LED Pixel Tape Stage Design Part 3: Pixel Control and Mapping Software

Okay, at this point you’ve done your research, designed your wall, and priced out some components. You’ve installed your tape, wired in your control and powered it up. Now what?### Pixel Control and Mapping Software
As I mentioned briefly in part 2, you’re most likely going to need a program that can map media and effects to your pixel tape controller, likely via Art-Net, sACN or KiNet.
I’ll look into some specific programs to compare in a second, but generally these programs allow you to create a stage configuration that has some sort of spatial mapping relative to how your pixels are installed in the real world. Some even support 3D mapping as well as basic 2D stages. This virtual stage can then be used to map effects or videos in a way that essentially turns your pixel tape into a giant screen. From there you can create presets that can typically be launched via network-based cues, likely via Art-Net, MIDI, or HTTP.

Considering Your Needs

Before you start downloading and installing trial programs it’s important to be aware of the feature you’ll need for your application. Here are some things you should consider, roughly in order of priority:
1. Remote control (how are you going to launch media/presets during shows?)
2. Ease of use (how complicated is it to use? Do you have professionals on your team or are you working with volunteers?)
3. Media/Effects (are you making your own media, or depending on your software’s built-in effects?)
4. Expandability (support for other fixture types or video mapping options)
5. Operating system support
6. NDI (network-based live video input)
7. Pixel support (RGB? RGBA/W?)
8. Protocol support (Art-Net/sACN/KiNet/DMX)
Okay, let’s get into some specific options…

LED Pixel Mapping Software Comparison

Here are some of the options I seriously considered for our pixel tape installation (3,700 RGB pixels):

Program Cost Operating System
MadMapper 💰 Mac/PC
Madrix 💰💰💰 PC
Enttec LED Mapper (E.L.M.) 💰💰 PC
Lightjams 💰 PC

There are a number of free, open-source LED pixel mapping options available, but we really wanted something we knew would be stable and have some commercial support, so I didn’t look seriously at those options. There might be some great ones out there if your budget is limited!

Pricing For most LED mapping programs, pricing is based on the number of DMX universes needed. For example, E.L.M. is $125 for 4 universes, but $5,000 for 1024 universes. You can also typically mix and match licenses: we needed to cover 22 universes for our 3,700 RGB pixels, so we ended up buying two E.L.M. standard licenses ($250 each) for 32 total universes of control.

Our Evaluation Process

Obviously the software you choose will be based on your needs, but I’ll try to give a brief rundown of my experience and evaluation process:
I actually downloaded, installed, configured, and spent time with MadMapper, Madrix and E.L.M. before our tape even arrived. I’m working in a church environment with volunteers, so although I do most of the programming it’s very important that our system be easy enough to use that an untrained volunteer can make it work. To that end, I knew I’d want an pixel control system that could be remotely operated by Jands Vista, our primary lighting control system. Jands Vista supports Art-Net, so any of the three options I tested should integrate nicely: I simply program LED wall media into Jands cues, and the volunteers don’t even need to learn anything new to operate the wall.
We have an on-staff video production person, so although a program with good built-in effects is nice, we can also build our own if needed.
For our system, I was really looking for pixel tape control only. I don’t foresee us using this system to do video or projection mapping or controlling any other fixture types. It’s really a dedicated pixel-wall-only solution for our installation.
I was open to Mac or PC support, so that wasn’t a major consideration for us.
Okay, let’s look at the options I tested:

MadMapper

Pros Cons
✅ Relatively cheap ❌ Difficult to set up for pixel tape
✅ Impressive feature set ❌ Complicated UI

To be honest, I really wanted MadMapper to work. I’d seen it used in other environments and at a first glance it looks like a very cost-effective, expandable, flexible solution. Unfortunately, it was really difficult to use for our application. It really seems like although MadMapper supports pixel tape, it’s really built more for projection mapping. A lot of the configuration and features are designed with that in mind: surface mapping and bezier shapes and other things that really didn’t apply to our installation.
Although MadMapper did have quite a few built-in effects, they didn’t seem very customizable from what I saw.

Conclusion

After comparing MadMapper to Madrix and E.L.M. it just didn’t feel like it was designed for what we needed. Changes and effects felt clumsy and difficult to use, and the effects weren’t anything special.

Madrix

Pros Cons
✅ Amazing built-in effects ❌ Expensive
✅ Extremely responsive UI
✅ Great effect previews

Madrix was awesome to work with. I felt like the UI was very intelligently laid out and I really appreciated the previews. Neither MadMapper nor E.L.M. showed decent per-pixel previews of effects, so it was really difficult to get a sense of what an effect or video would look like without actually being in front of the installed wall.

Configuring with Madrix

Having said that, it did take a while to get the wall mapped in Madrix. I think it’s just because Madrix is designed for larger, more complex 3D pixel installations, and as features grow UIs become complex. I did eventually get it mapped though and in the end it was more a matter of me learning the UI, and I could likely configure our wall again much more quickly once I had a bit of time invested.

Effects

I loved Madrix’s built-in effects. There are a lot of template options and each of them have lots of possible configurations and customizations. Madrix also supports video mapping, but I think Madrix’s built-in effects would save a ton of time making custom media and effects.

Conclusion

If cost wasn’t a consideration we would’ve gone with Madrix. For our 22-universe installation we would’ve needed an “Entry” license along with a “Basic” license, which would’ve cost us $3,000 (instead of $500 for E.L.M.) That would’ve been almost 50% of our project’s entire budget!

E.L.M.

Pros Cons
✅ Relatively cheap ❌ Limited effects
✅ Very easy to use for pixel tape ❌ Limited fixture support
Configuring with E.L.M.

Mapping our LED pixel tape installation onto a stage in E.L.M. was absolutely intuitive and straightforward. It took me far less time to get this set up in E.L.M. than in Madrix or MadMapper, which is likely partly the result of E.L.M.’s limited support for other features: it’s built for pixel tape installations like ours.

Effects

As mentioned, this is E.L.M.’s weak point: it has some built in effects templates, but they are extremely limited. For one example, there is a sort of rainbow effect you can play across your stage, but no way to really customize the colors used in the effect! From my point of view this is a real disappointment, but I was able to work with what it had and–as mentioned–build video-based effects when needed.

Remote Control

I really appreciate the way remote control is set up in E.L.M. It allows you to control a pretty good range of features remotely over a number of Art-Net channels, not just firing presets built in E.L.M. itself.
For example, I can select a particular effect, set a color and speed, and customize a transition all from our Jands Vista console, without needing to actually open up E.L.M. at all. This saves a lot of time programming and building very specific presets on E.L.M. like I would have to do if I was using something like MadMapper. This allows me to easily re-use a small number of custom-built effects throughout an entire show very quickly.

Conclusion

Ultimately we ended up using E.L.M. I am still quite disappointed with the built-in effects, but because we can build our own videos if needed I felt that the cost and ease-of-use outweighed the limited effects templates in our scenario. It’s been incredibly reliable and responsive for our installation and I’m happy with our decision.
However, if creating custom videos isn’t an option for you, or if you’re looking for something more powerful I would definitely recommend you seriously consider Madrix instead of E.L.M.

16 Comments

  1. Ridge Bingaman March 5, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Hey hopefully you’ll see this. I just had a question about ELM that I can’t find anywhere online. What distro/controller did you use with ELM? The Pixelator is out of my budget so I got a third party controller without knowing if it’s compatible.

    Reply
    1. me@ryanbrink.ca - Site Author March 5, 2019 at 9:03 am

      Hey! I’m afraid we went with the Pixelator–they work great together as a complete system so for the scale of our project we felt it was worth the cost. What controller did you get? E.L.M. supports outputting sCAN, ArtNet, and KiNet, so as long as your controller supports any of those protocols you should be able to get E.L.M. to talk to it.

      Reply
      1. Ridge Bingaman March 5, 2019 at 10:09 am

        Thanks for the reply! Oh yeah it’s a great system just expensive. I actually reached out to someone who builds custom controllers for a lot cheaper than a pixelator. His controller takes ArtNet and sACN so hopefully ELM is universal enough to work with something that’s not Enttec.

        Reply
        1. Ryan - Site Author March 5, 2019 at 10:21 am

          Awesome! Yeah, you should be fine then! Just make sure you have an E.L.M. license that supports the number of universes you’ll need for all your LEDs.

          Reply
  2. Manny D June 16, 2019 at 12:51 am

    im in the middle of a pixel tape project (have only bought one strip of tape, pixie driver, using elm trial software) according to enttec the pixie driver can driver up to 1500 leds. For some reason i can’t get the tape to do anything. ELM recognizes the driver, appears to have assigned it and art net says its sending but nothing happens. i used a multi meter to ensure power was being sent to the tape and it is so at this point i’m lost as to why i can’t get any data to the strip. We previously bought an EZ Kling from elation and powered the strip independently but same issue no reaction from the tape.

    any ideas? I’m church volunteer just looking for some help.

    Reply
    1. Ryan - Site Author June 19, 2019 at 1:59 pm

      Hi Manny! Hm, that’s frustrating. What brand/model of tape are you using? It must be something with your control signaling if you’ve tested the power feed to make sure that’s working.

      Reply
  3. Martin June 21, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Hey Ryan,

    This is Martin from MADRIX.

    Thank you for this write-up! I think sharing your experiences helps the community a lot.
    Of course, it is disappointing to see you not going with MADRIX.

    MADRIX 5 actually comes with an updated license system, which now let’s a MADRIX 5 KEY basic run 32 DMX universes (plus DVI). Maybe, next time this is something you’d like to look into. And MADRIX 5.1 also just introduces native support for NDI and Spout.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

    Reply
    1. Ryan - Site Author June 25, 2019 at 10:52 am

      Thanks for the comment Martin! I still wish we could’ve gotten Madrix when we did the install–still feel limited by what we can do on E.L.M.! Appreciate hearing about the basic update for Madrix 5.

      Reply
  4. Adam Knox August 28, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    Ryan,

    How would you control mapmapper of ELM with vista? I can’t seem to find a way to get this to work.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Ryan - Site Author August 28, 2019 at 3:34 pm

      I can’t say for sure how MadMapper works, but I’m guessing it’s similar to ELM. In ELM, there is a “remote” setting that allows you to configure ELM to be controlled remotely by DMX commands sent over ArtNet. Various DMX channels are used to control different options (transition type, overlay color, media index, etc). On Jands, I created a custom fixture profile that maps the controllable items on ELM to fixture parameters. From that point on, you’re essentially controlling ELM just like any other fixture you have connected by DMX!

      Let me know if you need any more detail, I’d be happy to chat more!

      Reply
  5. John September 12, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Hey Ryan, I really appreciate your series on this. I stumbled across it while working on a similar LED design for our church and decided to give ELM a try. I like everything about it, except that I can’t figure out how to set it up like a typical lighting software with cues that can be triggered. Ideally, I’d love to send midi or artnet/dmx triggers from our lighting software (Chauvet ShowXpress) to ELM to trigger certain looks at specific times in our services. So far I’m having a hard time finding documentation on how to do this. Are you aware of a solution?

    Reply
    1. Ryan - Site Author September 12, 2019 at 2:41 pm

      I’m not as familiar with Chauvet ShowExpress, but it looks like it supports ArtNet as an output. You may bne able to use sACN as well but I’m not sure.

      ELM supports ArtNet as the DMX input for remote control. You give ELM a “channel”, and from that, it will show you which channels control what ELM parameters. You’ll have to map “fixtures” in ShowXpress that map to the features you’re controlling on ELM. You’ll also need ShowXpress and ELM to be on a common network.

      If you’re still stuck, shoot me an email and maybe we can jump on a phone call to sort it out: me@ryanbrink.ca.

      Reply
    2. John September 12, 2019 at 3:45 pm

      Nevermind, I figured this out. Although, it might be helpful to have as a part of your tutorial. Thanks!

      Reply
      1. Ryan - Site Author September 12, 2019 at 3:50 pm

        Glad you figured it out! What solved it for you?

        Reply
  6. John September 12, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    Sheesh, I’m sorry, your reply wasn’t showing when I posted mine. I didn’t expect but appreciate your quick response! I see that you setup ELM as a fixture in your lighting software and assign the artnet IP to it. From there, I can control it with the different channels of the remote control fixture. Thanks for your help!

    Reply
    1. Ryan - Site Author September 12, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      Awesome!

      Reply

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