Introduction: Demystifying 4 Pin Addressable RGB LEDS

If you've seen my previous Instructable on RGB LEDs, then you have a pretty good foundation on the ability to put three separate light sources into a single package in your builds.

Time marches on, and so does technology! One of the most innovative new things about RGB LEDs is the addition of a discreet Integrated-Circuit (or IC) inside of the shell to reduce the burden of their use. With a standard common-cathode Push-Thru-Hole (PTH) RGB LEDs, you need three pins per LED with a common ground. The Arduino Uno has only 6 PWM pins so you would be limited to a maximum of two RGB LEDs on it. To use more, one needs either a larger Microprocessor, the addition of shift registers, or even daisy-chaining a network of microprocessors together.

Addressable LEDs only require one signal pin, power, and a common ground. The power can even be from a separate supply. This makes products such as this (from and this (from not just possible but practical for the hobbyist.

Step 1: The Basics, How Is an Addressable RGB LED Different?

At a glance, these LEDs look very similar to their older cousins. One has to delve into the epoxy to find the differences. There is a tiny-tiny little chip in there, it handles a lot of things for you. It manages the voltage to the LEDs and listens for its instructions before passing along the message. That little silicone brain also is able to figure out where in the sequence of LEDs it is, so that you do not have to configure anything in the LED itself to string a whole bunch of them together.

With a standard RGB LED, you have three pins providing the power to the Red, Green, and/or Blue elements and a common return pin. The pins themselves are often arranged in a Red-Ground-Blue-Green configuration. They come in Common-Anode and Common-Cathode types, each with slightly different needs and configurations.

With Addressables, you have a Data In pin, a Power pin, a Ground Pin, and a Data Out pin. Additionally, they understand Red - Green - Blue color codes easily so you don't have to worry that long habit has you transposing the Green and Blue values.

Both types have a flat side of the lens housing to indicate the polarity of the units.

Step 2: How Does It Work?

The WS2812 IC inside these Addressable LEDs acts just like a shift register. In fact in some datasheets they are called Shift Register Programmable LEDs. Its this tiny chip that makes the magic in the secret sauce. Its more than just a Shift Register too, it includes the current limiting resistor all LEDs need, as well as regulates the input voltage to what the specific LED elements need. You can learn more about Shift Registers here on Wikipedia.

In my previous Instructable, I went into some detail about LEDs and how that altering voltage was a good way to kill LEDs and that if you wanted to dim them, you needed to use a Pulse-Width Modulating signal. What Pulse-Width Modulation does is turn the LED on and off so fast that it changes the average light level. The more time the LED is off, the darker it looks. The reason you don't see it that way is that the LED is switched on and off so fast, your eyes cannot detect it.

Addressable LEDs are neither controlled by voltage, nor Pulse-Width Modulation. They are controlled by a carrier signal. This 800kHz signal has a format that describes to the chip what each of the colors should be, what the brightness should be, and also what every LED in the chain downstream should be too.

When the WS2812 receives the signal, it decodes its own data from that carrier signal, then sends out the rest of the data downstream to the next LED and so forth.

In the Arduino, this is accomplished by the use of a rather clever library written by the fine folks at Adafruit, who sell the NeoPixel line of products that use the WS2812 chip. In fact when you look at the guts of that library the actual data is sent to out with a series of carefully timed DigitalWrite() commands. This means that any of the 13 digital pins could be used, not just the six PWM pins.

Step 3: Building the Demostration

For the demo I've put together, I've placed five addressable LEDs in a breadboard. Connected the Power and Ground rails of the breadboard to my Arduino Uno, and then daisy-chained the LEDs together, one Data Out to the next Data In. I've also added a little piezoelectric buzzer just for some extra fun. The first LED's Data In pin is connected to pin 6 on my Arduino and the piezo is on pin 8.

While pin 6 is a PWM -- or Pulse Width Modulation pin -- on the Arduino Uno, we will not be using PWM with this demo. In fact, I could use one of the six analog pins and the demo would still run fine. If you build this setup be sure to try moving the jumper wire from pin 6 to Analog 0. In the Sketch (which I provide in a later step) be sure to change the pin assignment to "A0" and see for yourself.

Depending on what else you have your Arduino doing at the same time, you may find that pins 0, 1, 3, and 11 might not work right. Additionally, Analog pins 2, 3, 4, and 5 shouldn't be used if your using any I2C components.

Ok, you've got the five LEDs in your breadboard, linked to each other, ground, power, and your the signal pin from the Arduino, what next? Your in luck, your almost done, all you have to do is load the sketch and I've done the typing for you.

Step 4: The Code of the LED

The Adafruit library has two specific calls that you need to understand to use these LEDs. The first sets the colors to encode into the signal, and the second actually sends the signal.

Remember that like with most things in programming, you start with ZERO as the first item of the count, so... if I wanted to show a rainbow of colors on my five LEDs, I'd do this:

strip.setPixelColor(0, 255, 0, 0); // Red

strip.setPixelColor(1, 255, 69, 0); // Orange

strip.setPixelColor(2, 255, 255, 0); // Yellow

strip.setPixelColor(3, 0, 255, 0); // Green

strip.setPixelColor(4, 0, 0, 255); // Blue

The four values in the parentheses are: LED#, Red Color, Green Color, and Blue Color. The LED# starts with 0, and makes the use of a For Statement in programs easy. In fact in the example code that comes with the library, all of the calls to the strip.setPixelColor() command are nested in For Statements.

This series of commands would not be visible until you actually send the signal out, and you do that by this simple command:;

If you need help figuring out what values to use in your projects, you can start here with standard HTML color codes using the Decimal Code column. Its also a fascinating look at the history of Web Colors and desire to have a consistent result displayed on the vast number of different type of monitors in the world.

Step 5: Showtime!

So, now its time to see these little guys in action! With apologies to Steven Spielberg and without further adieu...

Here's the video.

Step 6: Wrapping It All Together...

Here is the code I've used in my demo. It was very easy to throw this together quickly, and after you spend a little time learning how to talk to the WS2812 chip, all sorts of possibilities open up. From large arrays of LEDs forming an ad-hoc Display, or just a touch of color where you want it, Addressable RGB LEDs really make it easy.

I've tried to keep my code readable, and for that reason I've not made use of arrays of color data, or For statements like in the provided examples with the Adafruit NeoPixel library. This is so that you can see each step easily. I've only touched the tip of the Iceberg here, Adafruit's example code shows you how to fade between colors smoothly, get that chasing 'theater' effect, and more.

I should point out that Adafruit suggests a decoupling capacitor between
the power supply and the LEDs as well as a single current limiting resistor between the Arduino and the first LED's Data In pin, as well as keeping the wiring as short as possible.


JasmineH1 (author)2015-09-11

Thank you! Very helpful.

NT86 (author)2015-02-07

does there have to be a constant signal? I am deciding whether the 3 pin or 4 pin strips are better. The 3 pin strips work like these in that they have a single data pin input without the clock pin. The 4 pin type uses a clock signal from the arduino (which personally I think might be easier to learn with since I think the clock can be manually controlled which would allow for data to be inputted by hand with toggle switches)

RichardBronosky (author)2014-10-03

Thank you for this EXCELLENT Instructable! It truly has done exactly what the title says. I'm grateful that JGuthridge shared this over on SparkFun.

You only mention using a capacitor and resistor in the last line of this instructable. And only state that someone else recommends it.

Do you use a resistor or capacitor?

Do you think I need a capacitor or resistor if I want to put a just one single WS2812 LED into my 3.3v Arduino Pro Micro project?

jmoody14 (author)2014-09-06

Well happy!

jmoody14 (author)2014-09-01

excellent primer on addressable LEDs, I'm now off to purchase a few and play...

crispernakisan (author)2014-08-31

This is a great write-up. I loves me some addressable RGB LEDs!

Fikjast Scott (author)2014-08-31

this is great, thanks for posting

pocokk (author)2014-08-31

The chinese mid-Autumn Lantern cum MoonCake festival just around the corner. I have hacked Dasio dollar Japanese Paper lantern as mood light i.e. Fade-In-Fade-Out Color change mood light. Using this 8mm RGB non-addressable diffused common-anode LED with a software tricked PWM on Attiny85. Looks lovely.

booga007 (author)2014-08-27

Thanks for the 'ible, nice to know a bit more about these.

Question is though, can it not display different colours on the LEDs at the same time?

Dain Unicorn (author)booga0072014-08-28

Sure they could. I only did things the way I did to keep it simple for examples sake.

bensaadon8 (author)2014-08-26

you know you can use maxim 7219 right?

CptanPanic (author)bensaadon82014-08-27

WS2811 can drive tons more leds than the maxim.

bensaadon8 (author)CptanPanic2014-08-27

they're both very similar,bit the difference is that the 7219 draws 5v/150microA and controlls 64 leds or 1 matrix- he doesnt need more than that in this project.

Dain Unicorn (author)bensaadon82014-08-27

For this build, sure. But the WS2811 and WS2812 chips work in a different fashion. I see no reason why you couldn't controll several thousand WS2812 enabled LEDs with even a ATTiny85, provided you had an external power arrangement.

bensaadon8 (author)Dain Unicorn2014-08-27

i agree,just mentioned what i would use for this project.
and about the pdf-got it.

Dain Unicorn (author)bensaadon82014-08-27

I'm not familiar with the Maxim 7219. What can you share about it?

bensaadon8 (author)Dain Unicorn2014-08-27

btw cool project, can you somehow share the full pdf?

Dain Unicorn (author)bensaadon82014-08-27

Full PDF? If your talking about the Instructables feature to download a PDF its reserved for Pro member. If not, I'm confused.

bensaadon8 (author)Dain Unicorn2014-08-27

seamster (author)2014-08-26

Great information. Thank you for sharing this!

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Bio: I've been many things over the years, A television cameraman, a paperboy, a security guard, a Hotelier, a published author, a truck driver, a ... More »
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