What are Christmas Light Pixels?

When it comes to creating great Christmas lighting, nothing beats the pixel.

When you go by someone’s house and see color changing and blinking “bulbs” that each change color, you’re seeing pixels.

Or you see a smooth, wave of color slide across a home – you’re seeing pixels!

Pixels are individually color-changeable lights which are all wired together.  They are different from regular Christmas lights because each light can change on its own.  This is unlike regular Christmas lights or even “dumb” LED lights that only change by the whole strand.

Having the ability to change each and every light is not only magical but also a great way to make a high-impact Christmas light display.

And because these lights give us total control, we can choose whether we want to be flashy and fast-paced, or slow and smooth – or any mix of the 2!

In this article, I’m going to share with you how pixels work and show you some examples of what they may look like so that you can begin the planning process of putting your first Christmas light display together!

How Christmas Light Pixels Work:

In simple terms, Christmas light pixels are controlled via a type of serial data from a pixel controller. This pixel controller is then controlled by some sort of DMX (RS-485), Art-Net or sACN (e1.31) console or computer.

Popular types of pixels run via protocols such as WS2811 (and WS2812, WS2813 and many other variants), APA102, and TM1804.

The “WS” varieties are the most popular, and a really great type of pixel to run so we’re going to focus on those here.

When given the signal from the pixel controller, the first RGB pixel takes three channels of information. One channel for red, one channel for green, and one channel for blue.

The microchip inside the pixel then passes the rest of the information along to the next pixel, who also thinks that it’s the first pixel in the line.

Because each pixel takes its three channels and strips them from the data stream, pixels are assigned their order based on how you plug them in.

This has some massive advantages and a slight disadvantage.

The Advantage

It means that when you’re setting up, you just plug in your lights in the order that you want to control them. Then, they just work, and self-address. On the side of the pixel itself, you don’t have any settings or numbers that you have to assign.

The Disadvantage

The disadvantage to this way of working (not that you have a choice with pixels), is that if you have a prop or section go bad and need to remove it, you must replace it with the same number of pixels before your show runs again – or else any pixels after the “bad prop” will get the wrong information!

Now that we’ve got the data sorted out,

Pixels Need Power Too…

While your pixel controller may or may not provide power, after a certain distance, you’re going to need to add in more power.

This is called Power injection (and this article goes much deeper on the subject).

Most commonly, you will see pixels that run off of 5v power or 12v power.  Without going into the weeds on the differences, just buy 12v LED’s, and your life will be easier 🙂

And while I could write a whole book on different methods and ways you can inject power, for now, it’s just important that to understand that you’re going to need to power these lights separate from the data, but you can insert power at any point in your pixel chain that you need to.

The simplest way to inject power is with a “Power Injection Tee” that many sellers of pixels offer.

Power Injection Tee

These special adapter cables insert wherever you need to inject power.  They cut off the existing power while allowing the data to flow through the adapter and the new power is spliced in.  All without having to solder!

This also is a huge advantage over traditional, ”dumb”, RGB LED lights that can’t be re-injected with power for a long run!

What Types of Christmas Light Pixels are There?

Now that we understand the basics of how pixels work, what do they look like?

One of the cool things about pixel technology is that pixels themselves aren’t limited to one look or one type of light.

Below, I’ve listed a number of different types of pixels that you may run into and show you what they look like.  This by far isn’t a 100% complete list, but it does list the common types that you’ll see in most Christmas light displays.

As you think about the type of Christmas lights you might want to do on your home or business, the great thing is that you can mix any of these types together to make your show!

12mm Pixel “Bullet Nodes”

The most common type of pixel that you’re going to see is called the 12 mm “bullet” node.   

This is a simple, waterproof pixel that is on a wire and looks a good bit like traditional Christmas lights.

The advantages? These are very inexpensive, and quite simple to repair as well. I like these a lot and use them often.

There are also many “props” that are designed to mount this type of 12mm node (or the “square” type below), to make various shapes, colors, and outlines on your home.

The only real disadvantage I see is that they do leak a lot of light behind them, and installing them into your props can get a bit tough on your hands. 

Many places that sell pixels also offer “Pixel Pliers”, which do make this process a bit easier.  Or, you can throw a party and invite all of your friends to help if you’re mounting many pixels.  🙂

12mm Square Pixel Nodes

Square WS2811 PixelsSquare pixel nodes are pretty much the same as bullet nodes except they are placed on a little square that is a lot easier to install within various props.

Though these pixels cost a little bit more than the bullet nodes, they also don’t splash as much light back behind themselves. 

This can be an advantage when you want to highlight the pixel, but a disadvantage on some props that are purposefully white-colored to catch the light that splashes back!

So, if your budget allows for it, it’s a good idea to buy these if you want to save a little bit of frustration and get a little bit of a cleaner look.  At the time of this writing, it’s $2-$4 more for a 50 count string of square nodes, compared to the bullet nodes.

Personally, I’m on the fence. The cheapskate side of me keeps buying regular bullet nodes but I really do like the way that the square pixels appear and install, especially for house outlines!

Pixel Tape / Strips

Very popular in the entertainment industry as well as architecture, these are the first type of pixels that I was introduced to.

However, when it comes to using pixel tape or strips for your Christmas lights, it’s generally not a great idea.

Though waterproof strips exist, they often are not fully waterproof, or the waterproofing doesn’t last as you move around and work with the strips.

Also, doing repairs on pixels tape or strips is very difficult and time-consuming. Remember, we’re going to keep these things out in the rain, snow, wind, and other conditions, so it’s best to stick with other types of pixels that are much more repairable.

Pixel strips also are thinner, which requires you to inject power much more often.

Having worked with both the “cheap strips”, and the “expensive” architectural-grade strips, I can tell you that there is a major difference between what you get in a $20/5m strips vs a $200/5m strip.  The inexpensive stuff that many of these holiday pixel vendors sell is very fragile and difficult to work with.

For this reason, I usually recommend going with a different type of pixel for Christmas lighting, because it’s just much less frustrating!

Pixel Modules

Similar to the square pixel nodes, pixel modules are available in a variety of form factors, often with a flat back.

These models are often waterproof, and what sets them apart is the fact that you have multiple LEDs within each pixel. So, they’re larger and brighter for each “pixel”.

An example module shown here contains three LEDs. so each module is a pixel, and these three LEDs are all controlled together – not individually.   And sometimes, that makes a lot of sense for the prop you’re designing!

These particular pixels come from the retail/sign-making industry and are often shipped without any plugs on them – just bare wire.  Keep that in mind when ordering and planning your display!

Pixel Floods

Pixel floods allow you to get a mini flood light to shine on your house and control it like a regular pixel.  

The fairly obvious thing that sets these apart, is that they do use a pretty good deal of power, compared to other types of pixels.

But, the effect is really cool.  Because they are many, many times brighter than a regular “bullet” pixel, they also cost a good deal more too.  But, only a handful of these can create a nice wash of light across your home or yard, as each pixel puts out a ton of light!

Pixel Bulbs

If you’ve walked through a home improvement store lately, you’ve probably seen bulbs like these. Individual color changing large-style Christmas light bulbs.

When you move into the pixel world, you can get the exact same thing. Individually controllable, but instead of plugging in the regular power, these will plug into your pixel controller.

These give you that classic look, with the full functionality of pixels.

If you are going to buy this type of lights, please buy them from a pixel vendor and not the home improvement store!

Many people have tried using the “home improvement store” pixel bulbs with their pixel controllers, and while you can get them to work – they’ve proven to be significantly less reliable for only a little less cost.

These are usually a standard 12mm bullet-type pixel with a decorative lens on top.  Sometimes, you can buy these in icicles and other form factors as well.

Anything You Can Imagine!

The crazy thing about pixels is that they literally can be any shape or size. 

While these are the most common types you’re going to see, if you really look around you’ll find some really interesting shapes that you can make a part of your display!

Where Do I Buy Christmas Light Pixels?

Now that we’ve covered the types of bulbs that there are, and you’ve got an idea of what pixels you want to buy, where do you buy them?

You’re not going to find these at your local home improvement store. However, this doesn’t mean they’re overpriced, just slightly uncommon.

A Quick Note About Waterproofing...

Most electronics, these lights included, are given a rating by their manufacturer as to what the “IP”, or “Ingress Protection” rating is.  This is a measure of how “waterproof” the lights are.  You’ve probably seen numbers before like “IP65 Outdoor Rated”, and this roughly means that the unit is “waterproof” in rain.

The first number goes as high as 6, and deals with the ingress protection of solids (dust, etc).  The 2nd number is all about liquids and goes up to 8 – total protection when submerged!

Most of the time, IP65 will do what we need (dust tight and waterproof against “jets” of water), and some pixels like bullet and square nodes are generally rated IP68.  But remember, these IP ratings are assinged by the factory in China, so be careful – especially on more fragile pixel products, such as pixel strips/tape.

When you’re just getting started, my recommendation is to buy through a Christmas light vendor. For that, I’ve had great success with our DIY LED Express, and Wired Watts.   There are others as well, but don’t waste your day comparing them – there are many with similar quality products.  Find somewhere that works for you, and stick with it!

You can also buy pixels on Amazon, but you’ll pay too much, and products change so much on Amazon that you’ll have trouble getting matching pixels over time.  Trust me, I know this from experience!  Not good!  🙁

You can buy directly from China as well.  However, it’s much easier to buy from someone here in the states. 

Then, the vendor in the state takes care of making sure the quality is up to par and the products are consistent – an issue that many people have had when buying directly from China!

Consistency is key, and every detail of the pixel must be clearly communicated with the factory – from the type and size of wire, LED, plugs, quantity, etc.

Even with specifying all of this information, I’ve seen some occasions where folks still find something “new” has been added or changed since their previous order without notification.  And you don’t know until you open the box that was delivered to your doorstep!

That’s why, in my mind, it’s best to order from a US importer like the ones I mentioned above, especially when you are first starting.  It saves you a TON of details, at little extra cost!

Tip: If you’re buying a lot of pixels (multiple thousand), buy during a early-season “pre-sale” or email and ask the vendor for a custom quote – you’ll be glad you did!

How Do I Get Started With Cool, Musical Christmas Lights on My House?

Have you ever driven by one of those houses that does the Christmas lights to music and thought “I wish I could do that!“?

You and me both!  

On the outside, it seems like making a music-coordinated, color changing light display would be difficult…maybe even near impossible, and certainly only for the geekiest folks in the world.

The truth is, not only is creating a great, dynamic Christmas light display possible, it’s not more complicated than you can handle, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Not only that, but it doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor!  This is a great hobby where you can include your spouse, kids, and friends in both the setup and sequencing of your lights.

In this article, I want to share with you how I learned to create my first display, and show you what tools you need and a basic idea of how it works together.

Sound good?  Let’s dive in!

What Do You Need To Get Started?

My 2018 DisplayOrdinary Christmas lights work by simply lighting up a strand of lights when power is applied.

It’s likely you put some of these lights up on a tree or on the outside of your house or at least seen it in your neighborhood.

You may also have seen that house down the street or in the other neighborhood where these type of lights that turn on and off as a whole strand, are synchronized to music. Pretty cool!

Traditional lights, paired with a controller box and some software, can make a pretty neat show.

But what you may also have seen is the next generation of Christmas lights – pixels!

These lights, which are not as expensive as they look, are able to be individually turned on and off and change color.

This ability makes them far more exciting than a full string of traditional lights cycling on and off!

While the sequencer/computer for both types of Christmas lights may be the same type of computer, the way that they’re controlled between the computer and the actual lights themselves is quite different.

Why am I going into all this?

After all, I said I was going to tell you what you need to get started making a great Christmas light display.

The reason why I’ve gone into all this is that it’s important to have a basic understanding of how pixel lights vary from traditional Christmas lights.  While they may look similar when they’re on a house and all on in a single color or white, they’re actually quite different.

I’m going to focus on pixel lights here because they give you the most bang for your buck.

The fact is, the ability to individually control each light, and then run videos and effects across them is immensely powerful and impactful.  You get at least 10x the functionality, for only about 2x the price!

So, what do you need to get started?

Pixels

The first thing you need are some lights…or pixels!

The definition of a pixel is:

Pixels are individually color-changeable lights, which are all wired together.  They are different from regular Christmas lights because each light can change on its own.

Now, these pixels can take many forms, but the most common is called a pixel node, as seen in the picture to the right.

These pixel nodes are driven by a protocol like WS2811, or a similar type of serial data.

Understanding this is not super important, as long as you verify that your controller and your pixels both speak the same language!

Chances are, if you buy your controllers and lights from a Christmas lighting vendor, they will be compatible.

What other types of pixels are there?  Well, there are lots, and you can learn more about all of the common types here!

Controller and Power Supplies

Pixlite pixel controller

Once you have your pixels, they need to be driven by what’s called a pixel controller.

A pixel controller takes the information that comes from a computer or professional lighting controller and turns it into a type of signal that the pixels can listen to.

Once the data leaves the pixel controller, power is then “injected” and fed to the pixels themselves with the data.  This power is fed via low-voltage power supplies, usually 5v or 12v.

The great thing about pixels is that they are self-addressing – no buttons or menu’s to press on the pixels themselves!  The order that you plug the pixels in determines what their order is.

Pixels also are helpful because they amplify their signal as they pass it along.  This means that you can run some very long strings of pixels off of a single controller output, only needing to re-inject power, but not data, as necessary!

One of the most popular brands of controllers in the Christmas light industry is the Falcon: Here is one their website – PixelController.com

Computer/Mini Computer

Vixen Lighting SequencerLast, in a simple system, you then need some sort of computer to control the lights.

Most people are going to be programming using a computer program called xLights, or another called Vixen.

These are the two most popular and also free sequencing programs for Christmas lights.  Want help deciding which program to use – this article will help!

The computer will be connected via a very simple network (as simple as just a network cable!) to your pixel controller, which will then be connected to your pixels along with power.

When you give the pixels an animation or another command from the computer, they’ll do as you say.  These commands can be as simple as turning on in a single color, or as complex as a video!

Once you program your lights, you can run your show on the computer or via a mini-computer called a Raspberry Pi, or just a regular PC.

This is somewhat of a simplified explanation, and there are more things that you’ll find that you’ll need as you go along. But, these are the basics.

So, if you’re just getting started, take a breather – because I know that was a lot of information!

Then, come back for more information here on Learn Christmas Lighting, and I’ll teach you how to create a great Christmas lighting show for your home.

2018 – My First Christmas Light Pixel Display

It’s just a few weeks before Christmas 2018, and I wanted to take this opportunity to really document and recap what I’ve installed for Christmas this year.

If you’re new to Learn Christmas Lighting, you can learn more about me here.  I’ve been working with pixels and stage lighting as my career for over 10 years, and over 2018, I decided to make my first, synced to music, Christmas light display.

So, I bought some pixels.  For this first year, I bought 300, 12mm 5v Pixels from DIYLEDEXPRESS, and at the last minute added an additional 200, 12v “Amazon pixels” for the tree inside.

Here’s what my display looked like for this “first” display:My 2018 Display

Like any project I get into, my plans started basic and got considerably more complex as time went on.  🙂

I started off the year mid-summer, and figured I’d build a basic display and do some very basic scenes and transitions between them, but nothing fancy or synchronized to music.

Then, in September I really started planning. I decided that if I was going to do this, I might as well do it right and do my limited number of pixels but fully synchronized to music.

Hardware

And that was the day I bought an FM transmitter.

After scouring the web, I decided to buy the Whole House FM transmitter 3.0.

Now, this particular transmitter has mixed reviews online, but so does pretty much any transmitter that you can buy.  There’s a lot of user error that goes into setting these up!  I found mine on eBay refurbished for a reduced cost.

Next, I decided on my layout.

I figured it’d be a good idea for the first year to outline the columns of my porch because that would allow me to both do some cool video like animations and also keep it simple.

Power Supply Protection Boxes

My DIY power supply protection boxes – nice and dry inside after heavy rain!

While in my career in stage lighting I have deployed lots of pixels, I had never put out an installation in the rain for an extended period of time, so I thought it would be wise to keep it simple.

To mount the pixels, I went with Boscoyo Studios pixel strips.

I found these to be pretty amazing, really easy to use.

Because I outlined the outside of my columns I built a simple mount with some PVC pipes that I’ve in zip-tied the strips too. It worked really well.

To power the pixels, I used some waterproof Meanwell power supplies, in waterproof ammo boxes from Harbor Freight.

My indoor pixels used a no-brand12-volt power supply, and I also located my pixel controller there.

I went with the Advatek Pixlite 4 ECO, driven by an old PC that has a 3rd generation Intel i3 processor.

Software

The Vixen interface.

When it comes to Christmas lights sequencing software, there are two main (free) options: Vixen and xLights.

I tried out those pieces of software and ultimately decided for this year to go with Vixen.

I found Vixen to be simpler to use and easy to get started as someone who’d while I have lighting experience I’ve never done Christmas lighting before. These pieces of software have a very different approach to programming compared to what I’m used to.

Outcome

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this display turned out. Having placed the pixels in vertical stripes allowed me to do some really cool stuff, and then the extra lights on the Christmas tree and added some extra fun. Plus my son loved watching the Christmas tree from inside every night.

Next year, I’m already planning a much larger display. I consider this year’s display a “proof-of-concept” – everything went great and now I’m ready to scale up to a much larger display for 2019.

Until then, I’ll be writing here sharing my knowledge on pixels and how to do a really great job of making an easy to maintain, fun to deploy Christmas light display. I hope you’ll join me!

What is Learn Christmas Lighting?

Hi, I’m David Henry, and I think I’m addicted to Christmas Lights.

Seriously, though – it’s a ton of fun to impress my neighbors and inspire others with a captivating lighting display…on my house!  And this year, I’ve decided to dive in and do the “real deal” – FM radio and color changing pixels lights driven from a computer.

As I began to dive into the “how-to” in the Christmas Light world, I quickly realized that there is a place for my unique voice.  Why is that?  Because for the last 15 or so years, I’ve found Stage Lighting to be a passion of mine, and for since 2009, it’s been my full-time career!

And with working professionally and teaching stage lighting comes the knowledge of pixels.  Which is exactly what these new-fangled color changing Christmas lights work with – a match made in heaven!

Back to making Christmas lights happen…

As I dove in to various online forums, guides and how to’s, I realized that the perspective of *most* folks teaching Christmas lighting was from a very “Engineering” type perspective.

There’s nothing wrong with an Engineering/Mathematical brain or teaching, but it’s just not how my brain works, and I think there’s other people out there like me.

So, if you find your joy from soldering on circuit boards and following schematics – you’re not my kind of person – and that’s okay!

But if you want to make great Christmas lighting for your home, business or just for yourself, and you’ve found other guides too “techy”, “involved”, or “complicated”, I am here to create something for you.

I’m planning to write periodically to document my Christmas light displays, and also plan and teach how-to’s to make it all work together.

Sound like fun?  I think it’s going to be, and I hope you’ll join me!

-David Henry

1 4 5 6
Page 6 of 6
>