How Do I Keep My Christmas Light Show Safe From The Rain and Snow?

One of the biggest challenges of running a Christmas Light display is the weather!

While we’d all love to be like Australia and enjoy the summer sun for our Christmas season, this simply isn’t reality!

Keeping your display safe from the weather also doesn’t have to be difficult. There are proven ways to water-proof your lights by paying close attention to your connections, your lights, and your controllers so that they stay dry.

If you follow a few simple steps, you can build a display that is mostly trouble-free each and every season!

The Common Enemy – Water

Whether it’s raining, snowing, sleeting, or some other kind of precipitation is falling, the common enemy of a Christmas Light Display is water.

Since we’re dealing with electricity, water is not really our friend. When it gets into our lights and connections, it causes problems.

From lights only “kind-of working”, to complete failure or strobing/flashing, water is not our friend when it gets in the lights!

How Do I Waterproof My Christmas Light Pixel Display?

When I first began working with Christmas lights, my first instinct was to wrap each and every plug, connector and wire with electrical tape.

The truth was, my work in stage lighting had taught me that this was the correct thing to do in order to keep the water out. But I quickly found out, that this is not the case – more often than not it keeps the water in!

Rather than try and “shield” our connections from getting wet, it’s actually better to protect them for when they do get wet. There’s a BIG difference between the 2, so let’s dive into what we need to do!

Your Pixels and Christmas Lights

Our lights – are they waterproof?

The first part of our display that we need to waterproof is our lights themselves.

If you’re using pixels, chances are they’re completely waterproof from the get-go. Most pixel “nodes” and other forms of pixels in the Christmas lighting world are injected with clear epoxy to keep them totally waterproof.

If any element of your show is not waterproof, then you need to enclose it in some way to make it waterproof.

For example: many displays use P5 or P10 panels to display video in high resolution. From the factory, these panels are NOT weatherproof, but there are many well-documented enclosure builds for these.

Your Wiring and Connectors

Example of a Pixel Controller Box
When wires connect: a place that can cause issues with water!

Where your wiring connects together is the single biggest point of failure from water intrusion in a Christmas light show.

If you’re using standard Christmas lights with “pass-thru” plugs, go ahead and lay a small piece of electrical tape on any exposed connectors, or face them downwards so that water can’t collect.

Any extension cord connections on the ground can be raised up or you can use a protector box like this one to keep the connection dry.

For pixels, we’ve got to waterproof our waterproof connectors.

The people that sell you your pixel lights are going to claim that their connector is “waterproof”, but no connector on Christmas lights is 100% waterproof.

When we’re talking about electronics: every light, wire, and connector has what is called an IP, or “Ingress Protection” rating. This is a measure of how the item stands up to dust and liquid intrusion.

The second number of the IP rating deals with water. Common ones that you’ll see are “65” or which is dust-tight but only good against high pressure “jets” of water.

The second number generally tops out at 8 for electrical items, and that ensures that it is good under immersion in a pool of water at a certain depth.

Why am I saying all of this? Because…

“Waterproof” is not really a technical term, but rather something that marketers use to give you a general idea of how their connectors will perform.

But no connector in Christmas lighting is truly 100% waterproof. While they will stay dry most of the time, it’s those few times that they get wet that drive us crazy!

So, how do we keep this stuff dry and working correctly?

Tip 1: Place Your Connectors Well

If you’re not already familiar, any electrical connection has (2) plugs, a male and a female. The male is the “prongs” and the female is the “holes” that receive the male plug.

When you’re placing your connectors outside, always orient the plugs so that the female is placing downwards – this may require some zip ties.

That way, if any water gets in, it will only pool in the male plug, and it’s much more likely to drain out.

Also, keep these connections off the ground. Water collects in puddles on the ground, so keeping them up saves us that trouble!

But the real secret is to keep the connection dry in the first place – how?

Tip 2: Dielectric Grease

If we gently coat out connectors in grease, it will repel the water. Dielectric Grease is an electrical-safe grease that we can use on ANY connection that is outdoors to help it shed moisture.

Application is simple – add some to a male connector, and plug it in to the female a few times to coat. A little goes a long way!

Tip 3: Keep Connections To a Minimum

Lastly, my biggest tip is to keep connections to a minimum. There is no need to use 2 extension cables plugged together to make a distance work.

Especially with pixels, get the right length extensions so that there isn’t a connection in the middle – these are just a problem waiting to happen!

Your Controllers and Power Supplies

Pixlite pixel controller
Most controllers are “bare-boards”.

Let’s talk about your controllers and power supplies.

In the Christmas lighting world, most controllers and power supplies are essential bare boards – they have all of the components they need, but you have to attach wiring to them via terminals.

So it’s pretty obvious that you need to put them in a “box” of some sort to keep them safe and dry. (It’s likely you’re already familiar with this)

There are a variety of waterproof boxes that work well and are popular, such as:

While each have their own advantages, you’ve got to keep in mind that you’ll need to get cables in and out of these boxes.

Cable glands are the go-to way of doing this – they seal the connection and allow you to have a waterproof connector just outside the box on a pigtail.

For best results, have these face downwards on an elevated box so that there’s little chance of water getting in.

Let’s Keep Your Lights Dry!

The biggest part of making your display stress-free is to keep your connections and controllers dry! I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and that it’s helped you make a stress-free display this year!

Regular Christmas Lights vs. Pixels – What Is the Difference?

When these lights are unplugged, standard Christmas lights and pixel lights look very similar. But when the units are plugged it you can really notice the difference between the two!

If you’re looking to stand out this year with your Christmas display, make a statement, or even pair up a music and light show, using pixel lights instead is really the way to go.

Regular Christmas Lights

With regular Christmas lights, you only have the option to turn the lights on or off. Some units do have an option of different light settings. But the transition, fading, and other scenes are not as smooth as the pixels would run. At the end of the day, you can’t control any closer detail than a whole strand.

If you purchase standard Christmas lights from a regular store you will quickly notice that these lights are limited in what they can do and the control you have with them.

Pixel Lights

Christmas Light Pixels
Pixel lights up close

Pixel lights, on the other hand, are designed to make an impact on your show. When working with pixels you have absolute control over every single pixel (bulb), and you can set the color as well as the brightness.

If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry – it doesn’t have to be!

Because pixels have so many options, the way we control them is completely different – rather than attempt to assign control to each individual light, pixels are controlled with animations and videos across multiple strands or even your whole display at a single time!

The biggest concern I see people having is whether or not they can afford pixels.

After all, if these things are so fancy, they must be expensive, right?

The Cost Difference

Now, some people would say that pixel lights are more expensive than your standard Christmas lights. I would have to respectfully disagree with this statement.

For the cost of pixels, they are just about the same if not cheaper than purchasing Christmas lights from the store. But with pixels, you can actually save even more if you purchase them in bulk and even out of season.

Where pixels may cost you more is in the control aspect of things. To control pixels you’re going to need a few more things.

Pixels do take a lower voltage, so they’ll need a power supply which then plugs into your standard wall socket. Then, you will need a pixel controller to have full control over your pixels.

You can cover a lot of area with just standard Christmas lights but when working with pixels you have full control of your lights.

You can customize the lights in any way you want and you can even run video with pixels. The options when working with pixels just opens up that many more doors with your Christmas display!

Want to learn how to get started? Check out my full article here!

How Do I Use Other People’s Sequences for My Christmas Lights?

One of the most difficult parts of sequencing Christmas lights is the sequencing, or creating the patterns and motions in the lights which go to the music of your display.

The good news is that sequences can be imported from other users, including sequences that you buy online. While the process isn’t super simple, it is simpler than building a complicated sequence from scratch.

At the end of the day, most displays feature the same types of elements – lots of house outlines, trees, snowflakes, megatrees, matrix’s, and arches – so we can use these elements from other people’s display’s and apply them to our own.

Using Paid Sequences

First, I want to show you how to import a paid sequence into your display. While there are free sequences out there, and I’ll cover them below, it’s easier to import paid sequences, so we’ll start there.

Tom BetGeorge from Magical Light Shows made this video, which really shows the difference in what you get from a professional sequence, and how to map it to your display. Watch it and look below for the steps to import a sequence:

Mapping a Paid Sequence To Your Display:

The first thing you’ll need to do is look at the documentation for the sequence you’ve purchased, or open it up in xLights to see what all the groups are, and how they match up to your display.

Once you’ve done that, go ahead and change the xLights folder back to your main show and create a new sequence.

Create A New Sequence

You’ll choose a musical sequence and grab your audio file.

For most paid sequences, you’ll use 40fps in the sequence wizard but always check with your sequence vendor to see what they prefer.

Next, select “All Models”, and begin to import. Press “Import” from the top menu, and then “Import Effects”.

Import Your Models

Choose your sequence’s effects XML file. You’ll then be shown a 2-column window that features your models on the left, and the sequence’s models on the right. You’ll drag models from the right and “map” them to the column on the left.

If your sequence has props that don’t match up to anything in your display, go ahead and make some “phantom props” so that you can see what they’re doing. These will be props that aren’t actually in your display, but we’ll use them in a few minutes as we test the sequence.

At the top, you’ll see a small section with the timing tracks. I would import all of those so that you don’t miss anything that effects may reference!

When you’ve completed the mapping, press “Save Mapping” in the bottom bar.

Now you’ll be brought to the sequence view and when you hit “Save”, xLights will render all of the effects. This may take a while depending on the complexity of the sequence and your computer’s performance.

Test Your Imported Sequence

Press “Play”, and test your sequence. Look for anything that looks out of place or moments of a blackout that you didn’t intend!

One example that Tom highlights in the video is with the group of arches – not all of them were lighting up in the effect, but it was a simple fix to copy all of the effects from the working arches to the “non-working” arches.

You can also look for effects that are on your “phantom props”. If you feel like any parts of sequence on those props needs to be in your display, you can easily copy them in manually, effect-by-effect as needed.

Using paid sequences can save you even more time because they are very simple to import and generally have good instructions with them.

As you can see in the video above, Tom easily maps this sequence in less than 30 minutes (if you count the time where he skips ahead in the video…it’s probably still well under 30 minutes!).

Professional sequencers are very good at making the elements of a Christmas or other holiday light show shine!

Using a Friend’s or a “Free” Sequence

Now, I want to show you how to import a sequence from a friend or one that is found for free online.

The basic process is the same as with a professional sequence, there’s just more “figuring out” time, depending on how well the sequence you’ve gotten is documented and labeled.

The first thing you’ll want to do is to copy the sequence XML file and the xlights_rgbeffects.xml file into a new folder on your computer. You’ll also want the music file in that folder (be sure that you OWN the music before using)

You’ll then change your “Show Directory” to that folder using the icon in the top toolbar:

The show directory option in xLights

Save the sequence in xLights. Now, you’re ready to watch the sequence. This first pass is purely for observation. Take a look at the lights, and begin to decide which models and groups you are going to copy into your display.

It may not make sense to copy all of the elements from the sequence that you are importing, and some elements may get mapped to different props. I like to take these notes in a spreadsheet to keep track of what I’m about to do.

Now, you can go ahead and close the sequence, since you now know what elements you wish to import into your own sequence for your display. Follow the importing instructions above (“Using Paid Sequences”) from this point on and enjoy the show when you’re done!

Should I Sequence My Christmas Lights to Music?

We’ve all seen “that house” in our city that synchronizes it’s lighting to music, or perhaps watched an episode or 2 of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” and wondered – should I do that too?

Should I sequence my Christmas Lights to music?

If you’re going to take the time to make an elaborate Christmas light display, then it’s well worth the time to sequence your lights to music too. Plus, over the long haul, it can actually save you a some money in energy bills.

While sequencing Christmas lights to music may seem difficult, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a tech wizard or an engineer, in fact – anybody can make a great display!

So how do you begin? I’m glad you asked…

A Static Display, or Synchronized Lights To Music?

While it is fun and interesting to have a static display of Christmas lights plugged in across your yard and home, it can really eat up a LOT of electricity! Even with energy-efficient LED strings, many displays like this can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars in electricity over the course of a season, as they are always ON at full power.

However, if you animate your display, using basic Christmas light AC controllers or Christmas light pixels, you now have each light only on for a fraction of the time, while still making your home look just as grand. Some people would argue that it looks even grander!

You’ve certainly seen displays that use this method online or in person. When you look at a display like this, notice how each individual light or string of lights is not constantly on. Over time, that can equal quite a bit in energy saved, and also looks amazing!

*Just* An Animated Display?

At the base level, to get the energy savings and “coolness” factor, you really just need to animate your display. While you’ve probably seen people doing this to music, it’s not “required” by any means.

In fact, this is a good way to get into the hobby – you don’t have to worry about the music, and you can have the display change between a few different sequences throughout the night, or throughout the season.

What More Does it Take to Do an Animated Display?

Doing an animated vs. a non-animated display only takes a few extra elements. Instead of simply plugging your lights into the wall, you’ll now plug your lights into an “AC Controller” which will then be controlled by a computer, which runs your show.

In addition – color changing and video-capable “pixels” look amazing and can make any pattern you desire. These are the type of lights you see on TV shows and the best-looking houses in your city or town!

Pixels use a specialized controller and work a little bit differently than regular strings – which is great when a pixel goes out and you don’t lose your whole string!

If you’re just starting from scratch, you might be surprised to find out that using pixels actually isn’t massively more expensive than traditional lights – and they tend to last longer and be less prone to repairs compared to “hardware-store lights”.

Need to know more about starting with pixels? Read my article on using pixels and creating a musical display here!

Once you get things animated, it only takes a little more effect to do your show to music…

What More Does it Take to Do Music?

There’s no doubt that the “holy grail” of Christmas displays is when you do your display to music! It looks amazing, gathers a crowd, and is a lot of fun to pull off!

But – it does take more time and more cost. You’ve got to have a way to play the music, and then you have to sequence the lights to that music or buy pre-made sequences.

Let’s take a closer look at what more this takes in time and/or cost:

Playing Your Display’s Music on the Radio:

To play your display’s music on the radio, all you need to add to your shopping list is an FM transmitter and some basic audio cables.

The FM transmitter will take the sound that is coming out of your computer and play it over the radio – it really is that simple!

Small, non-commercial FM transmitters can cost anywhere from just a few dollars to over a thousand dollars, but I generally recommend one that is in the $100-$200 range – not bad for something that will last you MANY seasons of display!

Want to learn more? Check out my full article on choosing your FM transmitter!

Letting People Know How to Tune In

The last step of working with the music is to let people know how to tune in.

On a simple level, an inexpensive coroplast sign from a local sign shop or Vistaprint.com can easily be placed in front of a small flood light to get the job done. All you’ve got to do is let people know what radio station to tune in to on their car’s stereo!

On a more technical level, some people choose the upgrade to digital signage, and do do via P5 or P10 panels, with the ability to totally animate their “tune-to” sign.

This is cool, but I really like having the coroplast as well. Digital signs can break or stop working, and they don’t allow you to tell people about your display during the daylight hours like the trusty coroplast “yard sign”.

Now that we have our music “over the airwaves”, it’s time to sequence our lights to the music…

Sequencing Your Lights to the Music

Probably the biggest time suck in sequencing your lights to music is the actual sequencing of your lights to music. (Makes sense, right?)

While xLights and Vixen offer helpful ways to make sure your animations are on the beat and match the music, there is still a TON of work to be done if you want a complex sequence.

I know I have personally sequenced songs in as little as 2 hours, but easily have spent well over 10 hours making more complex songs – maybe even more!

If you add up your time, and what you value it at, you can see how this can be “expensive” to your time. Not only that, but I am the biggest proponent of making sure this hobby doesn’t hurt your relationship with your family – the most important people in your life.

I enjoy sequencing, so I like to find times to do it for my own display. BUT, to save time, I do my best to re-use some sequences from year-to-year, because it takes very little time to do so. (Simply add in any new elements from your show, and you’re good!).

Buying Sequences

One of the very best ways to save time when you are sequencing is to buy sequences.

Any quality sequence vendor will use some sort of “easy-to-import” layout for xLights, making it take less than 1 hour to apply to your display in xLights. And the best part? These sequences generally cost less than $100 (sometimes much less), and can be used for multiple years.

If you want to make a stress-free display, this is one of my absolute favorite ways to do it!

You can find sequence vendors on my “Resources” page!

What Will You Do?

As you can now see, sequencing your lights to music can be a lot of fun, and it doesn’t have to take up all of your time.

Even though you have to buy more “gear” to make it work, over time the energy savings of running your whole display on pixels or with AC controllers will really save you energy cost as well.

I hope this article has helped you to more fully understand what’s involved, and how to make it happen. Be sure to check out the other articles here on Learn Christmas Lighting to paint the full picture of how to make a stress-free Christmas (or another holiday) display this year!

Should I Run My Christmas Light Show on My Home Network?

If you’re running a Christmas Light Show that includes pixels, then the signal that goes from your computer to your controllers runs over a network.

Whether your display is simple, with just 1 controller, or complex with many controllers, the question still remains: should you run your display on your home network, or let it run on its own network?

If you’re running a simple show over E1.31 (sACN), then the answer may be “Yes”, but there are a few things you still need to watch out for. If you’re running Art-Net and/or using a lot of controllers, running your show on your home network isn’t the best idea.

Taking a step back, I realize that we need to cover a few basics on networking in general, and the internet, and what all of these terms mean. If you’re new to networking, this will be helpful!

Your average home network gets the internet via a router, often provided by your internet provider. That router actually plays 3 roles – router, access point, and network switch.

The router connects your smaller network to the larger internet. The access point gives you wireless access to your network, and the network switch allows you to connect more than 1 wired device to your network.

If this is new to you, then you’ll want to check out my full article on networking, which covers everything you need to know right here!

Controlling Your Light Show on a Network That Has Internet

When you put your light show on a network that has internet, there are a few things to worry about:

Software Updates

The biggest disruption to any “show computer” is automatic software updates.

Whether that’s the latest Windows or Mac OS update automatically installing, or a simple xLights or Vixen update screen launching instead of your show after a power outage, software updates can halt your show and if you’re not home, you might not be able to do anything about it!

In addition, if you install an update during the display season and there’s a bug, it could cause your display not to run.

Whichever the case, this is why I don’t put my show computers on the internet, and I don’t install updates of any kind once the season has begun!

Traffic Interruptions

Art-Net signal, in particular, is not always friendly with internet signal on the same network.

Because Art-Net sends out so much information on a constant basis, you can see flickering or even outages to certain pixels when there is internet traffic on the same network as the internet.

It’s better to use e1.31 sACN, but it’s best to keep it completely separate.

Have I run hundreds of pixels before with no problem from the internet? Yes.

But I also have run the same quantity on other occasions and had issues…it really depends on your connection to the network and what else is happening at the same time.

I’d rather be safe than sorry!

Hackers

While it’s not a threat most of us think about or deal with, your display computer could get hacked if it’s online or even on a wireless network that is not on the internet.

It could just be a 16-year-old kid who’s bored down the street, or it could be hackers from another country randomly finding your computer.

Whatever the case, you don’t want it stopping your display!

The Best Choice For Stability

As you can probably guess, my favorite way of setting up a display is to be completely, 100% off the internet and off of wireless.

Let’s face it – wires are reliable and work great! And unless someone literally plugs into your network, there’s no chance of hacking.

Can it be “easiser” to run your controllers wirelessly? Sure, it can. But, you run a much greater risk with wireless of having a drop out or interference issue that stops your show in it’s tracks!

The Best Choice for Ease-Of-Programming

If you want to make programming updates wirelessly, I get it! It’s a lot of fun to be able to run your show wirelessly from your front yard or vehicle and make changes on your display live.

For the best of both worlds, here’s what I do:

I run all of my show equipment (computer and controllers) on a separate network with a basic router that is off the internet. This protects me from anything outside as I build my show and test my display.

I leave the wireless on my router turned ON when I need to make tweaks or test things outside. Then, once it’s show time, I turn OFF the wireless function of my router (or access point), and then my show is am as safe as possible.

What About Falcon Player (FPP)?

If you use Falcon Player (FPP) to run your show via a Rasberry Pi or BeagleBone computer, then you might need to keep some elements of your players online.

When you use multiple Falcon Players together, it’s easiest to connect them to the internet for the clocks to get proper sync to the actual time.

Thankfully, most Rasberry Pi’s have both a wireless and wired network interface, so you actually can connect to both your home and show network, but still keep the show information separate from the configuration.

Once set up, the Art-Net or e1.31 sACN information will flow down the wired show network, and the wireless will allow you to make changes to your show. It’s a win-win!

Since FPP doesn’t do automatic updates or run any of the regular operating systems, it’s fine to leave it online.

I guess there’s a tiny chance that you could get a hacker in, but it’s highly unlikely with such a niche piece of software.

Finding the Right Show Network Setup for You

Hopefully, by the end of this article, you are less confused and more informed than you were when you started reading this article! My goal is that you now know the best way to run YOUR specific show and understand why that is the case!

Networking can be a bear to understand, but it’s always worth it to have a properly set up show that runs seamlessly every single night!

How Do I Build a DMX Controller for Traditional Christmas Lights?

In this post, I am going to help you build your own relay box for controlling your Christmas lights

. I wanted to share and help you with this project because perhaps it doesn’t make financial sense for you to buy one of these when you don’t need as many channels for your display as the commercial controllers offer.

The good news is that I was able to build this for less than $40. Some of the items I already had available and the rest I did find on Amazon.

Supplies Needed

Listed below are the supplies used in this tutorial.

3 Channel DMX Relay Controller – Buy on Amazon!
Short Extension Cord: Buy on Amazon!
Ammo Box: Buy on Amazon! (Much Cheaper from Harbor Freight or Similar Stores)
Cable Glands: Buy on Amazon!
DMX Cable: Buy on Amazon!
12v Power Supply: Buy on Amazon!

Before getting started I want to note that if are not comfortable with working with electricity then I do recommend reaching out to an electrician or someone that is comfortable with doing these types of tasks.

When working with electricity always be sure to have the power supply disconnected before we start.

Prepping Your Box

For the box, I used a simple ammo box that you can most likely find in a hardware store and you’ll most likely want to go with a plastic one.

You’ll need to install the cable glands so that you can feed your cords through the box. In this tutorial, I only added two but if you want to add more you can do so.

Prepping the Wires

Once you have your box set up and ready it’s time to work on the wires. I just used an extension cord. One for input and one for output. To keep them separate I just used different colors.

In this example, I do use a DMX Cable but if you are just working with standard Christmas lights you can use a network cable instead if that’s what you have around – both will carry the signal just fine!

Connecting the Terminal Block

When working with my DMX Relay Controller I prefer to remove the terminal block to keep the rest of the relay protected while I hook it up.

With this particular relay that I ordered off of Amazon, it did not come with the user manual and it was only available on the product description as seen below.

Please be sure to check this when ordering and make note of the diagram when setting up the terminal block.

Relay Diagram

The manual will show you what each terminal is and that is very important when setting everything up.

Wiring Everything Up

The first thing to do is to strip your wires for the input and output and be sure to strip enough. Then you’ll want to feed your cords through the cable glands.

Wiring Up the Terminal Block

As I mention in the video as well as earlier in this post when working with electricity always be sure that your Power Supply is off.

Also, if you don’t feel comfortable with working with wires be sure to either have an electric technician or an associate that is comfortable doing these types of projects.

Unplug the terminal block from the relay to help make it easier to wire up everything. First, you want to wire up the outputs to the switched signals. Be sure to refer to your diagram for the relay.

Normally Christmas lights will not have a ground but if you are working with lights that have a ground you do need to make sure you wire it up properly.

When working with your wires be sure that no copper wire is showing because this could fry your relay if the wires cross.

Based on the unit you are working with and the diagram you can start tying off your cables with a wire nut as shown in the video. Once you have everything organized you can start with hooking up the live wires to the terminal block and tightening everything down.

Power Supply

In this tutorial I use a small 12 volt power supply because this is only being used to power the relay, not the actual lights. You can use any 12 volt to 24 volt power supply unit.

If you are not sure which ones are the negative or positive you can use an electrical meter. Just set it on volts and DC, then just make sure you positive is on the positive and the negative is on negative. Just be sure to test this before you turn on your relay.

If you meter reads positive then you are good to go but if it reads negative then you’ll want to switch your wires.

Wiring the DMX

In this case I am using a DMX Cable so I just strip the cable and begin hooking it up to the relay. Be sure to refer to the wiring diagram for your cable to make sure everything is hooked up properly.

With the DMX Cable if anything happens to get hooked up wrong it won’t do any damage. You’ll just need to go back and adjust the wires accordingly.

Setting the Dip Switches

By default, this switch is set on Test Mode. You’ll need to refer to the users manual and set it up as you want. In this tutorial, I set it in DMX mode.

Testing the Box

Once you have everything connected just pull your cables through and close up the box. Just plug everything in and make sure it works properly – not only with test mode, but also with DMX control!

What Computer Do I Need for xLights or Vixen?

When I first started sequencing Christmas lights, one of the first questions I had was “What type of computer do I need for xLights or Vixen?”

At the end of the day, most modern computers will work great for either xLights or Vixen. A good starting point would be a dual-core processor with a speed of 2.0 ghz or greater, and 8GB RAM.

However, as your display grows, it can really start to weigh down on your computer.

Let’s dive into the system requirements to run these programs, and then I’ll also cover the “nice-to-haves” in an xLights or Vixen sequencing computer.

System Requirements and Recommended Specs

When it comes to system requirements, both xLights and Vixen are quite vague about what type of computer it takes to run their software smoothly.

Why is that? Unlike a game, music player, or web browser, it is very difficult to define system requirements for a program like xLights. This is because the amount of “power” required greatly depends on the number of pixels you are working with the amount/complexity of your effects.

Every effect and element that you add to your display adds a little need for power to the computer. Add up a bunch – and suddenly you need a more powerful PC!

Not only that, but both of these programs (xLights especially) are always being improved and taken to the next level – so it’s very difficult to keep an up-to-date “spec” of system requirements.

xLights System Requirements

Sequencing in xLights

While xLights does not maintain any system requirements, it does run on Windows, Mac, or Linux. So you can run it on any computer that you have around.

As I mentioned above, any computer that you have at home will likely be good enough to get started. The general consensus is that while the processor is important, having a good amount of RAM to speed up performance is the most helpful.

Vixen System Requirements

Vixen does list system requirements, and you can find them here. It’s important to know that Vixen is a PC-only Windows program, so if you’re a die-hard Mac user, you’ll want to use xLights or find a inexpensive PC for Vixen.

Take special note on the page linked that Vixen does have 2 sets of system requirements – 1 for smaller displays, and one for larger displays.

If You’re Buying a New Computer:

Regardless of system requirements, both programs are pretty similar in the overall way that they process things. I might get in trouble for saying this, as the developers on both sides pride themselves in making their software as efficient as possible!

For both programs, running the latest version of Windows or Mac can also help to ensure things are as efficient as possible. Newer versions of the operating systems optimize graphics and make generally things more efficient “under the hood”.

For any “Show computer” I recommend keeping your software as light as possible. Even if the computer you use isn’t 100% dedicated to your Christmas lights, you can still take the time to uninstall unneeded applications and turn off features that you don’t need – this can give you a pretty big speed boost if you’ve gotten a lot of clutter on the PC!

When you’re looking to buy a new computer, I would first go ahead and test your sequencing program on your current computer, if you have one. See how it performs with a lot of pixels, and then that will inform whether or not it makes sense to make a big upgrade.

Many people recommend “buying the most computer that you can afford”, and I can’t disagree with that statement. But, to be the most effective, it’s important to buy the most powerful computer in the right areas, as some improvements (like a high-end graphics card), will have little to no impact on your sequencing ability.

When buying a new computer for xLights or Vixen, I would recommend:

Processor

I would go with an Intel “i” series processor (i3, i5, i7, i9), or an AMD Ryzen series processor with a speed of at least 2ghz.

This is the brain of your computer, and so it’s worth buying well. i3 or Ryzen 3 computers can be found quite cheaply, and they still generally are much better built than computers with cheaper processors (A-series, Pentium, Celeron).

Watch out for processors with slower than 2ghz speeds – sometimes these find their way into laptops to save battery power, but there is a hit to performance.

At the end of the day, I’d rather have a PC with a good processor, than one with a cheap processor, even if the cheap processor PC is more loaded with other features. The processor is the most difficult part of your PC to upgrade later, meanwhile the other parts below can be easily upgraded. (You can find out how with YouTube videos if you haven’t done it before)

RAM

You’ll want a very minimum of 8gb of RAM, but 16gb or 24gb of the fastest RAM your computer can take will be excellent.

Just like the processor, the amount of RAM that you need varies greatly with the number of pixels you are controlling. A good rule of thumb is that if you are filling your RAM to 50% or more during average usage (which you can check with the Windows “Task Manager”, or the Mac “Activity Monitor”), then you will see at least some speed improvement by adding more RAM.

Graphics

While neither program requires a graphics card, it can help as you begin visualizing into the many thousands of pixels. And less than that and the difference is negligible.

If you do add a graphics card, there’s really no need to go expensive. Unlike the 3d games and visualizations that high-end graphics cards excel at, the simple 2d pixel views in xLights and Vixen are not demanding!

Hard Drive

When buying a new computer today, it’s really worth going with an SSD drive.

While conventional “spinning” hard drives used to be significantly less expensive, they’re not anymore and SSD’s make your computer faster when saving changes to your layout and sequences.

What Will Make My Sequencing Life Easier?

While the specs above are a great starting point, your monitor can make or break your time sequencing.

As a general rule, “bigger is better”, and with multiple monitors, you can separate your sequencing screen from your display so that you can see both very clearly as you work.

Some folks even use a 32″ or similar TV as a sequencing monitor to see their display clearly!

There are a lot of great options out there, and will not necessary, you’ll find it is very helpful to have large screen(s). What you don’t need, however, is a touch screen.

Neither xLights or Vixen are really designed for use with touch screens, so having that functionality doesn’t really give you much of an advantage.

Find the Right Computer for You

If you leave this article with any thoughts in your head, I want it to be this – you don’t have to break the bank to have a great sequencing computer for xLights or Vixen.

At the end of the day, these programs are not super resource-intensive, and until you get into a massive display you won’t need a high-end PC.

And when you do get to that level, a expensive PC is only a small portion of your display’s budget anyways 🙂

Whatever you do, have fun, and keep creating great lighting!

What Happens When a Pixel Only Shows Some Colors, But Not Others?

When a pixel is only showing some colors, but not all colors, then you know that you either have a failed LED, or an addressing or patching issue.

As you begin to light up your Christmas light display, over time you may start to see some of your pixels failing.

But before you grab those wire cutters, we have a few things to test and verify whether the pixel is indeed bad!

How to Troubleshoot Pixels that Only Light in Some Colors

If you haven’t changed ANYTHING in your display, and suddenly there’s a bad pixel, then there’s a 90% or greater chance that you do indeed have a bad pixel – even if it still lights up in some colors!

But – if you have just put up your display for the first time, or changed anything (controller, number of strings, wiring methods, sequence files), then we have a few things to check and rule out to get this pixel working right!

Test Patterns

The first thing that I like to do is to simply start with some test patterns from within the controller. I like to use something that flashes red, green, blue, and white (if your controller has one), to see if the pixel works.

If this makes the pixel work (but the pixel didn’t work with your sequences), then you know that the problem is most likely in your software’s patch or other configuration.

Check The Controller

Then let’s head to the controller. The source of the problem we’re having often originates in the DMX protocol that is the basis of the e1.31 sACN, or Art-Net signal that we send our lights.

In these protocols, we get 512 channels of control for each universe of lights. With RGB LED pixels, we can fit 170 pixels into that, taking up 510 channels – with 2 left over.

Most often, in Christmas lighting, we just throw away those 2 channels and move on to the next universe. However, that’s not always the case and most controllers offer a method to switch between skipping those channels and not!

When this switch is in the wrong position in your controller’s software, you’ll get a pixel that lights up in some colors, but not others. Make sure it’s set correctly for how you have designed your display!

Next, go and verify that the output you are using for your pixels is set the number of pixels that you have connected (or more).

Once you’ve verified that these are set correctly, you can run a test pattern from your controller again and see if it changed. If so, you’ve fixed it! If not, it’s time to dive into your sequencing/playback software.

Check Your Software

Once you’ve verified that your controller is set correctly, you need to verify that your sequencing software has correctly patched the correct pixels in the correct places and that the total number of pixels per universe is set to match your controller.

Number of channels per universe in xLights.

While it’s most important to verify the number of channels is set correctly, it’s also important to verify that your lights are connected to the correct prop. I like to do this by creating a test sequence that simple lights up and runs a slow animation on the pixels in question!

Check Your Lights

If none of this fixes the problem, then it’s most likely the lights. However, the one thing we haven’t ruled out is some kind of anomaly with your controller.

The last troubleshooting step I like to take is to plug in a spare set of pixels that you have around. You’ll plug them in to where the troublesome pixel is, and see if they all light correctly. If you find a pixel that has problems in the new string, then you know the issue is not with the pixels themselves.

If, however, the new string of pixels works fine, then you know that the problem is with the pixel.

Next Steps

Changing out that bad pixel doesn’t have to be a chore! In fact, I’ve written my guide to repairing bad pixels here.

The short answer – if you keep some extra pixels on hand, this will be much simpler, as you won’t have to rush to get your display back up for the next night’s show!

How Do I Choose Effects for My Christmas Light Display?

To choose the right effects for your Christmas light display, you need to consider 3 main factors – your display props, the music itself, and the lyrics of the music.

Choosing the right effects at the right time in your Christmas light show can make the difference between your audience thinking “This is cool” and “Wow, this is the most amazing show I have ever seen, I am in awe!”.

And we all want to awe people, right? At the end of the day, that’s why we make our displays, and with some due diligence, we can make it happen by focusing on picking the very best effects for each moment of each song.

Your Display Props

The first thing to consider when choosing an effect is your props themselves. While your sequencing program has lots of different effects, most effects have a type of effect that they are strongest on.

If you think about it, there are really only a few different kinds of props – Matrix, Circular, and Line. Different effects look good on each type of prop and when you choose the best effect for each prop in your display, you can make your pixels as powerful and engaging as possible.

To think about it a more concrete way, say you have 1000 pixels. If you use effects well across your 1000 pixels, you can have a really engaging show. But, if you don’t have engaging effects that match your props, even a 2000 pixel show won’t look very impressive!

Some props fit into multiple categories, but most props fall into these 3:

Matrix

Matrix props are those that have pixels close together and are designed to play video and video-like effects. Intricate and detailed smooth transitions can be played on these props, and they work well.

More basic effects can be quite boring on a matrix, though. While matrices have the advantage of making video content look great, simple effects do not always look pleasing to the eye!

To be totally honest, I would rather black out a matrix during a slow song than stick it on a static color (an effect in itself!). That way, instead of boring the audience with a basic effect, I give their eyes a visual break until a faster-paced moment!

Circular

Circular props are my favorite type of prop to work with. Whether it’s a “Candy-cane” spinner, a circle, or a snowflake, anything that is relatively round can make some mesmerizing effects.

While many circular props have pixels close together, it is not a requirement for the effects to work. Effects that are also based on a circle work best for circular props (which is probably obvious!). Anything that spins or expands from a center point is a great effect for a circular prop.

Line

Any strand of pixels that is in a straight line is perfect for “line” style effects.

Sweeps of light across the prop or the “chase” effect in many sequencers look great on lines of pixels. When you combine multiple lines of pixels together in a group, you can then use effects that are optimized for matrices or circular props as well.

All The Props?

The last thing to consider with the props is how many props you will apply the same effect on to.

At the end of the day, the whole display is one canvas that you are applying the right effects to at the right time. Sometimes, it makes sense musically to use an effect on your whole house (more on that in a moment).

But other times, it may make sense to highlight a prop or 2 at a time, keeping the rest off.

The Music Itself

When I’m sitting down to sequence a new song, the first thing I pay attention to is the music itself.

Sequencing to the music…

Is it soft? Is it intense? Is there an increase/decrease in energy at different times of the song?

While I wrote here about how I choose my colors, choosing the right type of effect for the music is also important.

As you lay an effect onto music, the very first thing to do is to make sure the tempo lines up with the beats of the music. Thankfully, both Vixen and xLights have tools available to help you ensure this is correct.

Then, consider how the music feels. Is the song “big”, “small”, “slow”, or “fast”? Are the musicians playing the songs working with “broad strokes”, or “fine detail”?

In particular, I find it especially effective to listen to when the music is more basic vs fine details. When there are a lot of detailed sounds happening musically, it makes sense to have a lot of more complex-looking effects happening on your display. When the music is simple, stick with just 1 or 2 effects over the entire canvas of your house!

Just like playing an instrument, the effects built in your sequencing software can be made via the same principles.

When you sync the look of the effect with the type of music, you make the type of display that sends happy shivers down the neck of your audience!

The Lyrics of The Songs

Last, you want to pay attention to what the songs are saying. One of the things I love about Christmas music is that it often has really great imagery in the lyrics.

Listen to the description of colors, scenes of nature, and other clues which can help you sequence. You don’t have to follow every reference is every song, but it can be very helpful in creating an engaging sequence!

For example, the song “Silver Bells”, doesn’t really mention any colors that we can make well with LED’s, but it does remind me of a nice, steady snowfall. Naturally, it’s pretty simple to bring in a snowfall effect with any modern sequencing program.

If you have video tiles, or even a pixel matrix, you can also run images and videos on your display to really show the imagery!

Great Effects for a Great Show

At the end of the day it doesn’t have to be overwhelming to create great effects for your Christmas light display!

By following the tips in this article, I hope you can cut through the clutter and choose great effects that match the music and fit your display well.

Let’s Design Our 2019 Display: LCL March Update

At the beginning of the year, I had already started planning for this year’s Christmas lights. I had created a spreadsheet to help keep track of the lights and equipment that I would need in this year’s set up.

On top of that I have already pre-ordered my pixels, also known as PreSale, so that I could get the lights at a discount for purchasing them during the off season. For this month’s update I am working to get the rest of my set up planned out.

Making a Plan

Using a spreadsheet is a fantastic way to keep track of what lights I have available. To get started I wanted to first go through what I liked in last year’s setup and decided if I want to keep that in this year’s Christmas display.

A lot of what I am able to do this year will depend on what my budget will allow. There are a few things that I would like to differently for the lights. At this point, it is a great idea to know how many pixels you’ll have available to work with.

Using the program xLights, I am making my way through the set up to help calculate first how many pixels I need and then to make notes for any changes that I want to make for this year’s setup.

Controllers and Power Supply

Once I’ve went through and made adjustments to my plan for this year, it’s time to figure out what controllers I need and how I’m going to manage the power supply.

Using my spreadsheet I created separate columns from the pixels to make note of my controllers and the power needed.

2019 Christmas Lights Display Spreadsheet

As I’m working through each line I found a great tool to use, the Spiker lights calculator. Using this calculator I can input how many pixels I have, the wattage, and the intensity. Once I input this information it will tell me the info I need to see if I have enough power or not.

Using this tool you don’t have to be perfect but if you do guess try to guess high. When working with the power supply I try not to make one unit work too hard. If just having an extra unit help power the display will help your units last longer.

For the display last year I ran most of my pixels at only 50% and they looked great. You don’t have to run everything at 100% to look great.

For the power supply units first I need to know what I have available to work with this year. As I have my list I start grouping the lights and figuring out which pixels can go on which controller. It makes easier to break it down to sections.

That’s what I’ve been able to plan out for this year’s display so far. I like to keep it easy and clean. There still may be some changes for the power supply but I’ll have to see where I am this summer if I decide to to make another purchase.

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