March 12, 2019

A few years ago, I made the decision that I wanted to build my first Christmas light show.

So, I went ahead and started by….

Step 1: Buying some lights.

Step 2: Then I got them wired.

Step 3: “Sequence” them to music.

And that’s where I drew a complete blank! Having a background in stage lighting, the first 2 steps were pretty easy to learn, but the software aspect was a bit more difficult – let me explain.

Christmas light sequencing programs don’t really work anything like stage lighting control programs, even though they use the same protocols and similar types of lights. (RGB LED’s)

So, I began to do some research.

It turns out, in Christmas lighting, there are 3 main programs – Vixen, Light-O-Rama (LOR), and xLights.

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

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.

Vixen in action!

Back when I first started, Vixen and xLights were “neck and neck” when it came to choosing a Christmas light sequencing program.

Vixen doesn’t offer as many abilities as xLights, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make a great show.

However, my current recommendation is to skip Vixen and go right to xLights. While Vixen used to be a great choice, xLights has made the initial setup SO much easer than Vixen, so I can’t recommend it anymore. Not to say you can’t keep using it if you have used Vixen in the past, but if you’re starting from scratch, you definitely want to use xLights.

Setup

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 or on our YouTube Channel, you can learn it.

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!

Sequencing

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. 🙂

When it comes to purchasing sequences, there really is very little available for Vixen, so you’ll be making all of your sequences yourself.

Depending on your preferences, this could be a big deal (or not).

I sequence most of my own display, but I do find it to be a great shortcut to use other folk’s sequences, and you don’t really have that option in Vixen.

Scheduling

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!

My Take:

Vixen used to be a great program for people who desired a simplified sequencing experience.

As time moves forward, Vixen has stalled in development of new features while xLights has done a lot to make the setup and sequencing process much more seamless and simple.

Light-O-Rama (LOR)

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.

Light-O-Rama is historically a AC-light programming (used for working with non-pixel, AC lights) and it shows. The pixel integration into LOR is poor and not the center of attention compared to xLights or Vixen.

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.

Setup

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. There was no indication in the installer nor the page I downloaded it from as to which one to choose.

As I got into the program, I found that it was somewhat 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.

Sequencing

When you get to sequencing, you realize that the LOR program was definitely designed for regular, “AC” 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 LOR SuperStar Sequencer in action

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.

You also can purchase sequences from LOR (and I believe a few other places), so that’s an advantage as well.

Scheduling

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.

My Take

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

xLights is THE popular sequencing program for Christmas lights in the DIY community.

The xLights timeline

Like Vixen, it is open source. xLights has a VERY passionate and active 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. This is the biggest difference I am seeing compared to Vixen.

I used to say that the learning curve of xLights was greater than Vixen, but I am happy to say now that the developers have worked a LOT on shortening the learning curve and it’s now paid off.

One of the most frustrating parts of getting your first display up is the initial setup (all the steps before you make lights flash!).

It used to be that xLights and Vixen were pretty evenly-matched in that department. Today, that is no longer the case and xLights is significantly easier to setup, and that’s why it earns my top recommendation!

It’s the best, most complex and most often updated program available! And the part that I really love is that you don’t have to get deep into the complexities if you don’t want to – so you can get started, make a great show your first year and then later dive into more complex sequencing and setup if you want to.

Setup

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, e1.31 sACN, or DDP, 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 – and the Setup tab requires you to save before anything takes effect or you close the program – so you can always quit to cancel any changes you made accidentally!

Sequencing

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…)

When it comes to purchasing sequences, xLights has the most options by far. We’ve got some links on our “Resources” page to some of the top places to buy.

If you are the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy the sequencing process, then you’ll love the massive variety of free and paid sequences available online – it can’t be beat!

Scheduling

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, and really the best choice going into the future.

Between the focus and intensity of the developers, we’ve seen xLights mature so much over the past few years into a program that is both easier to get started with and has the ability to do more complex effects.

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.

Looking for more? I cover some of the differences in video form here:

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