Twas the Night Before Christmas in 2008. My mom was staying with us for the holidays. My wife, my mom and I decided to take a drive to look at some of the Christmas lights in nearby neighborhoods. It was something to do, and I always like looking at other displays to get new ideas for my own. We had been out for a couple of hours and hadn't really seen anything spectacular. We were on our way home and I turned onto a street about 1/2 mile from our house in hopes of one last chance of seeing "That House". As we drove down the street, we noticed 3 houses together that all had blinking lights. These weren't the regular twinkling lights, these were very erratic. We stopped, looked for a while, and I was thinking to myself, this is sort of neat, but in a way, tacky. We watched for a while longer and I noticed at the end of the driveway, 4 lighted numbers that looked like the address. I commented to my wife and she said, "that's not his address, it says 105.1 FM" I immediately tuned the car radio to that frequency, and WOW !!! I forget what song was playing, but it was obvious that the lights were synchronized. This wasn't one of those 4th of July ". . . tune your radio to XXX FM & watch the synchronized fireworks". Those things aren't synchronized, but THIS WAS! Lights were blinking to the beat of the music, when the song slowed down, so did the lights, when the song sped up, so did the lights. When it got softer, lights faded on & off. When it got louder and faster, the lights responded appropriately. The first thing I tried to figure out was, just what was triggering the lights . . . was it the volume of the music? The frequency? Different instrumental sounds? Nothing was obvious. Then my thought was, maybe he worked at 105.1 FM and was an engineer and was using some technology that I had never heard of. I never stopped to think, "what station in Jax is 105.1 FM anyway?" I later figured out that the nearest station with that frequency is in Orlando. We watched for a while longer, then came home. We enjoyed our Christmas celebration the next day and the rest of the holidays, but those lights stuck in my mind and I knew I just had to find out how it all worked.
Christmas was on a Thursday that year, and the following Saturday, I was out running errands and decided to stop by the house and ask about it. That was when I had the pleasure of meeting Ben Crews. I knocked on the door, introduced myself and told him I had seen his lights and asked how he did it. He graciously invited me in to show me. When I got in the house, they were in the middle of cleaning up a LOT of water. It looked like their aquarium had leaked and they were in the final stages of getting back to normal. In spite of that, he took the time to show me on his computer how he did it, told me where to get the hardware and software online. I remember him telling me, "don't go buying it now, wait until June, they always have a sale in June, you'll get much better prices." This was his 4th year doing the synchronized lights. It had long been something he had wanted to do for the holidays. After getting a pretty good understanding of how it all worked, I said goodbye and went home. It definitely had my curiosity piqued. I was starting to seriously consider doing this myself. It would all boil down to how much it would cost, and if I could get the hang of programming the sequences.
I visited the Light-o-Rama website that Ben had told me about. I looked at what I might need to get this started and it seemed within the realm of possibility. It all seemed pretty straight forward. Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to figure out if there was anything I had not yet considered. I had some more questions for Ben, so a few weeks later, I stopped by to see if he could help. His son answered the door and when I asked if Ben was home, he informed me that he had passed away. Needless to say, that was very shocking and sad. I had just talked with him a month ago. He had been battling cancer and it finally got the better of him. We talked a bit about the lighting display and his son told me how much Ben had enjoyed doing it and that his across the street neighbor, Mike, would probably continue the lighting tradition.
Afew weeks later, I stopped by Mike's house and introduced myself. At this point, I had pretty much decided to try this. In the previous 4 years, Ben had done everything, decided on the songs and got the music, wrote the sequences, built the shows, took care of the FM transmitter, everything. Mike, along with his next door neighbor, Steve, just pretty much set up their displays and plugged their lights into their controller boxes but Ben ran the show. I think Mike had some questions about how to pull this off, and I sure didn't know anything at that point so we decided to help each other out. He graciously offered to give me the sequences that Ben had written. He had written some 30 sequences! I already had some songs in mind that I wanted to write, but that was a huge help for me. I had an instant show without having written 1 sequence. I ended up writing 6 new sequences for the 2009 season, in addition to using some of the ones Ben wrote.
An interesting side note . . . Ben had lived in his home for about 14 years when Mike bought the house across the street from him in August. About 2 months after Mike had moved in, he saw a guy across the street who had gotten his lawn mower stuck. He went out to help, and as they talked, they realized they were long lost frat brothers! Ben was Mike's older brother's best friend at UF. They hadn't seen each other in 25 years! It was that upcoming Christmas when Ben debuted his synchronized light show. Mike was like, "wow, this is like Disneyland, how do I do it too?" The next Christmas, Mike joined the display, followed the following year by his next door neighbor, Steve.
In late June, I checked the Light-o-Rama website and sure enough, just as Ben had told me, they were having their annual sale. I decided to start with 32 channels. I bought the controllers and the software as well as an FM transmitter. As Christmas 2009 got closer, I had actually written 3 or 4 of the sequences that I had in mind, but that was just the programming of a sequence. Would it actually work? With the LOR software, you can build an "animation" window that lets you sort of see what your display will look like as you are writing the sequence. I noticed that the display didn't always sync up exactly the same way when I would play the same part of the song over and over. Then I got to thinking, would there be a delay in when the computer told the lights to come on and when they actually lit up? And would I then have to adjust all the sequences? I wouldn't know this until I actually connected the computer to a controller box and plugged some lights in. So that's what I did. I set up an old computer in the garage, mounted the controller boxes on the wall and plugged any kind of light string I could find into the boxes and ran the sequence. It was still kind of hard to tell, but it was apparent that there was no significant delay with the lights lighting up.
It was getting into November now and Mike had some questions about actually running the show. By this time, I had delved into the menus of the software and set up some test shows and tried them. I didn't fully understand all of the options there were, but I knew enough to get us started. I gave Mike the sequences I had written to add to his show and between the two of us, we figured out how to build a show.
I had tested out my FM transmitter, and discovered that either I was doing something wrong, or this transmitter wasn't very good. I started researching online and found that my transmitter wasn't very versatile. There were only about 9 preset frequencies that you could use, and I couldn't get a clean signal with the transmitter 20 feet away from my car! Mike loaned me the one Ben had been using to try out. Ben had built a fairly large external antenna for his. His worked a lot better so I bought another one just like his. I was apprehensive about the external antenna, knowing that the length of the antenna has to coincide exactly with the frequency you transmit on.
It was Thanksgiving week and I still hadn't received the new transmitter. I think it was Monday or Tuesday that following week when it arrived. I had researched the optimum frequency to use in this area to avoid interference with strong signals from adjacent frequencies. I opened up the unit, set the dip switches to 103.9 and just screwed on the "built-in" rod antenna that came with it and hoped for the best. I connected the audio from the computer to the input of the transmitter, and started a sequence. The car was 10 feet away in the garage, so I turned on the radio and sure enough, it worked. Time for a test drive to see if it worked any better than the original one, and it sure did. There's a slight curve on the street as you come into my neighborhood, and you could hear a pretty clean signal even before you could see the house, so at that point I was pretty much up and going with my display.
Meanwhile, Mike and Ben's family had decided to dedicate the 2009 display to Ben. They called it, "Lighting the Way to a Cure" They partnered with the American Cancer Society and set up an account at VyStar Credit Union to accept donations. That first year, they raised about $4,500 for the Cancer Society.
Mike also gave me names and locations of other synchronized displays in the area. And after the 2010 season, I've discovered at least 9 other displays in the NW St. Johns County / South Mandarin area.
That's pretty much the whole story. 2012 will be the 4th year for my display. I've expanded to 64 channels, due to a 20 ft. Mega Tree. I wrote 1 new sequence in 2010, 2 new ones for 2011, & 2 new ones for 2012. I don't see any plans for future expansion in lights or channels, but if I find other songs, I'll write new sequences. If you stop by to see my display, I hope you enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed creating it. I'm definitely hooked!