Christmas Light Show Synced to Music

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About: I'm a student of Electrical Engineering at Clemson. I've tinkered with hobby electronics since early high school (2012). I'm a photographer with Clemson's athletic department, along with being an active me...

There are many different ways to sync Christmas lights to music, but I couldn't find a modern tutorial on Instructables about how to do it. There's no need to do any programming at any point making your lights match up to music - there's software that does all the complicated parts for you!! Don't use something as low-level as an Arduino and relays, use a network-connected controller that can control hundreds of lights refreshing at 20fps. You can do this!!

This instructable is a broad overview on what it takes to put together a Christmas light show to music. It gives dozens of links to various power calculators, online stores, groups, and forums about the topic. I don't go in-depth on much but I give you the resources to find more on your own. After reading this you should have a general understanding on what it takes to make an awesome light show.

You might find tutorials on how to do this with Arduino controllers and think "Oh that's easier than using a computer or Raspberry Pi to run the show" - I'm here to tell you no, it's much easier to do it the way outlined here.

Disclaimer: This is an expensive hobby. The general rule-of-thumb is your show will cost $1/pixel once you add in the cost of pixels, controllers, enclosures, power supplies, random hardware, new tools, network supplies, ethernet cables, hookup wire, props, and whatever else I'm forgetting. Just FYI:) (To the significant other of anyone interested in this - stop them now, buy them a beer or 20, it will be cheaper than this hobby I promise. Feel free to buy me a beer too)

Step 1: Resources List

I'm far from the first person to put together resources about making a Christmas light show to sound. Here are some other resources links - I owe them for a lot of my knowledge

Wikis/Guides

Forums - There are several forums centered around holiday lighting that are still used

Facebook groups - possibly the best way to learn, most of the groups are still very active. Note - there is a search function where you can search within a Facebook group!! USE IT!! Don't just join and post "hi I'm new what do I need to make a show" like the hundred other people before you - search for things and you'll find posts about it.

Sequences - save yourself a lot of time and buy some sequences!

Power calculators

Step 2: Types of Lights (and More!)

There are a variety of lights you can use for your light show - the software and controllers can support anything electrical if you set it up correctly.

One cool thing about all of these lights is that you can cut the strip or string to any length. So if you only need 30 LED's, just cut the strip off at 30. Normal lights you're stuck with the length that you bought, so a string of 100 lights can only ever be a string of 100 lights.

Pixels

The most common type of light used in these Christmas light shows is called a smart pixel. Each pixel is an addressable RGB LED light using the WS2811 protocol. These lights can be controlled by an Arduino or other microcontroller, or in our case a Raspberry Pi, ESP8266, or dedicated light controller like the Falcon F16V3. There is typically 4"-6" of wire between each pixel so that you can push them into props wherever you want and not have to solder any wires.

NOTE- The terms WS2811/WS2812/WS2812b are all used interchangeably. Technically WS2811 is the LED driver IC, and WS2812 is a WS2811 placed inside a 5050 LED package. For the most part they will function the same since it's the same protocol, especially for pixels. When buying strips you need to be careful because some strips that use WS2811 (just the IC) will only be addressable every 3 LEDs since it uses the 3 lights in series to split 12V down to a usable ~4V each.

Pixel Connectors - Cross-compatibility note

As you can see in the last two pictures, there are a variety of connectors that pixels can come with. Below is a list of some cross-compatibility between connectors. In the future I think everyone is moving to the xConnect connector as the industry standard. It's recommended to use two different connector types - one for 5V and one for 12V - so you can't accidentally give 12V to a string of 5V lights and fry them.

  • xConnect == HolidayCoro == ScottLED
  • Paul Zhang == CFOL
  • Not cross compatible with anything: Daniel Zhang, Ray Wu, JST, DIY LED Express, Delphi WeatherPak / Marine grade 3 pin

Smart strips

These strips also use the WS2811 chip and protocol to be addressable for each light.

A lot of people dislike the strips because they're prone to failure and more difficult to repair than pixels. If a pixel burns out you can easily cut/strip/solder/crimp the connections, if a light in a strip fails then you need to solder on tiny pads on the strip. It's possible and not impossible, but far more difficult than repairing pixels.

Dumb strips

These are the cheapest RGB LED strips you'll find. The entire strip has to be the same color, and they use 4 wires (R,G,B, and +). These lights need a controller to output a PWM signal on each channel of the strip. You'll want to stay away from these in light shows if you're using any of the controllers.

Standard AC lights

Any old-fashioned Christmas lights string that normal people use. They can be LED or incandescent. There are controllers you can buy or make to control these, and it can be a (relatively) cheap way to add many more lights to your display.

Moving heads

The xLights software has support to control professional DJ equipment through DMX such as moving head spotlights, lasers, fire, and other things that use the DMX protocol.

Projectors/TV

You can use a projector with your light show as well to show animations or videos.

P10/P5 Panels

These are plastic panels with RGB LEDs set in a matrix. The panels can be daisy chained and connected to make a continuous panel of almost any size. The front of the panels is weather resistant but the back needs to be protected. [3D print P5 brackets] [3D print P10 brackets] Note - the number is the pixel pitch in millimeters which is the distance between each pixel. So P10 panels have 10mm between each pixel, P5 have 5mm between each pixel. You can also get many other resolutions like P2.5 or P3.5 but P5/P10 are the most common.

Neon Tube Analog

Similar to the standard tube lights found at many stores, there's a new product from Carey Lee that uses addressable LED's to look like an old-fashioned neon sign. Currently this is the only store selling it but I expect it will become more popular in the coming years. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000071790... Online store: http://www.szrebow.com/

Stores to buy Pixels/Strips etc

Step 3: Software Options

There are a few common software solutions for making a light show to music. All of these use a similar interface where you can see the waveform of your song and you drag effects on to "props" or groups of props. So you can drag a spiral effect onto your pixel candy canes during the quiet part, then make all your lights a solid green during the loud part, etc. It's similar to editing music or video, there's no programming at all.

xLights - https://xlights.org/

xLights is the leading free software for controlling lights. It has a very active community of more than 5,000 users and the developers are constantly pushing new features and updates. In January 2019 xLights was the first to introduce full 3D modelling/viewing. You can download it today and start playing around with the effects without any controllers at all

Vixen - http://www.vixenlights.com/

Vixen is another free software. It is very similar to xLights but has a slightly more polished user-interface and many people find it easier to use initially. Vixen has been around for longer than xLights.

Light-O-Rama - http://www1.lightorama.com/

Light-O-Rama is a paid program that also sells controllers that simply work with their software. This can be easier to set up and more intuitive with a more direct support line than posting in Facebook groups. It costs $50-$190 for the software depending on which level you choose.

Song beat detection, bar detection, note length, etc

xLights has support for something called "Queen Mary Vamp" which is a plugin that does some fancy math analysis on your music to find/estimate things about it and create timing interval tracks. The download for it is on the xLights Downloads page, it says "QM Vamp Plugins: Installer for 64-bit windows plugin". Install it. Here's a tutorial on installing it. Here's an explanation of some of the intervals.

Some of the timing intervals it can make are

  • Bar and Beat Tracker: Bars, Beat Count, Beat Spectral Difference, Beats
  • Ket Detector: Key, Key Mode, Tonic Pitch
  • Note Onset Detector: Note Onsets, Smoothed detection function
  • Polyphonic Transcription
  • Segmenter
  • Temp and beat tracker: Beats, Tempo
  • Tonal Change: Detection function, Change positions

Step 4: Controllers (F16V3, PiCap, ESPixelStick, Etc)

There are a lot of controllers that can be used for controlling lights. The cost of a controller might be intimidating at first so I'll list them from cheapest to most expensive

Bare ESP8266 with breakout board - $4 -Board + breakout You can use the software for the ESPixelStick on a bare ESP8266. The data is output from GPIO2. You'll need to provide it 3.3V and power the lights separately, but other than that it should work if you're careful. You'll need a USB TTL cable to flash the firmware (Don't use the one that the ESP8266 plugs directly into the USB board, it doesn't have a way to put the ESP into programming mode and won't work with the flashing software) Cheaper if you buy from China and it's the same product probably from the same factory. This can control up to 680 WS2811 LED's

NodeMCU breakout board - $13 - https://jboards.ecwid.com/ESPixNode-p127558674 - These boards use the NodeMCU version of the ESP8266. This is a nice change because the NodeMCU already has voltage regulation and a TTL converter for easy flashing of the firmware. This can control up to 680 WS2811 LED's

ESPixelStick - $20 - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B072XT1V77/ref=o... - The original ESP8266 interface for addressable lights. For $20 you get a fused output of up to 680 lights and power control for 5V-12V. It connects to your network over WiFi. They're "out of stock" most of the time on Amazon but come back in stock every other month or so.

Falcon PiCap - $35 - https://www.pixelcontroller.com/store/index.php?id_product=47&controller=product - This attaches to the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi and can control two strings of 800+ pixels along with DMX output. It's

16 Port RGB Pixel Controllers

xLights has a great page with many controllers compared, I recommend reading it before trusting me: https://xlights.org/16-port-rgb-pixel-controllers/

Now that you've read through it, it's probably obvious to you that the Falcon F16v3 is the best controller. Everyone I know is moving towards this one (or the F48, which is the same thing but using ethernet cords and differential receivers for easier distribution across distances)

F16v3 - $200 - https://www.pixelcontroller.com/store/index.php?id_product=48&controller=product - The king of the controllers. It can control 16 strings of 1024 lights each, and also has outputs for Renard and DMX lights. Can use two separate power supplies of differing voltages. Has internal temperature sensors, fan control, 5A fuses and indicator lights, an OLED display for the IP Address, and will soon support wifi and audio output.

F48 - $200 + $Receivers - https://www.pixelcontroller.com/store/index.php?id_product=52&controller=product - all the same stats as the F16v3 but it outputs data in a compressed format to 12 differential receivers. The connectors for F48 are ethernet connectors but the data isn't technically sent in typical ethernet protocol (with IP addresses). Anyways, this board allows you to simply run an ethernet cord to a receiver and power the receiver with a separate power supply. If your yard is large it makes more sense to use an F48 so you don't have large voltage drops of 5V or 12V and need more power injection. To use this you'll need to buy the F48 and however many receivers you plan on using (Recivers are $20 each)

Controlling standard AC lights

The most well-known place to get controllers that can interface with the software and control an AC outlet is LightORama. http://store.lightorama.com/reseadct.html I haven't found anywhere else to buy a controller that is compatible with our software.

Another option is to make one yourself using an Arduino/ESP8266 and a relay module, like I did here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2018/10...

Note - if you go the DIY option you won't be able to dim the lights simply using PWM. You'll need a triac, like here: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/AC-Light-Dimmer-Mo...

Step 5: Controller Build Guides

Since this tutorial is just a broad overview of how to make a modern light show with music, I felt like adding a build guide on the end would be too detailed compared to the rest of it. I plan on making separate instructables about making different controllers soon.

In the meantime, here are some resources you can use to plan and build your first controller:

Just to give a little overview, here are the typical components used in a controller

  • Enclosure - many people use the CG1500 or a BUD box, like the BUD 32026
  • Power supply(s) - one or multiple power supplies, either 5V or 12V, and at least 350W. For 12V I recommend looking into "used server power supplies", you can get a 12V 750W server PSU for $15 or less. Meanwell is a popular brand of reliable supplies overall.
  • Controller - As discussed previously
  • PG7 or PG9 cable glands - used as a watertight connection around your light pigtails and the power into the supply.
  • Connecting wire - you'll want wire of at least 16AWG and preferably bigger to connect your power supply to the controllers and for power injection.
  • (Optional) Power distribution block - many people use the F8 Distro board since it has 8 fused outputs which is perfect for us. You can also use fuse blocks typically for cars, or just use wires from a bus bar and use in-line fuses.

And for your "main" controller here are some other optional things to shove in the box

  • (Optional) Raspberry Pi running FPP - you'll want to use FPP somewhere with your show, you'll connect to it over internet so it doesn't really matter where you put it, might as well be near your show
  • (Optional) FM Transmitter - so that cars driving by can listen to your music without you blasting music all night
  • (Optional) Network Switch - gives you multiple ethernet ports to directly connect your Pi to the other controllers. This improves show performance/latency because it reduces the load on the router. Basically the Pi says "Send this data to the device at 192.168.1.69" and the network switch says "Oh, I have device 192.168.1.69! I'll send it directly there instead of going through the router first"
  • (Optional) PC fan for cooling - important for people in a warm client to keep their controller/power supply from overheating. Also just good practice. be sure to have a vent though
  • (If you're using speakers) Audio amplifier. If the Raspberry Pi is also in the case just run an Aux cord from its audio output to the amplifier's input, then run the outputs to your speakers.

Step 6: The Great Debate: 5V Vs 12V

You'll find two voltages of lights you can use, either 5V or 12V. People will swear by one type of light or the other, but really each of them has their ideal use case and their advantages/disadvantages.

First you need to understand that there is a voltage drop across copper wire and that drop is in units of volts, not percent. So if you have a 10 foot 22AWG copper wire, the voltage drop will (for example) be 1V across it. So if you have 5V at one end of the cable now you'll have 4V on the other end of the cable. If you have 12V at one end you'll have 11V on the other end.

This voltage drop difference is important because 5V lights stop working around 3.5V (a drop of 1.5V) and 12V lights stop working around 8.5V (a 3.5V drop). So you can get away with longer runs of lights on 12V without needing power injection.

If this concept is still fuzzy simply go to the voltage drop calculator for 200 5V lights and then change them to 12V and see the difference.

That said, here's the basic difference and use case between the two

5V lights

  • Cheaper upfront cost. At WiredWatts strings of 50 5V lights are $11.50, strings of 50 12V lights are $15.
  • Require more power injection/distribution. It's recommended to only run 50 5V lights without power injection. This comes at a cost of materials and/or time (power injection T's or injecting it your own way)
  • Good for many pixels in a dense area such as a grid or candy cane.

12V lights

  • Use more power. This is important because you'll need a beefier power supply than to power the same number of 5V lights. Each 12V pixel actually steps the voltage down to 5V (either with a resistor or voltage regulator chip) and that causes a lot of power loss. 12V pixels draw .72W/pixel, 5V are just .30W/pixel. So to power 1000 5V lights you need a 350W power supply, for 1000 12V lights you need a 750W power supply.
  • More expensive up front ($15/string instead of $11.50)
  • Good for longer runs where power injection would be messy - house outlines, tall mega tree. yard edge lighting.

Many people have found that their overall cost for 5V lights with additional power injection hardware and wire adds up to about the same cost as the 12V lights. I personally use a mix of the two in my show and use different connectors for each so I can't accidentally give a 5V prop 12V.

Step 7: Power Handling, Distribution, and Injection Best Practices

Here are the helpful calculators about power:

This page is a very basic over view about power, if you want more depth and product recommendations check out these pages

Power distribution at a low-voltage level is nothing to be afraid of. 5V and 12V won't hurt you unless you try to get hurt. However, there are some basic rules that you need to follow in order to not hurt your equipment.

Show Brightness

You don't need to run your show at 100% brightness. This will use the most power but the colors will be washed-out (more white instead of a nice deep blue/red/purple) and will overpower any other "normal" AC Christmas lights you have. I recommend running lights at 50%-75% brightness, and if people will be very close to your display maybe even going as low as 25% brightness. Some people also will scale the brightness based on distance from the viewer, so lights on the house are set brighter than lights in the yard.

For safety you should always try to spec your power supplies and cables to handle the max power consumption of your lights at max power. This helps protect everything in case you accidentally set the show to "All pixels white 100%" during testing.

Power Injection from the SAME power supply

Summary: If your lights are powered by the same power supply as the one you're using to inject from, simply connect the + wire to the + wire and the grounds together and go on your merry way.

Since all of our power is DC we can just inject power wherever we want and it's fine. You could inject power every light and it would be just like having all your lights on a 5V bus. One thing to note is that the power injection helps the voltage on both sides of where you inject - so if you have 5V injected at light 75 of a string it will increase the voltage for lights 1-75 and 76-150.

Another convenient use for using the same power supply is to connect the power and ground of both ends of a prop together. If the prop is the first item from the controller then this has the same effect of injecting power at the beginning and end of the prop.

Power Injection from a DIFFERENT power supply

Summary: Data continues on, connect the Grounds together, don't connect the + of both power supplies together.

Just to clarify: Do not connect the +5 or +12 of two separate power supplies together. Do not connect two 12V power supplies +12V together. Do not connect two 5V power supplies +5V together. Do not put two power supplies in series to try to get 2X the voltage. They "fight" each other if they are out of phase of each other at all and it will probably result in one or both of the power supplies going up in smoke. (Side note - some server power supplies actually can be connected in parallel like this and they'll more or less share the load. I've never been brave enough to do this myself but theoretically depending on your model it should be okay)

One of the pictures above shows how to properly do this in the middle of a string.

Purchasing Power Supplies

Yes you can buy the no-brand power supply on eBay for $20, but it's probably worth your time to spend the extra $5 or $10 for a power supply with a brand that you can trust. Many people use MeanWell power supplies. I personally have used WiredWatts power supplies without issue.

Used HP/Dell Server power supplies are a popular option for 12V. They're $10-$20 each for 12V 1200W (100A) power supplies. Just look up on ebay for "HP Server Power Supply" and you'll find plenty. With those you'll probably want a breakout board, like this one from ParallelMiner.

Power Distribution General Guidelines

The typical rule of thumb is "For 5V pixels inject power every 50 lights, for 12V pixels every 100 lights."

I've found that advice to be accurate if you're running the show at 80%-100% brightness, and if you don't power inject at that amount then the whites will be tinted red near the end. However, as previously mentioned you shouldn't be running your show at 100% or even above 75% power because the colors get washed out.

You need your wires to be rated to handle the amount of current going through them without heating up. (Btw, AWG==gauge) Use this calculator to calculate the gauge you need for your current and your length of wire. Generally,

20 AWG

18 AWG

16 AWG

14 AWG

10 AWG

Power Distribution Breakout Boards

Step 8: FM Transmitters and Other Hardware

This hobby involves a lot of DIY for props (and really all steps), and there's a variety of hardware you can use to make your life easier (or to do things at all). I've been making things with my hands for 10 years and I learned about several new tools and materials in this hobby that I had never heard before. So this page is a convenience list of hardware that maybe you haven't heard of that you'll find helpful for your build.

Pixel Connectors - The following pixel connector types function together as shown in each bullet point

  • xLights == HolidayCoro == ScottLED
  • Paul Zhang == CFOL
  • Daniel Zhang
  • Ray Wu

Tools

  • Step drill bits - useful for drilling large holes all the way through a material. They make it easy to drill a 1" hole through 1/4" thick steel plates.
  • Ratcheting crimper - Makes using crimp butt connectors a breeze. Yeah the ratcheting stripper has crimping on it, but this requires much less effort for a better result.
  • Ferrule crimper - good for putting metal tips on your braided copper wires so they don't fray and cause a short
  • Automatic wire stripper with crimpers - great for stripping any size wire.
  • Heat gun - you should already have this, it's $25 and super useful and fun.

Hardware

FM Transmitters - many people ask "What's your preferred FM transmitter" - here's a list of some recommendations

Cheap ebay versions from china - I'll let you look up "FM transmitter" and find your own, lots of people use these and have solid results. Anything in the $20-$50 range and says it has a range of 300ft or so (Take about 30% of their estimates and treat that as the realistic range) should work

Sound Cards - improve the audio quality from your Raspberry Pi by using a USB sound card

Step 9: Props - (Mega) Trees, Arches, Stars, Singing Faces

The easiest way to use Pixels for things other than straight lines are by buying a pre-cut prop to "push" the pixels into. These props are commonly made out of corrugated plastic (aka "Coro") which is fluted polypropylene. Props are very cheap compared to the cost of pixels

Prop Vendors:

However, you can also make them yourself! I made a stocking myself using a laser cutter and 1/4" plywood. It turned out great but I didn't weatherproof it as well as I should have before painting it and pushing in lights. You can also buy your own corrugated plastic and cut it yourself - Home Depot has some good sized sheets of varying thickness, and I ordered mine cut to a laser-cuttable size from Piedmont Plastics.

If you plan on making any props beyond items straight from Boscoyo/HolidayCoro I highly recommend joining the "Share your Holiday enclosures & prop mounting ideas" Facebook group and looking through their galleries or using the search function for what you want. There are some 3D printed designs for arch bases you can download, some tips on keeping your mega tree attached to concrete/dirt, attaching things to your roof without drilling etc.

Mega Trees

A "mega tree" is typically made of strips of lights that are connected in a cone shape. There are many ways to build a mega tree, from the 'traditional way' with shop-bought LED strings to the pixel way with either pixel strips or pixel nodes (strings). The australian wiki has a good page about it. Boscoyo sells "toppers" that are designed to attach to electrical conduit and help you attach your light strips evenly and have some kits to help you make a really tall tree.

Use this site to visualize your tree and get lots of stats on it first: https://www.lightshowhub.com/tools/mega-tree-calcu...

Most people do either 2 or 3 inch spacing depending on the distance the tree is from the audience. Typically 0-15 feet do 1-inch, 15-50 feet do 2-inch, 50 feet plus do 3-inch spacing.

Arches

Arches are an easy way to take up space with minimal effort. HolidayCoro sells some arches that you just need to provide a frame to. Many people will use PEX tubing (1" or 2") and put LED strips inside them for a decently diffused look. The base is typically made of PVC or metal pipe with "outriggers" on the side staked into the ground, but I've also seen some made of 2x4 wood. You can look up "Pex Base" on thingiverse and find some models people have made you can 3D print to help you set up your arches

House Outlines

A common way to make your house stand out is to outline the windows, corners, and roof of the house with pixels. Many people will custom drill holes into aluminum channel for a rugged frame they can quickly install with a few permanent attachments/hooks in the house. A house outline can have a dramatic visual impact if done right.

Some other ways to mount to your house include

  • Chroma Strip zip-tied to PVC, mounted to permanently installed pope clips on the house [David Spalding]
  • Screw individual bullet pixels to a board or piece of metal, then install eye hooks into side of house or gutter clips into gutter [Matt Stout'
  • Vinyl J-channel drilled for the lights, attached to the house using 3M Dual Lock [Steve Massman]

Step 10: Falcon Pi Player (FPP) and Networking

FPP has great documentation so I'm just going to copy/paste from their description:

The Falcon Player (FPP) is a lightweight, optimized, feature-rich sequence player designed to run on low-cost SBC's (Single Board Computers). It was originally created to run on the $35 Raspberry Pi, hence the middle 'P' in the short name. FPP is a software solution that you download and install on hardware which can be purchased from numerous sources around the internet. FPP aims to be controller agnostic, it can talk E1.31, DMX, Pixelnet, and Renard to hardware from multiple hardware vendors, including controller hardware from Falcon Christmas available via COOPs or in the store on FalconChristmas.com.

Basically, you set up a Raspberry Pi running FPP and it can control your light show based on a schedule so that you don't have to have a PC running 24/7 to run the show. It can do a lot more than just blindly run sequences on a schedule, but that's the gist of it.

Manual: https://falcon-player.gitbooks.io/falcon-player-ma...

Forum: https://falconchristmas.com/forum/index.php/board,...

Downloads: https://github.com/FalconChristmas/fpp/releases

Wiki: https://falconchristmas.com/wiki/Falcon_FPP

Note: Make sure you download the release for your hardware. "FPP-v2.5-BBB-btrfs,zip" is for a BeagleBone board, not a raspberry Pi. "FPP-v2.5-Pi.zip" is for a raspberry pi. It will run on all versions of a standard Pi (3B+ is recommended) and the Pi Zero. It can also run on the BeagleBone, Pine64, ODROID, and Next Thing platforms as detailed on the wiki.

The alternative to using FPP is to use xSchedule, which is installed with xLights. I don't know what the other sequencing software uses for this.

Other cool stuff you can do with FPP

  • Run an Effect Sequence (.eseq) file at any time while a main sequence is running. This is great for running a "tune to 99.9FM" sign or any other static lights
  • Interface with the Pi's GPIO to use a button to start your show or go to the next song
  • Mount the controller outside with the rest of your show for easy ethernet distribution
  • Convenient web interface to start/stop/control your show with your phone or any other web browser on your network (VPN into your network if you want to control it from somewhere else)
  • Testing settings to test your props before running the show
  • Power output settings
  • As stated before, not needing to keep your main computer on during your show
    • Safety from pesky Windows updates
  • Limit network congestion by going FPP-->Network switch-->Controller. The network switch will route the data directly to the controller instead of your router needing to handle it.
  • Remote FPP - run a "slave" instance of FPP on another Pi for when you don't want to run an ethernet cable somewhere

Networking

I'm still figuring out the best way to set up a show network myself. You can look at the pictures on this step to help visualize a typical show network. One important concept is to use a network switch for your Pi and controllers so that the network switch routes the pixel controller traffic directly to the controller instead of through your router. Use an ethernet connection wherever possible to reduce latency and improve your connection reliability. Many people will make their own Ethernet cables of custom lengths using patch cable and an ethernet kit.

Networking resources

Step 11: XLights Overview and Resources

If it wasn't obvious on the last several steps, xLights is the software that I use for my show. xLights is a very extensive software for light show design and sequencing and once you get used to the interface it is quite easy to use.

There is far more to learn about xLights than I can cover in this instructable, so please please please watch some videos here to learn more:

Video Tutorials

If you just want a simple step-by-step to start messing with the software you can follow this guide:

https://xlights.org/quick-start-guide/

Basically xLights is split up into entirely separate interface tab.

  • Setup - Where you set up your controllers with their IP addresses and ports
  • Layout - Where you place your prop models. Put a picture of your house as the background and then draw a tree or matrix using the built-in generators for them
  • Sequence - Where you add effects to each of your props to music.


3D Modelling Software

xLights is the first light sequencing program that has 3D features, and this means that it is the first time many users have ever tried 3D modelling to make a model of their house.

  • Google Sketchup - Free* - Google sketchup is a simple, easy to use 3D modelling software from google. However, the free version doesn't allow us to export the 3D model as a .OBJ file which xLights needs. There's a 30-day trial of the full version you can use, or you can find a friend that does have the full version and send them your sketchup file and have them export the .obj file. https://help.sketchup.com/en/sketchup/sketchup
  • Hover.to - $50-$100. Hover is a service/program where you take pictures of the exterior of your house and they use some fancy math to make an entire model of it. It's perfect for our application. https://hover.to/
  • DroneDeploy - Free trial or $130/month - app and service that you use with a drone to take pictures of a building and then their servers stitch it together into a 3D model

Step 12: Video Settings - Taking a Video of Your Display

Many people have trouble taking a high-quality video of their display, but this can be fixed with the right video settings. You don't need a super expensive camera, you can probably do all this with a phone app.

The issue with taking video using full automatic camera settings is that the camera will do its best to get an even/bright exposure of the subject. However, light shows get brighter and darker on the fly, and the lights themselves don't take up a majority of the pixels in the frame. As a result, the camera tries to make everything too bright (making the colors on the lights a washed-out white) and will make everything brighter or darker throughout the song when you have less or more lights turned on. It also often will try to auto-focus the entire time and if no lights are on it will "focus search" which will result in everything being blurry and out of focus until lights go back on and it focuses on them. The following steps can fix all these issues.

Manual Exposure Settings - the following settings are just a general guideline - depending on your show you might need to change things

  • Shutter Speed - 1/30s. This is the slowest shutter speed we can have and still take a 24fps or 30fps video. Having a slow shutter speed will keep the noise (grainy-ness) to a minimum
  • Aperture - as wide as possible, probably f/2.8 or f/3.5. Phone cameras sometimes can go down to f/2, dSLR it will depend on what lens you put on the camera. Once again, keep this as wide as possible (lowest number) to minimize the ISO necessary and therefore limit noise.
  • ISO - 400 to 1600. This is what you should adjust to get the desired exposure. I shot my video on ISO 1600 and it looked fine without any noise reduction in post production.
  • White balance - set it to something that looks about right, just so that the camera doesn't make your white colors go from purple-ish to yellow-ish throughout the video. As long as it's consistent throughout the video it shouldn't really matter what it is.
  • Video resolution/fps - I recommend 1080p (1920x1080) at 24fps or 30fps.

Light settings

Don't have your lights at 100% brightness. Set them to 40% brightness or so to get the best color both on video and in-person.

Hardware tips

  • Use a tripod!!! It might not be obvious on your phone/camera screen, but your hands are shaky. It's much easier to plop your camera on a tripod or a table or chair or car roof than it is to apply video stabilization in post-processing.
  • Replace camera microphone audio with your .mp3 file - Use speakers and the camera microphone when taking the video, but then in your video editing software add in your mp3 files as separate audio tracks and then use the "auto-sync clips" feature to match up the two clips. Then mute the audio track from your microphone. Now you'll have high-quality audio with your video instead of tinny quiet camera microphone.

Step 13: That's All Folks! Tips and Advice

Thank you for reading my guide, I know it's kinda lengthy. I hope you learned something from it or it piqued your curiosity about the hobby, I know I learned a lot just researching and putting this together.

If you think there's something else I should cover, please comment it! And if you're knowledgeable about it feel free to post everything that you think I should post - I'll happily copy/paste it into the guide and give you credit.

I'm just a college student trying to help others learn and enjoy life. If you enjoyed this tutorial and are feeling generous feel free to buy me a coffee or beer (or a string of pixels...)

Venmo - @jakabo27 or click here

Paypal - @jakabo27 or click here

Now that you've read all this, there's only one thing left to do: Just DO IT

Tips and Advice From old people Veterans

  • Start setup earlier
  • Think ahead on colors used for +/-/data and connectors to keep it as uniform as possible.
  • Use different connectors for 5V and 12V pixels so you can't burn out 5V on accident
  • Take that little extra time to organize and label during tear down. You will thank yourself during the next setup
  • Test/retest any display element that will be higher than 8 feet off the ground. Splicing pixels on the roof is no way to go through life, son
  • Consider hiring things out, such as setting up a mega tree (if it's something massive like 20'+) or placing things on the roof (don't fall and die)
  • On a similar note, spend money to rent a manlift for high places. It's about $500 to rent a 50ft lift for a weekend. Consider splitting the cost between friends.
  • Nodes are better than strips.
  • Cold weather makes things more brittle and prone to snapping.

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