First impression: ETC Element Console Review

We recently got an ETC Element to replace an ETC Express 72/144 that had become unreliable due to a hardware problem.  I’d like to point out that ETC equipment is generally very durable, but this particular console only lasted about 8 years due to abuse by the high-school students who use the console during the week.  The Express was a great console.  It had a hardware fader for each of the channels that we commonly used, and a bank of 20 submasters.  Recording a submaster was as simple as creating a look onstage with the channel faders, then pressing “Record” and hitting the submaster bump button.  It had one external LCD screen for output, which had a very simple character-based interface.  Just about anyone could learn to use the Express.
The Element is, in many ways, a much more sophisticated console.  While the Express didn’t have any real capability to run moving lights, the Element has many features to facilitate the use of moving lights and programmable LED fixtures.  It supports two external LCD screens with a full graphical interface, a keyboard, and a mouse. Unfortunately, the Element has lost all of the simplicity that made the Express so successful in its target market.  Let’s start with the physical design.
The greatest disadvantage of the Element, especially for untrained users, is that all of the forty faders (60 in some models) are multi-function.  With the bank switch in position 1, the faders represent channels 1-40.  Position 2 changes the fader function to channels 41-80, and Position 3 changes the faders to channels 81-120.  Position 4 changes the fader function to submasters.  While it’s nice to have 40 subs, it’s also extremely confusing to figure out which channel fader or submaster is currently controlling the output.  Here’s an example.
Let’ s say that you use faders 2, 17, and 31 to set a look on Bank 1.  If you switch to Bank 2, faders 2, 17, and 31 are still up, but they are not controlling anything.  Bring those faders down, and continue setting up the look on channels 41-80 using Bank 2.  Now switch back to Bank 1 to tweak the look on channels 1-40…but the faders are no longer up!  The LEDs on the bump buttons will flash to show which channel levels no longer match the fader positions.  To take control of these channels, bring the fader up until it matches the current channel level.  Then you can control the channel again.  Are you confused yet?  Did I mention that the faders have no numbers?  I find this slows me down when creating a look, and makes it harder to edit a look “on the fly.”  To top it off, the bank selector is a little plastic twist switch, and it’s hard to see which bank it’s pointing at.
With many consoles, you can work around the limited number of faders by adding an expansion wing with additional controls.  Unfortunately, the Element does not support expansions–you have to upgrade to the Ion to get that feature!  I’m not thrilled with the layout of the keys on the Element keyboard, either.  It’s difficult to guess where a key is going to be–they don’t seem to be grouped in any particular way.  Compare to the Hog 1000, in which the keys are grouped as “verbs” and “nouns” for command-line programming.  One final gripe about the hardware: it’s difficult to run my finger down the row of bump buttons to  find a particular light–this was easy to do on the old Express.
So, after all my complaining, I want to leave you with a great feature.  I love the “Exclusive” submaster setting that prevents the output from a sub from being recorded in subsequent cues and submasters.  I use this all the time to keep some lights up onstage or in the house without having them recorded into cues.  I’m sure there are more little gems built into the Express.
Here is my conclusion about the Element: it is NOT a replacement for the Express.  Do not expect this console to be a “drop-in” replacement for any traditional theater console.  The learning curve will be very steep for brand-new users, and slightly less steep for Express users.  In the end, the Element will be far more capable than the Express–but that’s not the target market for the Express.  If you are buying a console for a school, small church, or community theater where the users are generally inexperienced, there are probably better choices than the Element.

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