DMX for actual Electrical Engineers

So it's been coming up recently that our church media department has been buying "OpenDMX USB Dongles" for upwards of $80. I was mortified, especially after seeing this USB device, opening up the sheet metal project box and finding it to be a simple 2-stage USB to RS-485 protocol bridge with no programmable intelligence whatsoever.

During one church service, I counted out up the components in one of these boxes, along with the cost to manufacture around 12 PCBs from a 6"x6" dual-sided copper clad (including etching and tinning my own board), dumb down the expensive 5-pin connectors to a cheaper 3-pin (technically non-compliant according to ANSI, the agency that manages the DMX-512 standard that every designer is supposed to follow). The total cost of materials, given that my labor would be, along with everything else I do for the church media department, strictly volunteer-based, came to around $20 - a quarter of what it costs them to order the pre-made one.

And talking with the church employees, the lights themselves have not been acting right, and we're using such-and-such software from a computer to control them. Blah blah. On it goes.

Now these church employees ARE really smart. I mean, hey, they managed to set the entire network of DMX lights up, possibly with the help of a contracted expert, and have been training volunteers to program and control the network on the fly. But the terminology, and the lack of basic electronic knowledge has inspired me to make a write-up of what I've been learning lately.

Especially when last night I viewed THIS attrocity:

This just tells me that typical users simply don't know what in the world they're doing when they sink hundreds or even thousands of dollars into a system that requires the technical know-how of a digital electrical engineer.

Therefore I will see what I can do to write down my own experiences and discoveries and hopefully someone else can benefit.


DMX is an 8-bit (technically 11-bit) digital protocol sent over a chained RS-485 bus to up to 512 slave devices. The DMX standard says that technically, only 48 devices can be chained directly together, but this can be expanded up to 512 by use of splitters and re-transmission. Also, the last device in a chain should be terminated with 120-Ohms.

This chain of devices is known as a "universe," but can be thought of as a bus.

RS-485 is the lowest level for bit control above which all modern-day networking is performed. In short, the base protocol that connects a computer to the internet via TCP/IP is the same protocol that connects a DMX controller (sometimes software within a computer) to a chain of DMX devices.


A single physical device can consume any number of addresses (channels) off of the bus. Each device is physically programmed (probably with a 10-pin dip switch) with a start address after which its sub-devices simply count up from that number.

The controller is automatically given address 0.

A slave device (let's say a 4-color light with X-Y movement) is assigned in the controller with a start address and then consumes additional channels based on what it can do.

For example, an RGBW canister with X-Y movement could consume 6 channels - one for each color, one for the X stepper motor, and one for the Y stepper motor. The canister that my dad is currently working on fixing uses 7 channels. The additional channel is used for beam focusing with an additional stepper motor that moves a glass lens up and down in front of the light.

Therefore, in a controller, one can only assign devices to an address starting at 1. A second device should not be assigned to a channel that could be taken up by an already used channel, even if it is not explicitly allocated by the user, but instead has been taken up by a multi-channel device.

As in the example above, we could assign Light #1 (a 7-channel device) to Address 1. But a second light of the same type would need to be assigned to Address 8.

0ControllerMain control of DMX512 bus
1Light 1Red Intensity
2Light 1Green Intensity
3Light 1Blue Intensity
4Light 1White Intensity
5Light 1X Stepper Position
6Light 1Y Stepper Position
7Light 1Focus Stepper Position
8Light 2Red Intensity
9Light 2Green Intensity
10Light 2Blue Intensity
11Light 2White Intensity
12Light 2X Stepper Position
13Light 2Y Stepper Position
14Light 2Focus Stepper Position

Wikipedia's oscilloscope picture has been instrumental in helping me understand the digital commands required. However, it was also confusing in that I did not understand that this was a simple UART packet transmission. It was only when I opened that $80 DMX bridge and looked it over that I realized the simplicity of being able to set up a master controller with software alone.

But in short, when a DMX packet is sent, it is initialized with a "break" (logical 0 a minimum of 92us long) followed by a "mark after break" (logical 1 a minimum of 8us long). This tells the devices chained on the bus that the bytes to follow should be counted from 1 to 512 in order, and that they will execute the byte value (from 0 to 255) for the channel(s) they consume.

One can send a partial packet, as long as the break and MAB is detected to reset the bus. A packet must be sent repeatedly or devices should enter a "reset" state. So if the bus master is turned off, all devices on the bus should stop functioning, turn off, or go into an idle mode.

Addresses versus Channels

It is important not to mix up the device bus positions (addresses/channels) with the controller sliders/knobs/adjustments you assign them to. Many hardware controllers make this especially confusing by also calling the sliders "channels" as well. In a controller's internal software, the user is supposed to first map all devices with their assigned addresses to slider channels that the controller itself defines internally.

With most controllers and controller software, it is possible to assign multiple hardware addresses to a single controller channel.


It is important to note that, like the video above, it is often misunderstood that a physical slider on a hardware controller will not always change the intensity of a light as one would expect to change the volume on an audio mixer. What happens for each value in each channel that a device uses is up to the slave device's manufacturer.

I had the nightmare of trying to figure out light control on a Zero 88 Fat Frog controller without first understanding that "what the device does is defined BY THE DEVICE!" That the programmer had taped over some button labels to define them as "smart lights" did not make sense because I had failed to read the user manual for the beam-shaping capability of the gobo canister hung on the rail in the ceiling. And I had no knowledge of what addresses they were assigned or what sliders they had been programmed to. Because what slider or knob or software adjustment does is defined by what address YOU assign it to control in regards to the devices connected to your bus.

This brings us to...

User Interface

When I started talking with people, and reading the DMX512 standard and related Wikipedia articles, I realized that MOST hardware controllers have defined a set of manufacturers and manufacturer devices so that the setup of a controller can be easy and straightforward. Simply tell the controller that on Address 16 a Chauvet EVE E-100Z and now it knows that it has the option to access the light on Address 16 for a single-channel dimmer or on Address 16, 17 and 18 for dimmer, strobe and dimmer speed mode. Then one simply assigns Chauvet EVE E-100Z addresses to slider 1, 2 and 3, or one assigns Slider 1 to Chauvet EVE E-100Z dimmer #1, #2, and #3 along with the Chauvet DJ SlimSTRIP UV-18 blacklight wall wash unit.

But what if your software or controller doesn't have these devices available in its repository of knowledge? If you know your device and you know your software, it should be extremely simple to just set up a general device in the configuration.

One only need tell the controller that "there is an unknown device that you should send a value to starting on Address 16 and consuming 17 and 18. These three channels you do not know what they'll do. Therefore, simply send a value from 0 to 255 when this slider is positioned just so."

I have a JANDS StageCL controller that I am able to play with on a weekly basis. A few months ago we went into the patch settings to see just how the DMX was set up. It turns out that someone had turned off control of a few of the white spots, and a few of the RGB washes had been shifted out to a different set of slider. This was all viewable in the patch settings. And a few of these devices were unknown to the controller's library, but we were able assign a simple RGB device which basically told the controller that "three addresses are consumed by one device to separate red, green and blue intensity." After that, the controller knew how to best utilize its own controls, such as color and saturation knobs and a fader that you patched the device to.

What was also interesting was the DMX monitor which simply showed the digital values that the controller was constantly pushing out to the bus. It showed nothing of the patching and slider controls. It only showed that we were sending WHATEVER was connected on address 301, 401 and 501 a value of 255. A single 255 could have been "full brightness of green" or it could have been "move x-axis stepper to 0 degrees."

Pragmatic Programming

Yesterday I was looking at software controllers - the cheap way of setting something up. In this case, you have no hardware that buffers commands to the bus, and are relying on your multi-threaded computer to ensure that a packet is transmitted every few milliseconds to prevent the bus from going into reset/idle mode.

My dad found one called Freestyler,which is highly rated for a freeware solution. However, he found that the device manufacturer had to be known by the software. Whether or not one could add an unknown device or define a known set of controls to the software was not researched.

I wanted something even simpler. So I found a very small utility on Sourceforge called Lights Up! Given that this was on Sourceforge, it was also no trouble to download the CVS repository and find out how the source code was constructed (and to fork and re-distribute it on Github). 

This is the most barebones example I've found so far, with 48 sliders that can be assigned to any number or combination of addresses. The only requirement is that an FTDI USB-to-UART chip be registered as a virtual COM port on the PC running the software. The author assumes that this means you have to spend that horrendous $70 on the Enttec OpenDMX USB dongle, but I found that plugging in a simple FTDI TTL-232R-5V-PCB that we use for talking to our A2D boards would suffice. After that it's a simple matter to re-buffer traffic from the RS-232 to RS-485 which is just a digital driver that ensures that you can run devices on a longer distance cable at higher currents.

Looking into the Lights Up! source code, I found that by using FTDI's C++ libraries and a intermediary "odmxusb" class library which handles the 513-byte packet, high priority threading and 30ms repeated transmission, I only need to build a 512-byte array of commands and send them into the data buffer of odmxusb. After that, everything is taken care of. That way, I can build whatever-the-heck user interface I want!


  • DMX is just an RS-485 UART with an electrical interface that chains up to 512 slave devices together.
  • All devices on the DMX bus read all traffic, but pick out the commands intended for them based on the byte order of the data stream and the address they are pre-programmed with.
  • Because of this a fancy DMX controller, however much of a user interface layer it's given, is at the lowest level, completely arbitrary and could be reconfigured to do Very Weird Things if the protocol is not understood.
  • I want to write my own software from a point near ground-level and work my way up.

A fun adventure in PGP

So I got curious about PGP keys and signing and encrypting using them. I managed to figure out how to use the semi-popular gpg4win (the standard windows port of GnuPG) with its built in Kleopatra GUI, Outlook add-ins and all the other fun stuff.

Using gpg from Kleopatra is much more convenient and automated than using gpg from, say, the command line, like many purists would probably recommend, just like the Git purists recommend only committing from the command line (even though the Git gui is way more convenient for diff and history, and so I continue to use it almost exclusively if possible).

Well, what I did not realize up until today was that running gpg from the command line was acting much MUCH differently than when I ran it from Kleopatra. But let's go back in history to describe what I did, what I discovered, and how I rectified the problems I found this morning.

- Getting my new work machine, I immediately installed Windows distribution of git core, which includes my favorite git-gui. This particular version of git ( completely overhauls the virtual machine folder structure so that rather than running git bash shell from ../Git/bin (a scaled down version of MinGW), it instead runs from ../Git/mingw64/bin/ and ../Git/usr/bin. But that's not the important thing to understand. Rather, what I really didn't understand is that git's mingw comes pre-packaged with gpg. But we're ignoring that so you can re-live my tale of headache.

- Move forward 2 months to when I want to explore gpg for the purposes of signing and encrypting documents, emails, other keys, etc. I installed gpg4win-3.0.0. Kleopatra is a great little gui! I import a few keys to check signatures on things like ubuntu iso files, the actual gpg4win-3.0.0 signature, one I found of a friend (which he confessed he doesn't use anymore). Over time, I accrue over ten keys in my list.

- A few weeks pass. I start reading more, and discover that you can sign git commits!!

Okay, so how do I do this? Well, what if I were to create a new master key and, like I saw a few people doing, label it as "CODE SIGNING KEY?" Sounds pretty reasonable. That I can do without a tutorial in Kleopatra!

Next I head over to Perfect. I already have the key, but let me do those steps anyway.

From git bash, gpg --list-keys: No default key. Creating pubring.gpg and secring.gpg. Umm..that's odd. Shouldn't the one I just created in Kleopatra be there? Oh well. Let me try this gpg --import EDDD62B2.gpg, since I was careful a month ago to back up public, secret and revocation files. Tried the command again, okay, now it's there.

Changed a file, and from the bash shell, tried git commit -S -m "Test GPG signature": Enter your passphrase. Okay. Did it. Commited! YAY!

Okay, so this will be inconvenient to have to remember the "-S" bit every time I want to do something, plus, hey, if I want to use git-gui, there's no checkbox to sign a commit. Only to add a signature to the commit message (which I verified - "Sign your message" does not gpg sign the commit, even when one is available).

So how do I configure git to force-sign commits? Uhh

Oh this one looks good. Tried the instructions in and sure enough, now git commit -m "Next test gpg signature (should be automatic)" totally asks for my passphrase, and git log --show-signature verifies the signature! Hooray!

So next step, does this work in git-gui? Tried it, Big error (which I don't remember). Well, dang. So apparently, I can do all my diffs, my staging, and writing up the commit wait. Apparently git bash doesn't like a typical right-click/paste. So I have to open git-gui to stage and diff, and git bash AT THE SAME TIME to write the commit message and actually perform the commit. Well. That's not fun. But I'll do it.

- One more week later. I am now working on a hardware controller utility on my laptop. Time to get my secret keys transferred over so I can work from there. Obviously I want to see about getting the new git-gui installed too. Now I have git 1.9.5-preview20150319 installed as a 32-bit program, git installed as a 64-bit program (both of which I STILL did not yet realize had their own versions of gpg.exe). Also I had gpg4win-3.0.0 installed from before, to check whether or not emailing an encrypted message would work properly via the Outlook addin (which it did).

Set it up exactly like I had it on my desktop and....wait, now signing DOESN'T work? What's going on!? So now I'm subjecting myself to workarounds of transferring code via flash drive to a workstation that can properly sign the commits.

Plus I have not yet caught on that there's a reason why running gpg --list-keys is returning only my own keys, while Kleopatra shows over 20 in my list. And why I went through a huge bout of 'why in the world is it saying pubring is down in AppData when on my desktop they're all in ~/.gnupg, which I thought -I- created, but probably didn't?

- On to today. I want to sign and symmetric-encrypt a text document in plaintext (armor) format. While I can do all of the Right Click > Sign and Encrypt from my Windows context menus, it never gives me the armor option. But the binary gpg file it generates will totally decrypt fine in Kleopatra, so it should work in the command line, right?

So I try it in the command line via gpg --encrypt text.txt --armor --symmetric -o test.asc. Okay, this works fine. But then running decrypt from Kleopatra and I get "No valid OpenPGP data found." Uhh...why?

More Google, and I discover one, which offers (in my case) the workaround to add --force-mdc which is some security thing that my version isn't using by default? Well how do I make it by default? Add something to ~/.gnupg/gpg.conf? Well let me see..

It is at this point that something fires in my brain and I think, "wait... does my LAPTOP show all of my gpg keys? Sure enough, they do. All the ones I imported from Kleopatra are visible. But Git does not want to sign any commits with anything I have anyway. That means Kleopatra somehow is reading from its standard pubring (in ~/AppData/Roaming/GnuPG), where as gpg from the command line is reading the pubring from... ~/.gnupg/."

How do I force the command-line version to read from the pubring.kbx file instead of pubring.gpg? Research research research. Environment variables to switch databases...just creates an empty pubring.gpg in the location where pubring.kbx is located. No way I can make it read the kbx file that's already there??

At this point, I read somewhere that 'gpg 2 and up uses the kbx file format, where as versions lower than that use gpg. You will need to do this and this to merge them.' Well what's MY version? 1.4.21. But if I run "C:/Program Files (x86)/GnuPG/bin/gpg.exe" --version, I see 2.2.1! SOMETHING is forcing the Windows command line to use a different, OLDER copy of gpg.exe somewhere, probably out of my path.

A bit of research later and I discover that yes, indeed, Git has its own copy buried down inside of the program directories! Well, can I force git to use the gpg4win version? There's this command I can run to configure git to use it...but it doesn't seem to want to work.

What if I rename ../Git/usr/bin/gpg.exe to gpg.xex? Yep, THAT works then. Now both git bash shell and windows command line use C:/Program Files (x86)/GnuPG/gpg.exe, as does Kleopatra!

But will git sign commits properly? Let's give it a shot. Edit text file, git commit -S -m "Test commit." Asks for passkey. Success! Wonderful! Ooh though now I wonder... what would happen if I tried a commit in git-gui?

Open git-gui, change a file, save, rescan, stage, type message, I know that git is configured to force signatures, so let's just commit...aaaaand popup requesting passkey! EXCELLENT!!

Back out to windows command line and gpg --version. gpg 2.2.1. Excellent AGAIN!

Switch to my laptop. Rename gpg.exe to gpg.xex. And now it reads gpg 2.2.1 in both windows command line and bash shell on both computers! I'll write a blog post before I test whether or not it can now correctly sign commits.

That's a lot of code I've "example'd!"

Not to say it isn't useful. I certainly hope it is.

Oh and it's that time of year where I switch out blogger templates. Maybe this time I'll make it more straightforward and automated. Maybe.

Which reminds me: this is the first year that my MUSH will be auto-deploying its Christmas theme. Pretty excited for that!

Anyway, that's all for now.

USB Fast Chargers

I've been a bit confused lately at what constitutes fast charging versus normal charging, and why newer Android devices complain repeatedly if you use the wrong cable, or the wrong charger, or the wrong cable AND charger. How does it know?

Then I found an article on LifeHacker that partially explains it, but this comment thread clarified in an excellent manner:

According to this article and the super helpful comment thread, the multiple things that affect an Android's ability to fast charge are:

  1. Battery current rating - I have a 3000mAh / 11.4Wh battery capacity (it is able to provide 3 amps at a nominal voltage for one hour or 11.4 Watts for one hour). P/I=V = 3.8V which is what this battery indicates it's able to deliver. This battery also has a minimum rating of 2940mAh / 11.2Wh (also 3.8V).
  2. USB Spec - Normally USB is supposed to output 5V +/- 0.25V. To convert from the 3.8V battery, we simply draw less current at the USB and convert it accordingly: (3.8V x 3A) = 11.4W. (11.4W / 5V) = 2.28A. So ideally my battery wants to present a current draw of 2.28A on the charger when acting as a load. With the 0.25V allowed voltage margin, this could be anywhere from 2.17A to 2.4A.
  3. A standard USB 2 port on a computer is rated only for 500mA (0.5A). If too many devices hang off of a USB port, you could start current limiting and the voltage to each device will drop, usually below the allowed 4.75V. This is why powered hubs are recommended. Even with a single device trying to draw more current than the port is capable of, this is when you get those errors that "your phone is charging slowly. Please use the charger and charging cable that came with your phone." A good charger should be able to provide all 2A needed for a standard charging rate the phone requires.
  4. Diameter of charging cable - USB 2.0 has five lines that it uses:
    • Rx
    • Tx
    • V+
    • V-
    • GND (braided shield)
    Normally the four main lines are all 28AWG. According to, this means that the charging lines will provide 0.23A before they start heating up and creating an appreciable resistance (higher than 213 Ohms per km) which will in essence place a second, noticeable load in series with the battery. The power lines (V+/V-) in the wire can be increased to 24AWG to allow 0.58A at 84.2 Ohms per km and thus decreasing this second parasitic load. Additionally, the load of the charging cable can also be reduced by shortening the cable itself.
    Gauge Test Current Impedance (per km) Wire length (km) (~6 feet) Cable Impedance
    28AWG 0.23 213 0.002 0.426
    24AWG 0.58 84.2 0.002 0.1684

    Volt drop (test) Voltage Left for Phone
    28AWG 0.09798 4.90202
    24AWG 0.097672 4.902328

    Volt drop (0.5A) Voltage Left for Phone
    28AWG 0.213 4.787
    24AWG 0.0842 4.9158

    Volt drop (2A) Voltage Left for Phone
    28AWG 0.852 4.148
    24AWG 0.3368 4.6632

    With a standard 0.5A charger, even a 28AWG 6-foot cable will be able to charge the phone at a standard voltage (4.79V being higher than the minimum allowed of 4.75V). However, if we wanted a full 2 Amps for fast charging, we would need a bigger cable (24AWG), which would even then present enough of a load to drop the voltage on the battery to 4.66V which, while better than 4.15V on the 28AWG wire, is still out of spec.
  5. Androids have the ability to detect a "fast charger." Fast chargers indicate their ability to provide 2A by a simple short between the unused Rx/Tx lines. If the android sees this "loop-back" connection on its data lines, it is programmed to assume that whatever its connected to is able to provide 2A. Otherwise it will only draw 0.5A.
  6. Additionally, some fast chargers which are paired with a standard length and gauge USB cable are able to do some rudimentary current sensing and output a voltage higher than 5.0V to compensate for the drop on the cable itself.

So in short, for a proper fast charger, two things should be used:
  1. A cable with higher diameter power lines
  2. A charger that is able to output the current required by the battery being charged

And an additional feature that could be desireable:
  • A charger that is able to sense the current, calculate the voltage drop across a known cable and boost its voltage output to compensate.

LetsEncrypt List of Useful Commands

Here are a few letsencrypt commands that I've found useful in the past few months of trying it out.


git clone
cd letsencrypt

Note: for a few Debian installations, you can also install with:
apt-get install letsencrypt python-letsencrypt-apache

Other OS's are also supported. See for details!

Generating new keys on Apache:

./letsencrypt-auto run --apache -d domain1 -d domain2 -d domain3

Loading pre-generated keys from a backup into a new installation:

#Need to have backed up /etc/letsencrypt/ to some 
# backup location. This will grab private keys, 
# public certs, symlinks to them, everything.
# More help at
#Simply running the command, even to load help, 
# will bootstrap dependency installations and set 
# up the Python scripts if they haven't been set up 
# already.
./letsencrypt-auto --help all

cp -R /path/to/backup/letsencrypt/* /etc/letsencrypt/

./letsencrypt-auto --install -d -d -d --cert-path /etc/letsencrypt/live/domain1/cert.pem --key-path /etc/letsencrypt/live/domain1/privkey.pem --fullchain-path /etc/letsencrypt/live/domain1/fullchain.pem

To renew keys (keeping them the same, but extending the expiration date another 90 days):

#Special bash scripts intended for datestamp 
# checking to refrain from renewing certs
# younger than 60 days old are no longer 
# needed in LE version 0.4. Simply run the 
# following:
./letsencrypt-auto renew