Crafting the Music for a Christmas Light Show

Our Musical Vision

Another thing that we believe sets our show apart from a lot of others we have seen is the crafting of a continuous show rather than just playing a series of individual songs. This gives our viewers an intentionally planned out experience to enjoy, rather than just a playlist of complete songs. Our intent is to make a new show every year, which is a lot of work but also gives something new for our visitors rather than just repeating the same thing year after year. Perhaps once we have 5 or so shows, we might be able to start reusing them as most people won’t remember a show they saw five years earlier.

When constructing the music for our show, we do our best to keep it interesting and dynamic. The beauty of music is often in the comparison between the highs and the lows and a show should take its listeners through that full spectrum. Our experience has shown that 1 minute or so is about the limit for a single song when making a compilation. Much more than that and most songs tend to get repetitive and the viewer can lose interest. There are some key exceptions where a song is just so awesomely dynamic (think Christmas Eve Sarajevo by Trans-Siberian Orchestra) but it certainly isn’t the norm.

Starting in 2017, we are aiming for our show to be 8-9 minutes long and replaying every 10 minutes. This seems to be about the limit of most people’s attention spans AND allows people who arrive mid-show to quickly see the next one begin. In 2016, we had a 10.5 minute show followed by a 4.5 minute interlude period, which was just too much downtime. Not only is a shorter show easier to program (because there is less of it!) but it also seems to be better for our visitors. We also added a voice over bit at the end of the show during the interlude to thank people for coming, point them to our website, encourage them to not block traffic in front of our house, and to wish them a Merry Christmas.

When we made our first full show in 2016, we had our full music library to choose from and used all of our favorite songs. As we started crafting the show for 2017, we quickly realized that we didn’t have many songs left in our music library that would work well for a light show. Enter Pandora music, one of the most wonderful inventions of the modern age. We created a few Pandora stations based on Christmas music we liked (TSO, Relient K) and before too long had discovered several other artists in similar styles that would work well for a light show (Gary Hoey was a particularly awesome discovery for instrumental electric guitar Christmas music).

Music Software and Logistics

We assemble our music using free music editing software called Audacity. We’re sure there are more sophisticated packages available but Audacity really does everything we need and more and is pretty intuitive to use. Most of our music comes from our own music collection but we also have found a few movie sound clips from the internet just by searching on Google. At times, we have even used a free online text-to-speech converter to generate custom audio in a British accent and then recorded the sound byte with Audacity.

Recording clips from YouTube or other sites is very easy with Audacity if needed, though we won’t comment on the legality of doing something like this (mostly because we don’t actually know what the rules are but boy is the content easy to access). You can change the Audacity setting so that it records from the stereo output of your computer rather than the microphone input. DO NOT try and record audio played from the speakers and back into the microphone as it causes horrible feedback.

Audacity has a whole bunch of effects built-in that allow for fading, amplifying, and a myriad other ways you can alter the original audio tracks. The end result of our work in Audacity is an export of the compiled music to a single MP3 file that we can then import into Vixen for doing the sequencing.

On that note, we typically get the music about 95% finalized before starting the sequencing process. As we get into the details of sequencing, we might decide that we need some minor alterations to shorten/lengthen a transition, filter out some background noise on audio clips, etc. It is easy enough to make the tweaks and import the new audio into Vixen but take caution when doing anything that would change the length of the show during sections you have already sequenced. You might be in for some painful realignment of your lighting effects! If you can sequence from start to finish and lock down portions of the music as you go, that seems to be the safest way to avoid tedious rework.