Smart lighting systems used to be an expensive area for professionals only; but with the proliferation of cheaper electronics and computer control systems, incredible lighting effects are now within the reach of hobbyists. Whether you’re planning the coolest house party or want to take your Christmas or Halloween lighting to a whole new level, it might be time to invest in some DMX systems.

What is smart lighting?

Simply put, smart lighting contains elements that can be controlled remotely. At the most advanced level, this can include moving head (pan and tilt), patterns, and colors. At the simplest level, you can simply control the color (maybe a strip of RGB LEDs) or a dimmer. Simply put, smart lighting is cool.

Combined with a controller, you can send hundreds of devices at the same time, arranging them programmatically with a predefined display or working with effects live. It’s basically how I spent my nights at the university — sitting in front of the light board — moving, blinking and changing the color of the club or concert lighting in time to the music. At most concerts, the lighting will be pre-recorded and simply played back at the right time; it guarantees a consistent experience.

If you’ve seen the viral Halloween house lights video set to thriller, you should know that it uses DMX smart lighting control.

What is DMX?

DMX is a serial protocol, digital, unidirectional, no error checking. It is reliable but susceptible to interference, making it unsuitable for hazardous environments such as pyrotechnics (e.g., a stray signal or electrical interference can accidentally trigger a fire tower). Like most digital cables, signal quality degrades over long distances, and repeaters can be used to extend the distance or split the signal using equivalent Ethernet switches.

The cable itself consists of two shielded twisted pairs (although only one pair is used). You should technically use a 5-pin DMX cable, but some manufacturers have introduced 3-pin versions that can work over traditional XLR mic cables.

DMX lighting

The devices are connected in series in one cable and connected with a special plug; one DMX master is used for control, and any other device is called a slave.

At the data level, DMX512 controllers send asynchronous data at a rate 250 kbaud ; 1 start bit, 8 data bits, 2 stop bits and no parity. Note that although some of the data is limited to 8 bits, some devices combine the two channels, giving a multiplexed 16 bit data packet if needed.

DMX512 is so named because it allows up to 512 control channels. Each device in the DMX «universe» must have a start address set on the device itself; most devices occupy more than one channel. Some of the more complex lights can have up to 12 different channels; the combination of which controls different effects. Identical devices can be installed with the same address; they will both respond to those instructions.

Of course, this only works if the devices are identical, as each device will use its own control channels to do its own thing. Because of this, your control system needs a «profile» for each device — sort of like a device driver — that tells it what the device is capable of and what signals to send for each effect.

Here’s a basic introduction in video form to revisit what you’ve just learned; Be sure to watch parts 2-4.

DMX is not limited to lighting; you can get smoke machines that are controlled via DMX, and you can even emulate a DMX device with an Arduino by including in your own electronic hack. Basically, DMX is the glue that holds everything together and allows everyone to communicate with each other.

To learn more about the technical side, I suggest reading DMX technical manual from Elation [PDF link].

So what do you need to get started?

First of all, you will need smart lights and devices. They cost a little more than your standard Christmas lights, but they also tend to be built for more demanding uses. To give you an idea of ​​the cost, I bought myself a pre-made DMX controlled green laser for about $150. You don’t necessarily need to buy new hardware though. If you can control your existing lights or devices with an Arduino (such as a smoke machine relay), you can also set up your Arduino to act as a DMX slave (i.e. one that accepts DMX signals).

free DMX lighting software

Second, you’ll need a controller: your PC or laptop is fine, but you’ll need a USB to DMX converter. The cheapest one I could find it’s for 50 dollars .

free DMX lighting software

There is a surprisingly wide range of software available to program your shows. DMXControl is widely considered the best free option.

free DMX lighting software

If you don’t mind paying a little more, DasLight offers excellent software and a controller with advanced 3D visualization for planning your show. Virtual Lightdesk is a simple $5 Mac app that is compatible with all controllers. I will look more at the software side of things in the next article.

DMX lighting

Lastly, you’ll need some cables; doing it yourself is the cheapest option.

Are you ready to enter the world of smart lighting? Let us know if you have already created some DMX projects and show us the video link. Sure, it’s a dangerous and expensive hobby, but it’s also one of the coolest hobbies in the world. Lasers, smoke machines and strobe lights are waiting for you, sir!

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