How It’s Done

Our Christmas Light Show and it’s 30,000+ lights are all Computer Controlled using Light-O-Rama (LOR) Hardware and Software. Our Display uses Nine – 16 Channel Controllers (144 individual controlled channels) drawing 270 Amps of power (30 Amps for each Controller). The nine controllers allow us to send individual commands to 144 (9 boxes x16 channels per box) different channels all at the same time and program commands within fractions of a second to match a song’s beats. A sample of what one Controller looks like is below. I took the Controller and mounted it to some mini saw horses that they sell at Lowes to keep them off the ground.

LOR Controller

LOR Units 1 2

Since we are using 9 Controllers that can draw up to 30 Amps a piece for a total of 270 Amps and the normal GFI Circuit in our area only uses one 20 Amp Circuit, you can do the math on what you can and can’t control with a normal outlet. So, in order for me to power the display, I had to call in an electrician to setup some dedicated circuits just to power the show. Since I am not an electrician and don’t feel like burning down my house, I used a local company (Tyler Yeager Electric 813-598-9217) and they came out and tapped into my existing panel and added the individual Circuits.

 

Now, once you have the Controller and enough Power, you need a way to send commands to the LOR Controller to run the show. In order to do that, LOR has a few different ways.  Each LOR Controller in our display had to be connected directly via Ethernet cable to send commands.  The Ethernet cable is connected to one of control boxes and the other end connects to your computer via an Ethernet/USB Adapter (below) and sends out the commands to each control unit around the house from your Computer.

LOR USB

Once you have the initial infrastructure setup in order to run the light show. You actually need a computer to control a computer light show. Almost any computer will work, but they do have some minimum specs. As with anything in the computer world, the bigger the better. But, the computer that I use to power the display (Below) is a standard stripped down Dell Optiplex GX Micro Tower with 1 GB of Ram running nothing but Windows XP Pro and the LOR Software to avoid any potential conflicts.

 

After you have your computer hooked up with all the infrastructure, you will still need a way to get the sound to your guests, unless you plan on using speakers outside. The easiest way to do this is to buy an FM Transmitter kit. I use a new Ramsey FM30 Unit. But, the majority of the other people on the net use a cheaper FM25 unit. Since I was new and wasn’t sure how tough it would be to lock down a frequency, I spent the extra $100 or so and bought the FM30 which comes with a digital LCD to see your frequency.

You can buy Radio Transmitters kits from RamseyElectronics.com, but due to FCC Regulations, you will need to put the kit together yourself. Be warned, these kits are not little models. They are really just a giant bag of a million small parts and a circuit board. If you are not good with a soldering iron and circuit boards or not an experienced kit builder, expect to spend about 10 hours on just putting this together. Oh yeah, if you screw up with your soldering iron, you could also fry your whole board and have to purchase a new kit. Luckily, I have used one before and fairly proficient due to other CPU work and I didn’t damage it.

If you are not good with it and want a quick fix, I recommend looking on EBay. You can usually find someone on EBay that will sell you a complete kit put together. This will cost you a premium since they are doing all the work, but at least you know you won’t waste your money and fry your board. I was unfortunate enough to find out that advise after it was too late. I would have gladly paid a few more dollars instead of wasting time putting the million pieces together. The transmitter was harder than doing the whole display. But, without it, I would have drove my neighbors bonkers and the display just wouldn’t have been the same. Anyways, once you have the Unit up and running and configured to your broadcast station of choice, simply plug the unit directly into your PC with an Audio Y Cable adapter from Radio Shack and VOILA!

You are now breaking FCC Rules and Regulations by broadcasting music without a license to your neighborhood :). It only works for about 300 yards or so around the house, but it works :) If you want the signal to transmit even further, they do make more powerful antennas that you can mount to the outside of your house. But, after my initial testing, everything worked good enough for my house.

RAMSEY FM

After you have all your infrastructure in place for the Light Show, next is the hard part (even if you are good at computers). You have to use the LOR software to setup the commands to all your controllers based on the beats of your music. A snapshot of what the LOR’s Sequence Editor looks like is below. It takes a while to learn and the only way you get good at it is with practice and help from others.

LOR EDITOR

If you have your decorations and displays already mapped out and you know what you want to do. You can create a virtual animation of your house in the LOR software. This gives you the ability to see what it will look like without hanging the first decoration. Not to mention, if you started hanging Christmas Decorations on your house in August, people may start to worry about you.

Once you have your sequences done, you can play them back virtually on your computer to see how it will look so you can tweak your layout without actually hanging the first set of lights. This is a special program called (Visualizer) that allows you to take a picture and add in computer lights to replicate your display on the computer.  A sample screen shot of what my house looks like in the Animation interface is below. You can see that I have the rough outline of my house, an aerial view from the top (For Santa Of Course) and my Mega Tree Layout in the bottom right. It’s not super fancy, but it gave me enough visual references to tweak the display before I hang the first light.

vis120514

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once you have all the computer parts, know what you want to do, sequenced your software, now it’s time to put it together. The first thing you need to do is invest in Extension Cords and an AMP Meter. Most people with Static lights attach multiple items to the same extension cord or a power block and power it that way. You can still do that, but remember that each individual LOR channel you use can be controlled individually. So, you need to plan out what items/lights that you want to be able to control individually and have an extension cord for each. In my 2006 Display, I had a total of 48 Channels, so I needed a minimum of 48 Extension Cords just for the controls. Then I needed six 50 foot heavy duty cords to run from my new power circuits to the LOR Control Boards. Below is just a snapshot of a few of the cords that are used to run my show.

In order for planning purposes, I purchased three distinct colors that each connected to their own LOR Unit. For example, all of my Green cords connect to Unit 1 in my front yard that ran in the grass. The Orange cords connect to Unit 2 in my front yard as well but were hidden in the flowerbed and it powered the Mega Tree and presents around it. Then I used Bright Construction Yellow Heavy Duty cords to connect the power circuits to the LOR Units.

Electrical Cords

The next step is to get your lights and displays out and start setting things up. Be prepared to solve problems once you have things up. I thought I planned for everything and tagged and labeled everything with ID tags and etc. so I wouldn’t have any problems or could quickly diagnose them. That did help, but I still experienced problems that needed to be dealt with. I tested and re-tested stuff in my garage for months to get things just right. Then on my first live test outside, I didn’t account for the AMPS from the C9 lights on the roof, (hence my advice to buy an Amp Meter above) and shortly into my first sequence, half of the lights on one unit of my control board went out. All of the others were working and I couldn’t figure the problem out. After testing, testing, and re-testing to see what was going on (assuming lights were just bad or a circuit tripped), I plugged lights into another outlet and all worked. Eliminating the lights, I could only think it was a circuit breaker. So, I was really upset at my electrician thinking he didn’t configure my power right and etc. So, before I called them up to yell at them, I went to ACE Hardware down the street and bought some fuses and VOILA! I blew a fuse on one side of my control board. Once I replaced the fuse, everything lit up. Knowing that a blown fuse was the culprit, I took another trip down to ACE and purchased and AMP meter and tested all the connections. Sure enough, I was overloading the circuit board and not my power circuit. After I figured out how many AMPS everything was pulling, it was back to the drawing board to re-sequence all my songs to the new configuration because I had to move channels around in order not to blow another fuse.