December 13, 2020

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 Display

Ordinary 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. Maybe you put up a lot of standard lights, and you’re ready to kick it up a notch!

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 on command.

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

They’re then controller by sequencing software that runs on a regular computer.

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

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.

Pixlite pixel controller

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 in the computer.

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!

Learn more about Christmas lighting controllers here!

Computer/Mini Computer

Vixen Lighting Sequencer

Last, 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 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 Beaglebone running the “FPP” software, 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!

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