Getting Started

So you want to do flashy blinky lights. You should start by looking at videos of Christmas lights. This will give you an very good idea of the possibilities. One of my favorite sites is below (used with his permission). For 2014, I have written a short summary of my setup, which will give you a starting point.

Common Recommendations:
1) Use Ethernet based controllers
2) Use 12V pixel strings, 5V strings for power over Ethernet
3) Use multiple smaller controllers around the yard to minimize wiring. Or use one large controller at the center of your yard.
4) Use Ethernet cable to run pixel signals (data/ground, clk/ground)
5) Learning to solder will save you money.

Also, you should download some of the free software under links. Try out the software and learn how to sequence lights. Vixen, Xlights / nutcracker provides a high level sequencer, where you can change the lights on the beat or the musical phrase.

Another aspect of the lighting is what do you like to do? Do you like soldering and the electronics? Do you like wood working or machining and making props? Do you like the look of the incandescent strings better than the smart pixels?  What do you enjoy doing? Are you willing to learn new things? I personally enjoy doing the electronics and soldering, so I tend to focus on those things. At the minimum you will need to learn how to solder.

Designing Your Show

Things to decide up front for your show.

  1. Choose a show computer (PC or Raspberry PI). The show is running in real time to display the lights and sound, which is called a real time system. A PC running windows is not a real time system, so you need to minimize the other software on the computer to maximize performance. Generally, Linux performs better than windows, however most of the software is written to run on a  PC. My recommendation is to have a dedicated computer for the show.
  2. A dedicated network. The control of the show is generally run over Ethernet. I read about many people running the show over their home network. For surfing and most applications over the Internet, the delay time is not important. However, if someone else is using your network these packets will interfere with the timing of the show. A small show, will help reduce this issue, however I would recommend running the show over a dedicated network.
  3. What type of lights? I really can’t recommend using incandescent lights for a show. As you scale up the number of lights, the cost for the power becomes unreasonable. So for the show I would recommend buying either smart LED’s or the dumb LED strips. However, the cost to control dumb strings is about the same as smart LED’s.
  4. Powering your show. Currently there are three ways that you can power your show; one large power supply with heavy duty copper wiring, distributed small power supplies, and power over Ethernet. A couple very large power supplies require you to use larger gauge wiring, which is expensive. If you use distributed power supplies, you use extension cords to supply the power. The last option is to use power over Ethernet. This uses a couple high voltage 36V/48V/56V power supplies, and then local DC/DC converters to supply power to your lights.
  5. Choose the size of your show (small 35-100 channels, or insane). If you choose smart pixels you will have great control over your show, but way too many little boxes to fill in for sequencing. To be honest with smart pixels you end up just changing most of the lights at a phase or beat of the music. If you choose to use the dumb pixels and keep the channel count lower, it will be easier to sequence your show.

Once you have spent time understanding the process, you should layout the lights for your show. I would recommend that you start slowly and add some lights every year. You may start with just lights along the eves of the house or around the windows and doors. When looking at the lights, I would try to make them modular. For example, a window frame with the lights, power supply and controller or RS-485 receiver. Modular, means that it easy to setup, move or and take down.

Keep in mind that if you choose pixels it will increase the amount of time required for sequencing.

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