How to create an xLights pixel lightshow 101

So you went to or, saw on YouTube, a great Christmas / Holiday lightshow display in your local area. And you thought, "Wow, I wonder how hard that is to do?". Depending on the size of the display you saw, it could pretty straight forward and quick to learn or, extremely complicated and require a lot of time and effort.

Intro: This article is a basic how to create a light show using xLights software, RGB pixels / nodes, 12 volt and or 5 volt power supply(s), a pixel / node controller and fluted / corrugated plastic props (written by Jeremy Poling 3rd year lightshow veteran at the time of making this)

Step 1. Find a support group to start throwing out questions. You can Google search all you want for answers and eventually, get there (I did) or, you can jump in a local (or nearby state) holiday light show support group and get good, highly reliable answers that will streamline your learning. Search Facebook for holiday light show groups in your area. You can also ask YouTube video makers in your area if they know where to go.

Link to current list of known sites according to the xLights support group.

Step 2. Understand the fundamentals components that make up a pixel light show. They are commonly (but not always) the following: 

A. Pixel/node RGB light strands
B. 12 volt or 5 volt power supplies (most commonly 12v in the US)
C. A pixel/node controller (device to tell the lights what to do)
D. Plastic props, j-channel, PVC pipe, 3D molds, plastic strips to hold the pixels
E. FM transmitter to broadcast a radio signal for your music. 
F. xLights or LOR software (we are focusing on xLights for this walk through as it has become the standard in the hobby)

Step 3. Learn how to create a sequence (programming a show) in xLights.

Step 4. Put all the pieces together. 

If you know and understand how each of these components work, you can successfully start a light show inside of your home. Yep, you read that right, your light show won't work outside until we do a lot more to get things going but you are one huge step towards getting your show outside. We will get to the outside stuff but lets get back to the fundamentals. We will take it slow and cover details of each item above and try to really teach you what you need to understand.

Definitions of the components

What is a Pixel / Node?

A single pixel or node is most commonly a light consisting of three color LED bulbs. Red, green and blue are the three primary colors used. With those three colors of emitted light, you can make basically any color once you mix and match different values of each color. A microchip and resistors are also used to make the three color LEDs change colors and brightness the way you want it. This makes up one "bulb / node / pixel".

In order for the pixel to light up, a few things have to happen. One, you need 12v or 5v power (+) from a power supply. Two, you need a ground wire (-) from a power supply. Three, you need a data wire (data) and you need to supply data. (NOTE: 12v and 5v power is commonly found in home computers and in automobiles.) Last, you need a device to tell the pixel what you want it to do (pixel controller) but more on that later.

The quoted symbols or text above (+,data,-) are what you will find printed on most pixel string/strand wires we use in this hobby and on pixel controllers. Those symbols tell you how to connect the wires to the control device (controller) and or where to provide power to them.

How many pixels / bulbs are in a strand? Here is one of the most fantastic features of pixels/nodes. You can put a string of one pixel or thousands of pixels "in a row". Since each pixel is individually controlled, you can have any amount of pixels in a strand so long as the hardware supports how many you have and, you tell the software how many you put in a row. Pixel strands will come from vendors in sets of either 50 or 100 pixels (usually).  

What is a 12v power supply? 

Most commonly used in our hobby are Meanwell 300 watt power supplies. From a functionality point of view, they are not very different than what you would find in a common desktop computer. The reason these (Meanwells) are used is because they fit well in small boxes like an ammunition box and are very reliable. More on the purpose of the small box later.

The power supply accepts 120 volts of power from your home outlet and turns it into 12 volts or 5 volts of power to power your lights. The connections on the power supply are labeled 12 volt + (positive), 12 volt - (negative), 120 volt hot, 120 volt common and, 120 volt ground. This is the same three (white, green and black) wires your home appliances (like a hair dryer or microwave) use to plug into your home. Power supplies can come in all shapes and sizes to fit your needs but to start, use what most people use. 

What is a pixel controller?

A pixel controller can be any device that sends out a data signal to your pixels. You might be most familiar with the little white boxes that come with LED light strips from Amazon. That is a pixel controller. Not one that you would want to use for your show, but its a controller. 

You see, pixels don't know what to do without some device telling them what to do. They are like perfect little soldiers that only do what they are told. They are very smart and require many sets of instructions. Unlike incandescent or "regular" lights you can turn on the power to pixel lights and absolutely nothing happens.

(NOTE: Technically, your garage door opener might stop working well. Yeah, we will get to that.)

Since a pixel/node is capable of displaying about a million colors at about 100 brightness levels you have to give the pixel a set of instructions (data) on what it needs to do and when.

Pixel controllers are the masters of issuing out orders to each and every pixel. You will get a wide variety of pixel controller options to chose from when you go to buy one. I would highly recommend sticking with the most commonly used controllers in the hobby. Falcon pixel controllers are very widely used. Kulp is another well known brand. Genius is an up and coming brand. Ask your local group veterans what they are using and recommend. Stick to what people in your support group are commonly using at first. Why? Because they have likely dealt with any common problems you might be experiencing and can help you fast. 

What connections are on a pixel controller?

Pixel controllers built for this hobby will have several common connectors. There will be a spot for 12 volt or 5 volt power from a power supply that is used to supply power to the controller itself and for some controllers, to provide power to the pixels attached to the controller. You will need a 12v positive (+) and 12v negative (-) set of wires from a power supply. (NOTE: do not connect 120v (your wall outlet) to your controller or you will have a hot super fast flickering orange lights show a.k.a. fire.)

Controllers provide data instructions to the data wires in the pixels in one of two methods:

Method one: They communicate directly to pixels from the controller and provide the necessary power, data and ground wires (+,data,-) the pixels need to function. This is most commonly done with a (or many) three wire plug(s) on the controller that you insert wires into. Controllers can have a few or a bunch of these three wire connectors. The connectors use small screws to secure the three wires from the pixel to the connector and then you push the connector into the control board. 
Method Two: They pass data via an Ethernet cable to a differential receiver board or long range expansion board. A differential receiver is a device that receives and passes data (via Ethernet cable) from the controller to the pixels connected to the differential receiver. Power in this scenario then comes from a local power supply close to the receiver board. The controllers that use this style of communication will sometimes have spots for pixels/nodes to directly connect pixels to and many Ethernet ports to connect receiver boards to.  

Quick note: Ethernet cables consist of 4 pairs of color coded copper wires for a total of 8 wires. A few of those wires in the cable are used to transmit data to the receiver board. Ethernet cable or connector failure does happen and should always be checked during troubleshooting.

The last common connection you will find on the controller board are Ethernet ports. A few Ethernet ports are dedicated to communicating to your programming device where the data comes from. (NOTE: Wi-Fi is an option many times) There is likely to be one or two Ethernet ports for this purpose. The primary purpose of the Ethernet ports on a "standard" control board is for communications with your lightshow software device (a PC or Raspberry usually). The controller uses the Ethernet port to "talk" to your device where the programming data comes from and then convert that information into a language the pixels understand and send the information out to the pixels.

What are plastic props? 

Plastic props used for this hobby are made of fluted / corrugated plastic. The most common thickness of plastic props is 10mm. The most available plastic to make your own props is 4mm (used for temporary yard signs). Both thicknesses can be used for this hobby. 10mm is best for large props or props that require structural strength for stability.

Pixels/nodes get pushed into props. Props can have a few pixels or thousands. Vendors try to stick to even numbers on small props but almost all large props end up being numbers like, 452 pixels or 984 pixels. You will have to make a custom strand of pixels with a quantity not matching the 50 or 100 interval very frequently. This is normal and common. The reason why is due to how pixels/node must be laid out in a straight line from the beginning to the end of a prop. This will make more sense later.  

Props are most commonly bought from vendors. Boscoyo and Gilbert Engineering are the largest vendors. Props are not typically made by those in the hobby. This is due to the relatively low prices they are made available in the online market place. And making your own is fairly time consuming. 

How do the lights work outside in the rain and snow?

Water proofing from the factory: Water proofing is a HUGE part of what we do and a lack of water proofing, is a common source for failure. Pixel strands typically come with waterproof connectors on the ends of the strand. There are several names for the end types. RayWu and XConnect are the most common. Those ends are not made perfectly and sometime they just don't get tightened up properly. Good news is, if connectors get wet, you will know right away or usually shortly after.
Water proofing connections: Most props, house outlines and pixel grids (square groups of pixels that look like a TV) will require you to cut the pixel stand wires to fit your props or pixel strand holding materials. Cutting strands down to what you need, is normal and common. This can be unnerving at first but is a requirement for working with pixels for several reasons. To seal or waterproof your cut pixel wires, you will need to either use a combination of solder, hot glue and shrink wrap tube or waterproof wire connector devices that either heat seal or encapsulate the wires in waterproof sealant.  
Water proofing power supplies and control devices: Protecting your equipment outdoors is vital to your success. Controllers are most commonly installed in water tight boxes designed for use in the communications industry. Receiver boards are most commonly installed in ammo cases which have a water tight seal.

What is an FM transmitter? 

An FM transmitter used for our hobby is most commonly a short range radio transmitter. It is used by the device playing the sequence song to convert the audio coming out of that device to a radio signal used for car stereos. There are several options for transmitters. Talk with local group experts and get a recommendation for one that suits your needs. Be aware there are some laws regarding how far you can transmit your signal. "Safe devices" that do not violate the transmission of FM signal laws to use for your show, will be labeled as such by the company offering the device. 

What is xLights sequence software? 

We saved the best for last. xLights is an open source (free to use and open to modify) program that allows you to take an audio track (song) and apply / program light effects to spots in the song to make a light show change lights with the sounds of the music. It is designed for use in this hobby and for some commercial purposes. More information about xLights can be found on YouTube.

How to setup your light show in xLights?

Inside of the xLights software you will need to tell the software what your display looks like. This is usually a best attempt at creating a one to one representation of the amount of lights and where you placed them in your display. If you are putting lights on your home, you will want to take a picture of your home and use it as a background in the software. Tools inside of the software will allow you to "model" your show (home with lights) in the software so the software understand how and when to turn lights on and off so you can produce the patterns you see in the software. 

So how do you design a show in xLights?

Learning xLights does take time and a commitment to not only the use of the software but also, the creative process. Many people purchase the sequencing created by others and apply that sequencers programming to their show elements. (NOTE: This a great way to save time in your commitment to this hobby.) This process is done through the use of a special feature in xLights called the importing and mapping feature. How importing and mapping works is fairly straight forward. You create a new sequence in xLights. Select the audio the sequence uses and then select the import option to place the sequence effects onto your display elements. During the import process, you match the sequencers props to your props (aka models). You can import effects from any models (props) the sequencer uses to your models (props). (NOTE: models are exactly what they say, models showing the pattern of pixel lights used in the plastic props or other elements you are going to put on your house or in your yard.)

How much does all this cost?

I saved this important question for last. Cost is going to range from $500.00 to $50,000 or more. The size of your show (amount of pixels and props) will increase the cost and that is the most common metric to use when determining the financial commitment you will need. More pixels adds more power supplies and more props and more controllers / receivers and more wire and on and on. For many reasons, you should start small for your first year and plan new additions large or small for year two or three.

If you start out with a cheap controller, a few hundred lights, a cheap or free computer, a cheap power supply and whatever supplies you need to put those all together, you can stay around the $500 - 1000 mark. The problem with this hobby is it always leaves you wanting more & more lights. If you give into that desire, and have the funds available or pretend you do, you can quickly add to your total investment. This is hobby is rarely referred to as cheap or inexpensive. 

How do I save money?

There are several great ways to "save money" if you have the time. You can make your own props. You can make your own extension wires (not advised but less expensive). You can buy in bulk. You can use the least expensive controllers and power supplies (not advised but less expensive). You can wait for deals, coupons and, discount codes (not advised if you want to get going fast). You can buy used items. You can ask for hand me downs from others in the hobby. 

Resource links

Great YouTube videos

Great Q&A Facebook page

xLights Fundamental Training by the developer


Pictures of common items



Back to blog