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Castle of Terra has been using a computer to serve as central command for the control over the pneumatic props in it. Over the years there have been many questions and answers on how this is done. Thought I'd put up a general tutorial on how to use a computer, software and DMX signaling to run your haunt. This is no way comprehensive and you should always read the manual that comes with the software and hardware you'll buy. They should be the go-to... not this tutorial. A nerd, I am not :p

Before we wade into this tutorial... I have a confession to make. Lately, been starting to waver in my belief that a whole integrated haunt controller is the way to go. Let me explain:

There are two ways to automate your haunt: Integrated and Stand Alone. An integrated haunt controller is usually a computer with a program called VSA (Visual Show Automation) that's loaded onto it. You also need a partner software program (and a bit of hardware) called DMXorcist. You use DMX signaling to send the commands of each prop's show to the props themselves. Stand Alone is when each prop has it's own controller. All the components and commands are literally stand alone. As with everything in life there are pros and cons to each way to command your props:

Integrated: Less equipment needed and all the props are controlled from one computer. You can use a remote, triggers and timers.

Stand-Alone: The props are independent of one central command so if there is a failure at one of the controllers, just one prop is down... not the whole show. There is less wiring needed also.

We've run Integrated now for four seasons. While haven't had a catastrophic failure... the worry of one does wear you down a bit. Starting to think of having one or two props 'offline' (stand alone). That way, if that day of failure comes, we'll still have a few props that would work. Plus, be gaining experience in learning how to program and set-up stand alone props. This is probably going to be the controller used for those props: http://www.frightprops.com/controllers-electronics/frightideas-controllers/boobox-controllers/boobox-flex-boobox-flex-terminal-block-connectors-7740.html

Okay, that's the set-up...now let's get into the basic tutorial about having an integrated haunt controller. First, let's do a flyover of what we will be doing here to get a lay of the land. This video shows how to do one prop using just VSA and DMX signaling to help keep this simple. DMXorcist isn't being used here yet:


First, you need a computer...
Not just any computer, mind you. A powerful desktop with a sound card with it's own processor is even better. The new DMXorcist version that is now out promises to be less processor dependent. Haven't tried the latest version but previous ones put quite a load on your computer's processor and added some instability. It will help a lot if you also have a sound card that uses it's own processor and doesn't use the computer's. Stay away from laptops because they traditionally have slower processors. Got mine to work for three seasons but was so glad we were able to move up to a desktop last year.

VSA Software: This is a very popular program that you use to write a prop's show by coordinating the sound, lights and devices (pneumatics, motors). It's full name is Visual Show Automation and is made by Brookshire $60: http://www.brookshiresoftware.com/vsa_overview.htm

In order to run several props simultaneously, you'll need another program that will collect all your various VSA prop programs. This will allow you to control them easier. With it, you can use a remote, triggers (motion, mat, etc.) and timers. It's called DMXorcist and has a hardware component that comes with it that allows you to plug those trigger wires in and receive remote commands.

On top of the regular DMX program, the software is bundled with a 7.1 sound file program (with instructions) that allows you to make sound files that utilize 2.1, 5.1... even 7.1 surround sound files. Why would that be necessary? Here's the scenario: You have four props that each have unique sounds triggered by it's VSA program. But, computers only have one stream of sound out. If your computer has a 7.1 sound card, you can transmit 7.1 sound. But, that still doesn't help you here...yet. Well, with the 7.1 sound program that come with DMXorcist, you can take a sound file and make the sound come out of the center speaker only and the rest of the sound channels would be silent. When you play the VSA routine, the sound only comes out of the center speaker (which you have next to the prop). Now, take the sound file from the other prop and use the sound software to make its sound come out of the front-left channel. Have the front-left speaker next to that prop and when the VSA program is triggered, that sound will play at the front left speaker. You repeat this process until all of your sound files are programmed. Bear in mind, you will have speaker wires all over your haunt but the wiring is cheap and small. In our haunt, almost all wiring - including air lines - are routed on the ceiling. With the lights off, can't tell a thing.

Recently Phoenix, the creator of DMXorcist, has branched off to form his own company. $120: http://www.freewebstore.org/Phoenix-Animatronix/DMXorcist+COMPLETE/p599974_2740969.aspx

Enttec Open DMX USB Interface: This takes the signals from your computer and translates it into DMX commands. This is what starts your DMX daisy chain. $60: http://www.enttec.com/index.php?main_menu=Products&pn=70303&show=description

DMX Relay/Dimmer: Never sure what the dimmer functions do but I always get a relay box that also has dimmer functions just in case I figure out that I might need it, heh. But, I only use the relay functions. Here is a picture of the box:

Think of a DMX relay/dimmer as an interface between items that are normally plugged into the wall and your VSA program using DMX signals. If you plug in a prop (that is usually plugged into a wall) into the DMX relay/dimmer you now can command that prop through a DMX signal and therefore your VSA program. Cool, huh?!

The plugs that you see are two for each channel - 4 channels. So, instead of plugging your prop into the wall, you plug it into a channel on the DMX relay/dimmer. In VSA, you had already given that channel a DMX address. When VSA says that it wants the prop to turn on, it will. When you want it to turn off, it will. All using the relay.

Bonus ability: If you plugged in a normal light (not DMX) into one of the channels on the DMX relay/dimmer, you can also tell it to turn on and turn off just as you would a solenoid. But, the beauty of DMX is that you can also tell it to dim or brighten as well. So, again, with a DMX relay/dimmer you can control anything that normally gets plugged into the wall with DMX commands. By the way, the DMX relay/dimmers all have a DMX IN and DMX OUT so that is how your DMX daisy chain continues down the line.

Note: We've been referring to DMX relay/dimmers but don't confuse them with DMX controllers. Those are two different things. The relay has some controlling features but we don't use those (they are turned off) in the applications we are talking about. The VSA program does the controlling. The DMX relay/dimmer is just used as an interface. DMX controllers could take the place of VSA but I don't think it has the features that we need. DJs mostly use these functions for their shows. Look at the picture of the DMX/relay. Notice where it shows two MODES that it has to operate. See where it says DMX and underneath it says Chase? You decide which MODE you want to use on the dimmer/relay. Either stand-alone chase (like a controller) or DMX (like an interface). The chase feature is very limited though. It does things like chase lights and other DJ things with lights (16 programs). But, that is not useful for what we need it for, controlling props or creating a unique haunt light show. That's why VSA is so useful.

DMX Cables:
You'll be connecting your DMX daisy chain using various lengths of 3-pin DMX cables. Do not use microphone cables. They look the same (and some will tell you they are the same) but the wiring is sub par for DMX signaling.

DMX 5-pin to 3-pin Adapter: The Enttec has a 5-pin out, yet most of your DMX equipment uses 3-pin connections. No idea why, probably just to confuse people. You know computer engineers...they are evil...EVIL I TELL YOU! So, you need an adapter.

DMX Terminator: This is put at the end of your daisy chain to absorb the DMX signals so they don't reflect back into the daisy chain. Reflected signals are like echoes and your DMX device might get two signals instead of one - therefore confusing it. So, it helps keep the signal clean.

Powered USB Hub: The DMXorcist hardware box is a bit thirsty for power along with the Enttec box. So the USB port you use must be adequately powered. This could done from a combination of a separate powered USB hub and/or the adequately powered USB ports from your computer. Some computer's USB ports are powerful enough but not all of them. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to tell. If you are running into performance issues, try switching where you've plugged in the USB connection. For example, I learned that the USB ports on the front of the desktop were more powered than two of the four USB ports in the back of the computer. Again, must be those evil computer engineers.


Enough of that preamble! Let's get to programming a VSA prop routine...

This is what a program looks like when it's all programmed and ready to go. This is the Trash Can Trauma (TCT) that was in the haunt in 2010. Please bear in mind that this tutorial won't go over all the ins and outs of VSA because you can look at a demo version of it and they have an extensive, helpful manual. Yippee!: http://www.brookshiresoftware.com/vsa_downloads.htm
We'll just focus on the information you'll need to program a VSA routine.

If you are using sound, start with loading that file first. See that the sound file is displayed as a sound wave? That's so you can see the pauses and loud hits of sound. This will help you line up your commands to match what's going on with the sound.

To load sound, select Tools>Load Audio file. A new screen will pop up. Hit 'add' and a browser bar will pop up so you can get your file (see above). Once you retrieve the file, hit okay.

Now that the sound is loaded, you need to set up all the devices that you'll be using for this prop routine. Devices are solenoids, lights, fog machines etc. Before we can begin programming we must set up the devices so the VSA program knows what they are and how you want them to be controlled.

Select Tools/Settings and the box above will pop up. You can rename the devices, select the type of device it is (DMX Dimmer) and what port of the computer the signals will be coming from. In this case, it will be Enttec. You then decide what DMX addresses you want your devices to have. Decide what the upper and lower limits you want the commands for the device to be. Most DMX devices are 255 for upper limit and 0 for lower limit. Finally, you decide on what default you'd like for it.

Now, back to the main page. You line up your mouse to the spot you want your first command to start. Click and drag how long you want a command bar to be. Let go. Now, double click on your new bar to bring up the window you see above. This is where you tell the program exactly what you want that device to do. The picture above shows the command box for the solenoid device. For the 'Event type' make it a pulse bar so it just makes an ON/OFF command.

For lighting, use a linear bar. The change you make will be related to the length of the bar you created. It will also hold the last command given. In the shot above, the DMX LED light's dim/strobe command is being set. This DMX LED light has four DMX addresses which allows you separate commands of the dimming/strobe action, the color red, the color green and the color blue. You'll have to make a command bar for each of these functions unless you aren't using them. Hope you see now why DMX lighting is so cool. You can control them like a mad scientist!

Okay, you've made your program and when you press play...WALLAH! Your program should run. If it doesn't - always check to be sure 'Enttec' is the port in the settings window. For some reason, when you first start up VSA it tends to deselect it :rolleyes:


You have the basic understanding of VSA... let's add DMXorcist. Why, do you ask? Because VSA alone will run one prop routine but not two or more. Also, you'd have to stand in front of the computer all night and hit the enter button on the computer to make the prop fire. DMXorcist will allow you to run up to 8 props, use all kinds of triggers like floor mats, use timers and yes, even a remote!

Thought it would be easier to explain how to use DMXorcist live on video. Please watch:

DMXorcist's main page

Logic functions tab page

Timers tab page

2.1, 5.1 even 7.1 Sound!

Ok, haven't shown how to make those 2.1, 5.1. 7.1 sounds yet. This may sound complicated when you first read how to it but once you've done it, you will understand how easy it actually is. Remember, detailed instructions on how to do this comes with DMXorcist. We are just doing a fly-by here.

Take the sound file for your prop and convert it into a mono track using the Windows Sound Recorder which is found in the accessories programs. Make a copy of that and turn the volume way down to nothing. Save it by renaming it a 'mask' file.

Use the 7.1 Sound Mix program that comes with DMXorcist and load the mono track into the sound file field. Click on the speaker channel you want...say left/front. Then, load the silent mask in it's field. Decide what you want to call the file that will be created in the 'Output AVI'. Hit 'Make File' and the program blends all that into a single sound file that only transmits the sound of your prop to the left/front speaker. Now, you use that new sound file as your sound file you load into the VSA program. Do this same procedure for all of your props that have sound but change the location of the sound for the different props. So, another prop would have the 'center' speaker, another would have 'rear/right' and so forth.

Other Important Info/Tips

DMX addressing with the VSA routine: For some stupid reason, with some devices, you have to change the address one down. For example, for my DMX relay, the address on it is 1 but on VSA, had to use address 0. So, if your DMX device isn't working, try lowering the address you gave it on VSA by one. Had to do the same for a fog adapter address (its address is 50 but on VSA it is 49). Chauvet lights, on the other hand, is right on the money: address 32 on the dip switch and address 32 on the VSA program. Go figure! :rolleyes:

Testing without Compressed Air: Use a small table lamp plugged into the DMX Relay instead of the actual solenoid to make programming VSA easier. Light on/light off would be the same as solenoid on/solenoid off. This makes programming much easier to test without having to deal with live airlines.

Summary of Connections: This is a basic rundown of the connections of your equipment:

Computer: Loaded with DMXorcist software. The DMXorcist software has many VSA routines loaded into that.
Out the USB port of the computer: A powered USB hub.
Out of the powered USB hub: DMXorcist box and the Enttec Open DMX.
Out of the DMXorcist Box: Any triggers (mat, motion sensor, etc.) and the receiver for the remote.
Out of the Enttec Open DMX: A 5 pin to 3 pin adapter.
Out of the 5 pin to 3 pin adapter: A DMX cable.
DMX cable goes to a DMX device (let's say it's a DMX light): Cable goes into the 'IN' plug.
'OUT' plug of the DMX light: A DMX cable ....see the daisy-chaining beginning?
DMX cable goes to the next DMX device: Cable goes into the 'IN' plug.
Repeat, repeat, repeat: Until you get every device you need controlled by all the VSA programs plugged in.
At the end of the daisy chain: A DMX terminator.

Why different Channels on DMX lights?: DMX lights are designed to be absolutely controllable. In order to get that control, they gave you three, four, seven... however many channels are needed to give you, the programmer, absolute control over the features of the light.

View attachment 477729
This is a diagram showing a simple DMX light that has four channels that you can program.

View attachment 477737
This shows the range of control you have and what values you can set them at.

Channel 1: (Shutter, strobe and dimmer settings)
0 - 1 is blackout (or no light)
2 - 127 is slow strobe to fast strobe. So, if you use 2 it would be an extremely slow strobe. Then if you use 60, it would be a medium strobe. Then, if you used 127, it would be a very fast strobe. You can use any number between 2 - 127 to get the speed of strobing you like.
128 - 255 is dimmer settings. 128 is basically off or no light. 255 is full on brightness. The numbers in between are percentages of those. So, if you used 188, it would be medium bright.
Channel 2: Red
0 - 255: 0 is no red and 255 is full red. 127 would be medium red.
Channel 3: Green, Channel 4: Blue
Is the same settings value as the red.

If you wanted just red, set channel 2 to 255 and channels 3 & 4 would be 0. If you wanted yellow, set channel 2 to 255 and channel 3 to 255 but have channel 4 at 0. If you wanted white, change channel 4 to 255. That is the beauty of RGB lights (Red, Green, Blue) you can make any color in the rainbow (including white) depending on the values you set.

Setting DMX Dip switches: The four channels we were just talking about above are also called DMX addresses. There are a total of 512 DMX addresses on a DMX daisy chain. So, in VSA, those addresses need to be assigned. You get to pick what address you want. But first, you must tell the light you want it to be DMX controlled. If not, it will work as a stand alone light and not be controlled via DMX. We don't want that here. So, set dip switch #10 to ON. That's the one dip switch that isn't used as a DMX addressing switch - it's used as a function switch. Now, we can continue with setting the DMX address of the light...

View attachment 477745
Look at the very bottom of the dip switch chart. It has what each dip switch number represents. You add those up and they give you the address you want. So, in the first example it shows how to set the dip switch to give you a DMX address of 10. You switch dip switches #2 and #4. (2 + 8 = 10). Now that you have set your light to address 10, it will take DMX addresses 10, 11, 12 & 13. Because this DMX light has four channels - it also has 4 DMX addresses.

Just to make sure let's set DMX address 24. Turn on dip switches #4 and #5 (16 + 8 = 24). So this would take DMX addresses 24, 25, 26 & 27.

You've now turned on the light to take DMX commands and also set the DMX address. You can now tell VSA, in the setting tab, what address you gave it.

One more Time...: Just as a review, let's go ahead and put what we've learned about that DMX light and it's channels into VSA again.

First, bring up the settings menu in VSA and fill in the info for your DMX light and the four channels. The starting DMX address is 10 so the light is taking up channels 10, 11, 12 and 13. Type that information in and then type in the values that this particular DMX device uses. You are putting in the + value column the maximum and in the - value column the minimum for the hardware you are using. In the default column, you decide where you want it to normally start at. You can choose it to be off for the red, green, blue and off (max dim) in the dimmer/strobe channel. You could also pick 0 or 1 for that but if you had a long event in VSA, the light would have to travel through the strobing values before it hit the dimming values and that's usually doesn't look good in the show.

The settings are put in so you can now write the events. This is a screen shot of what the events look like in VSA. You can see that the light was activated a little bit after the routine started. That's because the routine is to have the light come on a little bit after the action to better scare the ToTs. The light starts as yellow (red and green channels are on).

If we clicked on the command for the first dim/strobe event the box shows that the DMX light starts at no light (128) then goes to fast strobing over the length of the event.

Here the colors are being set. The red starts as no red (0) to brightest red (255). If the green setting box was brought up, you'd see the same setting so together the show is getting a fast strobing yellow light.

VSA will keep that last command until you make a new event. So, just keep adding new events when you want the light to do different things. At the end of the routine, make sure you have the last command telling it to turn off the light (if that's what you want). If you didn't the light would stay on even if the show was done.

Whew, that was a big tutorial! Thanks so much for taking the time to read it all.

384 Posts
Thank you so much for this Tut. I have been debating a venture into this technology but was rather timid due to a falsely perceived amount of geekdom required.

In other words... I be skeered cuz I'm dumb.

6 Posts
Nice job. I want to steal your brain!

I really want to run a haunt off MIDI since I already have all the DAW stuff.

DMX has got me interested.

This was really helpful thanks. Filled in some holes for me.

I appreciate the time you put into this tutorial.
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