Introduction and Ingredients

A Spectrum Analyzer shows the loudness of different frequency bands (low, mid, high) in real-time, letting you visualize music. Using a RasPi, RGB LED Strip and some wire, make yourself a dynamic display and media player. This project is based on some great python xmas light code from the LightShowPi project, and advanced users can even configure it for song voting via SMS!

The project runs in Python, even including the audio processing. It's just able to play and analyze mp3s in realtime as long as your Pi isn't doing anything else.


  • RasPi -- this guide is built on one running wheezy, Raspbian, ver 3.10.19
  • 5m RGB LED strip, (~160 leds) controllable via SPI, built in PWM control. This guides shows using one strip wrapped around to form 5 columns, and writing to different segments of the strip. Only three wires connected to the Pi: ground, SPI Clock and SPI Data.
  • 10A 5V power supply to drive the LEDs
  • Miscellaneous:
    • USB WiFi adapter (RTL8188CUS chipset drivers are built in to wheezy OS!) if you don't want to use Ethernet. I used these instructions to get it working.
    • SD card 4GB or larger
    • USB Power speakers
    • Powered USB Hub to plug in keyboard, mouse, wifi,
    • Some cell phone charger to power the Pi via it's USB power connector
    • USB keyboard, mouse, HDMI monitor
    • wire, some female to female jumpers or some JST connectors if you don't want to solder to the RGB strip.


  • This project is mostly based on the Pi-based xmas lights controller code from Chris Usey,Todd Giles and Ryan Jennings. It's a full command center for orchestrating xmas lights to audio (wav, mp3, etc). Their code and hardware lets you setup playlists and turn on and off 120VAC power based on frequency bands. You can even vote on songs through SMS messages! We're going to control an RGB strip instead of output pins on the Pi. Grab the attached file.
  • Python control of LPD8806 RGB LED strip via SPI.
  • This isn't specific to this project, but I used the Geany IDE for coding right on the Pi.

If you have any questions, you can use the feedback link on the left or contact me through my google + page: or try the LightShowPi community

LED strip and RGB LED software

Here's an overview picture showing all the major components. Go ahead and plug in your powered USB hub, mouse, keyboard, speakers, and either ethernet or WiFi connection.

Connecting the RGB LED Strip

First, cut back the plastic sleeve from the RGB strip and solder 4 wires. Note that there's an Input and Output end of the strip, and it's important to connect to the input end. You can also use some JST connectors if you don't want to solder.
Now connect the wires to the Raspberry Pi and 5V Power supply as shown. Don't forget to connect the ground of the power supply to the ground of the Pi! A much more detailed guide to creating this connection can be found in the light painting project. The picture below is from that guide.

RGB Strip Software

Grab the software and follow the instructions on that page for getting the Pi able to output to SPI. Do install spidev. It's important that you use the hardware SPI because any bit-banging approach won't be fast enough.

sudo raspi-config to enable hardware SPI (follow instructions at git page). While you're there, set the audio output to be out the 3.5mm jack rather than the HDMI connector.

I added the install directory to my PYTHONPATH in bashrc so I could call the functions from anywhere.

nano ~/.bashrc:

export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/home/pi/RPi-LPD8806

(you could also add PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/home/pi/RPi-LPD8806 to /etc/environments, but this will require a reboot to register on new terminal windows)

Test out that the strip works by running the example code:


The xmas light code we're going to download later wants to run as root, and when you run things with a sudo in front, the environment variables, specifically, PYTHONPATH aren't transferred.

To keep those environment variables around, edit /etc/sudoers by typing

sudo visudo

and then add to the bottom

Defaults env_keep+=PYTHONPATH

the first line is something we'll need for the xmas light package to be installed later.

To test that you have it setup right and can run things as root, close the terminal and re-open, then type

sudo python
from bootstrap import *

that should turn on the first 10 LEDs. You might need to restart a terminal window to make sure the environment variables get loaded.

Mount the LED Strip

I looped my strip back and forth on a baby gate with twist ties, but this wastes LEDs at the bends. A cleaner route would be to cut the strip into 5 even segments and solder 4-wire jumpers between each segment. You'll just need to adjust the address of the LEDs for the columns.

Speed up the RGB Strip Software

The RGB python code is a bit slow at the time of this writing, but a few tweaks can dramatically speed it up.

First edit to use the hardware SPI, note the argument use_py_spi = True.

My was located at /home/pi/RPi-LPD8806/raspledstrip/
Download: file
def __init__(self, leds, use_py_spi = True, dev="/dev/spidev0.0", driver="LPD8806"):
Now inside, we're going to change the SPI speed to 16MHz.
Download: file
if self.use_py_spi:
	import spidev
	self.spi = spidev.SpiDev(),0)
	self.spi.max_speed_hz = 16000000
	print 'py-spidev MHz: %d' % (self.spi.max_speed_hz / 1000000.0 )
That print statement is there just to make sure everything gets set correctly.

One final change to the file is in the update() function. Every call to self.spi.xfer2() seems to have a 160ms delay at the end, so we're simply going to change the update function so that it calls the spi.xfer2() fewer times.
Download: file
def update(self, buffer):
	temp_buffer = []
	if self.use_py_spi:
		for x in range(self.leds):
			temp_buffer = temp_buffer + [i for i in buffer[x]]
			#self.spi.xfer2([i for i in buffer[x]])
		self.spi.xfer2([0x00,0x00,0x00]) #zero fill the last to prevent stray colors at the end
		self.spi.xfer2([0x00]) #once more with feeling - this helps :) time2 = time.time()
If you re-run the python file, you should see a substantial increase in speed.

Install LightShow Pi

Now that we've got writing to the LED strip fast, and accessible from python running as root from anywhere, it's time to install the fantastic xmas light orchestration software, and update it to control the LED strip.

Once you download the code from bitbucket, follow the instructions to get it installed. I recommend installing to /home/pi/lightshowpi to avoid some installation issues. You can also change the INSTALL_DIR inside if you wish.

Before running sudo ./, you should edit the file and change the INSTALL_DIR. Then run:

sudo ./

The end of the bash script sets up some environment variables in /etc/environment, but I also added it to my .bashrc at the end like so:

export SYNCHRONIZED_LIGHTS_HOME="/home/pi/lightshowpi"
export PYTHONPATH=$PYTHONPATH:/home/pi/RPi-LPD8806-master

that second line is for the LEDs. Make sure sudoers also has this line so that the environment variable sticks around when you run things as sudo. This should already be there from a previous step.


As a first step, try to run a song and see if the code throws any errors:

sudo py/ --file /home/pi/some_random_music_file.mp3

Don't hear any sound? I had to change my audio out from the default HDMI to the onboard 1/8" jack:

amixer cset numid=3 1

I also had to turn up the volume

amixer set PCM 1

Customize LightShowPi

Our final step is to customize LightShowPi's config file, and run a special script that outputs to our RGB LED strip instead of turning GPIO pins on and off.

go into the lightshowpi/config directory, and copy of defaults.cfg to overrides.cfg. Open overrides.cfg and make the following changes:

gpio_pins = 7,0,1,2,3 # it doesn't matter what the numbers are, only that there are 5 for our 5 LED columns

preshow = on:0,off:0 # no need to delay the start of the show!

min_frequency = 50 # this is just preference since my speakers don't play much sound below 50Hz. You can specify the exact frequency ranges you want, too.

Now, if you haven't already downloaded the code, grab the file and put it in the same directory with the original file. This file writes out to our LED strip instead of the GPIO pins in the default script.

You might need to make the file executable before running it:

chmod +x

Try running with the new script:

sudo py/ --file /home/pi/lightshowpi/music/some_song.mp3

And that's it! Hopefully you hear and see music!

Depending on your strip, you might need to make changes to the display_column() function to adjust for what number LEDs make up your columns.

For some more details on how the code works and changed made to the original script, checkout the longer instructable I originally wrote.

If you have any questions, you can use the feedback link on the left or contact me through my google + page: or try the LightShowPi community
This guide was first published on Jan 13, 2014. It was last updated on Jan 13, 2014.