An Introduction To DMX Lighting Control – Take Your Lighting To A Whole New Level

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dmx lightingIntelligent lighting systems used to be an expensive domain for professionals only; but with the proliferation of cheaper electronics and computer control systems, incredible lighting effects are now firmly within the reach of the hobbyist. Whether you’re planning the most awesome house party ever, 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 Intelligent Lighting?

Put simply, intelligent lighting contains elements which can be controlled remotely. At the most complex level, this may involve a moving head (pan and tilt), patterns, and colours. On the simplest level, you might just control the colour (a strip of RGB LEDs, perhaps) or a dimmer. Put even more simply – intelligent lighting is awesome.

Combined with a controller, you can simultaneously send a signal to hundreds of devices, sequencing them programatically with a pre-determined show, or live operating the effects on-the-fly. This is basically how I spent my nights at university – sitting in front of a lighting board – moving, flashing, and changing the color of club or concert lighting in time to the music. At most concerts though, the lighting will be pre-recorded, and simply played back at the right time; this ensures a consistent experience.

If you’ve seen the viral video of Halloween house lights set to Thriller, you ought to know that it uses DMX intelligent lighting control.

What Is DMX?

DMX is a serial protocol, digital, unidirectional, and with no error checking. It’s reliable, but is subject to interference which makes it unsuitable for hazardous effects such as pyrotechnics (a stray signal or electrical interference could accidently set off a flame tower, for instance). Like most digital cables, the signal quality degrades over long distances, and repeaters can be used to increase the distance, or split the signal with the equivalent of ethernet switches.

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The cable itself consists of two shielded twisted pairs (though only one is pair is used). Technically, 5-pin DMX cabling should be used, but some manufacturers have implemented 3-pin versions which can run over traditional microphone XLR cabling.

dmx lighting

Devices are daisy chained together in a single cable and terminated with a special plug; a single DMX master is used to control, while every other device is known as a slave.

At a data level, the DMX512 controllers sends asyncronous data at 250 kbaud; 1 start bit, 8 data bits, 2 stop bits and no parity checking. Notice that although the data part is limited to 8-bit, some devices will combine two channels, giving a multiplexed 16-bit data packet if needed.

DMX512 is so called because it allows up to 512 channels of control. Each device on the DMX “universe” must have a start address set on the device itself; most devices will take up more than one channel. Some of the more complicated lights might have up 12 different channels; a combination of which controls various effects. Identical devices can be set with the same address; these will both react to those instructions.

Of course, this only works if the devices are identical, as each device will use its control channels to do something different. Because of this, your control system needs a “profile” for each device – kind of a like a device driver – which 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 revise what you just learnt; be sure to watch parts 2–4 also.

DMX isn’t limited to just lighting though; you can get smoke machines that are controlled over DMX, and you can even emulate a DMX device with an Arduino, incorporating your own electronic hackery into your show. Basically, DMX is the glue that holds everything together and lets it all talk to each other.

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

So What Do You Need To Get Started?

First off, you’ll need intelligent lights and devices. These cost a little more than your standard Christmas lights, but they also tend to be built for more demanding usage. To give you an idea of cost, I bought myself an off-the-shelf green laser with DMX control for around $150. You need not necessarily buy new equipment though. If you can control your existing lights or devices by Arduino (like using a relay for a smoke machine), you can also adjust the Arduino to act as a DMX slave device (that is, one that receives 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 I could find is this one for $50.

free dmx lighting software

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

free dmx lighting software

If you don’t mind paying a bit more, DasLight offers a superb software and controller with advanced 3D visualization to plan your show. For simple testing, Virtual Lightdesk is an easy $5 Mac app that’s compatible with all controllers. I’ll be looking more at the software side of things in a later article.

dmx lighting

Lastly, you’ll need some cabling; making it yourself is the cheapest option.

Are you ready to get into the world of intelligent lighting? Let us know if you’ve already built some DMX projects and show us a video link. It’s a dangerous and expensive hobby, thats for sure – but it’s also one of the coolest hobbies in the world. Lasers, smoke machine and strobes await you, sir!

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Comments (10)
  • Lee Earle

    I have a need for timed controlling of no more than a half-dozen circuits, on-off. Pretty minimal.

    Can you suggest an entry-level solution? Even a kludge (repurposed hardware initially designed for another task) will do.

    • Kurt Gustafson


      There are quite a few solutions out there. I would suggest any of the free sequencers out there (I assume you are needing a sequencer to auto “animate” your lighting in a timed manner). The most prominent are Vixen Software (I believe they are on v3) and Nutcracker/X-Lights. I have used them both to great affect to sequence Christmas and Halloween lights set to music. The light shows I have created are “timed” to a scheduler (in X-Lights) to go off at set periods of time (broken into minutes, hours, and days). X-Lights provides a lot of control over when you want sequences to occur.

      Check them out. Realize that both require a bit of learning to understand the lexicon of the programs and the order in which they expect you to do things. Typically each sequencer will start by having you define your environment (define your “elements” which are your individual lights and fixtures. You then define your DMX generating device like a Enttec Pro, or a microDMX device for example. And then you typically map the outputs to the fixtures through the program.

      Once your environment is defined, sequencing is usually done through music (however, this is not required as you can define the length of your sequence without music). These applications allow you to time slice your sequence with milliseconds of precision.

      Once you have your timing down, you can begin to add “effects” in chunks of time to your various defined elements (much like a piano roll on a player piano).

      Soon you will have your sequence completed and saved off.

      Then you will begin to work on your schedule which will allow you to group sequences together in a “show” and set the calendar for what days you want your show to run and when you want your show to run within each day. Lots of options on how you want to run your show.

      This was a very very high level view of what to do. However, do not be intimidated by the programs nor the process. If you take it slow and work through it all, you can easily get results that are amazing. The community of DIY light enthusiasts is large and growing every day.

      Good luck!


  • John

    Hi, I’m wondering if you can shed some light on computer programmed DMX controllers? As one who’s been using an Obey 10 for a while, I’d like to see how much more sophisticated I can get using a laptop, DMX software, for programming my scenes, etc.

    My questions are:
    1. I’m really only interested in sound-activated lighting response to my music. Do most/all computer programmed DMX controllers contain a microphone for sound activation?

    2. Once you’ve programmed your scenes is the little DMX controller capable of storing those scenes? Or do they remain on the computer and the DMX controller only acts as an interface to the lights?

    3. Which leads to the question, must the computer be connected to the DMX controller during run-time? I do not see a power inlet on these DMX controllers but only a USB port.

    4. Do you know of any computer software and DMX controller module that my meet my requirements in questions 1 thru 3?

    Much appreciated,

    • James Bruce

      Hi John, thanks for commenting, I’ll what I can answer.

      1. Sound activation isn’t common for DMX, and while sound mode can sometimes be an option in the instruction set, but it’ll be a feature of individual fixtures rather than a feature of a DMX controller. Setting up sound activation for a single scene might be trivial, but once you get into multiple fixtures, different types of fixture, it simply becomes unfeasible. There’s certainly some software that can do this though:

      2. The USB thing I linked is just a dumb interface, serial to DMX, it doesn’t store a show and cannot playback on it’s own. Most operators take their laptops to playback. The Pearl 2000 I used to play with was capable of playing back a show designed on the PC, but then it costs thousands… I’m not sure what boards are out there nowadays as I shifted away from the industry, but I suspect they’re just as expensive. When laptops are so cheap, there’s just no reason to make anything else; as far as I’m aware, computer designed lighting shows have taken over, and most people dont use hardware lighting boards anymore. I might be wrong though.

      3. Yes, they must stay connected.

      4. This is all I can find: – £200, limited to 500 static scenes, so it wont just record the output from the PC and play it all back later. A laptop is just better for the task.

      Sorry I cant be of more help!

    • Kurt Gustafson

      James’ comments are spot on.

      I will say that there are some other options for your #2 and #3 question.

      The technology for going away from a bulky playback function has improved dramatically and is actually affordable. For example, I run my entire sequenced shows on a Rasberry Pi (About the size of a large credit card). This is driving a bunch of Falcon Christmas players to run dozens of smart string lights. The Raspberry Pi players go for under $100 USD. However, it does require some knowledge of Linux and is not something I would call “plug and play” easy. If you were using this device, you would eliminate the need for the PC to run your show, however, it would still need to be “connected” to your fixtures to be controlled.

      Another thing you could look at is Wireless DMX as this technology has both improved and gotten less expensive. Google it and you will find a plethora of devices available. Chauvet has one this is low cost and used by quite a few small theaters (however, there are many others, so do your homework if you decide to be “wireless”). Wireless will allow you to have the driving system (be it a PC or Raspberry Pi or Arduino device or light board) in one location and be connected via RF signal to wherever your fixtures are.



    Sir, Pls. tell me how can we use DMX 512 controller to produse various effects ( At least 24) by using relays.

    further tell me can we use Stepper motors through this controller DMX512.

  • Bernardo Delapasion

    i need this

  • Eryke Schexnayder

    Our church utilizes this standard and I been privileged to help out and gain knowledge on many occasions.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
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