Synchronizing lights to music : Part 1

September 9, 2011
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Putting on a good holiday light show takes a lot of different pieces working in harmony, and the most important one is music/light synchronization.  Using the components that make up the show, this is referred to as “sequencing”.  Without sequencing, lights and music cannot work together.

Sequencing is the process of affecting lights in coordinated timing with some audio file (usually music.)  Typical effects are basic on/off, fade up/down, shimmer, and twinkle — your controllers dictate what effects are possible.  Sequencing refers to the process of applying those effects to your lights on a specific timeframe, usually in conjunction with an audio music file. A completed sequence can be executed against one or more connected controllers, which will respond to the signals from the sequence.

Luckily, software takes care of the low-level details of executing sequencing plans against controllers.  As a lightshow author, the only thing I’m responsible for in this equation is constructing the sequencing plan.

I use controllers from Lightorama (LOR) and use their accompanying software package to construct, schedule and execute sequences.  Here’s a look at putting together a sequence for a new song in this year’s light show.

Music

Before any lighting effects happen, I had to choose a song.  While you can pick any song and synch your lights to it, I look for certain criteria in a song to be considered for inclusion in my show:

  • Upbeat tempo – who wants to watch lights to a song that just drags?  Answer: nobody.
  • Distinct song elements – a solid backbeat, crescendos/decrescendos, big notes/sounds, and some repetition.
  • Song “feel” – totally subjective list, but a song needs to fit with the rest of the show, be family-friendly, and be a song I won’t mind listening to at least 300 times.  (Seriously — 300 times.)

I mention “some repetition”, which must be taken with a grain of salt.  It’s a fine line for show viewers between comfortable familiarity and monotony. When in doubt, under-do it.

For my particular song, I needed to edit it for length.  Your mileage may vary, but I find any song longer than 3 minutes to be too long for a holiday light show.  I make modifications to my audio source file using a utility called Audacity.

Configuration

Installing the LOR software provides several applications.  We’re looking for the Lightorama Sequence Editor.

The first screen I’m presented with is a selection for the type of sequence — animation or musical.  Animation is simply lighting effects without an audio backing.  For my show, I’m building a musical sequence.

I select an audio file and need to set two critical pieces of information: 1) channels, and 2) timing.

Setting channels and timing on a musical sequence

Channels

Controllers affect lights through channels, which is one of multiple electrical connections on a controller.

In a 16-channel controller, there are 16 individual plugs that connect to the lights you want to control.  Each channel is assigned a unique number, and the software communicates with that controller and channel.

Channel setup can be loaded manually, or through a configuration template (a basic xml file that defines your channels.)  Manual loading is fine if you have one or two controllers.  I have 8 controllers and don’t care to enter that information every time I create a new sequence, so I choose my pre-existing configuration.  (If you don’t have one, you’ll need to make one — by entering it here manually. You can export it for later use after that.)

Timing

In sequencing, timing is everything. You want your lights to turn on and off, twinkle, fade and what not in lockstep with the music. The best effects, decorations and lighting are simply ineffective when your timing is off. And getting this “right” depends on your timing grid.

The timing grid is 2D linear view of your channels against a timeline. The grid can be broken up into cells (think Excel) at various levels, where a cell represents a specific length of time at a given point in the timeline for a given channel. The LOR software permits you to get very granular with the length of time for a cell — down to hundredths of a second. I have found the most granularity in cell sizing I require for sequencing is 0.1 seconds. If you’re a newbie, you might consider 0.25 or 0.50 seconds per cell.

Timing grid selection is a matter of preference, but the easiest way to get started is to use either the “tapper” wizard or the “beat” wizard.  The tapper wizard lets you set timing marks in the sequence. The wizard lets you tap the keyboard whenever you want to mark a timing element in the sequence (you listen to the music and hit the tapper button when you need a mark.)  The beat wizard essentially executes a tapping wizard for you, making guesses about where timing marks should go in the sequence.

Once you’ve got a timing grid in place, we can get down to the business of sequencing. This post continued in Part 2.

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