Where do I even begin? I’ve always loved Halloween. Halloween used to be simple. We just put a couple of decorations in the windows and gave out candy.
Then, in the fall of 2006, I visited Disney World during the “Not So Scary Halloween Party”. The decor; The changes to the Haunted Mansion; The costumes; The Parades; The Fireworks; The lights. I think it was the most fun I’d ever had. A few weeks later, a friend who’d been on the trip with us, sent me a little gift. It was a CD of the Parade and Fireworks music from the party! We had just purchased a Halloween Pirate inflatable for the yard, so I burned a CD loop of the “Boo To You” parade segment and played it from a little boombox I set behind the inflatable. A couple of strobe lights and I had my first Halloween display up and running.
Then the real fun began.
Right after Halloween, I hit the Halloween stores and WalMart to buy up as many clearance items as I could. I ended up with a fog machine, a few more lights, and a “Big Scream TV” DVD, and I was already dreaming of what to do the next year.
When that time came, we had a lot of little decorations around the yard, and several more lights. I put our big-screen TV in the street-facing playroom window and covered it with a black cloth, opened the window and cranked up the volume. I burned a DVD with a few of the big heads from the "Big Scream TV" DVD and left a gap between segments that was the length of the music segments I was playing downstairs. Likewise, the music CD had a gap between songs matching the video lengths. So, if I started them just right, the songs and videos would appear to switch back and forth. Needless to say, it was cool, but there was a lot of running upstairs to the playroom and back down to the yard to keep things in sync. It was also a little bit hard to hear the voices coming from the upstairs window.
So, I needed to solve a couple of problems: volume and sync. I used to play and write music for a living, so I had software to sync music to video. The following Halloween, I fired up my old copy of Ableton Live, imported my music and video and was in a whole new world. I was able to keep things in sync, adjust the audio balance, and send things to multiple speakers. I bought one large PA speaker for the yard and a couple of smaller PA speakers which I put up in the playroom window, and one in the yard. I added a few colored lights, connected them to a couple of power strips and Halloween 2.0 was up and running. I would manually switch some lights on and off with a wireless X-10 controller I bought on clearance somewhere online.
I had also obtained a copy of the Disney Boo-To-You parade music with the music and vocals on separate tracks vocals, and since Ableton was designed for multiple audio channels, I could make the vocals seems to move around between the yard and the neighborhood (the playroom window). My experience with music software made this part pretty intuitive for me.
I tinkered for several months with how to control the X-10 lights from Ableton. I got it working, but it was completely unreliable. It worked fine for one Halloween season, but only because I was the only one who knew parts of it weren’t working. It was better than me having to do it manually, but still not good enough for me.
What I wanted to do was have much better control of the lights. So, I got some small lights I found on Craigslist. They were DMX capable. DMX is a lighting control protocol, so I had a way to make the lights do what I wanted, right in sync with the music. I tried several different Holiday Lighting programs, but none of them quite did what I wanted. I had already decided to add a couple more speakers so that I could make music and sound effects come from different parts of the yard and house. None of the software I tried would play more than 2 channels of audio, so I had to find a solution that would do multichannel audio and control the lights via DMX. I loved Ableton, it did everything I wanted with audio & video, so how could I get it to run the lights? Enter MIDI. MIDI is actually a music protocol, but some lighting software I found (QLC+) would translate MIDI into DMX, so I was all set. Plus, I could “play” the lights like an instrument on the keyboard, drum pads, or faders on my Korg Kontrol49. Sweet. I found that putting together a Halloween display is very much like producing a song. Well, several songs.