Choosing Drafting Software for Lighting

I see many people asking what software to use for drafting.  There are many good answers (as there are many good software options to draft in), but I feel like there are a few options I don’t see mentioned, and few discussions address that each choice of software needs to fit a person’s budget.  So let’s talk through some options (not all inclusive) from top of the range to middle, ending with two free options.  But first- if you are new to drafting- a few term definitions.

Line-based  When a drafting software is line based, and you want to create a box, you click the line tool, make four lines, then select the whole square and extrude it into a three dimensional box.  This is simplified, but the idea is you draw any object one line at a time.  If you also design scenery, line-based is (almost) mandatory.  Confusingly, line-based drafting software will also include object symbols- such as lighting symbols.

Object-oriented  Object oriented drafting has you selecting from a library of three dimensional objects, dragging on in and then customizing the shapes to suit your needs.  The default is always a three dimensional object that you adjust.

Visualization (or Vis)  Visualization is the ability to model in three (virtual) dimensions the entire theater and set, to hang and focus all your lighting and then plug in your console to program your whole show before you show up to the gig.  Vis software tends to be defined by how realistic it is and how fast it is to use.

Top Tier Software

To me, what makes a drafting solution more desirable and more “pro” isn’t just what software “everyone” is using and it isn’t how constantly they add to their inventory of lighting symbols (though that’s important).  What I think is most important is interoperability.  I want to be able to draft in what I like to work in and have enough export options to know that other professionals can open the file and have the same placement, scale and textures when they open my file in their software.  Many file extensions have tried to fill this gap (DWG, OBJ, 3DS, etc) with various limitations to each.  To me, the gold standard file format is MVR or “My Virtual Rig”.  As defined by the people who created the protocol “MVR (My Virtual Rig) is a file format for the bi-directional exchange of data and geometry between CAD systems, visualizers, and lighting consoles.”  In my experience, it just works.

Currently, only three drafting solutions support MVR, and that makes any of these three the “best” drafting software: 

  • WYSIWYG
  • Vectorworks
  • Capture

WYSIWYG is the OG of vis/drafting combo software.  It’s line-based with a tremendous library of lights and useful objects (truss, platforming, etc).  WYG has an ability to visualize that is second to none, and the report functions are deep (counting each element you need to rig a show) and powerful.  Drawbacks are it is PC only, and cost.  Expensive to buy and then expensive to keep, the purchase points starts at $900 for just drafting and tops out at an eye watering $5750 for drafting and visualization.  Don’t forget the yearly upkeep for the latest library additions, billable each year.  If you make that kind of money, it’s certainly worth it because there is seemingly nothing it can’t do. 

Vectorworks is what many people say “everyone uses”.  I’ve been a user for decades.  Line based drafting with a vast and constantly updated library of objects and symbols, there is good reason it has so much of the market.  It works on PC or Mac (2022 features M1 support).  There is a steep learning curve to Vectorworks, so set aside at least a week to learn how the software (basically) functions.  Cost to purchase is nearly $3000 with a $650 yearly upgrade to keep access to the latest symbols and fixture updates, along with the yearly release of the software itself.  There are also rental rates.

Capture is an all-in-one visualizer, CAD and reports solution.  An important distinction Capture has from the other two is the drafting is object-oriented, rather than line drawings.  If you do scenery design, this might not be for you, as granular control is harder to access.  If you do lighting design, it’s much faster than line drawing.  It could be that I’m not as good with Vectorworks as I should be, but I can draft a plot in Capture in about half of the time it takes me in Vectorworks.  Capture is cross platform, running on either Windows or Mac (M1 support as of 2021) and has a free app for iPad and iPhone that won’t edit, but opens full files and even allows visualization.  Capture’s pricing structure is more customer friendly since it is sold by the universe.  One universe costs 395 Euros, two costs 795 Euros, four costs 1295 Euros, and unlimited costs 2195 Euros.  Even better, the optional yearly update cost is between 100 and 150 Euros.  Current exchange rate is around $1.14 to the Euro.

Mid Tier

If the three above are too expensive for you, which is totally understandable with the fee variations lighting can offer, let’s move on to other options.  In mid-tier drafting software, interoperability doesn’t exactly fly out the window, but it becomes much more limited.  The best will import PDFs and perhaps DWG or DXF.  Support for a fixture library will diminish or even just not exist.  But still, they can be surprisingly powerful.

Drafty

Drafty is a drafting solution that functions in a browser, so it works across seemingly any platform of computer.  It can be a monthly or yearly rental, though there are options to purchase an unlimited license of the current version.  Since it is so optimized for lighting and signal chain work, it is an interesting mix of object and line drafting.  Features include automatic layer filtering (no more putting lights on the scenery layer!), a smart section that takes what is largely a 2D environment and makes a very workable side section, and a very responsive developer.  Price points are tied to functions: AV signal chains, lighting only, or Pro, which includes AV, Lighting, scenic elements, section, and DXF import.  In my experience, you should go straight to the Pro version if you are doing lighting because it is terribly annoying otherwise.  Prices range from $15-30 a month (and you can “hop on” for a single month and “hop off” at will) to $150-$299 for yearly pricing.  Drafty is fast, beautiful and very well thought out.  I do wish they had better symbol support, but you are free to rename any fixture in their existing library to fill in for a symbol they don’t have and the naming will follow to the Symbol Key.  Drafty can import DXF and PDF files.  Highly recommend this for those who can’t afford the top three.

LXSeries Pro

Mac only solution with a one time purchase cost of $119-165.  I’ll admit it has been quite some time since I’ve used this software myself, so please refer to their website for the most current details.  When I last used it, it was a fully functioning line-based drafting solution lacking enough ongoing symbol support for my workflow, but that should be expected at this price point.  A quick tour of the most current version seems to show very little has changed.  This is a line-oriented drafting interface like many others.  At the price point, if you can work with the limitations, it’s hard to beat this for those that want to draft on a Mac.  Be sure to download the free trial to see if this software can work for you.  There is also a version that works on iPad.

What about FREE?

There are a couple free options I can recommend.  For free, both are good and can get a job done.  You can tell that one is far more versatile to me, but obviously- as they are both free- you can try both out and form your own opinions.

LXFree

LXFree is a lite version of LXSeries Pro.  It’s even more limited than its larger sibling (fewer symbols, some functions omitted), but perhaps it might fit your needs and workflow. Curiously supports Mac and Windows, unlike LXSeries Pro.

Chamsys MagicQ

A console?  What?  Yes.  Chamsys MagicQ software (free to download and use) has a version of Capture integrated into it, which means you can build a show in the console, get a basic light plot and basic symbol reports out of it.  Visualization is less realistic than full Capture, with far less customization of how the plot can look.  Works on Mac, PC and Linux.  Has amazing fixture support, since it is tied to the constantly updated Chamsys library.  Also supports MVR import!  If you have no budget, I think this is the best option by far.

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