What Software Should I Use to Control LED Pixels?

When it comes to working with individual LED pixels, pixel tape or some other pixel products, the first step is always to get it all working.  (Which we’ve covered here in another article)

Once you’ve got some test signal running from your LED drivers or pixel controllers, it’s time to actually run some “content” across your lights.

But the question is this – what content or media do I run?, and can I make this happen from a regular lighting console?

In this article, we’re going to cover exactly this and help you decide the very best way to control your pixels and stay on budget at the same time.  Then, I’ll follow up with some more resources to help you go deeper with pixels.

Step 1: What is Your Ideal End Result?

I’m going into this article assuming you’ve read some of my other material about pixels (see above), or have some existing pixel experience.

You’ve got some pixels that you’re going to work with, and you’ve got a great idea of how you’re going to lay them out.

At the end of the day, how much control do you want over these lights?

While it’s awesome to have total, 100% video-mapped LED pixels, it’s not necessary for every circumstance.   Maybe for this particular use, you just need the pixels to run some cool patterns.  Maybe you can control them via a few presets from your pixel driver, and you don’t need detailed control at all.

Or maybe, you do need that 100% video control.  But my point is this – before you go out and get “the best media server money can buy”, you need to define your expectations.  Because there is a decent chance that you may be able to get things working within your existing DMX infrastructure.

Step 2: Lighting Console or Media Server?

At the most basic level, most software-based lighting consoles can control pixels.

Running Pixels from Your Lighting Console

Yes! You can run pixels on a regular lighting console.

The cool thing about lighting pixels is that they speak the same networked DMX signal that lighting consoles use to work with regular lights.

Some pixel controllers can even take in regular DMX (non-networked) and turn it into pixel signal – but I digress – the fact is – out of the box, if your lighting console has enough DMX output available for the number of channels that your pixels need, you can control them via your console.

Now, depending on the console you have, this can go 1 of 2 ways.  Either you can run chases and other FX generated with your console’s effects engine, or you may even be able to pixel map inside of your console.

When you run chases and other FX from your console’s effects engine, you’re going to be fairly limited as to the complexity you can achieve in a timely manner.  Sure, with a modern professional-grade lighting software, you can do just about anything that is possible with the lights themselves, it just may take a while!

However, if your need for lighting pixels only extends as far as “we want to do cool chases and movement FX”, then you should be just fine running it this way.

Today, more and more lighting consoles have built-in pixel mappers that allow you to run videos or video-light animations across your lighting.

What is Pixel Mapping?

In it’s simplest form, pixel mapping is when you place the lights that you have in a visual representation so that your media server or lighting console can play video and images across it and be accurate to the positioning.

Your pixel map translates the physical position of your lights into a “map” that the video content will run on.  The media server or console then uses that map to determine what color and intensity each light will be at each moment of the content you’re playing on it.

The upside to pixel mapping is that all of your pixel control and lighting happens in the same place.

But this doesn’t always make it the right choice for a few reasons:

  1. Your console’s built-in mapper may not be the fastest to set up, and may not be able to do more complex adjustment of the media (content) that you are playing.
  2. The built-in media may be lacking or non-existent.
  3. You can’t program lights and have someone else working on programming the video at the same time.
  4. It may be very expensive to unlock the output from your console that you need to control all of your pixels.  A media server software may be both easier and cheaper in the end.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use a console’s built-in mapper!  If you use a console that has this capability (like ONYX), then try it out and see if it meets your needs.

If it does and it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to unlock the amount of output you need, then use it!

If not, it may be time to consider running your pixels from a media server.

Running Pixels from a Media Server

Media servers can run video across your lights. (ENTTEC’s ELM)

The original media server was a slide projector…and thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then.

Put simply, a media server is a computer that plays videos and other media.  Originally, these were purpose-built controllers that simply output many different video outputs as a standard video signal.

In the case of lighting pixels, we need a media server that can pixel map and output to networked DMX that our pixel drivers can then receive.  While we’re at it, a lighting pixel can literally be any DMX light – it doesn’t have to be small!

If you’re looking to use a media server to output both to pixels and video displays, then you’re going to have a variety of options such as Madrix, Madmapper, and Arkaos.  These media servers were built first to drive video displays, so working with pixels is not as simple.

If you’re just doing pixels and possible a simple, full-screen video output, then you’ll want to check out my favorite media server, ENTTEC’s ELM.

Why ELM?

Having spent time in multiple media servers, when I first began working with ELM, I could see the difference quickly.

Because ELM is designed for pixels first, it’s really easy to get set up and get your lights running.  It doesn’t matter if your pixels are in straight lines, custom curves or circles, ELM can easily model any of those shapes.

It also has a pretty big library of video FX, which are actually generated live, so you can customize them to your liking.  Plus, you can bring in almost any type of video file and live video as well.

But the thing I like the most about ELM is the cost.  ELM is really, really inexpensive, especially compared to other media servers or unlocking output on various professional-grade consoles, and comes with a fully-functioning demo version that simple blacks out every 15 minutes

Oh, and did I mention that it’s super-reliable?  Yep, that too!

Learn Stage Lighting Labs Member Extras:

Get access here to my Complete Guide to Working with ENTTEC’s ELM.

Need to build your pixel project from scratch: look no further than Custom LED Design!

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Step 3: Start Controlling Your Pixels Now!

Pixel tape on a reel.

Now that you understand the various methods of controlling your pixels, it’s time to go deeper.

Decide on what the best method of control is for you, and then look at the options and weigh the cost.  Remember, even if you start with simple control now, you can always upgrade later to a full media server as budget becomes available.

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