In true newbie fashion… maybe
A special thanks to TSO
I have been decorating with lights for Christmas since age ten when I used a string of blue C-9 bulbs, a staple gun, Mom’s aluminum foil and a couple of 1×2 boards to make a shiny lighted cross. That was the first of many decorations I made to celebrate the season. It was always my job to put up Christmas lights at our house. I was so proud!
As an adult, I continued on my own house, enlisting my sons as they entered school to help with the process. I have fond memories of making plywood cutouts with them. We still have the entire Peanuts gang as well as the original Grinch and cast that we made more than 12 years ago.
In 2008, I saw the infamous YouTube video of TSO’s “Wizards in Winter” where the Christmas lights were synchronized to the music. That’s all it took. I was hooked and wanted to do something similar. I have some experience in information technology and knew that it all had to be computerized somehow. That began a long search where I found plenty of do it yourself solutions that were quite intimidating and kept me from starting down the path of animation.
That same year my eldest son worked as a mechanic in the local Ford dealership and one of his co-workers was dabbling with products from a company called Light-O-Rama (www.lightorama.com.) After a trip to view the friend’s display I immediately knew where I was headed in 2009. At last, a system that looked easy enough for me to do by myself. I was excited enough that I went out the last week of December and bought almost enough mini-lights for 2009 but at 2008 closeout prices.
In true newbie fashion, I managed to put off looking into Light-O-Rama until April of 2009. I joined the Light-O-Rama and PlanetChristmas forums (forums.PlanetChristmas.com) to start gathering information. My wife accused me of being more interested in the forums than her so after moderating my behaviors to pay her more attention, I soldiered on and she started showing an interest in research on animated Christmas lighting.
After scraping up enough cash to make a respectable start, (which my wife described as one controller,) during the Summer I bought three Light-O-Rama 16 channel controller kits, the Basic+ software starter package and a Whole House FM Transmitter (www.WholeHouseFMTransmitter.com.)
I had built a lot of electronics over the years so I wasn’t terribly worried about being able to complete the light controller kits, but I was still very impressed with the kits and the instructions provided. The first kit was complete within about three hours. The other two kits were finished in a little more than two hours each. Everything worked on first power up! All it took for a successful board build was knowing which end of the soldering iron gets hot and getting over the urge to not read the directions. The kits are documented so well that I believe anyone can build them.
I had begun planning my display in May after I decided what I was going to purchase from Light-O-Rama. I kept coming back to wanting what I now know as a “WOW” feature which soon became my mega-tree of lights. To keep things simple, I used seven channels to animate the segments of my house lighting that had been static in the previous year, one channel for a “tune to” sign for the FM radio transmitter so people would know where to hear the music and devoted forty channels to the mega-tree of lights. That number may seem odd, but it lets me do several things. I have sixteen segments that are white mini-lights and I have three colors (RGB) that are eight segments each set up with strings opposite each other. This allows me to rotate a two dimensional tree image as well as being able to cast “fingers of light” down from the point of the tree.
Next came the challenge of sequencing the lights to music. Light-O-Rama’s S2 Software Suite is a powerful package but there is a steep learning curve in the beginning. The tutorials on the Light-O-Rama site and the questions posed to seasoned users in the forums kept me moving forward. It didn’t take long to realize that my dreams of creating 20-30 original sequences were just that, dreams. I did manage to complete four original sequences, but Richard Holdman and his shared sequences came to the rescue because I was able to adapt them to my needs. There are plenty of shared sequences floating around so do an Internet search. I ended up with 16 respectable sequences for my first year. A word of advice: start with shared sequences as you will learn many of the “ins and outs” of sequencing from looking at other people’s work.
In working with shared sequences, I also recommend starting from a sequence that has the same or fewer channels than your display. I found it harder to cut down the 100+ channel sequences to 48 channels than I did ramping up a 16 or 32 channel sequence to my display configuration.
I did purchase one sequence from Light-O-Rama, Silent Night by Mannheim Steamroller. Strangely enough, it is the only sequence that I felt compelled to modify after my show was up and running. I fixed a pesky return that was in the initial portion of the song and improved it. The rest of the show I vowed to enjoy and work on “next year.”
Since my budget was tight and I had just laid out a fair chunk of change for controllers, FM transmitter, software, wire, etc., I vowed to build my mega-tree of lights on the cheap. I found a five foot tall support made out of angle iron and twelve feet of square tubing in the garage and bolted together a center pole for my mega-tree of lights. I searched the Internet, found a topper that looked like it would work on my tree and fabricated a copy out of scraps of angle iron and flat bar. I put sixteen hooks on the top and rigged an eye bolt system to pull the topper and lights up the pole. Some rope and pipe for tie downs and my mega-tree of lights was ready to put in the yard.
I planned to setup the display on the Friday after Thanksgiving but by Sunday I was calling the boss to ask for a day or two off to finish up my first animated display. Everything always takes longer than I think it will. Despite the time crunch, the show went live on December 1st.
My wife, who was somewhat amused by my interest and efforts, came outside to see the animated display start up. I am sure she planned to go back inside a few minutes later. As the music played and the lights started, she stood there with a grin and told me she was truly amazed. We sat down and watched the 50 minute show twice before she decided it was time to start dinner at 7:45 pm!
Did I learn from my first year? Yes. Will I learn more this year? Yes. This year I am working on a display that is 144 channels, including RGB (Red/Green/Blue) floods, leaping “mega-arches” and an LED-Triks (DIY) sign.
It is true, the enjoyment just keeps growing with our addictive hobby.
My words of wisdom to “Newbies” are as follows.
• Start earlier than you think is reasonable and plan for more time than you think it will take.
• Join the PlanetChristmas forums so you are exposed to a variety of information and lots of opinions, then decide what works for you.
• Look for a local decorator’s group and get involved, they are a wealth of information and support. If you’re in Texas, checkout Lone Star Holidays (http://www.lone-star-holidays.com)
• Ask questions. Your questions will have been asked before, but you don’t know where the answer is, at least not yet.
• Set a budget you can live with and expect to go over it.
• Help others when you can. Everyone has special knowledge that can benefit the group.
• Expect that you will have problems, make mistakes and feel exasperated at times.
• Enjoy yourself.
Now it’s back to sequencing those arches and the RGB floods. Happy decorating and have a great holiday season!
This article was included in the November 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Mike Carr