend between now and then!

* The Fine Print: In the interest of being completely forthcoming, this product is near and dear to my heart, as I recently authored the book QLab 3 Show Control: Projects for Live Performances and Installations. If you are interested in finding out more about the text, follow the “QLab 3 Show Control” link at the top of the screen. I am not an employee of Figure 53, nor have I received any compensation from the company for these reviews. I am a long-time QLab user and have extolled the virtues of the software long before writing the book.