Is it time to blink those lights?
Tell a story with your display
You’ve taken the big step away from static Christmas displays and decided to blink those lights. For starters your electric bill will be cut in half (and probably much more since the lights will no longer be all on all the time.) People who used to spend a few seconds looking at your display will now not want to leave and you’ll have to start thinking about how to handle traffic. Best of all, you now have the power of tapping into people’s emotions by matching the right music with just the right lighting effects. You’re able to tell a story with your display and make lifelong memories for others.
For the newbie this can be inspiring and overwhelming. You’re given a blank canvas and charged with creating a masterpiece. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, get frustrated and at some point probably just want to give up. Then again, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Luckily there are tools available to help you be successful.
No doubt the easiest thing to do when you finally decide to dive into computerized light shows is to pick a single vendor and use all of their products. There’s something comforting knowing everything is supposed to work together and there’s just one throat to choke when anything goes wrong. The good news is the equipment vendors have very sophisticated products, but there are limitations. Legend has it Henry Ford said “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” That might work for Model T cars back in the 1920’s but today we want more options. When it comes to making synchronized light shows, we now have many alternatives.
How do you create light shows synchronized to music? Think of a large grid (like a computer spreadsheet) on a piece of paper. Going down the left side, each row of the grid represents an individual light channel the computer can control. Moving across the page from left to right, each column represents a specific point in time for the music being played. Where a row intersects with a column is a possible trigger point for turning a light channel on, off or some special effect. It sounds really simple, but rest assured the more light channels you have and the more you want those channels to turn on/off during a tune means a very large grid. It’s not unusual to have thousands of cells in a grid that all need to be maintained and that’s just for one tune.
What’s hard to comprehend when you first start sequencing lights to music is why doubling the number of light channels being used doesn’t simply double the amount of time required to do the work. Think of the light switches on your wall. With two switches there are four possible results for the connected lights: both on, both off, just the left one on or just the right one on. Double the number of switches to four and there are 16 various combinations. Double again to eight switches and you have 256 possible combinations. Double the number of switches again to 16 and there are 65,536 possible combinations. Most people start with 16 light control channels so at any point in time during a song there are over 65,000 possible ways for the lights to be simply on or off. Factor in the ability to ramp or fade a light channel, twinkle, flicker or whatever else the manufacturer allows and you can see how things can get complicated in a hurry. Double those light channels again to 32 and there are… well let’s just say it’s a really big number (over 4 billion) and it keeps increasing at a dramatic rate the more channels you add. How do you handle all these possible combinations? Don’t worry.
With so many light channels to control at any point in time while a piece of music is being played, you certainly need some sophisticated tools to keep track of everything. But, just as there are different colors of cars today, there are different tools catering to different methods of keeping up with all these flashing lights.
If you’ve been around awhile, you know about Animated Lighting’s Animation Director, D-Light’s Spectrum and Light-O-Rama’s Showtime Suite sequencing software. These are all good programs for controlling the lights with their hardware. The real question is whether there are alternatives. The answer is a definite yes and worth investigating. We turned the PlanetChristmas research team loose and they found several viable programs. None are perfect but each fills a niche that might work for you. Let’s take a look at what’s available, and as usual, in alphabetical order.
Michael Miller in Greenbriar, Tennessee had been doing computerized Christmas displays for years and knew there had to be a better way to create the sequencing of the sounds to lights. He’s been in software development forever and decided to tackle the light sequencing challenge head-on in 2006. His home office took on a life of its own and soon there were multiple servers clustered in the corner and all connected to a dedicated T-1 line to the Internet. He finally released the Aurora show sequencing product version 1.0 to the world in September of 2008 and is now dedicated to it full-time.
Aurora’s real claim to fame is a spectrogram that can be displayed above the light grid. Most sequencing programs will show a simple audio waveform pattern so you can more easily see the amplitude of the music but Aurora looks inside all the frequencies at a specific point in time to extract all sorts of valuable information. Michael loves to work with Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs for you math wizards) and it’s amazing what he can extract from the music. By looking inside the audio you can set a light channel to only respond to a narrow band of frequencies. In the psychedelic 1970’s we had three channel color organs that would blink lights based on low, medium and high frequencies in the music. With Aurora, you can have it flash a light channel based on a specific note on the musical scale. Pretty impressive stuff. If you’re really into the science of sound, you can get incredibly creative.
Think of the Aurora product in two parts. The actual sequencing of the show requires a powerful PC. Looking inside the audio as well as creating a realistic visual representation of what the show will look like takes a lot of computing horsepower. Once the show is completed the hard part is finished and playback can be done through a simple runtime module and time scheduler, appropriately called Borealis. In our labs we actually had a completed show working off a low-end netbook computer.
Why is the product called Aurora? Michael wishes there was some sort of life affirming story behind the name but in reality he says it just happened and sounded really good at the time.
Written from the ground up specifically for computerized light shows it’s geared towards D-Light and Light-O-Rama hardware by directly importing their sequences. You can even setup your system to use multiple serial ports and have one dedicated to a D-Light network and another to Light-O-Rama. RGB capabilities are included so you can use certain light types that have dedicated red, green and blue channels to create almost any color you can think of. Directly controlling DMX lights is coming this year.
What else is on the horizon for Aurora? Work has begun on a greatly expanded infrastructure codenamed “Aurora 2” with a tentative release date of 2010. List price for Aurora is about $100 and available direct from www.AuroraShow.com. At last check, a demonstration download was available. Like any new program you tackle it takes a while to grasp all the capabilities. Aurora is worth investing the time if you really want to hear and take advantage of what’s inside the music to control the lights.
David Johnson is a full-time software developer in sunny California and has fond memories of working on an Apple II computer. That must make David about a zillion years old. He got into computerized light displays four years ago and was inspired by the PlanetChristmas community to create a better way to sequence lights and music.
David was part of the team that developed the original Spectrum sequencing software for D-Light so he had a pretty good insight on how to create an even better product using newer, state of the art tools. He thinks the current products are too “geek” centered and has aimed his creative mind to provide an “iPod personality” to the light sequencing user interface. In other words, he wants a product incredibly easy to use.
David teamed up with software developers out of Texas and Ohio to build LightShow Pro. As of the writing of this article it’s in a technology preview release but due to go gold in May of 2009.
We really struggled with how to describe the LightShow Pro product adequately to PlanetChristmas magazine readers. After coming back from lunch someone said the product can be thought of like an onion. It’s easy to see what’s on the surface, but there are numerous layers underneath to create some incredibly sophisticated light shows.
So, what is LightShowPro? Start with the Microsoft.Net foundation, add a really smart light grid and then various waveform displays. Next, add a photo-realistic show visualizer that can render your show in real-time so you can see the virtual results on screen as you work. Then include one click publishing so you can upload your virtual show to YouTube without putting up a single string of lights. Quite impressive for the first release of any new software product.
What’s really slick is the real-time display preview (updates as you drag on the timeline) along with instant playback (no delays during the sequencing process), ten custom plug-in effects, all kinds of spectral and sonic analysis, automatic rhythm intervals, copy/paste between sequences, scalable light channel row heights so you can get dozens on the screen at once and much more.
If you’re used to the Microsoft ribbon bar menu concept that appeared in Office 2007, you’ll see the same type of implementation in LightShow Pro. Just as the Microsoft ribbon bar reveals layer after layer of sophisticated options, the same holds true for LightShow Pro. This is a very powerful program yet still easy to get something created quickly, even for the novice.
One of the slickest features is the heads up display (HUD) concept. We’re used to having to open another window to watch the visualizer results of the light sequence, but Light Show Pro can superimpose the visualizer output behind the lighting grid so your eyes stay focused in one place. This might not sound earth shattering but it’s the little things that really save time when you’re deep into creating a new sequence.
Like many of the other sequencing products, you can use multiple serial ports for connecting to multiple light controller networks. DMX is implemented through the Enttec DMX USB based adapter. There’s a special Wii Guitar Hero module so your almost-real guitar can control what your display does. David is even talking about MIDI (musical instrument digital interface). I can already imagine standing in front of the display with my real guitar while the lights and other instruments react to what I’m playing. Now that would be a real interactive display.
What else are the creators of LightShow Pro excited about? They see inclusion of videos as the next big trend in light shows. LightShow Pro treats a video track much the same as an audio track so events can be timed precisely. What’s the big deal about sliding around the video track in relationship to time? Getting the light channels in perfect sync with the mouth movement of a video character is suddenly possible. Think talking snowmen projected on a video screen with a tree of lights being built based on exactly what any snowman is saying. Your imagination becomes the only limitation.
Anything else on the horizon? According to David the fundamental architecture is in place to use Vixen plug-ins as well as the ability to develop your own.
LightShow Pro is a powerful sequencing tool. Pricing was still being determined while this article was being written, but they anticipate LSP being modular with pieces starting at $60. www.LightShowPro.com.
K.C. Oaks started playing with computerizing his Christmas display in 2005. Then he saw the Carson Williams viral video that swept the Internet. (Has anyone NOT seen this video? You know the one that became a beer commercial?) K.C. was hooked but he didn’t know how to do actually synchronize his lights to the music.
He soon stumbled upon Hill Robertson’s ComputerChristmas.com website. It’s a great place for the super-techies into DIY. K.C. found an early generation sequencing program called Comet but knew he could write something better. The Dasher and Dancer names were already in use. His cat was named Prancer. Reindeer names were getting scarce. Vixen was soon born.
Vixen is a light sequencing program developed for the community and is a gift from K.C. It’s free; he updates it regularly and thrives on input from others. He posted Vixen on ComputerChristmas.com and quickly outgrew the environment. www.VixenLights.com was setup just to handle everything Vixen related.
What makes Vixen different than the rest (other than the price)? It’s designed to be easy to use, has well focused features and is meant to do one thing really well: synchronize lights to music in an unintimidating environment.
The real magic of Vixen is the basic architecture allows other software developers to write their own plug-ins. What’s a plug-in? Say you want Vixen to communicate to the light controllers through your old fashioned parallel printer port. What if you’ve designed your own light controllers with a unique protocol? Maybe you have a bunch of old X-10 controllers you still want to use? Vixen can handle the timing of when an event should happen and the plug-in takes care of the low level interface to whatever you want to control. There are already plug-ins available for Light-O-Rama, D-Light, X-10, DMX and other interfaces you might have never heard of. There’s a plug-in developed for the DIY LEDTriks LED panel for creating your own stadium sized Jumbotron TV. The most interesting extension developed to date is one to make Vixen “network aware,” meaning Vixen can communicate with controllers anywhere on the Internet.
I asked K.C. where Vixen was being used outside the Christmas world. Halloween displays are surprisingly popular. Triggering fireworks is probably the most unusual. One person is trying to connect his Wii guitar to communicate with Vixen. School teachers are even using Vixen to engage the students in creating light displays.
K.C. created Vixen thinking just a few dozen people might be able to use it. Vixen is now being used by more people than he can count and in countries around the world. “I love Vixen and it’s not going away.” Enough said.
Vixen is free and available at www.VixenLights.com.
As much as we all love Microsoft Windows, it’s not the only game in town. PlanetChristmas magazine is looking for light sequencing programs that will run in the native Apple world but we haven’t found one worth mentioning yet, though there have been rumors about an iPhone application that could control your simple light sequencing over the Internet. We’re anxiously waiting.
After considerable digging the staff found some light show sequencing activity in the Linux environment.
Lumos. Checkout http://sourceforge.net/projects/lumos for a very early generation product called Lumos from Steve Willoughby. Steve does his own Christmas light display and it’s how he got into this whole project in the first place. A few years ago, he stumbled upon the PlanetChristmas forums and got hooked on the idea of setting up computerized light displays for the holidays.
He’s much happier tinkering with things on his own and while he really enjoyed the end product of having a nicely animated display, the fun for him came from the process of designing and building the hardware and software behind it all. Steve started by designing and building a set of 48-channel SSR (solid state relay) controllers and wrote some simple scripts to control them.
Once Steve had a working set of light controllers, he needed something more sophisticated to drive them. There were existing solutions such as Vixen, but he decided to start a new project so it could run on Linux and be able to easily support new hardware controllers without a lot of work or special programming. Lumos was born.
Lumos is still under development and has quite a bit more work to be done before the first “1.0” release is truly ready to go. Even so, most of the underlying framework is in place, and is able to play Steve’s sequences for his light display. His immediate plans are to keep working on some missing features including adding multimedia synchronization (at least to audio files), a graphical sequence editor and more testing with other hardware controllers.
What else can Lumos do? According to Steve, it has the potential for reuse in some completely different contexts (you mean there’s more out there than just Christmas?) Steve has another project which needed to communicate with intelligent devices over an RS-485 network as well as control a small number of AC power loads. He took the programming class library which forms the underlying framework for Lumos and dropped it into this other project. It worked the first time.
The real Lumos question is why Linux when everyone else develops in Windows?
Steve was so glad I asked. He likes to encourage cross-platform application development wherever possible. Per Steve, Windows is a fine operating system for some tasks, but there are plenty of areas where the Macintosh OSX or Linux perform just as well or better. He feels if one sticks to programming tools which are supported on all the common platforms and care is taken to write software which will work from day one on multiple system types, then products can appeal to many more users and not arbitrarily leave anyone out. That’s a long way of saying he wanted to provide a fully functional sequencing solution to Linux users, so choice of operating system is still available.
After more digging Steve finally admitted he needed a light sequencing system that would work on his decommissioned laptop and ancient a 386 and 486 based computer systems. Linux provided more than enough capability for this task and didn’t require the purchase of a license to install a copy of Windows.
There’s no doubt Lumos is still very much a work in progress. If you like slinging computer code and maybe have a desire to thumb your nose at really big companies from Redmond, you do have a choice. http://sourceforge.net/projects/lumos.
For the record, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the sequencing products available directly from the light controller manufacturers. I’ve seen spectacular shows created with all of them and marvel at the capabilities. Each has a loyal user-base and support forum eager to help answers your questions any time of day or night.
Just as there are multiple colors you can paint a car, there are multiple ways to sequence lights to music. Should you feel stifled with what the light controller manufacturers offer, there are some real alternatives that can make the way you prefer to do things easier.
Does PlanetChristmas magazine have a favorite sequencing program? I wish! Download the free demos of these products and experiment. The small amount of time seeing if there’s a better way to sequence based on your preferences can save a huge amount of time creating your over-the-top display and those lifelong memories.
From the Spring, 2009 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Chuck Smith