Dec19

How to Make a Musical Light Show

Posted by Kelly Kirkham

We’ve seen the videos circulating the web of brilliant lights pulsing to our favorite songs, now we want them for our own. Here is a step-by-step guide to making your home as festive as physics will allow with your own musical light show featuring tips from our in-house light show expert, Cody Erekson.

Just in case you aren’t sure what I’m referring to when I say musical light show, watch this or this before we get started to familiarize yourself with the world of synchronized lights and music.

No longer can we simply climb on the roof and string a few lights to compete in the world of Christmas lights. Holiday decorating has moved to the next level and so must we. Midphase offers you a step-by-step guide to make all the neighbors try to keep up with you.

Step 1: Make a plan.

Decide how much time and money you are willing to invest in your light show. Bigger might be better but it’s best to start out small and work your way up to the big leagues. You will need to divide the different areas of your light show into sections. These are referred to as channels, and each channel can be independently operated for an array of effects. If you are just starting out it is best to work with between 5-8 channels. Give yourself plenty of time to investigate the best deals on lights. Then stock up on as many as you think you will need, plus backups incase of an emergency.Lights

Tips from the expert:

  • Definitely buy LED lights. Incandescent or “traditional” lights produce excess heat (fire hazard) and require more power. Traditional lights also take longer to turn on and off which will decrease the response rate and quality of your show.
  • LED lights have the options to glow at 25% or 50% which can give you more options for display. RGB LED lights can also change colors, removing the need to buy different strands for different colors.
  • Finally, LED lights are what is called “addressable” – this means you can use a microcontroller like Raspberry Pi or Arduino to control each individual light on the strand. This is how shimmering, running and cascading effects are achieved.
  • Don’t be afraid to start small. Here is my very first synchronized light show with 7 channels.

Step 2: Buy a control system.

A control system connects your lights and your computer. There are a few options on  control systems depending on your level of technical knowledge and interest.

A complete kit comes ready to go – just plug and go for around $20 per channel.

A kit will involve a little more hands-on work, but can save you a few bucks if you are willing to do a spot of soldering.

A do-it-yourself system will only cost about $5 per channel depending on how basic you begin. You will need a controller to talk to your computer as well as solid state relays (SSRs) to switch the lights. The do-it-yourself method allows for a completely customizable system that will be easy to repair.

Be sure to get help from friends and family if needed – this can be a big job. Give yourself plenty of time to avoid festival frustrations.

Tips from the expert:

  • Consider looking into DIY options such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino and BeagleBone. Large light displays can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. With a little education and a soldering iron you can save quite a bit of money.
  • Here are some easy instructions on how to use a Raspberry Pi to create a Christmas Tree Light Show if you want to start small and work your way up.

Step 3: Software

The software you purchase again depends on your level of technical involvement. There are programs designed for synchronizing with ease, but for all of the techie die-hards you can of course handcode your own in your preferred programming language. However, be aware that most control systems are closed source and will not sit well with your programming. Be sure to research the software and level of difficulty before you decide on a program; there are loads to choose from depending on your level of involvement.

Tips from the expert:

  • Look into the open-sourced awesomeness that Raspberry Pi offers. Here is a post detailing the start-to-finish project building of a light show using Raspberry Pi.

Step 4: Design your show.

Get creative and see how much bang you can get for your buck. Consider designing your own displays with mesh and wire, or even tomato cages! Net lights are an easy way to give your hedge some pizzazz, or those icicle lights that have been hiding in your attic can be repurposed to create great designs in your lawn. For example,  a mega tree can serve as a great focal point. To make your own, all you need is a pole and a hoop with lights strung from the top of the pole to around the hoop. Also consider in investing in some rope lights, their flexibility allows you to put them in any configurations as words or patterns and can be chained together as your display grows.

The great thing about musical light shows is that they were originally created out of household goods, so really the sky’s the limit.

Pick a song that you are willing to listen to over and over again. Once the programming begins you will hear every it many, many times so be sure that you like it.RopeLights

Tips from the expert:

  • There are Python-based packages that can visualize the music automatically and break out the waveform of the track. You configure it with the number of channels you are operating, and it will send the power signals to those specific channels based on the strength of the wave. Learn more at https://wiki.python.org/moin/PythonInMusic.
  • View the Halloween show I created using this software and my RaspberryPi with 8 channels here.

Step 5: Program

Now here comes the tedious part, but believe me, it will be worth it in the end. Create a mental picture of the lights that will shine for each part of the song, then get to work. Don’t do this all at once: breaking this task into segments will give you time to come up with new and improved schemes and patterns. If you have problems with your software along the way, look for forums online – odds are that your like-minded synchronized music friends had the same frustrations last year. The musical light show community is growing exponentially which means you won’t have to look far for advice.

Tips from the expert:

  • The largest community based around Raspberry Pi is a project called lightshowPi. You can reach them through Google+ at LightShow Pi.

Extra Tips and Techniques:

  • Be considerate of your neighbors.

Consider using an FM frequency to broadcast your music rather than blasting your beats from a speaker. Also be sure to turn your lights off at a reasonable time. Your neighbors are already jealous so there’s no reason to make them angry too.

(There may be a 1-2 second delay through the FM music playback, double-check your timing just in case.)

Check your power.

Be sure that you aren’t overloading your electrical capacity with your light show. Each channel carries about ⅓ of an amp so do the math to avoid any Clark Griswald moments.  

Tell your friends.

There is no use spending the summer planning your light show if no one sees it. Add your address to a registry or put a video on your community site. Better yet – visit Midphase.com for your own website to really make an impact.

  • Maintenance

Check your lights display daily to avoid any synchronized mishaps. Nothing makes me sadder than half of Santa’s face being dark while he’s singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

Safety

This is getting into the area of high voltage electricity. No light show is awesome enough to be worth a trip to the emergency room, or worse! Always make sure you only use lights and extension cords that are rated for outdoor use, never plug a 3-prong strand into a 2-prong outlet, and definitely unplug a strand before changing any bulbs.

Enjoy!

Once all your work is done, sit back and relax while you admire a job well done.

Want to show off your home-grown lights display?

Visit Midphase’s Facebook and Twitter pages to add a link to let the world know.

Happy Holidays from Midphase.com

 

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