As you plan and begin to build your first Christmas light display, it’s important to think about fixing your pixels for when they break.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about Christmas lights from my childhood, I think about half working strands of lights that were near impossible to fix at times. And oh yes, they were tangled up too!
Like any Christmas lights that you put outside in all of the weather, your pixels are going to break.
You will have problems from time to time. but never fear, because pixels are pretty simple, and can be repaired even more easily than regular Christmas lights.
When You Receive Your Pixels
The very first step into ensuring your pixels continue working well is to test all of your pixels when you first get them.
Many people call this “burning in”, and the process is very simple.
I like to go ahead and power up my pixels and run some sort of a test pattern on them. I may run them on that full white for an hour or two, and then run them on some kind of color changing pattern after that. The pattern is pretty key so that you can tell if there are any issues with the data along your strings as they heat up.
If there are any issues early on, you’ll spot them now.
I know in the past I’ve had strings that looked pretty good when I first got them, but only a few hours into running then I started to have bad pixels here and there.
Sometimes, a bad string gets past quality control. But, if you catch it before it’s up on your house, it’s much easier to fix!
Prepare for Broken Pixels
Once you have your display up, it’s time to prepare to fix your various pixels.
At a minimum, I like to have a few strands of extra pixels around. That way, I can pull the bad strands of lights out of service, and fix them when I have time without losing any parts of my show.
If you’re using any coroplast props, window edges, or Boscoyo strips, you’re going to want to have an extra one of those around too. That way, you can load it up and put it on your house, replacing the bad section quickly.
There are a few tools you’ll also want to have to for repairing pixels.
Many people, myself included, have fixed many pixels with a soldering iron. However, solder sleeves are a newer and popular way to fix pixels, especially when they’re up on your house.
My biggest tip with sleeves is to make sure you heat up the wires well with your heat gun, even before they’re in the solder sleeve itself. The biggest issue that I see is that the wire doesn’t heat up enough for the solder to properly adhere to it, causing a bad connection later.
Diagnosing The Problem
When a pixel stops working, there can be a few different causes that require slightly different solutions. Here they are:
1. Bad Pixels That Don’t Pass Data
If a pixel doesn’t light up and the pixels after it do not respond, you’ll want to replace both the pixel that’s not responding and the pixel before it.
2. Pixel That Doesn’t Light, But Does Pass Data
However, if a pixel doesn’t light up, or only lights up in some colors, but still passes data, you’re good at leaving it in the chain until the end of the season.
This generally means that the electronics are fine, it’s just the LED itself has lost connection or broken. If the dead pixel bothers you or is in a place that’s very obvious then you may want to replace it anyways!
3. “Strobes”, “Flashes”, or other Strange Behavior
Last, if you have flashes or lightning-like effects that aren’t supposed to be happening, then you’ve most likely got a ground problem or water intrusion.
Water often gets into the connectors that attach your pixels together or attached pixels to your controllers.
While these connectors are usually called “waterproof”, they are not truly waterproof connectors. As a measure of prevention, you’ll want to use a few drops of Dielectric grease in order to prevent water from touching and sticking to the electronic parts.
If you have connections that are exposed to the rain and snow (and you most likely do!), be sure to place them with the female side of the connection up, and the male down.
That way, as water runs down the wire, it doesn’t get in and it won’t be able to “well up” inside the female socket.
Fixing the Pixels
As I mentioned above, you can either solder or use solder sleeves to fix your pixels. (And of course, like almost anything in this hobby, there are 100 opinions on what alternative connectors are best!)
To fix your bad pixels, you want to first identify the bad pixel and which way the data is flowing. I like to mark the bad pixel with a Sharpie, right on the lens so I don’t miss it!
Turn off and unplug power to the strands that you’re going to be working with. To be safe turn off your whole display. 🙂
Then, cut out any bad pixels that you have with wire cutters. Remember, if the pixel is stopping the flow of data, be sure to cut out 1st non-working pixel as well as the last working pixel.
If the pixel simply doesn’t work but does allow the data past, then you only need to remove 1 pixel.
Then, you’ll want to strip the wires and use your favorite solder sleeves or a soldering iron and some adhesive lined heat shrink to keep the connections waterproof.
Finish it up carefully, making sure you solder the proper wires together. When you’re done, reapply power and test your pixels.
And just like that, you’ve repaired your pixels!
Hopefully, this won’t something that you have to do often.
If you buy pixels from reputable sellers, they shouldn’t be failing very often. Here’s to your fully functioning Christmas display!
One of the biggest things that can trip people up when they’re first working with Christmas lighting is the fact that you often need a network to make all the stuff work together. It sounds complicated!
Whether you’re running your show off of a computer or Raspberry Pi, You’ve got to have at least a simple network to get the data off of the computer into your pixel controllers.
This may seem confusing or complicated, but it really doesn’t have to be.
In fact, when it comes to networks- simpler is better.
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to set up your first show network to run Christmas lights, and then help you decide when it’s time to get more complex.
Question 1: Should I Put My Display on My Home Network?
If you’re like most people, at your home you have a router that is set up by your internet provider, and you plug in or connect wirelessly with all of your different devices.
When you’re working with Christmas lights, you generally want to keep them separate from this home network. Protocols like Art-Net don’t deal well with networks that have internet.
Other protocols, like sACN or DDP, work fine with the open internet but can have issues as you start to scale-up and get a lot of traffic.
So do what the professionals do: keep your show network separate from your home network.
If you have any devices such as your main computer or Raspberry Pi that need to be on the internet, you can attach them to the internet with a second network adapter.
Let’s start with a simple network setup.
The Basics: A Network Cable
If you’re just starting out and you only have one device or have devices that feature ethernet pass-thru’s then you really don’t need to have a complicated network.
For a simple computer to a controller setup, just use a standard network cable. Pretty much all modern devices now crossover automatically, so you don’t have to worry about a special crossover cable or anything like that.
In this situation, like a lot of Christmas light networks, you’ll want to set static IP addresses for each device on your network. This is going to be completely off of your home network that has internet.
When you’re setting IP addresses, here’s what you need to know:
For a simple network, the first three values of the IP address must match.
For example: 192.168.0.1 could be one device, and 192.168.0.2 could be the second.
If you just have 2 devices connected with a network cable, it generally doesn’t matter what you use as long as the first three values, or octets, are the same, and then the last one is different.
Your pixel controllers may have a default IP address to default to when there is no router, and that is fine to use and base your addressing scheme by.
Getting More Complex: Using a Switch to Connect Multiple Devices
As you start to get more devices or spread them out around your display, it usually makes sense to get a switch to manager wiring and be able to connect more devices together.
In networking terms, a switch is simply a networking device that has multiple plugs on it. it simply allows traffic to move between all of your different devices.
Router or Switch?
You may have called this a router in the past, as most consumer routers also include a switch.
The big difference to know here is that a router is a device that connects smaller networks to bigger networks, whereas a switch just connects within a single network.
In fact, many pixel controllers such as the Falcon line actually come with a small, two Port switch built-in to their controllers, so that you can “daisy-chain” multiple devices together.
If you have multiple devices, a simple unmanaged switch is all you need, and all you want. Each device will plug into the switch, and then they’ll all be able to talk.
With an unmanaged switch, you’ll be setting static IP addresses to each of your devices just like we did in the example above. This might seem at first like an extra step, and you might be tempted to take a shortcut and just buy a router to use instead.
However, as your display scales, it’s difficult to configure all of your different devices if they are getting their IP addresses via DHCP from your router.
Do what the professionals do and keep the IP addresses static. 🙂
I was looking at the networking diagram from the Superbowl this past year and the halftime show lighting network used static IP addresses for all of the show networking devices. If it works for the Super Bowl, it works for me!
Setting Up Your Display Network…Broadcast, Multicast, or Unicast?
Now that you’ve got your network setup physically, it’s time to jump into our software.
When you get into your sequencing program, you’re going to have the option to set up whether you want to broadcast, multicast, or unicast your show information.
Simply put, these different words mean:
Broadcast: All devices on the network receive ALL information that is sent, and then decide what they need to listen to.
Multicast: Devices receive information for the parts of the display that they control. Multiple devices may receive the same information.
Unicast: Each device receives ONLY the information they need, nothing more.
For smaller displays, you will be able to get away with broadcasting or multicasting all of your show’s information.
However, as your display grows, your controllers will likely have issues parsing through all of the information that are being sent their way.
For best results, it’s best to set everything up as unicast. Yes, it takes an extra few minutes on the front end, but once it’s set up, you’re good to go!
In a unicast setup, the controller sends only the information to each pixel controller that is needed.
The pixel controllers don’t have to sort through extra data in order to find what applies to them, so it allows your display to work at top speed and preventing glitching.
Label, Keep it Clean and Document!
My last big tip for you is to be sure that you set up your network neatly. What do I mean by this?
As you build your network, document everything that you do.
Keep a spreadsheet with the IP addresses of all of your devices, so that when you need to talk to one of them, or add another new device it’s easy to see what’s open.
On each controller, put a label on it that tells you which controller it is, and what the IP address is.
Last, take pictures and keep a Google Document or something similar that reminds you how to set your set up your display up.
That way, when October or November rolls around next year you’ll be ready to go, and you won’t be scratching your head trying to remember how you set all this stuff up!
If you haven’t worked with Vixen, here is a great tutorial on how started with Vixen. Starting with the basics we will walk through on adding the elements, patching the lights, and getting started with sequencing!
Starting with Vixen
If you haven’t worked with Vixen before you want to get started by launching the program. On the launch screen, you first want to click “Setup Display”. The program will then open to the Display Setup screen:
On the setup screen you will have three different sections.
The left panel is the elements section, the center panel is the patching section, and the right panel is for your controllers.
To get started with setting up, you first want to add the elements to the Vixen program.
Elements are any parts of your display that you wish to control separately. These could be individual props, parts of your house outline, or anything, really!
To do this you will click the green “Plus Sign” in the elements section. Then select the type of element and a screen will come up to name group, the prefix, and the item count (number of Pixels). Once done just click “OK”.
Once you have added your elements you then want to add the controller. To do this just click the green “Plus Sign” in the controller section, name the controller, and set the output (number of channels). Once done just click “OK”.
Note that there we are specifying the total number of channels – which is typically 3x the number of pixels.
While still on the setup screen you then want to patch your lights. To do this select the elements by using “CTRL or SHIFT” and then selecting your controller.
In the middle section is the patching wizard, and you may see a warning message come up that says ” You may have more outputs than lights”. This will be just fine however if you have more lights than output, this will not work.
If you try to patch too few lights to the outputs of the controller, the outputs will simply not be filled all the way. At this point in your display, you generally want to think about what port of each controller each prop will plug in to.
Then, patch each prop to the appropriate port. It is important to know that you can change this later, and it will not affect any sequencing work that you have already done.
To finish, click “Patch Elements” and select “OK”. To exit just click “OK” on the lower right screen.
Sketching In Your Lights
After adding and patching your lights, you’ll want to work on sketching your lights on top of your house. This is important because the “preview” is what Vixen uses to determine the layout of your display when applying effects. Like patching, you can change this later, but it’s still important to get it right.
To do this go back to Vixen’s launch screen. Click “Setup Previews”. A new screen will come up and just click “Add New Preview“, select “Preview” and then click “Configure”.
This will open up a Setup Preview Screen. To get started with designing you’ll want to upload an image of your house or display location. Located on the top menu click “Background” and this will allow you to add an image of the workspace.
For this example, I just used the Google Maps street view photo, which I took a screenshot of. For best results find or take a photo of your home from the angle that most viewers of your display will see it from.
To begin laying out the lights you will see the elements you already added located on the left sidebar. Just select your “Elements” and on the top menu, you can either work with Smart Objects or Basic Drawing.
With the Smart Objects, you’ll want to use this for the Pixels. With the Basic Drawing, you want to use this for the non-pixel items.
When you’re done designing just click “Escape” on your keyboard.
A few additional features on the preview screen will allow you to make a few changes as needed.
One of these is to select “Elements” you will see on the lower left of the screen you will see the light size, linked elements, and the string name.
You can change any of these settings as needed to make your preview easy to see and matched to how your actual display looks.
Once you arrange your lights always be sure to press “Save“.
Sequencing Your Lights
To get started on setting up sequences for your lights, launch Vixen, and click “New Sequence”. This will open your Sequence Editor screen.
Vertically will be the time slots and Horizontally will be your different elements and effects. If you do have audio you want to be added to the sequence just go the top menu bar and select “Tool”, “Audio”, “Associate Audio”, and select your media file. The music will then be added to your sequence.
The effects will be located on the left sidebar. To add these to your sequence, simply drag and drop them into the desired time slots.
The effects editor will be located on the right sidebar where you can preview the sequence and adjust the parameters as needed.
When You’re Done
Once you’re done, press “Play” and test your display. If you have set up your display correctly, and have lights plugged in, you will see them animate to your sequencing while editing your sequence.
Then, hit “Save”, and you’re ready to move on to your next song!
Setting Up the Scheduler
Once you have your lights tweaked and setup you want to work on getting them set up. To do this you’ll need to launch Vixen and go to the “Scheduler” and then click “Shows”. Click “Create New Show” and then click “Edit” where you will be able to set up your options.
Setting Up Your Show
In this screen, you will have four options to work with: Startup, Background, Sequential, and Shutdown. For each option, there will be a description on the bottom of the screen to explain exactly what it is for.
For the Startup and Shutdown, you would mostly use this if you want specific actions to take place at the start or end of your show. In most cases, I just use the sequential option.
Click “Sequential” and on the right side, you will be able to select and add your files. Only add one at a time. Just click the “plus sign” at the bottom of the screen to add your files.
When you’re done adding files just press “Ok” and then “Close”.
Adding the Show to the Scheduler
Now you want to add the show to the scheduler. Since we’ve created the show we now need to attach the show to the scheduler.
Back on the Vixen main screen go to “Scheduler” and click “Schedules”. Click the “plus sign” located on the bottom of the screen.
In this screen, you will simply select your new show, set up the dates, days, and your start and stop time. When done press “Ok”.
When you go back to the main Vixen screen just click the “Scheduler” and the “Enable” and your show should be live. You will have a schedule status popup that will tell you when the show is active.
What I’ve done for my setup is when my computer is turned on it will automatically log into Vixen and play the show. This is great to have if your computer decides to do an update and reboot in the middle of a show.
If you to create a really awesome Christmas light display to music, a crucial step in the process is sequencing.
Sequencing is when you program effects, videos and static looks on your Christmas lights, often in sync with music.
In fact, sequencing is both my favorite and least favorite part of designing my Christmas lights. I love getting to play with the lights and create different looks that match the music that my family and I have picked out.
But sequencing can also really be a bear! Getting it “just right” on your house can take some time, especially if you are particular!
Use these tips to save yourself time and frustration as you sequence your display!
My Process: Sequencing a Song to My Christmas Lights
In this article, I’m going to share with you my process to quickly and efficiently sequence a brand new song. This process will work with any sequencing program, no matter if you use xLights, Vixen, or Light-O-Rama.
When I sequence, I first set up my display in the program of choice, and I’ll be working primarily there, in the computer.
Once the display is up, we’ll check our work, but the majority of the sequencing time will be spent just on the PC earlier in the season.
Let’s dive in with step 1:
Choose the Music
The first step to sequencing your lights might seem obvious, but it comes with a trick up it’s sleeve!
You might be thinking “Duh, David, of course I need to choose the music first” –this is probably something you’ve already done! But, to be totally ready to sequence, you need to have the song 100% ready to go.
For this step, pick the exact version of the song that you will use and buy/download/import it.
Save this final version in a special folder within your xLights/Vixen user folder. This will ensure the tracks stay nice and safe within your show! I like to back everything up to Dropbox or a USB drive as well – because I don’t trust computers 🙂
Set up Your Sequence
Once you’ve got the music sorted out, it’s time to create a new sequence. But don’t go dragging in FX right from the get-go! We need to first prepare our sequence for accurate sequencing, so that we get everything right the first time!
*Now, I am assuming at this point that you’ve already set up your display in xLights or Vixen – if not, do that and then come back!*
First, create a new sequence by pressing the “New Sequence” button. Set up whatever setting you’d like in the wizard if you are using xLights.
Then, set up your timing marks. Timing marks allow you to see the beat of the music visually, so that you know when to make transitions in your lights and timings on your effects.
They also allow you to apply your effects directly to the timing marks, and are a HUGE time saver!
Here are how to set up timing marks in the popular programs:
Last, I like to go ahead and set the background color for each section of the song.
This is technically optional, but I think it helps a lot.
If you go ahead and set a static color for each section, it allows you to move really quickly later as you copy and paste effects that you make between like-sounding parts of the song!
Organize it Further
For bonus points, you can also create a *fake* set of lights in your sequencer to be a guide – like a legend on a map. Set background colors for each section of the song (example – verse = red, chorus = blue, bridge = yellow). Use that track to guide your way through the song!
Take a Few Passes
When I’m sequencing a song, I really like to work in passes.
It’s kind of like painting a picture – you first go in and paint broad, vague strokes that give the general shape of the final picture. As you take more passes, you bring in more detail.
Or, maybe someone comes by your gallery after the second pass and offers to buy it as modern art long before it’s completed!
Seriously, though – this works great with the constraints of time – Christmas comes by every year!
When you’ve put a few passes into a song, then leave it and finish your other songs – it’s probably “good enough” to put on public display, and you can always come back in later and add more detail. Finishing all of your songs is more important than making a few of them *perfect*.
Within each song, I also use a pretty specific order to the way that I sequence songs, so that I have the most impact where I need it. Here’s what I do:
Start with the Choruses
The chorus of any song is usually the focus on the song, and where a lot of the biggest action takes place.
Because of that, I like to sequence these first. It allows me to set the tone that I want for the whole song and lets me get my “blinky-blinky’s” out of the way.
I’ll begin by setting up the first chorus, and then copy and re-size the effects to the other choruses (as applicable). I’ll check the start and end times, and be off to the races!
Fill in the Bridge
The bridge is a unique part of a song, as it often sounds different from, but is often attached to a chorus.
For that reason, I do this next, because it allows me to see what I am transitioning from, and I can build something similar, but different than the chorus (if that’s what the music does).
The key here is to always follow the music. If it has a similar sound to the chorus, keep the same colors or effects, but change a few parameters to match the music (see what I am doing here? – use the music as a clue for what you sequence!).
Maybe the music slows down, or gets higher or lower. You can simulate all of these changes with lighting effects!
Intro and Outro
While the chorus often contains the “signature sound” that people think of in a particular song, the intro and outro are also often places where a familiar melody is ingrained into the music.
With Christmas music in particular, I find that the start and end of the song is not only where the music ramps up or dies down, but it’s often where a familiar beat is introduced.
Think about some of your favorite Christmas songs. Many of them have a beat that begins in the intro/outro of the song, so let’s highlight it here!
If the intro and outro only have a few instruments in the music, I tend to mimic that with my display. That means I don’t have all the lights on, and they often are doing simpler, more static patterns.
But if the intro and outro come in strong and quickly – you bet I sequence that into my lights!
I work last with the verses because they are often the simplest parts of a song. Since I’ve already put in the majority of my movement in the chorus, bridge and intro/outro, these typically go very fast.
We figured out the general “theme” and colors that we wanted back in the chorus, so now it’s time to simply bring that theme to a simpler part of the song.
Don’t focus too deeply on perfection. Remember, you’re just in the software, and you can make tweaks once you see it on your house!
I usually take 1-3 passes on a song here, and then I feel like I’m ready to go. Of course, everyone has a different threshold of complexity here, but I would urge you not to get stuck looking for perfection.
Don’t kill yourself (or your marriage!) while sequencing complex songs – remember that you can always re-use sequences that you have made in future years, and tweaking them is MUCH quicker than starting from scratch!
Buying Pre-Made Sequences – The Shortcut?
Many Christmas light vendors also sell pre-made sequences that you can apply to your display.
The great part about this is that it takes very little time to apply these to your display, and you get professional quality work!
In this series of videos I am excited to share with you how to get started with xLights. I’ll share with you the things I wish I had knew when I just got started.
Introduction to xLights
xLights is a free and open source program that enables you to design, create and play amazing lighting displays through the use of DMX controllers, E1.31 Ethernet controllers and more.
With it, you can layout your display visually then assign effects to the various items throughout your sequence. This can be in time to the music (with beat-tracking built into xLights) or just however you like. xLights runs on Windows, OSX and Linux.
The xLights program is able to run on both Windows and Macs. To download the program just visit xLights.org.
On the home page you will see in the top menu Downloads. If you haven’t installed the program yet just go to this page. Depending on which system you are running just select Download.
If on a Windows you will most likely have a pop up from Windows because it won’t recognize the developer. This does happen with most downloads. Just proceed with the download and follow the instruction queues.
QM Vamp Plugins
I would also recommend downloading QM Vamp Plugins as this will allow you to be able to detect beats and use it in your show.
Once you’ve downloaded the programs just launch xLights and you will be brought to the splash screen. When there are new updates available you will be notified on this screen.
For updates when working in the middle of a show I prefer to not update to the latest version unless there is a bug in that version. This is just my personal preference.
Laying Out Your Display
When you open xLights you can setup the show first or what I like to do is set up the layout first. With xLights it doesn’t really matter which one you do first.
To start with the layout you just click “Layout” in the top left bar. Then you will want to upload an image of your home from either a saved image or you can use the image from Google Maps street view.
If you’ve decorated your house before and have an image of it during the day then this may be a better image to use since the light placing would be more accurate.
Once you upload the image you will see in the lower left of the program you can adjust the fill, width, height, etc. Once you’re done just click “Save”.
Above the image you will see multiple options and styles of lights that you can add. Just hover over the options to see an accurate description. It does help to have some dimensions available that you can use and how many pixels you plan on using.
Just “Select” a style, “Click” a starting point, drag, “Select” an endpoint, click “Enter”, and click “Escape” when done.
When adding the lights you can see in the left column the model, start channel, and end channel. In the section below this you will have the option to name the lights as well information on the number of lights used, starting location, etc.
2D and 3D Views
In xLights you do have the option to toggle between the 3D and 2D View. The 3D view is great if you have a more in-depth yard to work with or even with a larger roof.
Sequencing Your Display
Once you’ve added your lights you’ll want to work on sequencing. Located on the top bar just select “Sequence”. A box will come up and you have the option to choose Musical Sequence or Animation.
When you select “Animation” you will then be given options for the frames per second. With most setups, the 20fps will work just fine. If you find that you need more then you can change it to 40fps.
Once you’ve chosen the frame then you will be able to select your view type. Just click “Quick Start”.
You will be brought to the Timeline for your lights. Located on the left is the vertical sidebar where you will see all of the lights you had set up. The horizontal bar above is the time lapse. On the vertical bar, the topmost item will be the priority.
Above the time lapse, you will have multiple options of effects, colors, layers, etc. To assign one of these just “Select” an effect, “Drag” and “Drop” to the light you want to assign it to as well as the time length you want that effect to run.
Note: You will also have the ALL option on the vertical bar.
Once you’ve added an effect you can see it play out on the left model preview screen. Below the model, you can toggle the settings for the effects. Once done just click “Save”.
When working with music just select “Musical Sequence” instead of Animations. You then will select the music file, set the frames (20fps), and the select “Quick Start”.
On the vertical bar right click “New Timing” and select “New Timing Interval”. With the QM Vamps Plugins, you will have multiple options to work with. Select an option and click “OK”.
Doing this will add timing markers to your timeline. By zooming in you can add effects to play in between the beats. You would add the effects just as you would set up an animation sequence.
Setting Up Your Network
In xLights you will click the “Setup” tab. This is where you set up the equipment to talk to the different controllers. Then, the controllers in return will talk to the pixels.
On the the left side bar you’ll notice the multiple network types. Personally, I recommend using E.31.1 which is also know as sACN. This is actually easier and lighter on the network.
Click “Add” and then the setup screen will pop up. You will have two options for Multicast and Unicast. Multicast is more for smaller setups. I select “Unicast” for everything so that I have no limitations.
If you select Unicast you’ll add the IP Address of your pixel driver, the starting universe, and the number of universes. Once done just click “OK”. You’ll see the networks added to the screen.
Channels and Universes
Once you have the networks added you then want to double check your layout. To do this you will go back to the Layout screen and you can select the different lights to check the start and end channels.
By default the first light on the list will start as Channel 1. Any changes made to the channels and universes will need to be saved.
To test your lights and the channels you will want to have your pixels and controllers hooked up. In xLights top menu bar, you will have a Lightbulb located at the end. Just click this and click “Play” to test the lights.
By doing this you can double check the effects and colors so that you can make any necessary adjustments.
Scheduling in xLights
Once you have the lights and sequences setup you’ll want to schedule your lights. Preferably, I do try to keep a separate computer that is not connected to the internet and will run this program.
Opening xLights Scheduler on the left just click “Playlists”, then click “Add”, and you can create and add your new playlist.
After this, you will click “Add FSEQ” and select your sequence file. If you are working with audio you will have a checkbox for “Fast Start Audio” I do suggest using this option as will run much better on your computer.
After getting your settings in order just press “Schedule”. A box will come up for you to name the show, schedule your dates, the on and off times, and additional settings. Once done just click “OK”.
Vixen is a great program for controlling Christmas lights which features the ability to set up your display, assign your controllers, and sequence effects to your lights. You should use Vixen for your first display if you don’t mind keeping things simple and want to keep options at a minimum.
As I’ve said before (but will certainly say again), if you’re looking to find a program to sequence and control your Christmas lights, both xLights and Vixen are great picks….but for different needs!
I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a researcher, and when I was first getting into the hobby, the information I found was “everyone likes xLights more, but some people really love Vixen”…and I wondered why!
So, I tried them both, and have used both to sequence displays, and they are both great programs. Both Vixen and xLights can make a great Christmas lights display.
But if everyone loves xLights, why even consider Vixen? Here is why you should consider Vixen for your Christmas lights:
Why You Should Use Vixen to Control Your Christmas Lights
A Simpler Workflow
I actually prefer Vixen when I’m working with smaller displays, or if I want to make a simpler show.
Even though sometimes the interface can feel clunky, with different windows, I love the way that it keeps things separate.
Once I have my display set up in the preview window, I can close it so that I don’t mess it up as I’m programming songs. While you can change your display later as needed, it’s not easy to get to so that you don’t mess it up!
For a lot of people, this can be a big win. After all, do you completely re-invent your display every year? Probably not! In which case, you only need to access the display setup for a few minutes each year to make changes – then it hides away.
I also have to access a different window to patch or assign my pixels to controllers. Again, this keeps me from messing it up once I set it up, and hides it away since it’s not something that I need to work with often!
I also appreciate how simple it is to drop in and sequence your songs with the excellent built-in effects in Vixen. While you do get a lot of customization options, it’s not overwhelming.
Vixen definitely wins in the “complexity” game, as it is a much simpler and much less intimidating interface to work with.
Differences Between xLights and Vixen
I think the best way to sum up the difference between the programs is “Simple” (Vixen) vs. “Complex” (xLights).
Both programs are totally learn-able, and totally usable for beginners.
I think xLights had the edge on patching and assigning your controllers.
But, Vixen’s interface works fine, and if you keep your display similar between years, you won’t have to touch this window much anyways.
In xLights, I appreciate that everything in all in one window, so that I can quickly tab between the different settings that I need to adjust.
In Vixen, I appreciate that everything is in different windows because once I adjust something, I close it and then can’t accidentally mess it up.
I think both are valid approaches, with each having it’s advantages/disadvantages.
The other advantage of separating all of these things into different windows is that it allows you to make the “main area” of whatever you’re doing larger. You’ll especially be thankful for this if you are sequencing on a smaller screen (as I made my first Christmas display on a 13″ laptop!).
Depth of Effects
There is no doubt in my mind that Vixen has “less complex” effects then xLights.
But, at the same time, a lot of the effects are very similar between the 2 programs, and I really like how simple it is to configure the effects in Vixen.
You can tell that the developers of both programs are working from the same general “toolbox” of effect ideas, and many of the same effects can be built in both programs.
The biggest thing I miss from xLights is the ability to create transitions easily. Creating a fade in or fade out can be a little difficult, as you have to open up the intensity curve, modify it with a fade, and then test it to check your timing.
Still, in Vixen I’ve gotten into a good groove of copying my effect, creating a small “transition” effect block, and then applying a curve to it so that it fades in.
Like a lot of my sequences, once you create some fade in’s/out’s, you can copy/paste them throughout your song quite quickly.
Importing Paid/Other User’s Sequences
If you’re going to be purchasing sequences to then import to your specific display, you’re really going to want to use xLights instead of Vixen.
The overall xLights interface is much easier to import sequences with, and Vixen doesn’t really offer any special methods to import someone else’s sequence.
Is it doable? Yes. But it’s not as easy to import a sequence into Vixen as it is with xLights.
Most, if not all paid sequences are for xLights (or Light-O-Rama) as well, and as far as I know, there is no good way to import them into Vixen.
Personally, I like to sequence everything myself, so this isn’t really a big issue.
Exporting for Falcon Player
Even if you do like buying paid sequences, you CAN use a mix of both xLights and Vixen to create your display.
Yes, that’s right! Both programs can export for Falcon players, which are small computers that you can run your display on. Using the “fseq” type file, you literally can program part of your show in Vixen, and part in xLights if you wish!
If you’re looking for a program to sequence your Christmas lights, you might want to give Vixen a look.
Truth be told, these 2 programs have more in common than the average person might think, and you can make pretty much the same show with both programs.
Sure, if you spend the time to really learn xLights, you will sequence faster. So, if you’ll be sequencing often across the long-haul, you might want to spend the time to learn it.
But, if you want a simple show, and you don’t need to re-sequence everything each year, Vixen is an excellent choice.
While it’s not as complex as xLights, it also has the benefit of not being as complex!
If you go searching for software to run your Christmas light display with, you’re going to quickly find xLights as one of your main options.
Among the sea of different software for your Christmas Light display, why should you choose xLights?
And even if it is a great piece of software, is it the right one for you?
In this article, I want to discuss both of these things. Not only do I want to talk about the pros and cons of using xLights, but I also want to help you decide if it’s the right program for you.
What Makes xLights Unique?
When I compare the different Christmas lighting programs on the market, xLights feels the most finished, and the readiest for modern pixel type Christmas lights.
And since the future looks bright for pixels, this is a clear advantage! As I’ve written about in other articles, pixels have come down in cost to the place where it doesn’t make sense to buy traditional Christmas lights anymore for a animated Christmas light display.
xLights is also the only program I found that is able to do all of the patching, set up, sequencing, and testing all via one unified window.
Maybe this is just me being picky, but it sure makes it easy to set up and get rolling on your computer! Once I got the basics down, it felt pretty natural to flow between the various windows as needed.
What I really like about xLights is how simple it is to bring in a picture of your house, draw pixels on top of it, sequence it music, and then set up your controllers and have a show running!
I’ve found the drawing tools in xLights to be well described, and pretty simple to use.
1 big tip – the “polyline” tool requires you to press “ESC” at the end of your line, not “Enter”. Other than that, most of the other tools use the simple “click once and drag” operation.
It’s easy to line up your lights with your house (tip – use a photo of your house with lights on it if you have one!), and there’s even a 3d mode, which can be useful if you are on a corner lot or have 2 sides of your house to work with.
We only real downside that I see is that it’s pretty easy to accidentally mess up the design of your display while you program, instead of having it “locked” in a completely separate window like Vixen.
One of the areas that xLights excels is in sequencing itself. Once I learned how xLights worked, I found that sequencing with it was incredibly powerful, but also could be learned fairly quickly.
If you’ve worked with editing audio, you’ll find the sequencing interface to be very familiar.
On the horizontal, we see time going by. If we add audio to our sequence, we’ll a “waveform” view of the audio in addition to the time.
Using the QMVAMP plugins (an extra download on the xLights download page – don’t miss it), you can even autodetect beats and bars of music and then display them on your timeline for accurate placement of effects.
On the vertical axis, we see our different elements, or “props” that make up our display. These are the lights that we laid out in the “setup” stage.
Above the main sequencing window, we see a variety of different effects and settings that we can work with.
Getting started with sequencing is as simple as clicking and dragging the effects you want on to the props in your show, then set the time to what you desire.
While there are a lot of advanced settings, you can stay out of them too, and keep things simple. One setting you will want to use, however, is the “Groups”. These can be created in the layout tab and allow you to run a single effect across multiple props – even across your whole house!
I’ll be the first to admit, that I abandoned xLights for my first season in favor of Vixen, because I saw so many options and details and I just got confused.
But if you’re willing to take a little more time to learn, I think you’ll find it saves you time and gives you more possibilities as you sequence into the future.
xLights has a ton of options available, and different ways to accomplish the programming of your display.
With that can come a lot of confusion especially if you watch tutorials from multiple different people, who have different ways of doing things.
While I really like xLights, this is the biggest turn off for me.
I know that a lot of beginners can easily get turned off by all of the different methods and some of the terminology that xLights uses…but that’s why I’m here to help make things simple. 🙂
My advice to you – check out my “xLights Quick Start Guide“, or follow another teacher, but try not to jump around different teachers too much. This can get really confusing!
Scheduling via xSchedule is really simple…and I like that!
Personally, I found Vixen’s scheduling interface to be a little more fluid, and that is probably because many xLights users use Raspberry Pi mini-computers to run their displays, instead of xSchedule.
xLights is a really great program, but it’s not for everyone.
If you want to keep your display really simple, or are overwhelmed by the number of features and options available in xLights, then you should probably look at Vixen.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I used Vixen my first year, and was really happy with the outcome. It’s not as “slick” looking as xLights, but don’t let that stop you from creating a great show. Often, less options are better!
But, if you are excited about the future, don’t mind spending a little bit of time learning, and enjoy the new features and promising developments, then I think xLights is an excellent pick for your Christmas lights display.
In this article, I’m going to dive in to each program and weigh the pro’s and con’s. Each has its strengths and a dedicated fan-base, so while I’ve found the program that I enjoy best, you may find a different program best suits you. Let’s dive in!
Vixen is a free, open source sequencing software for Christmas lighting.
For my very first year, I used Vixen to make my display and was quite happy with the experience and outcome.
If you’re just starting out, and aren’t the kind of person who really dives into detail and making everything just perfect, then Vixen may be right for you. It doesn’t offer as many abilities as xLights, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make a great show. In fact, sometimes having less complexity makes a better show!
Vixen allows you to simply set up the design of your show in 2D, and then sequence patterns and videos across your individual elements or your whole display.
I found the setup a bit confusing at first, but I think that was mostly because I wanted it to work like a stage lighting console, which it is not. Once I got the hang of it, I found that there were tools built in to quickly and easily set up my lights inside of Vixen.
Yes, the interface can feel a little clunky and confusing between the different windows, but if you follow the tutorials that are provided by the developers it’s not too difficult to learn.
Having the setup in a complete different window of the program means that once you close it, it’s hard to mess up! You won’t accidentally open the window and change things without meaning to!
The selection of different effects is pretty vast, and as you gain an understanding of how to use them, you’ll find you can really do a TON with it.
Like most programs in Christmas lighting, Vixen offers a timeline to set your music on. You can then drag and drop different FX on different elements of your show, which layout vertically, and then play it to test it as you work.
There are not a lot of “pre-built” sequences available for Vixen, so you’re going to be rolling your own FX and building them into sequences instead of buying them.
Some folks find this to be their favorite part of making a display – I enjoy it a good deal myself. It does take a great deal of time, especially if you want to be particular or do complex effects.
But, if you’re not that type of person, then I’d probably recommend looking at the other options below. 🙂
Vixen offers a great scheduler to set up your display to run automatically.
I set up my show quickly, and let this run for the entire season my first year (Late Nov – Early Jan), with absolutely no problems.
I did hit one hiccup, when I wanted to create a static scene for my indoor Christmas tree.
I needed to have it turn the pixels on my tree on and blue for the daytime hours, and unfortunately, Vixen isn’t really designed to create non-musical sequences.
Because of that, I had to create an hour-long sequence that repeated all day. This mostly worked, but occasionally I would notice as the tree would quickly blink when the sequence restarted. It was very subtle, and I’m sure no one else in my family noticed…but I did!
I think Vixen is an excellent program, and probably the quickest to get up and running with.
It’s not as complex as the other options below, and I’ve found that I get frustrated when trying to do very complex FX…but that’s probably the lighting designer in me!
If I wasn’t so particular, I could definitely use Vixen for years to come and be very happy with my show.
Even though the “industry” of Christmas Light folks definitely prefer xLights, I think Vixen is a very solid choice, and perfect if you’re not going for an overly complex show.
It’s stable and it’s quicker to learn than LOR or xLights, so if you’re tight on time, it’s a good one to use. The fact that it has less complexity to it makes it easier to use on smaller computer monitors and makes it easier to learn.
I’ve got to warn you right now, I’m not a big fan of LOR.
While Light-O-Rama was probably a pivotal program in getting this industry started, it just doesn’t shine above the other options available today!
LOR is a paid program, and to be honest, it’s quite expensive for a “once-a-year” use, especially if you upgrade it yearly and want to have a large display.
Note: To test Light-O-Rama, I downloaded the demo and worked with it. Unlike the other 2 options, I have not used LOR on a live display.
LOR really confused me when I first installed it. Like most software, I unchecked the box to place an icon on my desktop, as I really like to keep things clean.
The installer spit out a number of installed programs (literally, 13), and I inevitably choose the wrong once when I first tried to launch it.
As I got into the program, I found that it was on par with the other options when setting up my display. It had more “tooltips” and popups to guide me and felt a little more polished than other options but wasn’t really any more efficient than the other programs.
I did appreciate that the “patching”, or assigning of lights to controllers, is built-in to the sequencer. Simply double-clicking any of my props allowed me to edit the patch settings for that prop.
When you get to sequencing, you realize that the LOR program was definitely designed for regular Christmas Lights, and not pixels – they were a “add-on” later.
There are (2) sequencing windows that you have to use in order to work with pixels – the “Sequencer” and the “SuperStar Sequencer”.
The regular sequencer can generate effects like twinkles, chases and on/off for regular Christmas lights, and then can import “SuperStar” sequences that control pixels.
So, it’s a little awkward compared to other programs, having to go to a completely different window to program your pixels, but it works.
While it’s easy to see the downsides to this approach, the upside is that you have to save all of your pixel sequences as individual files, so you can easily bring them into different sequences as you program your show.
Like the other Christmas light sequencing programs, LOR’s scheduler is pretty simple to use and allows you to configure dates, days of the week and times to run your show.
It allows you to run background shows as well, and is pretty simple to understand.
As I mentioned at the top of this section, I’m not a big LOR fan.
Is it a good program? Yes. But the fragmented nature (so many different little programs), and the cost really turn me away from recommending it.
I don’t see a huge reason to use it over xLights or Vixen, which are both free.
xLights is THE popular sequencing program for Christmas lights in the “DIY” community.
Like Vixen, it is open source. xLights has a VERY passionate community behind it, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s a really good program, that can do some really complex things. Plus, the developers are constantly improving it for the users.
But newbies be warned – it DOES have a good-sized learning curve. If I had used xLights in my first year, I’m not sure I would have gotten my display done – seriously!
Now, a few years down the road, I love the features that xLights has and can work faster than in Vixen…but it took some time to get there!
Still, it’s the best, most complex and most often updated program available!
One of the things that I really like about xLights is that everything works within one main window.
When you go to set up your lights and patch them to DMX, Art-Net, or e1.31 sACN, it’s all within the same window, just different tabs.
Creating your models and patching them to addresses is pretty straightforward. Plus, like Vixen, you can re-address and change models as you go, and your programming adapts to your display.
The downside to this approach is that it can be easy to accidentally press into the setup tab and adjust something that you didn’t mean to change. As long as you’re careful, this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
When it comes to sequencing, xLights follows the same general format as the other programs.
You have a timeline, and left to right is time. The vertical axis of the chart, contains all of your individual props and groups of props.
You are then able to drop drag-and-drop different effects on different props at different times. You can also click to customize effects, and of course there’s a really great preview available on the side of this window.
I really like how xLights keeps everything within a single window.
In Vixen, you have a few different floating windows that are completely separate, and sometimes it gets a little confusing.
But, if you do need to full-screen any of your xLights windows, like your house preview, you can totally separate it and then size it in order to have it on a second monitor (or 3rd, 4th…)
Scheduling in xLights actually happens in a separate program called xSchedule, which is automatically installed when you install xLights.
Using xSchedule is pretty straightforward, and if you look online you can find videos that describe it as well.
Like the other programs I’ve reviewed in this article, you’re able to set different schedules for different days of the week, different dates, and different orders.
I also really like how xLights supports static “Animation” sequences that don’t require a music track. These work well for in-between songs, or even if you want your whole display to be without music.
It all happens within a pretty no-nonsense interface, and as I’ve been testing it, it plays back flawlessly.
xSchedule used to have some big advantages over using FPP to schedule your Christmas lights, but as FPP as grown and matured, it pretty much does all of the same things.
My Take (and Conclusion)
xLights is a really good program, but also is pretty deep and can be confusing, especially when you’re new.
My recommendation is this – Check out Vixen, and if it looks to you like Vixen is going to be too simplistic or feel limiting, then move to xLights. The articles I’ve linked in this paragraph will get you started!
Also, if you plan to import sequences that you buy from other people, then you’re going to want to use xLights.
It has more of a learning curve than Vixen, but if you want the more advanced options or need to import sequences, then it’s totally worth the time you put into it!
I hope this article has helped you to understand the differences between these programs and get you started in choosing the right one for you.
My personal opinion is that most people will find that xLights or Vixen is the best program from them, but I don’t think there is “one right answer” for everyone!
In 2018 I had started planning my Christmas lights pretty late in the year. I had started in September and my set up was very simple and it worked out really well.
For this year my goal is to make this year’s lighting set up bigger and better. So, with that I am going to be more intentional with my planning and I have already started making plans. It’s only February but here is a recap of what I have done so far.
It’s never to early to start planning for lights! So, I had started out in January by sketching out what ideas I would like to do for this year.
Last year, in 2018, I had a very simple setup with just under 600 pixels and conventional Christmas lights that were turned on. Nothing to fancy but it was a great way to get started.
Sketching and Planning
This year I decided to upgrade to using xLights to help sketch and plan out what I want to do for my lights this year. Last year, I had used Vixen which worked good but I wanted to try a different program.
As I started working with the program and testing out what I could do with the program my list and ideas piled up pretty quick. With that I had created an excel sheet to find out what I would need, how much it would cost, and if it was feasible.
What is a PreSale?
So what is presale? Presale is when vendors are importing pixels from China and will take orders in January and February. You do pay for the order upfront and then you receive the orders 2 – 3 months later. This helps you save on cost and is cheaper than buying pixels later in the year.
Settling on What I Needed
So after running the numbers and organizing my list of everything I needed I had placed my order with Diyledexpress.com. I had ordered my lights from them last year and had a great experience. There are other vendors of course you can order from.
The downside is that this year most vendors are going to an X-Connect plug but the vendor I ordered from does not carry these just yet.
Getting Started on Planning
If you’re looking to get started I would recommend starting in January or February. Start with planning out your lights using xLights, Vixen, or even Light-O-Rama and start sketching out what you want to do.
Then, you want to make a list of everything that you would need so that you can save money by getting your pixels and equipment ordered early in the year.
Through March I am hoping to get together my power supply and getting my lights in. While it’s not necessary this early in the year I would like to have everything together so that during the summer I can start building my props and have everything ready for set up in November.
While you can’t really go too big with your power supply, going too small can cause major issues in your light display. And as your display grows (as most do!), the need for multiple power supplies will arise.
How do you know what power supplies to buy? Are more expensive power supplies worth it?
In this article, I am going to share with you how to figure out how many lights you can fit on a power supply, and help you figure out how to best distribute them.
Then, I’ll show you the very best power supplies available, and how you can save money when you buy them.
How Many Pixel Lights Can I Put on a Single Power Supply?
Like most tasks when you’re designing your light show, figuring out your power supply needs starts with the layout of your display.
Before buying power supplies, you want to have a really good idea of how many lights you’ll be using, what lights you’ll use, and where you’ll be putting them.
Then, look at the specifications of your lights. We’ll be doing a little math here – but don’t worry, it’s not too difficult, and there are calculators we can use that make it really easy.
You need to figure out how much power (Watts @ Volts or Amps) your lights will consume.
The voltage of your pixels (usually 12v or 5v) determine the voltage of your power supply. Then, we add the watts together:
At full, (1) 50 count string of these lights will draw 3a (amps), or 36w (watts). Let’s use 10 strings, for a total of 360w, or 30a at 12v.
What size power supply do I need for this?
The quick math tells me that I need 360w of power. But the truth is, electrical engineers (and the national electric code) tell us to never load up a power supply or breaker past 80% of its capacity. So, we would need 450w of power supply to power these 360w of lights.
This is at full intensity, and at full white on EVERY light. Let’s step back a minute and think about your show.
How Much Power Do Your Lights *Really* Need?
If you’re new to this hobby, you’ll want to know that most people do NOT run their lights at full. Inside of your controller, you’re usually able to set a maximum intensity for each string of lights you are connecting.
I personally run most of my pixels at 30%. Pixels that are further away from the viewer will need to be brighter to look “balanced”, and pixels closer can be dimmer.
When a pixel is at 30%, it takes about 30% of the power to drive it. For conservative, safe numbers, let’s give ourselves an extra 20% and run the numbers based on 50%.
360w @ 50% = 180w, 225w of power supply capacity.
Even this number is a little bit conservative when you think about your show. While you may occasionally hit everything at full white, it’s not something you’ll do often. So, size your power supplies for the “highest-case” scenario, and you’ll be fine.
Most of the time, as your lights are dancing to the music, the overall load on the power supplies will be much less!
Now, that does sound like a lot of math, that I’m sure you’re not eager to do – I’m sure not, either!
Once you find out how much power you need for each of your props, it’s time to decide on sizing.
Power Supplies – A Few Large Ones, or Many Small Ones?
As we’ve covered above, it’s always most ideal to get your power supplies as close to your lights as possible, for minimal voltage drop.
If you follow this rule, you end up with many small power supplies at the end of each of your strings of lights….which is kind of a pain to set up. On the other hand, this approach wins when you do have a power supply failure because very few lights are affected.
The opposite approach is to use a few massive power supplies with long cords to many of your strings (but short cords to other strings). The big disadvantage of this approach is that you really begin to lose voltage over distance, and that can severely limit the number of pixels that you can run in one string.
I like to keep any 12v power lines in my Christmas Light rig under 25′ on 18 AWG wire. (Thicker wire = less voltage loss).
This means that I can approximately space my power supplies 50′ apart, and still reach all of my strings.
This is kind of a combination of both approaches, and I think it’s a healthy middle ground.
What Brand and Type of Power Supply Should I Buy?
You really don’t want to cheap out on power supplies. But, the good stuff doesn’t have to be expensive, either.
I’m not an engineer, but when I talk with engineers, they tell me about how superior good power supplies are, especially when they fail.
All power supplies will fail someday. When the good ones fail, they do so safely and protect the connected equipment. When the cheap ones fail, they send out high levels of rogue voltage and kill equipment.
What Are The “Good Ones”?
Pre-2017 or 2018, your one and only choice for quality power supplies was Meanwell, particularly the LRS series.
Meanwell’s are still good, particularly if you keep your individual power supply needs under 360w.
If you need more power or don’t mind an extra accessory, using power supplies from servers has become very popular.
These “HP common slot server power supplies” can be found for ridiculously low prices online (used). Combined with a breakout board, these can carry ratings of 750-1200w at 12v to power your lights!
From what I understand, the reason why these are so cheap is that IT companies run these in their servers, and switch them out regularly so that they are far from a failure. We get to reap the benefits of this in our hobby!
While I haven’t used any of these yet, I’ve got my breakout board ordered from a presale, and I’ll be sure to update with my experience!
No matter what type of power supply you choose, I truly hope this article has helped you to understand how to size your power supplies so that you don’t get into trouble later!