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 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 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.
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.
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.