Getting into synchronized lighting
A starters guide
Over-the-top decorators with computerized displays are constantly being asked “How did you do that?” When we answer “I spent three weeks setting up everything in the yard and another three weeks hunched over a computer getting the timing just right…” most people are impressed and intimidated at the same time.
More and more budding decorators want to shift from a static display to a dynamic show by adding music and making the lights dance in sequence to the beat. It’s not as tough as you might think but you do need to commit major time to learn the basics on your path to creating an over-the-top display. I’ve put together a guide to set you on the road to glory.
Plan. You have to know where you’re going before you can figure out how to get there. Planning your display in advance is critical. You must decide what décor elements are going to be involved, how many colors and how many unique light channels will be used in your computerized display. Most people get wrapped around the axle trying to understand a light channel. Think of it as a unique electrical circuit. That switch next to the door of the room that turns on/off the overhead light can be thought of as a light channel. In a Christmas display a single light channel might be 300 mini-lights are just one flood light. The more light channels you have the more light movement you can have in your display. Advanced planning will provide the confidence of knowing where you are going as the project slowly comes together.
Design and Solidify. When designing your display look at the yard and house like a blank canvas. You are the artist. Figure out where the mega-tree will be placed, the location of all the leaping arches and mini-tree plus any other design elements you want to incorporate. Remember: you are the one who must look at it every day for months. Here’s the key to real success: once you have the fundamentals of your design figured out, resist the temptation to change it. Constant changing leads to frustration. Save the major changes for next year.
Know Your Power. Adequate power for an over-the-top display can be a huge challenge for many. Most homes have a 200 amp electrical service. As a newbie (we call everyone a newbie at some point) you must take the time to estimate how much power you think your fully lit display will consume. If need be, consult a licensed electrician to determine how much power is available. I have learned from experience that you have to add everything in the house that uses power during normal activity (72” flat panel TVs, heaters, stoves, pool pumps, etc.) and then factor in the extra demand of Christmas lights. Too many lights flashing on the outside at the same timer as your teenage daughter fires up that 1800 watt hair dryer can lead to a totally dark house.
Incandescent, LED or Both? We’re in a transition period as the world shifts away from the dependable but inefficient incandescent lamps to more energy efficient lighting technology. LEDs are the future for Christmas lights because they consume only 10-20% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs but LEDs are considerably more expensive to purchase. Most over-the-top decorators look at LEDs as an investment. If you have limited power available, using LED technology ends up being much cheaper than bringing in more power from the electric company and/or adding an electrical sub-panel in the garage. Knowing the type and amount of LED technology you will use can affect many things. Keep in mind because LEDs use less power you don’t need the more expensive high-power light controllers. Less power consumption can also mean smaller gauge extension cords. All these little details will affect how much to buy for what item in the display and also play a major role in how much electricity you will use. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get any freebies from the electric company just because you consume a lot more power during Christmas than everyone else. I have noticed a bigger smile on their face when I hand them a really big check, though.
Estimate the Cost. Take a tip from the experts and know your budget ahead of time. Buying stuff on gut instinct is a recipe for an empty bank account. You have to understand the costs that go into this hobby/addiction because expenses add up very quickly, especially in the beginning. You will have the cost of the light controller(s), extension cords, lights, display pieces, more lights; even more extension cords… plan it all out now and don’t be surprised if you underestimate. The goal is to keep surprises to an absolute minimum. Thorough planning is the key to success.
Do the Sequencing. This can be the most enjoyable part of creating your display or the most hated but is where your true artistic capabilities can shine. Sequencing will likely be the most time consuming part of setting up your display. One minute of a song takes two to ten hours to sequence, depending on how many light controllers you have and how much light activity is desired. The average song is about three minutes long so figure between six and 30 hours hunched over a computer sequencing that one tune. You listen to the song over and over and over to get an idea of how the lights should dance then you have to tell the computer software that talks to the light controllers how to make it happen. This is something that you can’t learn overnight. Light-O-Rama has tutorials that you can look at to help learn how the software works and how to make impressive sequences.
If the time investment required creating your own light sequences seems too daunting you can ask for sequences from other people then rework the light control channels to fit your unique display. This is a quick method and many have had good results.
Another sequencing option is having/paying someone else to do the sequencing work for you. The downside: you might feel lost if you want to tweak the sequence because you don’t understand the style of the person that did the original work. The upside: You will be able to learn sequencing techniques from someone with a lot of experience and be able to take over the following year!
I recommend that if you can learn the sequencing software it’s a great investment because you are in total control of your show. The satisfaction is so worthwhile when you see the smiles from people that come and see your creation.
Anticipate the Traffic. Chances are in the beginning only a few people will be parked in front of your house watching the show. As the word spreads about what you have done, the traffic will pick up. Plan for it now. Traffic congestion handled poorly is a real buzz kill for people normally in a good mood during the holiday season. Shorten your show, add voiceovers to let people know what’s going on and get out there to direct traffic yourself if needed. Be careful though. People can become so mesmerized by watching the show they tend to bump into each other. If traffic becomes a major issue, consult your local law enforcement agencies, hire an off-duty officer and/or keep making your show shorter to spur the traffic to keep moving.
Warn Your Neighbors. The goal in planning is to have no surprises and that includes warning your neighbors what might be coming this holiday season. They might love you 11 months out of the year but if they can’t get into their driveway because the traffic is so bad around your house, those nice neighbors will let you know how upset they really are in a very non-subtle way. I have always found talking with the neighbors early in the year about what you anticipate can let them know what to expect and get them to actually help. I have also found that having a light-turning-on party (some call it “the reveal”) just for your neighbors is a fun way to have them involved and to show what you have been planning all year long. Be sure to keep the neighbors in the loop and ask if they have any question. Address their concerns within reason. No you can’t have the show shut down at 7:00 but you can turn it off at 10:00 instead of midnight. It’s not possible to keep people from parking on the side of the street in the neighborhood, but you can add some voiceovers and put up traffic cones that enable the neighbors to come and go as they please. Be courteous and willing to adjust but don’t give in too much or they will expect it all the time.
That’s it! Overwhelmed? Now you know what you’re about to get into. The money, time and effort invested in creating an over-the-top Christmas display requires very special people with a passion. You’re one of them. Christmas is one day closer so get to work and start planning now!
This article was included in the March 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Lymon Rate