December 31, 2019

I love having a Christmas light show at my house, but it sure wouldn’t be as much fun if I had to wait around for 5 pm every night to press “start” on my show!

Luckily, my show runs automatically and yours can too. But how does it work?

To automate your show each night you have (2) options – you can either use your sequencing program (Vixen, xLights, or LOR) or a special piece of software called Falcon Player, which runs on Raspberry Pi microcomputers.

Each has its pros and cons, which is why I want to go into detail here and share how they each work, and why you should choose one over the other.

How Will Your Show Run?

Before we talk about the specific programs to run your show automatically, let’s first consider the different options that we have for our show’s setup. That is, how we will structure our different sequences and playlists for the show each night.

All 3 options of scheduler do the same type of thing, just all in their own ways.

When you’re planning your show, you’ve got a few options for how to structure your light show:

  • A single playlist that loops – Your show will start, play through all of the songs and repeating, and then at the end of the night it will either finish out or cut off when the song finishes after the “End Time” that you set.
  • A randomized playlist – Your show will play the songs in random order until the “End Time”.
  • A beginning/end playlist – You can also specify certain sequences to start or end your show, and these will just run once each night. This is a good idea if you have a lot of traffic to your display, as it communicates that the show is just beginning/ending.
  • Background playlist – Need a prop to simply run all night with the same sequence? A background playlist can ensure that elements such as a “tune-to” sign stay lit in the same pattern all night.

On top of that, you can set your schedules to be at the same exact times every day, or you can have them run at different times every day!

This can be helpful if you only want to run on weekends or if you just want to do fewer hours during a week – a great way to keep the neighbors happy!

Now that we’ve discussed how to structure your different sequences and playlists, let’s talk about the 3 different schedulers we can use:

Running Your Show via xLights or Vixen

Both xLights and Vixen have built-in functionality to run your show completely from within the program.

In xLights, this is called xSchedule, and in Vixen it’s called the Scheduler.

But should you run your show off your computer?

On the positives – it’s the easiest and simplest way to get a show up and running. You can do everything from your single computer, so you don’t have to worry about transferring files and keeping everything on your microcomputer up to date.

You also can run a LOT of pixels – depending on the computer, you may be able to run over 1 million pixels!

If you’re using xSchedule, you’ll also get a “Status” window that shows all of your controllers and alerts you if there are any problems:

xSchedule window with controller status highlighted in green.

On the negatives, your light show is going to require your computer’s dedicated attention for the full run of your show – likely from Black Friday or early December until after Christmas!

Could you use your computer during the season for other things besides your display?

I suppose so, but you run the risk of having something go wrong – whether that be a system software update, you forget to leave the scheduler open, or someone shuts down the computer.

When I ran my show from a computer, I chose to dedicate that computer to my show, 100%. I kept it fully offline and set it up to shut down and re-start itself every day.

My first year, I used the Vixen scheduler to run my show.

Because it didn’t have an internet connection and wasn’t being used for anything else, it worked perfectly, night after night. Every 10 days or so, I briefly connected it to the internet to sync the clock, which would get off by a minute or 2.

I had the extra computer around, so it wasn’t a big deal to dedicate it fully to my display.

As you can probably see, the biggest downside to running it off a computer is that you can’t use that computer for anything else (or, at least you shouldn’t!) during the run of your Christmas light show.

On the upside, you can run your whole show on one computer, no matter how big the show is, without any worry of glitching. If you’re using xLights you also get the status window in xSchedule, which can be helpful if you have a lot of controllers.

Running Your Show via Falcon Player

On the other hand, microcomputers like the Raspberry Pi have become very popular to run your show from and it’s easy to see why.

A Raspberry Pi running Falcon Player can run hundreds of thousands of pixels from a $35 microcomputer, all on its own!

Falcon Player’s Scheduler

While it takes some more setup, using the Falcon Player frees up your main computer for other tasks and offers some more redundancy for your setup.

While I had to spend time setting up my Windows 10 PC to auto-start and shut down each day and open Vixen at startup, the Raspberry Pi with Falcon player simply boots up and starts when it receives power.

You can leave it running all the time, or you can power it on and off automatically with a smart plug or even a basic light timer.

You can learn more about using Falcon Player on my article here.

It’s Your Choice – How Will You Run Your Show?

Whether you decide to run your show from a Windows/Mac computer or from a Raspberry Pi, I hope this article has helped you to see both sides and find which one is right for you.

Like many things in this hobby, there is no “one right answer” for everyone, though I think the Raspberry Pi route is intriguing, it’s not the best for everyone.

Whichever you choose, I hope you have fun and come back here to Learn Christmas lighting to learn how you can make a fun, low-stress, and incredible Christmas light display on your house!

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