You’ve probably seen videos of Christmas lights that are synchronized to music. The single from the most-watched YouTube video of all time — PSY’s “Gangnam Style” — has even made it into a Christmas lights extravaganza. (See video below.) If you want your own lights to blink to the tune of your favorite song, then you have to make a plan and get the equipment that will help you impress your friends and create a dazzling display. You’ll need a whole lot of time, lights, and tools to pull it off, but the end result will surely be fantastic.
Decide how big you want your lights show. You can decide to have yourlights draped across your whole home, either inside or outside, or choose specific spots on your house and in your front garden. Keep the following in mind while you’re planning your lights show:
A channel is a unit of lights that can be controlled individually. For example, a single bush in your yard may be a channel if you drape one set of lights over it.
All the lights in a channel work as a single unit. Unfortunately, you can’t flash an individual light bulb.
32 to 64 channels is a good size to start with if you’re never programmed lights to music before. Any bigger than that, and you’ll probably curse the day you ever decided to take on the project (or the day your spouse made you take it on).
Stock up. The best time to buy lights is the day after Christmas. Often, you’ll find lights that were normally priced around $2 a strand fall to $0.50. Check out Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, K-Mart, and other department stores for the best deal. Use the internet to price-hunt.
Obtain a control system. You will need hardware that hooks up to your computer. You can buy a system completely built, a kit, or a full do-it-yourself system.
A fully built system will work right out of the box. It will cost you about $20 – $25 per channel. A fully built system can be purchased from online vendors. Choose this option if you do not want to do any electrical work (especially soldering), or don’t have the slightest clue about where to start.
A kit is a little more hands-on. It will cost from $15 or so per channel, but it’s pretty much the same thing as a fully built product without the enclosure. Because it is very simple to place an electronics board in an enclosure, this may be a great option if you’re looking to save money. Some vendors sell everything you need to build a control system, including the bare circuit board and the parts. If you are willing to solder a little bit, check this out.
A DIY system costs roughly $5 per channel and up. The price depends on how much you actually do yourself. A system consists of a controller, which communicates with your computer, and solid state relays (SSRs), which actually switch the lights. SSRs can be bought or made yourself. With a DIY option, you will spend lots of time making your hardware, but the cost savings should make up for it. You’ll also have the ability to totally customize your hardware, and will be able to fix problems easily.
Get help. This can be a very big and complicated project, and often can seem overwhelming if you’re just getting started. Have interested friends or family members help you, or sign up for help at some of the forums listed below.
Depending on the degree of difficulty, give yourself anywhere from 2-6 months of prep time before you can expect your lights show to be fully operational. It may sound like a lot of time, but you’ll need it.
Get software. For the low-tech layman, you’ll be able to buy software that will help you program your lights. There is also free software available for Do-It-Yourself systems (see the links section). If you’re ambitious and more of a tech-wizard, you may wish to hand-code a program in almost any major programming language. Note, however, that you won’t be able to use this option for pre-built products, as most of their protocols are closed-source. The software that you choose will basically break the song you’re syncing your lights to into very short segments (.10 second), letting you program each channel of lights to turn on, turn off, fade, twinkle or shimmer. There are essentially three commercial options for software.
Light-O-Rama is the vendor for most residential lights displays. It is, however, pretty complex, and can take as much as four hours per minute of song to program 32-48 channels.
Animated Lighting is more expensive, but easier to program. Someresidential light displays and most commercial ones choose Animated Lighting.
D-Lights is the second from the least expensive of the bunch, but you need to have some passing familiarity with and knowledge of control systems and electrical engineering.
Hinkle’s Lighting Sequencer is actually a free software that is simple yet powerful on incandescent light bulbs, LEDs, and RGB LEDs.
Design your display. Design the actual outside portion of your display. Common elements to include are:
Mini lights or net lights go on landscaping.
Icicle lights or c-series lights usually go on the roof.
Mini Trees are two- to three-foot-tall trees, often made of tomato cages wrapped in lights of one or multiple colors. Arranged in a line or a triangle, they are very useful in an animated display.
A Mega Tree usually consists of a large pole with lights extending from the top to a large ring around the base. Again, it is very useful in animation.
Wireframes are metal frames with lights attached.
Blow molds are plastic lighted sculptures of deer, Santas, etc. They are usually placed throughout the yard.
C9 Lights are bulbous, colorful lights that usually go on the yard perimeter.
Program your show. Here comes the time consuming part! Decide on musicthat you will synchronize to, then start programming on your time grid. Don’t do everything at once. This will probably take a couple of months, depending on the length of your show and how many channels you have. How program your show varies, depending on the software program you choose.
Let them hear you. Use a way that will create a spectacular sound yet keep everybody at peace. Speakers playing the same music over and over again would drive the neighbors crazy, so in most cases you will need to broadcast over an FM frequency. Please see the warnings section at the bottom of this page. Respectfully inform your neighbors of your plan to create an animated display; having the neighbors on your side is important if you want your display to last long enough for other people to see it.
Stick to a single showing at the top of the hour, once or twice a night. If the neighbors know that the display will only last three minutes, and will show nightly at 8 and 9 PM, they’ll probably be more understanding than if you blasted it regularly from 6-9.
Get powered up. Make sure your home has enough outside power to run your lights. A typical mini light strand, for example, draws about 1/3 amp. Speaking of power, computerizing your display will have a lower electric bill than a static display, since not all the lights are on at once. Please see the warnings section at the end.
Publicize. Put a sign in your yard. Make a web site. List on a display listing site. Tell your friends. Doing all this work will not be worth it if no one comes to see your display. Don’t go to extremes, but make sure people know about you.
Again, inform your neighbors that you are publicizing your display. They’ll be much more accommodating if they know your plan to attract attention from around the neighborhood.
Maintain your display. Go outside every morning and check your display. Repair or replace broken lights or damage caused by weather or vandals. Make sure things are ready to run that night.
Use your time wisely. This is a big project, so don’t be afraid to get help or try to do things more efficiently. Try to take your time for checking your lights and making sure there are no fire hazards!
Get people who know their electronics to help out, maybe someone in your neighborhood is a pro at this. Who knows?
Signing up for the forums at Christmas lighting sites is a good idea. You will get help from others and help others.
Talk to neighbors, police and your homeowners association about possible issues with traffic flow, noise, etc. It is much easier to prevent problems than to correct them. However, make sure they understand that there might be problems, not that there will be problems. People need to know what to expect, but don’t stress things so that they shut you down before you even start up your display!
FPGAs make fantastic custom control devices, which can hook between an RS232 connection on a PC and a relay board for the lights. An entry level Spartan 3e Xilinx demo board is around $150.
Be considerate. Your neighbors may not appreciate you flashing lights or loud music at night, so you should turn them off at some point during the evening. Some areas may have laws about lights or sounds at certain times. Some would recommend that you start and stop the same time each night (or each day(s) of the week. For example, Sunday through Thursday, from 7:00 to 9:00pm, and Friday – Saturday from 7:00 to 10:00pm. Send letters to neighbors asking if they have any problems with the times.
Use a control system appropriate for your locale. Many countries use voltages higher than in the U.S., sometimes with different power line frequencies. Some places may even need lights with voltage-reducing transformers. Check with the manufacturer of your product, or the designs you followed, to see if your control system is acceptable for your locale.
This is time consuming. Start at least 6 months in advance, more for DIY systems.
FM Transmitters may or may not comply with FCC rules. The transmitters will broadcast at a very low power, so they should not cause any interference. The FCC allows you from the transmitter without a license.
When you are dealing with lights you are dealing with high-voltage. United States line voltage (115 volts AC), in the right place and amount, can kill you. Always use a GFCI on any circuit that is outside, including your lights, for your safety and the safety of the public.
Do not do anything to the Belkin other than extend the antenna. Building an amplifier is not recommended. If the transmitter causes anyone to have interference, your only choice is to shut it down.
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How to Put up Christmas Lights Outside
How to Decorate a Chain Link Fence for Christmas
Sources and Citations
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