The show takes a long time to put together since we hand-build all the electronics, props, and sequence each of the songs. We also set up and configure a separate WiFi and Ethernet network at the house just to run the show. In 2019 we will even be able to control the lights in Tampa, FL for my brother. (Can’t wait to mess with him!) Below are some of the hardware and software items that are used to run the show.
AC Light String Controllers
We have two types of controllers in our show. The first is the AC controllers which turn on, turn off, and dim regular light strings that you typically see in Holiday decorations. Each string of lights is one channel since they all turn on or off together. We use LED light strings similar to what you would find on sale at your local store.
In 2107 we used a single Light-O-Rama 16-channel AC controller to start out. That controller now runs alongside a home-built built the Renard TR-24 (24-channel) controller (shown here). We went this route for the cost, but also because I got to teach my son how to (and how not to) solder electronics.
In this setup we now have 24 different items with lights on them – a mix of bushes, trees, roof lines, etc. This is great, but as we looked at things more we realized there was another level of insanity to this hobby – RGB (Red Green Blue) pixel strings where each individual bulb contains 3 LEDs that can combine to make virtually any color we want. Since each pixel can be controlled independently you are able to have very complex shows.
To control these pixels you need to use an RGB controller board that is very different from the AC controllers above. You must also use 12-volt or 5-volt power supplies depending on the pixels you choose. It is no longer just plugging into the wall and running the lights. With the controller boards there are many to choose from, but based on LOTS of forum reading we decided to go with the Falcon F16v3.
To make sure that the electronics would survive outside we used a weatherproof Kobalt toolbox to house the equipment. My first build was kind of messy, so we have since made some large improvements – but it is still in another toolbox!
In 2019 we will be testing out bracelets that will be sequenced with the show. This new feature will allow visitors to become a part of the show!
So, how big is the computer that runs all of this? Well, it’s about the size of a credit card! We use multiple Raspberry Pi computers running Falcon FPP software to control everything. It even sends an email and text message to me when the show starts and ends so that we know what is going on. We tell the controller how the lights are set up, load the playlist, and schedule the show… then we sit back and enjoy the blinky lights!
How do you program 20,000+ individual channels without going mad? We use some great open-source software called xLights. Within this we are able to load an mp3 song and sequence the effects that control the AC lights, RGB lights, projectors, and bracelets. The software is maintained by a some geniuses that have been in this hobby far longer than I have. They do this out of the love of the hobby, so since I can not code I donate money to help out.
One of the most important parts is being able to get the sound from the controller to the viewer. The best way to do this without angering the neighbors is to use an FM transmitter so that observers can listen in their cars (we already have flashing lights, so we don’t want to push it with blaring music). THANK YOU NEIGHBORS IF YOU ARE READING THIS!