Ready to computerize your display but don’t want the hassle of building your own control hardware or software? There are multiple vendors endorsed by PlanetChristmas. All have excellent products, price points and customer support.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
How Much Will it Cost?
Known Good Companies
A Word to the Wise
Which Vendor is Best?
The most Important Thing to Know
Sequencing Time Rule of Thumb
Start Small and Build
Ready, Set, Go!
How in the world do the fancy Christmas light displays work? Think of those light switches on a wall in your house. Each switch controls a different light. In your bathroom you might have a group of three switches. One controls the light on the ceiling, another the light above the mirror and the third is probably connected to an exhaust fan. Three switches, three different electrical circuits and three different functions. With those three switches you can have a lot of different combinations of things turned on or off.
Computer controlled Christmas displays just use a lot more light switches and the computer determines which one is turned on or off at any point in time.
Most simple computer controlled displays have 16 individual electrical circuits. Think of it as 16 unique extension cords. If you have bushes along the front of your house, say four on each side of the front door, you could put lights on each bush and each would require its own extension cord. You could do the same with four snowflakes hanging from a tree and four windows you have outlined with lights. Now you connect the ends of those16 extension cords to a 16 channel light controller. The controller is told what to do and which of the 16 switches need to be turned on/off by the computer. Sounds pretty simple, huh? It is as long as you remember the fundamentals.
Your next question should be how does the computer know which lights to turn on/off and at what times? Remember those light switches in the bathroom above? Add a few and extend those switches to the 16 extension cords in your yard. All the computer is doing is turning on/off all those switches in an order you’ve already defined. We call it sequencing.
Sequencing is simply defining what lights are on at any given point in time. If lights are synchronized to music, someone has gone in and figured out exactly what light circuits are turned on at what times. The computer just repeats the process. If you’ve ever used a computer spreadsheet, think of the grid of cells on the page. In the sequencing world, each cell in the column represents a particular electrical circuit or extension cord. Each cell in the row represents a unique point in time referenced from the beginning of a song. Now you go in and toggle each individual cell on or off (or dim/ flicker/ sparkles/ etc.). The computer can handle hundreds of light controllers and thus thousands of unique extension cords. The computer really isn’t very smart but it’s very good at doing simple stuff like turning circuits on or off very fast and very consistently.
Computer controlling your display with off-the-shelf products will cost $10-$35 per electrical channel (you need a channel for each unique extension cord.) The lighting controllers usually come packaged to handle four, eight or sixteen electrical channels and you can put as many lights as you want on a channel up to the current limit of the controller. Each channel has dimming capabilities plus other special effects that will easily wow your neighbors.
The companies are now offering package deals with discounts. If you want to get started fast, this is the way to go! Checkout their websites and ask questions. Each vendor has an active user community willing to help if you have problems or just searching for ideas.
Refrain from going to the PlanetChristmas forums and throwing out the general question of “which computer lighting system is better?” It’s like asking “which car should I buy?” Every person has an opinion and passions run deep. You have a unique set of challenges and each vendor will address them differently. Only you can invest the time, know what you want to accomplish and spend the money.
D-Light is popular with the LED crowd as well as the kit builders. Their light control boards are well designed and versitile.
Light-O-Rama has an incredibly broad product mix with a huge user-base. They even have a line of very reasonably priced light controller boards with the PlanetChristmas logo (http://store.lightorama.com/ctb16pcpage.html) which happens to be our favorite (I can’t imagine why…)
A computer will end up running your display.
You’re reading this webpage on a computer. Ever remember having an overwhelming desire to pick up your computer and throw it through a window because it wouldn’t do what you really wanted (be honest… we’ve all been there)?
Computerizing your display is simple in concept but complicated in execution. The vendors have done a good job removing you from the complexities of knowing how to dim/flash a string of lights. There’s still the challenge of connecting everything to the computer and mastering how to tell the computer the way you want the lights to blink.
Synchronizing the lights to music isn’t too hard to understand. You can imagine a large grid where the x-axis (left to right) represents points in time and the y-axis (up and down) represents different lighting channels. Each square in the grid represents a channel at a specific time. In that square you tell the computer what you want the light channel to do (say ramp to 75% brightness and stay there until the next command). A typical song is three minutes long or 180 seconds. If you wanted something to happen every ten seconds, there would be 18 points in time (180/10) to control. If you had 16 light channels, that means there are (18×16=) 288 different places you could control the lights.
The challenge with computerized Christmas lights is once you get started with a few channels, you can’t stop. There are many users out there with over 500 lighting channels. Using the above example of a three minute song, you end up with (18×500=) 9,000 different places to control the lights. In some songs lights will be changing a lot more often than every 10 seconds, perhaps on each beat. Soon you fall into a black hole of time. I’ve been there. Don’t forget you need to synchronize multiple tunes so you have an entire show.
Are there any rules of thumb for the time required to synchronize lights to music? Nope. For eight light channels it might average an hour of your time for each minute of song length. For 500 light channels it could average a couple of days for each minute of song length… or not. It has a lot to do with how good you are with computers and if you have a musical background.
Getting depressed yet? Not so fast! Some vendors have “pre-sequenced” tunes available. They have totally removed the need for any ultra-geek. You don’t have the ultimate control over how your lights dance, but for most, it’s good enough.
So… to get back to the most important thing to know: a computer is still running your display. The real trick is to order a small system from one of the vendors right now… just 8-16 light control channels. Setup a dedicated workspace for your new project in the comfort of your home or office. Hook the controllers to the computer and plug a set of mini-lights into each light controller channel. Take the time to learn the fundamental concepts as required by each vendor. When you can make those strings of lights dance, you’re ready to create a display for outdoors. You’ll know what to do when something goes wrong and not go into a panic requiring a call the vendor the night after Thanksgiving when every other newbie is begging for help.
Ready? This is actually fun once you get started. Checkout the vendors and get to work!