A Lively Display

How One Commercial Transformed a Family's Holiday Decorations

By Keith Hoffman

In December 2005, I watched a beer commercial and my life was forever changed. A scene of a perfectly normal house decorated with Christmas lights, sprung to life with a synchronized music and light show. The chosen song, "Wizards in Winter" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, absolutely captivated me as I watched the creative flashing of the lights firing off in perfect harmony with the music. I turned to my wife and announced that I needed to do that for our house. She responded "over my dead body."

I am pleased to report that my wife is alive, and we are still happily married, but I did get my wish! In fact, I've even turned around my wife's opinion on the project and she's now an active participant, making requests. This is the story of how it all came to be.

To begin, it should be known that this was not my first foray into holiday decorating; far from it in fact. We had become notorious in our neighborhood for our Halloween decorations. Every Halloween we transformed our yard into an interactive display that enticed upwards of 900 TOTs (trick or treaters, to the uninitiated) each Halloween.

Our haunt highlights included 10 foot tall creatures towering up on the roof (PVC pipe constructs), the 15 foot "Pillar of Pain", a flying ghost (attached to fishing line run by an old ceiling fan motor between the rooftop and a tree), a pop-up creature (metal armature powered by an air compressor), a "monster in a box" (wood palette box wrapped in chains with the lid being banged up and down using an old windshield wiper motor), and the "Hell Hole", an infinity pit that when you peered down looked like it went on forever, but with the flip of a switch a creature appears at the bottom with flashing lights to startle you (a box with two layers of Plexiglas with select sides covered in mirrored sheets and strategic lighting).

A typical Halloween at the Hoffman household
A typical Halloween at the Hoffman household

Every year the display grew in both scope and complexity. Virtually everything was handmade, right down to the custom carved tombstones (foam boards using a Dremel). I took great pleasure and pride in my DIY approach and I got lots of compliments and praise. Of course, the increasing turnout drove me to want to outdo myself every year. Ultimately this became a nine month development cycle with the first plans in February, and heavy duty construction and testing in the summer all so that I'd be ready by end of October. That left little room for Christmas.

Our Christmas display initially consisted of lights around the house and yard and a couple of wood reindeer and a sleigh I made. We added a little fake snow (some pillow stuffing material) and a few artificial trees; it was a cute little winter scene. In fact in 2005 we entered our home into the city holiday decorating contest and won in the "Sweet & Simple" category. We were pleased, and after all my Halloween work throughout the year, sweet and simple appealed to me. All of that changed when I saw the dancing lights and synchronized music on that beer commercial.

Sweet Simple
Hoffman family holiday display in the "Sweet & Simple" days

I had to know how they did it. I turned to the best source of this type of info that I knew: my local home haunters group. Sure enough, at our next scheduled gathering one gentleman had the answer: Light-o-Rama. Apparently there was a company that made light controllers which, coupled with a laptop and their software, could create the holiday light and music effects I was looking for. Their website showed that I could build one of the units myself or buy a ready-assembled package. While I am a DIY-er at heart, I opted for the pre-built package approach; since buying the components individually was not cheap, I was concerned that mistakes would turn out to be expensive lessons.

Here's the overview for how a Light-o-Rama configuration works.

Photo credit: Light-o-Rama's official website

1. I ran the Light-O-Rama software on a Windows laptop to design the shows and send the right commands at the right time to the various control channels. It also keeps music synchronized to the controller commands.

2. Speakers for the light show's music are attached to the computer sound card. I originally connected a transmitter for wireless speakers, but encountered lots of issues with static interference and sound quality. I later switched to wired speakers plugged into a Sonos Audio System.

3. The communication between the PC and the light controllers uses a USB cable from the PC to a converter that transforms the signal to a standard Cat 5 LAN network wire to the controller.

4 & 5. The light controllers can be daisy-chained together. For my original setup I had one light controller, but after my initial success I bought a second and daisy-chained it off the first.

Two Light Controllers
The two light controllers, 16 electrical port channels each

Two Light Controllers

The Light-o-Rama solution is easy to implement; it's truly plug and play, but logistics for the layout take some thought. After I purchased the 2nd controller, I used one controller for the left side of the house and yard and the other for the right. That helped simplify and shorten some of the extension cord runs as well. Each controller requires two independent 15 amp power feeds (supports 120VAC or 240VAC, 50Hz/60Hz operation). Each channel can support up to 8 amps of AC power and uses DMX-512 protocol for communications.

Each of my combined 32 channels (16 on each controller) could plug into a light or series of lights, and each channel is controlled individually. For example channel/port 1 on controller one could connect via an extension cord to the lights surrounding a window and nearby bush, channel/port 2 to lights on the roof, and so on. I defined 32 areas of lights to control.

I mapped out a visual of how I arranged and connected the light channels with the software and got a simulated playback of what it would look like. I created the layout in the photo; each color represents one of the channels controlled individually. My simulation was made up of representations of my roof, trees, paths, bushes, windows, balcony, etc. that I had placed lights on. I chose LED lights; their low energy consumption not only allowed me to operate fairly long strands of lights per channel, but I also found that running these shows actually had a negligible impact on my electric bill.

Two Light Controllers
My house and yard lighting layout in the Light-o-Rama software

Then comes the "fun" part, synchronizing the song and lights. Power to each of the attached lighting circuits is controlled independently. It's like having a bunch of dimmer switches that a computer can change quickly – on and off and special effects such as intensities, fading, twinkling, and shimmering too. The chosen song can be any that you wish, as long as it's in one of the supported formats. As I listen to the music, I try to imagine what I think would be fun visually to coincide with that portion of the song. Do I want lights to appear rolling like a wave from right to left? Do I want them to blink quickly to the beat, then have them go on back and forth as if calling to each other? The options are endless, and I believe the best thing to do is to play around with all the different effects, and then play it back and see what it looks like on the mocked up map.

What's great yet tedious with these controllers is that you have so many channels to work with. The software allows you to control the lights down to 1/10th of a second. In every music light show, every light that blinks, flashes, fades, twinkles, or just goes on or off has to be manually configured for each second.

A 5-second light sequence example
A 5-second light sequence example

Once I got comfortable in what I was doing, it took me about an hour or two to program each minute of light and music synchronization. When I eventually reached my goal of having an hour of music setup, I had put close to 100 hours into my labor of love. One of the toughest parts was listening to the same song over and over again in five second increments. Now there are a few songs that will always trigger visions of lights going off whenever I hear them.

The end results exceeded my wildest expectations and rivaled anything I had done for Halloween and maybe even that beer commercial. The show was scheduled to play 6-8 p.m. nightly during the week and a little later on the weekends. I even set up some benches out front so people could sit and enjoy the show. No matter which holiday you're decorating for, I hope this inspires others to give it a try. Trust me, they'll enjoy the results!

How have you used electronics to liven up your holiday decorations? Share your stories at [email protected].
Keith Hoffman has a B.S. in Computer Science and is the Manager of Network Engineering for Sharp Healthcare. He previously worked as the Global Manager of Systems and Network Engineering for Cubic Transportation Systems and was the Network Services Manager for Apple in Cupertino. When he's not adding new songs to his light show playlist or developing new Halloween props, you might find him reading a book, taking in a show, or wine tasting in his Southern California, Temecula Wine Country residence.