You've probably seen videos of Christmas lights that are synchronized to music. If you want your own lights to blink to the tune of your favorite song, here's how.
1. Decide how big you want it. A channel is a unit of lights that can be controlled individually. For example, a single bush in your yard may be a channel. All the lights in a channel work as a unit (you can't flash an individual light bulb). 32 to 64 channels is a good size to start with.
2. Stock up! The best time to buy lights is the day after Christmas. Many times you will find lights that were normally priced around $2 a strand fall to $0.50. Check out Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, K-Mart, etc. Don't be afraid to be seen with a shopping cart full of 100 strands of lights!
3. Obtain a control system. You will need hardware that hooks up to your computer. You can buy a system completely built, a kit, or a full do-it-yourself system. More information is available through the External Links below.
* A fully built system will work right out of the box. It will cost you about $20 - $25 per channel. It can be purchased from online vendors. Choose this option if the thought of actually doing any work on electronics (especially soldering) scares you!
* A kit will cost from $15 or so per channel. It's pretty much the same thing as in their fully built product without the enclosure. Because it is very simple to place an electronics board in an enclosure, this may be a great option to save you money. Some vendors sell everything you need to build a control system, including the bare circuit board and the parts. If you are willing to solder a little bit, check this out.
* A do-it-yourself system has a very low cost of $5 per channel on up. The price depends on how much you actually do yourself. A system consists of a controller, which communicates with your computer, and solid state relays (SSRs), which actually switch the lights. SSRs can be bought or made yourself. With a do-it-yourself option, you will spend lots of time making your hardware, but the cost savings can make up for it. You also have total customization of your hardware, and will be able to fix problems easily.
4. Get help. This is a very big project, so sign up for the forums the sites listed below.
5. Get software. If you buy LOR or AL products, they have software available for purchase. You may also wish to hand-code a program in almost any major programming language (usually not for pre-built products, as most of their protocols are closed-source).
Design your display. Design the actual outside portion of your display. Common elements to include are:
* Mini lights or net lights on landscaping
* Icicle lights or c-series lights on roof
* Mini Trees These are 2 to 3 foot tall trees, often made of tomato cages wrapped in lights of one or multiple colors. They are arranged in a line or a triangle and are very useful in an animated display.
* Mega Trees This usually consists of a large pole with lights extending from the top to a large ring around the base. Again, it is very useful in animation.
* Wireframes Metal frames with lights attached.
* Blowmolds Plastic lighted sculptures.
* C9 Lights on yard perimeter
* Deer, trees, etc. purchased from store
7. Program your show. Here comes the time consuming part! Decide on music that you will synchronize to, then start programming on your time grid. Don't try to do it all at once! This will probably take a couple of months to several, depending on how long your show is and how many channels you have. How to do this varies by the software program you choose.
8. Let them hear you. Syncing to music won't be worth it if visitors to your display can't hear it! Speakers playing the same music over and over again would drive the neighbors crazy, so in most cases you will need to broadcast over an FM frequency. Please see the warnings section at the bottom of this page.
9. Get powered up. Make sure your home has enough outside power to run your lights. A typical mini light strand draws about 1/3 amp. Speaking of power, computerizing your display will have a lower electric bill than a static display. This is because not all the lights are on at once. Please see the warnings section at the end.
10. Publicize. Put a sign in your yard. Make a web site. List on SantaStars.com. Tell your friends. Doing all this work will not be worth it if no one comes to see your display. Don't go to extremes, but make sure people know about you.
11. Set up.
12. Maintain your display. Go outside every morning and check your display. Repair or replace broken lights or damage caused by weather or vandals. Make sure things are ready to run the next night.
* Talk to your neighbors before you start. There's nothing worse than investing months in planning, and having the police shut you down on the first night.
* If you're building a really elaborate display, talk to the local police about noise ordinances, traffic flows, and ask if they have any concerns. It is much easier to prevent problems than correct them.
* Use your time wisely. This is a big project, so don't be afraid to get help or try to do things more efficiently.
* Signing up for the forums at Christmas lighting sites is a good idea. You will get help from others and help others.
* FPGAs make fantastic custom control devices, which can hook between an RS232 connection on a PC and a relay board for the lights. An entry level Spartan 3e Xilinx demo board is around $150
* FM Transmitters may or may not comply with FCC rules! The transmitters will broadcast at a very low power, so they should not cause any interference.
* Do not do anything to the Belkin other than extend the antenna! Building an amplifier could get you into serious trouble! If the transmitter causes anyone to have interference, your only choice is to shut it down. More information on the FCC rules can be found here.
* When you are dealing with lights you are dealing with HIGH VOLTAGE! United States line voltage (115 volts AC) can KILL YOU. Always use a GFCI on any circuit that is outside, including your lights, for your safety and the publics.
* This is time consuming. Start at least 6 months in advance, more for DIY systems.
Things You'll Need
* Control Hardware
* Control Software
* A moderate sum of money
* Christmas Spirit! Even in June when listening to the same 5 seconds of Christmas music over and over again.
* How to Buy a Christmas Tree from a Tree Farm
* How to Decorate Your Front Yard for Christmas
* How to Put up Christmas Lights Outside