Squeezing more from your light controllers

What I figured out really does work!

Do you wish your light controllers had more channels? Me too. If you have recently joined the ranks of the “Computerized Holiday Lighting Crowd” you’ve probably figured out it takes a bit of an investment to get a decent display up and running. Controllers, light strings, extension cords, FM transmitters – it adds up quick. Most reasonable people operate within some type of budget when planning a light show, so where do you draw the line (from an investment standpoint) from year to year?

Last year I learned the hard way why it makes sense to have a spare controller/board on hand at all times (segue harp music into the story): Like a lot of light enthusiasts out there, I typically plan on starting our Christmas light show on Thanksgiving evening. Everything went as planned for the most part – a few tweaks here and there but no major snags…until two days later. One of my controllers didn’t want to work anymore. The fact that I didn’t have a spare started making me a bit “twitchy.” You know what I mean – the mental state between being stressed out and on your way to the edge where you don’t care if someone is listening to you talking out loud to the controller, and asking it why it didn’t want to work and be part of the show like all of the other “cool” controllers. Acting crazy wasn’t working and I needed to formulate a “Plan B” strategy quick. I knew getting any type of replacement board very quickly in the middle of the Christmas lighting season was going to be tough, but I had to come up with something until a replacement board materialized.

We promote our light show through social media and have been featured on the local TV news stations and in the local newspapers, so everyone knew our show was supposed to be running by Thanksgiving evening. We also host an annual charity event every December called “Christmas in the Sky”, which features commercial-grade fireworks along with our light show. Over 500 people attended this past year. Thinking about all this just added to my anxiety. I didn’t want to let anyone down. Sometimes necessity can be a mother…um, the Mother of Invention that is.

So – I started “stacking” different display items into the same channels. Sound pretty basic? Well, it is. But in some cases, you can use one channel to light up two or more display items without the effect looking too obvious or redundant. ESPECIALLY if you are in a pinch or on a tighter budget.
Let me give you some examples of what I did to light up all my display items without the extra channels I needed: I added a six channel (Bellagio) pole to my display last year. I was going to run this on six independent channels but couldn’t after the loss of the controller. Coincidentally, I had six mini trees that were already set up on six independent channels. Hey – I’m not a math-a-magenius but six and six matched up pretty good. So, I started stacking some things together.
I’m going to pause here to let this marinade for a moment, especially for the really smart folks out there. Let me restate this: I know this is a basic concept. But have you ever thought, “I’m under utilizing my channels?” Here’s why I believe it makes sense to not only use this concept in a pinch, but also on a more permanent basis: it can look really good.

One of the stacking techniques that I am keeping in my show permanently (for now) is to use the same color flood lights on the house, in conjunction with what’s running on the roofline (red C-6 bulbs on the roof line, red spot lights on the house). At first I was a bit skeptical of even trying this and my son (who helps out with set-up and sequencing) implored me not to do it saying: “it’s gonna look stupid.” It has actually created one of my favorite effects in our show and everyone in the family, including the all-important Mama Elf, agreed. Now all the cool fading, shimmering and “full on” light effects that are already set up for my roof line (I run two colors on the roof line), are also washing the whole front of the house via flood lights, perfectly sequenced together and it didn’t take any extra channels.

Here is some additional reasoning why I think it makes sense for SOME things: When sequencing a song, a lot of folks typically will light up more than one display item together on hard rhythmic beats, like a kick-drum or snare hit. If this is typical of your sequencing style, you can stack some of these things (display items) together IF they are frequently sequenced together.

What about channel under utilization? Seems a waste to dedicate one controller channel to a single 100 count sting of mini lights on one section of a leaping arch. Would it really look good to run an animated eight channel arch with other display items, together? How about with eight mini-trees? Or a basic eight channel smaller mega tree. It can work because all of the animated chase patterns will work when they are stacked together in the same order. The animation will be in exact time with the arches and actually look very tight.

Computerized lighting seems to be evolving by the minute: DMX control, lasers, computerized plotting, etc. So does a basic concept like channel stacking really have a place in a hobby where “more is better” usually seems to be the mantra? I don’t know, I’m not much of a minimalist myself but I am pretty darn pragmatic. And maybe it can get you out of a pickle. I prefer sweet pickles over sour grapes.

Now, who is Brian Rieger? We are running 80 channels of animation and about 32,000 lights total this year. I have been programming custom sequences for hire for the last three years and sell sequences along with a limited number of wireframes at our retail website, www.girardlights.com. Currently, I’m programming animation for a customer’s 160 channel show, and I have been contracted to build a simple “strobe light run way” finishing line for a local marathon race organizer.


This article was included in the July 2012 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Brian ‘Papa Elf’ Rieger

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