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.

What Colors Can Christmas Light Pixels Make?

In short, an RGB LED Christmas light pixel can make 16.7 million colors when running at full intensity.

If you’ve ever worked with LED lights and talked to an RGB LED salesperson, you may have heard a line like this:

“These LED’s can make 16.5 million colors!”

And that’s just got to make you raise your eyebrow in suspicion, at least a little.

Can a simple RGB Christmas light pixel really make 16.7 million colors?

After all, if they can, that would mean that you have a massive amount of options when creating your Christmas light display!

In order to understand if this is possible, let’s first talk a little bit about how pixels work.

How Do Pixels Work?

The most common pixel that we see in Christmas light displays is the single RGB LED pixel, that is driven by a standardized protocol.

Most often, the protocol used is WS2811 or something similar, and this protocol is sent to the pixels via a pixel controller.

From there, the pixel controllers are sent Art-Net or sACN (e1.31) information from the show’s computer. These networked signals are based on DMX512, which is the signal designed to control stage lights.

So the flow of information starts at the show computer, goes to the pixel controller, and then to the pixels themselves.

Red, Green and Blue

Christmas Light Pixels
Christmas Light Pixels

For each pixel, there are 3 “channels” of information. Each channel controls one color of the pixel, and most pixels that we see in Christmas displays are RGB pixels. Within each pixel, each color is an individual LED.

Each channel is made up of 256 “steps”, which are different levels that you can set that particular channel to.

By mixing these 3 channels of 256 steps together, RGB LED’s are able to mix colors.

And yes, technically that is 16,777,216 colors that you can get out of an RGB pixel. (256*256*256)

But it’s not really that simple. When we’re working with Christmas displays, the pixels are usually not run at 100% intensity – that is often too bright!

Of course, this depends on what type of pixels you are using, how far away they are from the viewer, how far apart the pixels are from each other, as well as a few other factors like the weather (really!).

But let’s say we’re running them at 50%. Now we’re down to 8.35 million colors…still not too shabby! If you can’t make a dynamic light show out of 8.35 million colors…I don’t know what you’re doing!

The Truth – Color Theory Basics

When it comes down to it, the “real” question we should be asking is this – how many discernible colors do I have to work with on my Christmas light display, so that I can create a great show for my friends and neighbors?

That is, how any different colors can I make that I can actually tell apart?

When I’m sitting down to sequence a display, I have 10 “main” colors that I put in my palette to begin working. They are:

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
  • Amber
  • Violet
  • White
  • Black

These 10 colors really give me a good starting point for thinking about what I want as I begin to work with a song or animation.

From there, we can shade these colors towards each other as desired. This may triple or quadruple the total amount of colors we have at our disposal, and that’s great!

Are there really 16.7 million colors to use? No, nobody can really tell the difference between that many colors!

But the truth is, we get a good toolbox with 30 or so colors, and most audiences aren’t going to notice the difference in any more colors than that!

Color Variation Between Different Strings

Now that we’ve covered how many colors we can actually make, it’s time to think about color variation.

While we shouldn’t ever see colors that are inconsistent within the same string, as that would likely be a power problem, sometimes you will see color differences between different strings – why is that?

Do The Colors Vary By LED Vendor?

In general, my advice is that you try and stick with a single source for all of your LED’s – at least for any given prop or section of your display.

With standard pixel “nodes”, I am happy to report that I have noticed only subtle differences between the colors produced from nodes of different brands.

In general, these types of nodes are quite consistent. The biggest thing to look for when comparing manufacturers is the total brightness / wattage rating of the lights. Some places optimize for brightness, while others optimize their pixels for a lesser brightness so that Christmas light hobbyists can run them at higher levels.

While you can definitely mix strands of lights that have different wattages in your display, you won’t want them on the same controller output. You’ll need to keep them to separate outputs so that you are able to control the brightness level separately to make them consistent!

As we also discussed above, running the pixels at higher levels does technically give you more color options, and definitely makes your fades and transitions smoother.

Do Colors Vary By Age?

This is a big one. As LED’s “put on the hours”, they do tend to fade, and each color will fade a little bit differently.

The areas where I have noticed this the most is when LED’s are permanently installed and run 24/7 (or near that). Thankfully, once again, for most Christmas light hobbyists this is a non-issue, as we don’t put a ton of hours on our lights while they are on a night, and we only use them on a seasonal basis.

Do The Colors Vary By Type Of LED?

The biggest place that I have seen color variation in LED’s is across different types of nodes.

Pixel tapes or strips are the worst offenders, but I have noticed slight color differences when comparing LED’s of different form factors, even within the same brand.

The general consensus is that it’s harder to make a pixel tape that is bright and consistent, so I would avoid them for your display. I have seen 2 reels of tape, bought at the same time, with VERY different colors – and do you really want that on your display?

Thankfully, the most popular types of nodes used in Christmas lights, the standard “pixel node”, are remarkably consistent!

As with anything, in the Christmas lighting hobby, this usually isn’t bad enough to warrant you taking a string out of your display, but it is something to be aware of.

Conclusion

I hope this post has helped you to understand how many colors you can make with your LED pixels, and how to get the most out of them for your display.

Be sure to keep coming back here to Learn Christmas Lighting, as we’re constantly putting out new articles and videos, so that you can create a low-stress, fun Christmas light display!

What Colors Should I Use for My Christmas Light Show?

One of the most amazing things about modern, Christmas light pixels is that you can make them almost any color you’d like.

But, when you sit down to sequence, you realize that having so many options can actually be really limiting, and you might find yourself asking “What colors should I use for my Christmas light show?”

When choosing colors, it’s important that you don’t make each and every song feature every color of the rainbow. As you go through your entire show, you want to take the viewer on a journey, stopping along the way through different colors. You also want to feature colors that go well together, using color scheme types such as complimentary, triadic, and analogous.

Don’t worry if this sounds like a mix of technical and art-class mumbo-jumbo – while the words may sound fancy, the principles are simple.

In this article, I’m going to share with you how pixels make color, and how you can find the perfect colors for each moment in your Christmas light display!

How Do Christmas Light Pixels Make Color?

Starting at the base level, we’ve got to discuss how the lights we use make colors.

Pixels, the most popular lights for Christmas lighting, contain 3 tiny, colored LEDs within their casing.

Christmas Light Pixels
Christmas Light Pixels

These LED’s are most commonly colored Red, Green, and Blue, and can be controlled independently. This allows us use 1 or multiple colors at a single time to mix the colors we desire.

In lighting, the color mixing works in an RGB format, with Red, Green, and Blue being the primary colors.

From there, we can take any combination of these colors at full to mix the secondary colors:

  • Red + Green = Yellow
  • Red + Blue = Magenta
  • Green + Blue = Cyan

Already, this gives us 6 unique colors to work with. Adding all 3 colors together at full makes white.

When we experiment with varying the amounts of these 3 colors, we get considerably more shades and mixes of colors!

How Do Colors Affect Us?

Now that we understand the basics of how these lights work, let’s talk about color, and how it makes us feel.

If this seems unimportant to you – don’t let it be! Color is one of the most powerful tools available to the light artist, and with Christmas lighting, it’s the one that we use the most.

Every color makes us feel a different feeling. And, for the most part, these feelings are shared among people of similar cultures.

For example:

Red = Anger, Jealousy, Fear

Pink = Love, Light and Airy

Yellow = Poppy, Bright and Happy

Amber = Awakening, Rootsy and Raw

Green = Rootsy, Organic, Calming, Earthy

Aqua = Gentle, Simple, Water

Blue = Water, Night-time, Calm, Sullen

Violet = Royal, Magestic, Quiet

White = Open, Raw, Unfiltered

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of the feelings that people associate with colors, it’s a good start and a great reference for when you’re stuck trying to find “just the right color” for a song.

Of course, colors don’t exist by themselves, they are shaped by the other colors around them. When we use colors in combination, we get a mix of their emotions, and often we can also trigger memories common experiences, all by using color!

Types of Color Combinations

The Color Wheel
The color wheel by Robson#.

Color combinations are a way to look for and to find colors that go well together. These are based on the color wheel – remember that from art class?

Monochromatic

The simplest color combination isn’t much of a color combination at all – it’s monochromatic – or “one color”, as it’s roughly translated.

The cool thing about monochromatic color schemes is that it doesn’t have to be simply (1) color over the whole house. You can start everything at the same color, and then tweak different parts of your display with different shades and brightness levels.

All of a sudden, your display is no longer 1 flat color, but it’s a stained-glass-like work of art, yet still simple at the same time!

Complimentary

When most people think of a “color scheme”, they’re most likely picturing complimentary colors.

Complimentary colors are opposites on the color wheel, like Red and Green, or Blue and Yellow. They tend to “neutralize” each other, so when you use compliments in your display, it doesn’t feel moody in any particular direction.

Most often, when we think of “holiday colors” they are complimentary colors.

These colors go well together, but be warned – when we are working with light, sometimes the colors bleed in to each other if they are too closely packed together. To the viewers eye, your lights can then begin to appear brown or dull – and nobody wants that!

Triadic

Triadic color schemes are similar to complimentary, except instead of opposites they are 1/3’s around the color wheel – like a peace sign!

Red, Green and Blue or Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are both examples of great triadic color schemes.

Like complimentary color schemes, triadic color schemes feel very balanced across your display.

Analogous

On the other side of the coin, we have analogous, or “close-together” color schemes.

These are combinations of colors that are close together – like Red and Yellow, Blue and Violet, or Cyan and Green.

Analogous color schemes are very passionate and definitely echo the emotions presented by the colors. For this reason, they should be used sparingly, so that they stand out against the rest of your show!

Color Combinations that are “Christmasy”

When we think about Christmas, usually the first color combination that comes up is Red and Green. But, as I discussed above, it can be difficult to make Red and Green look good because they mix to brown!

Luckily, this isn’t the only color scheme that is good for Christmas. In fact, one of my favorites to use is Red and White – candy cane colors which are fun and whimsical!

Another great combo is Blue and White. This softly gives a nighttime feel or the impression of snow!

Gold and Violet also go together, and put off a royal, or magisterial glow.

Red and Orange can bring the warmth of a flame to your display.

How To Choose the Right Colors for a Song

You don’t have to stick to just the “Christmasy” colors for your display. Any color can work with the right song and changing up colors during your display helps keep things feeling fresh!

When I am charting out the colors that I want to use for a song, I start with the imagery of the song itself.

Many Christmas songs has very vivid imagery, and even mention colors. You don’t have to use a color just because a song mentions it, but it often makes sense.

I like to switch what color scheme I am using for each major change in the musical sound of a song. For some songs, that is multiple times during a song (i.e. Verses, Choruses, and Bridge). For simpler songs, I will stick to the same color scheme for the whole song.

While this goes deeper than just color, I think it’s just as important to have slow lighting for slow songs during your display as it is to have fast-paced, quick changing animations.

The slow times give the audience a break, and prepare them to be amazed when the next fast song arrives!

Examples of Great Use of Color in Christmas Lights

Last, I want to highlight some really great examples of color that I found in Christmas light shows on Youtube. You’ll see my comments below each video, as I share how color was used.

The Trista Lights 2016 Christmas Show features a number of great uses of color.

For example, in the introduction they keep it to a simple blue with white for the whole segment. Then, for “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, they transition into a nice gold/violet scheme, and the entire song makes the majority of it’s looks from those colors.

Later, we see them pull off red and green by keeping each color to fairly large blocks that are separated by blank space.

If you watch until the end, you’ll see a variety of the other color schemes that we’ve discussed in this article – see if you can find the blue/violet song!

In his sequence of Harry Potter, Tom BetGeorge does some really interesting work with color.

Notice how he switches from a blue-center palette during the slowest portions of the song, and then ramps up to a vibrant red and green! Again, notice how he keeps his red and green separated on areas of dense pixels to keep them from looking brown!

Then, as the medley continues, note how the colors change for each song to move the viewer along through the show. I appreciate this “slow and moody” light show!

Another “Let It Go”, this show features actual video projection alongside the light show.

Take note of the transition form blue and violet to the inclusion of white and cyan. I especially enjoyed how they took breaks to turn off many of their lights during some of the spoken parts!

Let’s Use Color in Your Christmas Light Display!

Color is our biggest tool in creating great Christmas lighting. Let’s use color to make your display awesome!

What FM Transmitter Do I Need for My Christmas Light Show?

If you’re going to have a Christmas light display, one of the best parts is having friends, family, and strangers pull up and turn the dial in their cars to hear your display.

Okay, maybe they aren’t “turning the dial” quite like the old days, but if you want your display to be heard, you need an FM transmitter.

Even though setting up some large PA speakers might seem like a good idea, you’ll quickly lose the friendship of your neighbors!

An FM transmitter for Christmas lighting is pretty simple, but if you’re like me, you’ve looked online and noticed that every model available has both great and terrible reviews if you look hard enough – making it extremely difficult to figure out what’s good!

For that reason, this article is going to have 3 parts – first, I’m going to share some background about FM transmitters in general, and then share with you the model I purchased and why.

Then, we’ll work on getting your transmitter set up. This is actually the most crucial part of the process, and is often the difference between frustration and a great, clear signal!

How to Legally Use an FM Transmitter

FM radio is an interesting animal because on one side, we’ve got the FCC who regulates professional, high-powered radio, and on the other side, we have hobbyist and personal FM transmitters.

And both of these can work with the same frequencies, at the same time, in the same place.

When you’re using an FM transmitter for your home’s Christmas lights, you are falling under “personal use”, and need to stay under .01 microwatts of power at 3 meters. Any transmitter labeled as “FCC Part 15 Compliant” with an FCC ID number will stay within these limits.

One question that I often get is “Will the FCC come after me if I use an unlicensed/overpowered FM transmitter”?

While it’s not likely that they’ll come after you, they can, and if they do, the fines for running unlicensed radio are $10,000-$75,000.

The “big loophole” here is that the FCC rules are all about how much power you run the transmitter at, which can be a combination of antenna design and power settings. If a transmitter is NOT Part 15 licensed, you run the risk of running an over-powered FM station.

What FM Transmitter Should You Use?

My point in the section above is that it truly is important to be compliant with the FCC’s regulations, and the cost of buying a compliant transmitter can be less than $150.

And with a compliant transmitter, you literally can’t set it up to be overpowered. So just do it!

When I was looking for a transmitter, I saw a few popular options online:

Out of all of these, the “Whole House FM Transmitter” seemed the simplest for a first-timer, and is FCC compliant with the proper, included antenna.

I write that last part, as the transmitter does indeed come with a second antenna that is sealed and labeled “Not for use in the United States”. It’s probably great, but I’m going to pass on using it!

Other transmitters, like the Ebay/EDM transmitters may also require additional setup, possibly including soldering the components together. Again, this is all fine if you want to go through that trouble, and I was considering it.

But, at the end of the day, the Whole House FM Transmitter was not overly expensive and gets me clear signal all the way to the end of my street (further than you can see the display from!).

Advanced: What is RDS?

If you begin looking at more advanced FM transmitters, you’ll see that they may include “RDS” or “Radio Data System”. This is the protocol that sends the text from an FM transmitter to share the station name, song titles, or whatever else you desire!

Most people do not use RDS for their displays, but some find it to be helpful. Like any upgrade, it does cost more and take more configuration, but it may be worth it for you.

Where Should You Place Your FM Transmitter?

The biggest mistake that I see people making with FM transmitters is placement.

Think about it for a moment – “real”, commercial FM stations that you may listen to in your car seek out the highest points of land to place their tall towers. This is because the extra height allows them the get the maximum distance possible with a clear signal.

Shouldn’t you do the same for your FM transmitter?

The answer, of course, is “Yes”. When you are looking for a place to locate your transmitter, get it as high as possible. For example, I located my transmitter at the top of the interior wall for my first year. After that, I moved it to the attic for even better coverage.

It’s also worth noting that any building materials such as insulation and drywall will dampen the signal. For that reason, it is best to get your transmitter on the wall closest to your display.

Any metal sheets or wire mesh will completely block your signal, so you want to keep your transmitter away from those!

In my testing, I found that the inside wall of the attic was the best place for my display – it gave me exactly the coverage I needed and more. But, you might find that you need more coverage, in which case it’s probably time to locate it outside!

How Do You Get Good Quality Sound Out Of Your FM Transmitter?

Getting your FM transmitter in the right place is a really, really good first step to getting the sound to be loud and clear!

But we also need to get things right with the actual audio and our cabling to ensure a great broadcast!

Step 1: Quality, Shielded Cabling

Don’t buy cheap cables. Actually, just don’t buy un-shielded cables.

When the audio leaves your computer or Rasberry Pi to head to your FM transmitter, it needs to get there without interference.

Some cables that you can buy are NOT shielded, and interference from power supplies and LED’s can get in and mess with your signal.

A cable like this is great. (See, it doesn’t have to be expensive!)

Step 2: Normalize Your Audio

Normalizing is the simple step of taking each audio track (music and spoken) that you are using for your display and making sure it’s at the same audio level.

No matter what type of music you’re doing – new, old, or a mix, you need to do this, and you can do it with a simple program like Audacity.

This will ensure that no tracks are too loud or too soft – a topic that we’re about to dive in to!

Step 3: Set the Right Frequency

RadioLocator.com

While your FM transmitter can be set to a wide variety of frequencies, it’s usually defaulted to the bottom of the frequency band…which isn’t guaranteed to be the best place!

Finding the right frequencies to test is simple. Just head to Radio-Locator.com, and enter your location. The site will then give you a report of the best radio frequencies to use.

Step 4: Set the Right Level

The last thing that you need to do is to set the volume of your computer to what your FM transmitter wants to see.

This is really going to vary by computer and transmitter, but it’s rare to run your computer at full volume.

Some people use an audio mixer to set the volume level, but that really isn’t necessary, and it just makes your system more complex.

To experiment, bring down the volume to about 70% and tune in on a radio. Listen to the music, and bring the volume up until you start to hear pops, static or other noise excessively.

Then, back the volume down until it’s quiet and give it a little space. You’ve found the perfect level! The key here is to make it as loud as possible to the transmitter before distortion occurs.

This keep noise from coming in and annoying your listeners!

How Can You Test Your FM Transmitter?

As you set up your FM transmitter, you may quickly get tired of running to your car to see if it’s working!

I bought this simple, battery-powered radio, and it is perfect.

Not only is it a time-saver for testing, but we also use it when we have friends over and people want to watch the display from the sidewalk.

Once you’ve got that perfect volume dialed in, be sure to test it on a few different radios, just to be sure it’s good!

How Do People Know to Tune To Your Station?

Last, but not least, we’ve got to get people listening to your display while you play the music.

This might seem simple, but I don’t want to gloss over it! Having some kind of “tune-to” sign that instructs viewers to listen in on radio is key.

You can make a simple “tune to” sign out of pretty much anything – some people buy printed coroplast, or use a pixel matrix or panel.

Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you make sure that your sign is large enough to be seen, and that it is lit up (if it is not made up of lights itself!).

That way, we can ensure that your guests can hear all of the hard work you’ve put in to getting the radio right!

What Controller Do I Need for My Christmas Lights?

If you’ve started looking for a controller for your Christmas lights you may have noticed the many different types of controllers that are available.

There are different brands, types and options, and it can be confusing!

It can definitely be overwhelming but how do you know which one is right for your set up?

In this post, we’re going to cover both sides of the spectrum – if you’re just starting out, or perhaps you’re looking to get a new controller.

This will be directed more towards those starting out however, well cover different type of controllers and how to choose the best one for your set up.

Types of Controllers

When you begin looking for controllers you’re going to see a few different types on the market. You have your stand-alone units and then you have the long range units.

Stand Alone Controllers

Stand-alone controllers are normally just one piece and they are great to use for smaller setups.

The range on these to keep in mind is roughly 50 feet. Pixel data will NOT travel much further than this, and in fact, sometimes not even this far.

As you begin to get further from the controller, you may need to add in additional power supplies at the end of your light strings. Depending on the length of string, total wattage, and your wire’s thickness, you may need to reinject power over any controller’s output that is pushing even 15′!

As your voltage drops over distance, you will need to consider the additional power supplies needed. Remember, if the voltage of the signal drops too far (and this happens around 50′), you will have signal issues!

This is where some hobbyists insert “null pixels” to boost the signal, but I would rather simplify things and just use long-range controllers for most displays.

Long Range Controllers

The long-range controllers come with 2 separate circuit boards.

One of the boards is the brains of the operation while the other is a receiver. These units can normally extend to 300 feet or even more.

What’s the Difference

The difference between these two types of controllers is the range. The stand-alone controllers are more ideal for smaller setups as the range is only 50 feet.

When you start to work past that range your voltage and data reach begins to drop off. This will force you to find an additional power supply to help extend the range. While this is doable it’s just much easier to go with a long-range unit instead.

My Recommendations

My personal preference and recommendation are to go with a long-range controller because of the distance, the configuration, and they just work better for you in the long run.

With a stand-alone unit, I’m hesitant to push all that power through just one board. So many, things can go wrong. But with a long-range unit, you have two separate boards working and in most cases, you can replace just a single piece as opposed to a while unit.

Lastly, the cost of just purchasing one long-range unit is normally the same or even cheaper than purchasing two stand-alone units.

Considering that the most popular long-range unit – the Falcon F48 can drive 16 receivers of 4 pixel outputs each, the cost per output really diminishes as you grow!

What Brand Should You Buy?

Since working in stage lighting I’ve always loved the ENTTEC brand units but when you are just setting up displays as more of a hobby the ENTTEC units can be a bit expensive and have more/different features than you need.

From what I have gathered in Christmas Lighting world Advatek and Falcon are both the top brands in the industry. They also have great reviews and products. Not to mention the pricing is fairly similar between both brands.

The Falcon brand is more focused and designed for those that do Christmas Lighting as a hobby. So the technical side of their products is a lot easier to work with. So, this is the brand I would suggest going with.

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