LED Tape and Pixels 101 – How to Create Custom Lighting for Your Stage! – Learn Stage Lighting .com
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LED Tape and Pixels 101 – How to Create Custom Lighting for Your Stage!

Over the past few years, using custom LED tape has been all the rage on stages of all sizes.

Just go to ChurchStageDesignIdeas.com and scroll – you’ll see loads of examples of great designs!

And why not create custom lights with LED tape?  After all, being able to have full creative control over the shape of a lighting fixture on stage is every lighting designer and hobbyist’s dream!

LED tape and other pixels can be a load of fun, but getting started can be kind of confusing.

There’s math.  And then there’s some pretty specific wiring and soldering involved.  And sometimes, things don’t work right on the first time around.

But that’s where I’m here to help.

I’ve spent the last couple of years buying and working with a bunch of different LED tapes and pixel products.  I’ve worked to figure out what the best ways are to make this stuff go together, and how to balance cost vs quality.

And yes, I even burned up rolls of LED tape in the process as I’ve learned how this stuff ages over the long haul.

In this article, I want to share with you the why behind LED tapes and pixels, and then give you the technical knowledge necessary to make it work.  Last, I’ll show you where you can get some more help with LED tape and pixels if you need it.

Why Even Use Custom LED’s on Your Stage?

LED tape on desk

LED tape mounted under the lip of a desk

If you’ve been around Learn Stage Lighting for awhile, you’ll know I’m not a fan of doing anything simply because it’s cool or trendy.  There’s got to be more reason than that to invest your precious dollars into new technology.

Using custom LED products on your stage can give it that extra bit of “pop” that separates it from every other stage in the world.  It can complement your existing lighting and bring a wow-factor to your show or service.

You can set LED’s into custom signage.  You can create lines and other linear patterns across your stage.  You can create your band or church’s name in lights!

LED products like LED tape and individual pixels tend to work best when the audience has a direct view of the LED’s themselves.  Typically, these lights aren’t bright enough to wash a surface while a stage wash is up at full.

But, as you can see from the picture of the desk above, it can look very cool when the stage is dark!

What Types of Custom LED Products are Available?

LED Tape

ENTTEC’s LED tape in action on my video backdrop here at LSL.

When we’re talking about custom LED’s, most people are talking about LED tape.  LED tape is this really cool “line” of LED’s that sit on a strip which connects them all together.

On the positive side, LED tape looks really cool, and is fairly easy to work with.  It is a bit fragile (so be careful when handling it), and generally is mounted to an aluminum channel for heat dissipation.

This last part is very crucial because LED’s generate a decent amount of heat, but it must be cooled, as LED’s can overheat and then fry themselves fairly easily.

On that same topic, some LED tape comes with a “waterproof” silicone coating over the entire strip.  While it may or may not actually be waterproof (it usually isn’t the rating claimed on cheaper tapes), this layer traps in heat and can bring LED’s to die early as well.

LED tape can be either “dumb”, constant-voltage (CV) tape, which allows you one color per segment of LED’s, or the fun “pixel tape” that allows you to change the color of each LED on the strip individually.

CV tapes may be RGB, or RGBA, RGBW, or many other combinations of colors.  Single color tape and white tape is also available.

With both CV and pixel tapes, you can get a variety of pixel densities – from a very close together 144 pixels per meter to a wider 30 pixels per meter or even less dense!

At the time of this writing, pixel tape is only a little bit more expensive for the tape itself, so it’s generally worth it to pixelize – more on that later!

Individual LED Pixels

Individual LED pixels – looks like Christmas lights, but can be very versatile.

Branching out from our old friend LED tape, you can also buy individual LED pixels and dots from a variety of sources.  These are more easily waterproofed by the manufacturer, so many carry waterproof ratings.

The cool thing about these pixels is that they dispose of the heat easily since there is generally free air around them.  This means that cheap ones, like the picture on your left, can be fairly bright and not have to worry about burning out the LED’s.  On the other side, pro-grade LED dots and individual pixels can be very, very bright!

These pixels can be used in a variety of unique ways.  Many people create frames out of plastic, colorplast or thin plywood and drill out patterns, shapes or a logo to have the lights follow.  The DIY Christmas light community has also created a variety of ways to use these individual pixels, like this company, who makes a really cool track for mounting them!

Other Gear Needed to Make Custom LED’s Work:

LED tapes and pixels can’t take DMX data directly from your console like a regular DMX-controlled LED fixture.  In fact, you can’t plug them directly into the wall to get power either.  To make these work, we need a couple of components that will work together to bring us light!

Besides the LED’s themselves, we need a controller “box” that will drive the LED’s, and we’ll also need a power supply (or multiple power supplies) to provide power.

Your constant voltage LED driver or pixel controller and power supply will need to be rated for the same voltage that your LED’s are built for.

These 3 components then will be wired together with a variety of gauges of wire.  It’s very important to do your math correctly and to slightly oversize your wire for your project as a safety.

The Math:

There are a couple of formulas that are about to become your best friends.  A = W / V and W = A * V

If you’re not already familiar, stands for watts, A stands for amps and stands for volts.

So, if you have an LED product that lists wattage and voltage, but you’re trying to figure out the amperage for your wire size or power supply size, just take the listed wattage and divide it by the listed voltage.  Then, take that number and multiply it time 1.2 to give a small safety margin.

Here’s a link to a chart that shows the rated amperage for various types of wire that you may run into.

When doing the math, you’ll notice that your low voltage wire will need to be kept very short – if it gets too long, you’ll be losing all of your allowed voltage before you even get to the lights!

Be sure to mount your controller box as close to your LED’s as possible (within a few inches if at all possible, and use a system like ENTTEC’s Pixelator to make your install much easier when you have many pixels to work with!

“Dumb” RGB LED’s, or “Smart” Pixel LED’s?

Once you’ve decided to use custom LED products, it’s time to decide whether to go with smart “pixel” LED’s or “dumb”, constant-voltage LED’s.  I want to dive into both and give some examples of what gear you need to make it work to help you decide which is right for you.

“Dumb” Constant-Voltage LED’s

Custom LED tape pixels

Pixel LED tape example on my video backdrop

Constant-voltage LED tapes and other products require a few pieces to get control from a lighting console.

First, you need the tape or individual LED’s themselves.  You’ll then wire these to an LED constant-voltage (CV) controller.  Then, your CV controller will have a power supply included or attached externally to provide power.

The CV controller will then take in DMX data from your lighting console and convert it to DC voltage that then drives your LED’s.  The CV controller listens to your lighting console and sends out the correct amount of power to dim each color so you get the desired result.

Some CV controllers have multiple outputs so that you can wire different LED strips and have individual control over each segment that you wire separately.  So, each segment that you output from your CV controller will take 1 DMX channel per color of LED.  So RGB equals 3 channels, RGBW or A equals 4 channels, etc.

There are a variety of CV controllers available on the market at various price points.  The cheap “Amazon special” controllers work decently, but they don’t carry the safety certifications or warranty that buying from a reputable manufacturer can get you.  The dimming also isn’t as smooth as a name-brand controller, and they may flicker on camera.

So, use them at your own risk, and please, please, do not use cheap CV controllers in installations that run when no one is present – I’ve seen multiple reports of cheap, imported controllers smoking or catching fire.  While it’s rare, it’s a risk you don’t take when you buy a product from someone like ENTTEC, who has their product certified to rigorous safety standards!

“Smart” Pixel LED’s

Enttec Pixel Port

Enttec’s Pixel Port Controller – Check out my review here!

Now we’ve entered the 21st century.  🙂

Seriously, though, pixel LED’s and tape are awesome, and so much fun to work with!

Imagine being able to control of every little LED to run lighting chases, FX, and video content over – how cool is that?

Pixel LED’s work a little bit differently than the CV LED’s that we talked about above.

While pixel LED’s do use a controller box, this controller doesn’t necessarily provide power to the whole LED strip.

Rather, the LED data signal and power are run separately, and power may need to be re-injected into multiple parts of your pixel strip.  Once you wrap your head around it all, it’s actually easier and more flexible to wire than CV tape.

The LED’s that you buy will run on a certain protocol – most modern LED’s run on “WS” signal – either WS2811, WS2812, or WS2812b.

While the differences on the side of the LED are quite techy, they all take the same type of WS2811 signal from your controller – so as long as your controller supports WS2811, you’re good.

Then, you’ll need to provide power to the LED’s.  While the data signal can run through a full 2-universes of DMX (340 RGB pixels), the power cannot due to voltage drop.

So, please check the manufacturer’s ratings on your specific LED product to find out how often you need to re-inject power with a new power supply.

If you buy cheap stuff, you will likely have to re-inject power very often!  When the voltage drops more than a few “points” below the LED’s rated voltage, things begin to get dimmer and heat up – and over time, this will kill your LED tape.  It also makes your colors at that end of your strip look pretty terrible…

So be careful, follow the directions and keep your multimeter handy!

Cheap LED’s vs. Professional-Grade

If you can find LED tape for $20 / 5 meters, why spend the money on something more expensive?

As I’ve studied LED tapes and products, I’ve got to tell you, there is a BIG difference between the cheap stuff and the professional.

Just the other week, I was frustrating myself installing some inexpensive CV tape in my kitchen.  Compared to pro-grade tapes and LED products, the cheap stuff falls short in a few ways:

    • It’s not as bright.  Like, ½ or less of the brightness, depending on what you happen to get.  And on a stage, this matters big time!
    • Colors are uneven.  This manifests itself in 2 ways – the first is the difference in brightness between the individual colors.  Nicer tapes generally have a more powerful red on board so that the overall brightness is matched to the green and blue, because red is a weaker color.
    • Colors are inconsistent.  This is a big one.  From roll to roll of 5 meter tape, it’s rare that you will get tapes of matching LED’s.  

You may get lucky, and they are close enough to make match on many colors.  But sometimes, the colors are so far off, it’s not usable on the same stage!  This is probably the biggest issue I see out there with folks who go out and buy the cheap tape – they think they’ve wired something wrong, because the colors are so far off!

    • Color mixing is poor.  Every time I hear LED salesperson pull out the phrase “16 million colors to choose from”, I cringe.  While this is mathematically true, there is no way you’ll ever be able to tell the difference between 16 million different colors from a single RGB LED light.  

Cheap LED tapes take that a step further – when you try to mix colors, you’ll find that the light quickly becomes a bit pastel, and you don’t have a lot of options that look good.  Professional-grade tape allows you to mix many more colors with richness!

    • Voltage drop is high.  As you move across ANY tape or LED, your voltage will drop, and at some point, you’ll have to re-inject or re-amplify power.  

Cheap tapes require you to get very creative with your segment size and wiring because they can’t run far without significant voltage drop.  When your voltage begins to drop, your tape will heat up and get dimmer – and this will fry your LED’s over time!

All this may make me sound like a downer, but I don’t intend to be.  It’s just that I’ve seen so many people invest their time into figuring this LED stuff out, and then not like the results.

As I mentioned above, it’s also important to use quality controllers to drive your LED’s. Using a professional-grade “real-brand” product means you will likely get firmware updates into the future to stay up-to-date with the latest technology as it comes out.

This is why I often recommend LED products from ENTTEC.  While they did not sponsor this post in any way, I do work with them on various educational endeavors.  The opinions in this post are 100% my own!

Using cheap controllers may work well for awhile, but a quality controller will be there for you many years down the road!

Need More Help?

Labs Action Plan Custom LED Tape Design

Screenshot from the Custom LED Tape Design Action Plan in Learn Stage Lighting Labs.

While this post is a good introduction to LED tapes and pixels (and already over 2000 words!), I can’t possibly cover everything in a single article.

However, I do have a step-by-step video guide that includes all of the resources, plans, data and information you need to be successful with pixel products or standard CV tape.

Through videos, I go over every single step – from choosing your LED product to making it all work together successfully.  I share tips and tricks that I’ve learned along the way to make your life easier as well.

It’s called “Custom LED Design 101”, and is a part of Learn Stage Lighting Labs.  Click here to learn more about Learn Stage Lighting Labs and become a member today!

(Learn Stage Lighting Labs members – Click here to go to this action plan!)

And whether you join “The Labs” or not, I hope that this article has informed and educated you on the basics of working with these custom LED products.  If you’ve worked with electronics before, this article may be all you need to get going – and that’s totally great!

As always, have fun, be safe and happy lighting!


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