We’ve all seen “that house” in our city that synchronizes it’s lighting to music, or perhaps watched an episode or 2 of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” and wondered – should I do that too?
Should I sequence my Christmas Lights to music?
If you’re going to take the time to make an elaborate Christmas light display, then it’s well worth the time to sequence your lights to music too. Plus, over the long haul, it can actually save you a some money in energy bills.
While sequencing Christmas lights to music may seem difficult, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a tech wizard or an engineer, in fact – anybody can make a great display!
So how do you begin? I’m glad you asked…
A Static Display, or Synchronized Lights To Music?
While it is fun and interesting to have a static display of Christmas lights plugged in across your yard and home, it can really eat up a LOT of electricity! Even with energy-efficient LED strings, many displays like this can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars in electricity over the course of a season, as they are always ON at full power.
However, if you animate your display, using basic Christmas light AC controllers or Christmas light pixels, you now have each light only on for a fraction of the time, while still making your home look just as grand. Some people would argue that it looks even grander!
You’ve certainly seen displays that use this method online or in person. When you look at a display like this, notice how each individual light or string of lights is not constantly on. Over time, that can equal quite a bit in energy saved, and also looks amazing!
*Just* An Animated Display?
At the base level, to get the energy savings and “coolness” factor, you really just need to animate your display. While you’ve probably seen people doing this to music, it’s not “required” by any means.
In fact, this is a good way to get into the hobby – you don’t have to worry about the music, and you can have the display change between a few different sequences throughout the night, or throughout the season.
What More Does it Take to Do an Animated Display?
Doing an animated vs. a non-animated display only takes a few extra elements. Instead of simply plugging your lights into the wall, you’ll now plug your lights into an “AC Controller” which will then be controlled by a computer, which runs your show.
In addition – color changing and video-capable “pixels” look amazing and can make any pattern you desire. These are the type of lights you see on TV shows and the best-looking houses in your city or town!
Pixels use a specialized controller and work a little bit differently than regular strings – which is great when a pixel goes out and you don’t lose your whole string!
If you’re just starting from scratch, you might be surprised to find out that using pixels actually isn’t massively more expensive than traditional lights – and they tend to last longer and be less prone to repairs compared to “hardware-store lights”.
Need to know more about starting with pixels? Read my article on using pixels and creating a musical display here!
Once you get things animated, it only takes a little more effect to do your show to music…
What More Does it Take to Do Music?
There’s no doubt that the “holy grail” of Christmas displays is when you do your display to music! It looks amazing, gathers a crowd, and is a lot of fun to pull off!
But – it does take more time and more cost. You’ve got to have a way to play the music, and then you have to sequence the lights to that music or buy pre-made sequences.
Let’s take a closer look at what more this takes in time and/or cost:
Playing Your Display’s Music on the Radio:
To play your display’s music on the radio, all you need to add to your shopping list is an FM transmitter and some basic audio cables.
The FM transmitter will take the sound that is coming out of your computer and play it over the radio – it really is that simple!
Small, non-commercial FM transmitters can cost anywhere from just a few dollars to over a thousand dollars, but I generally recommend one that is in the $100-$200 range – not bad for something that will last you MANY seasons of display!
Want to learn more? Check out my full article on choosing your FM transmitter!
Letting People Know How to Tune In
The last step of working with the music is to let people know how to tune in.
On a simple level, an inexpensive coroplast sign from a local sign shop or Vistaprint.com can easily be placed in front of a small flood light to get the job done. All you’ve got to do is let people know what radio station to tune in to on their car’s stereo!
On a more technical level, some people choose the upgrade to digital signage, and do do via P5 or P10 panels, with the ability to totally animate their “tune-to” sign.
This is cool, but I really like having the coroplast as well. Digital signs can break or stop working, and they don’t allow you to tell people about your display during the daylight hours like the trusty coroplast “yard sign”.
Now that we have our music “over the airwaves”, it’s time to sequence our lights to the music…
Sequencing Your Lights to the Music
Probably the biggest time suck in sequencing your lights to music is the actual sequencing of your lights to music. (Makes sense, right?)
While xLights and Vixen offer helpful ways to make sure your animations are on the beat and match the music, there is still a TON of work to be done if you want a complex sequence.
I know I have personally sequenced songs in as little as 2 hours, but easily have spent well over 10 hours making more complex songs – maybe even more!
If you add up your time, and what you value it at, you can see how this can be “expensive” to your time. Not only that, but I am the biggest proponent of making sure this hobby doesn’t hurt your relationship with your family – the most important people in your life.
I enjoy sequencing, so I like to find times to do it for my own display. BUT, to save time, I do my best to re-use some sequences from year-to-year, because it takes very little time to do so. (Simply add in any new elements from your show, and you’re good!).
One of the very best ways to save time when you are sequencing is to buy sequences.
Any quality sequence vendor will use some sort of “easy-to-import” layout for xLights, making it take less than 1 hour to apply to your display in xLights. And the best part? These sequences generally cost less than $100 (sometimes much less), and can be used for multiple years.
If you want to make a stress-free display, this is one of my absolute favorite ways to do it!
What Will You Do?
As you can now see, sequencing your lights to music can be a lot of fun, and it doesn’t have to take up all of your time.
Even though you have to buy more “gear” to make it work, over time the energy savings of running your whole display on pixels or with AC controllers will really save you energy cost as well.
I hope this article has helped you to more fully understand what’s involved, and how to make it happen. Be sure to check out the other articles here on Learn Christmas Lighting to paint the full picture of how to make a stress-free Christmas (or another holiday) display this year!