Immutable Issues: Money and Time

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  • Money. Even though this is a do-it-yourself hobby, it is not inexpensive to get involved in it. In fact, it can be unbelievably expensive if you're not careful. This hobby is addictive in the sense that you'll always be able to justify the need to add another string of lights here or there, or that you need another dozen extension cords, or that you need another roll of duct tape or another bag of a thousand zip ties... and the expenses creep up on you $10 or $20 at a time. Before you get started, determine how much money you can afford to spend, and then double that figure because that's a bit more realistic as to what it truly will be. The first year is one of the most expensive because you need to acquire not only the lights, but the tools and infrastructure materials you'll need to control them -- the extension cords, control cabling, controllers, USB adapters, etc. A good guideline to follow is to start small. Plan a display of perhaps only 8, 16 or 24 channels, get some experience in how the equipment works and how to connect it together, how to design sequences and how to solve basic construction and mounting issues because these things are the building blocks of the whole hobby. Starting small will also limit your financial exposure.
  • Under-engineering DIY'ers almost universally try to save money by looking for bargains and any way they can to lower the cost of participating in this hobby. However, going on the cheap can come back to bite you, big time... "Where can I get some cheap lights?" is a common question. The cheapest way is to get them on Craigslist or at garage sales, but understand that you're not likely to find any that are just what you want or that may last more than twenty minutes... Buying quality strings of lights, for example, might cost $20 per string but you can often pick them up on a pre-season group buy for $12-$14/string when you buy them in case lots. High-quality strings often last 6 or 7 years (or more) with little or no maintenance if they're treated with respect. You can sometimes buy LED strings for $3-$7 in after-Christmas sales, but beware -- sometimes those work for only one, maybe two seasons.
Likewise, when assembling electronic gear from parts, you can sometimes find some great prices from online parts supply stores but ask to check the data spec sheets for them to make sure you're getting the parts you need. As an example, many electronic parts have different operating temperature ratings for different versions of the same part: if you live in an area where your temperatures drop below freezing or worse, below zero, a part that's okay down to 0°C can become problematic, because that's only 32°F. It's no wonder some parts are so cheap!
  • Time. Most beginners underestimate the amount of time this hobby can (and will) take. Experienced DIYers in this hobby often start planning their shows a year in advance. Sometimes construction and sequencing for a very complex, single prop can take two years or more. The DIYer in this hobby is by nature an inventor who's going by the seat of his pants because there's not a one-size-fits-all kit you can buy. Building the electronics is one small part of it and one usually becomes quite proficient in electronic assembly rather quickly. Stringing wires takes more time than you'd imagine. Figuring out how to get control wires from your computer to the controllers takes some planning and thought -- and sometimes may include drilling holes through concrete walls. But universally, most DIYers in this hobby agree that the most time-consuming activity is designing the control sequences on your computer and matching them to music. For every minute of audio, you can easily spend two or three hours deciding what lights you want to turn on or off, and how quickly, and how bright or dim you want them to be. It sounds silly, but this is the artful part of the hobby. This is the part that brings smiles to your viewers and what makes you really proud of what you've created. So if you decide you want to have five sequences and five songs in your show, consider that it will probably run about 12-15 minutes. And sequencing that much time can easily take an entire week.
  • Over-engineering There is a very large tendency for people in this hobby to over-think or over-engineer a project, especially when it comes to "wanting it to be perfect." People often fall into this over-engineering trap during sequencing when they want a certain light to come on at exactly a certain time, not 50 milliseconds early and not 50 milliseconds late... and they spend hours on the sequence to get it "exactly" right.
The truth of the matter is that your viewers won't notice whether it's exactly right or not -- the moments of a light show are transitory and two seconds later they won't remember that one of the lights or strings was 1/20th of a second off of perfect. Does really accurate, perfect timing in the sequence make a difference? It can. But what does really accurate or perfect mean? You have to balance this against the concept of good enough or you'll find that sequencing a song or building a prop might end up taking 10 times longer than it should.
Likewise, whether you use a white zip tie or a black zip tie to affix a light to a prop -- it doesn't matter! At night when your show is running, the lights will be so much brighter than any background they won't even see it. Whether you use sheetrock screws or wood screws to assemble wooden displays won't matter; whether you use white PVC or gray PVC won't matter; whether you use simple box corners or mitred corners won't matter because none of that will be visible.
Certainly, you'll take pride in your craftsmanship and such issues may matter to you personally, but you'll find that many times, this extra effort just takes more time, will usually put you behind schedule and in the end won't make any difference to your viewers -- the show will look the same. We're not saying you should be careless or unsafe in your construction or sequencing - NO! We are saying that you need to keep your head screwed on and be aware of the tendency to "make it perfect" or this hobby will absolutely eat-up all of your available time.


Okay, you've been warned...