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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Here is the back story, a few years back, in an after-Christmas sale, I stumbled across a box entitled "Mr. Christmas - Lights and Sounds of Christmas", (hereafter LSC)
retailing something like $70, I got it for $20. It's a basic package of pre-programmed Christas music and 6 outlets. You plug in various lights and it will turn the lights
off and on with the music, ie a very, very simple version of Light-O-Rama. My thought, I believe, was that I could change it for Halloween. Being January, I packed
it away in my basement and forgot about it.

This spring, whilst cleaning, I rediscovered it, hooked up some lights and tested it. Sure enough, worked just fine, if you like elevator Christmas music. I searched
in vain, for some sort of input plug so I could send my own music to it, with no luck. However, I did find instructions on the web about hacking it.


Guts of the LSC, exposed to the world

Looking at the picture above, you unplug the rainbow colored ribbon from the control board on the left, then remove that board altogether. Don't cut the thick wires,
those are the A/C ones, you need those. Now, if you can send input voltage into each of the wires, you can tell the triacs (solid state relays, or SSR) to allow current
to flow or not. The black wire, I believe is the Ground (GND) wire, the rest are data wires, 1 per channel.

Next, you will need a way of sending data to those wires. A quick and dirty way of doing it is via the parallel port of your computer, if you have one. Most, if not all,
of the newer computers don't have one, I had to hunt down one at work they were going to toss out. Initially, I could only find a standard printer cable to fit that
port, the one with the weird rounded trapezoid connector at one end. That weird end is a Centronix port, and it has 36 pins. The parallel port has 25 pins, so there is
a lot of duplication within the wires. I cut off the Centronix end and started using my continuity tester to find out which of these little thin wires matched up with
the pins at the end of the parallel port connector. Two days later, I was able to connect those wires into the rainbow ribbon in the LSC and start sending signals
from the PC to switch on and off the lights.

To do this, I discovered the website Do It Yourself Christmas. These people are the geniuses that do the Christmas light displays
with hand-build control boards and the like. They patted me on the head, being the Halloween freak that I am, and helped where they could. The program of choice over there
is Vixen. With this program, you select your music, assign your channels, input your "sequence", and run your show. It has a number of
choices for outputs, including the one we need: Basic Parallel.

Once that was setup, I did my first test:
First LSC Test

Not an impressive display to be sure, but it let me know I was on the right track. The people over at DIYC warned me, however, that the LSC was a "gateway drug". Once you
get the taste for channels, you will not be satisfied with 6.

Grim Grinning Ghosts, 6 channels

And they were right. I immediately thought about how I could get more channels. The parallel port is an 8-bit device, meaning that technically I could have 2 more channels if
I rigged up a couple more SSRs. Time is running out, and the money is tight. I discovered, that you could extend the parallel port to output 12 channels (4 control bits that can be flipped)
and I was off sequencing my songs for 12 channels while I tried to figure out how to add them...

I had gotten an Arduino Uno this spring, and found threads talking about using it to control lights. There are 14 output pins on the board, and goneferal had a thread discussing
controlling LED strings with her unit, so I knew it could be done. I found a link to a place in Hong Kong that sold 8-channel relay boards fairly cheaply (shipping is the
catch, of course), so I ordered one. Also I found a 4-channel relay board on eBay for $0.90 (plus $10 for shipping) also from Hong Kong. Both are made by the same manufacturer.
In total, I will now have 18 channels.


8-channel relay board

Both boards are here now, but now I realize the flaw in these boards is that the relays are mechanical, not solid state. Really shouldn't be an issue, except that there
is, I guess, a slight sound to them working (clicking) and I'm not quite sure of their response time. Also, they both need to be powered by +5V from the Arduino, so I can't
use them with the parallel port. Last night, I did a test, using the sketch goneferal wrote, to make sure the Arduino could control 12 channels. I wired up my breadboard with
12 LEDs and the Arduino, and sent a sequence to it. Couldn't find a video camera, so I took a couple of stills.


Running Vixen with the Arduino


Close up of the Arduino and the breadboard

Earlier I thought I needed a serial port to USB cable to do this, so I shelled out my meager cash for it. Turns out, it runs just find with the USB cable plugged into the computer. Doh!

A major part of my shows is my singing Halloween Face. This consists of a frame with mini-incandescent lights (twinkle or Christmas lights, if you will), that forms eyes and
a mouth in various positions. I've gotten the frame built and painted. Here is a little animated GIF of the frame outlining the 7 channels it will take to run this.

 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Here are the various components that went into the Light Show this year. Lots of boxes of parts, wired together precariously, and through bushes that did not want to cooperate all that much.


The light show setup, starring Moe, Larry, Curly, Bert, Ernie, and now Jack.


Basic yard setup on the north side


The relay box controlled by the Arduino


A peek at the guts of the relay box


The project box housing the Arduino


A peek inside the Arduino project box


My hacked Mr Christmas box


The parallel to RJ-45 project box, goes from the computer's parallel cable to the Mr. Christmas


The computer and sound system setup for the light show.




The light show in action!
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
This summer I've ordered 2 24-channel Renard control boards, that support dimming as opposed to just the on/off I had last year. Combined with last year's rig (which had 18 channels) I will have 66 total channels.

They warned me over at Do It Yourself Christmas that the Mr. Christmas light show kit I started with was a gateway drug... They were right...
 
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