I've read that while most pro-lighting is uses dmx, some intelligent lighting rigs use ethernet. I'm interested in building some MCU controlled L.E.D. footlights for my stage show, and currently know nothing about dmx and damn little about lighting period. Would love to hear pros and cons of just using ethernet protocols instead. From my perspective as a pro-coder/hobby-EE, the path of least resistance would seem to be OSC over ethernet between my controlling machine (likely a Pi or something) and the lighting brains, (likely something like a Teensy). I am definitely on Mount Stupid in this area, input appreciated. I have built controllable l.e.d rigs on costumes already but nothing powerful enough for stage lighting.

Edit for clarification based on comment: In our case, interoperability with standard controllers is not a concern at all, but reliability definitely is. We are jugglers, and we are almost never a priority with the lights and sound guys, so we are trying to build a system where we roll in our stuff, drive off our controllers that we start, and tell the regular light/sound guys to do nothing until we're done. In a corporate gig situation we don't trust them to hit our cues EVER. lol


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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not clear why you think that an embedded Ethernet transceiver would be cheaper or otherwise advantageous over a similarly constructed embedded DMX one. You may need to do more low-level software work to get DMX out of the pi, but you'll need less challenging high-level software work on the embedded side than you would with Ethernet. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 25, 2016 at 18:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't mess with Ethernet lighting protocols for DIY. It's really complicated. Note, there is a DMX connector that is identical to Ethernet (RJ-45). It should be labeled appropriately, so don't confuse them! \$\endgroup\$
    – Daniel
    Sep 25, 2016 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ My suggestion also would be to pick an existing Ethernet system and make stuff that is compatible for long term convenience. Your application is not very demanding and should be possible with either technology. If you always plan to use your own gear then you have a lot of flexibility. The need for switches mentioned in an answer is something to consider though 24port 10Base-T switches are available used for under 10 EUR/US$/UKP. Making PoE driven controllers for passive lights might be an alternative that gives you the control but lets you use consumer stuff for the boring bits. \$\endgroup\$
    – KalleMP
    Sep 26, 2016 at 11:26

3 Answers 3


This depends if you want interoperability with the equipment and wiring likely to be installed. Most theatres already have miles of suitable DMX cabling, plenty of ports and the distribution infrastructure to get the signals around. Many will also have a DMX capable lighting desk, even if it's very basic.

DMX is so popular because it's basic and relies on very simple technology.. but it works very well. The noise immunity offered by RS485 (essentially, see here) works great in an environment where there's lots of other electrical noise. Whilst ethernet now seems like a simple solution with inexpensive parts it certainly wasn't 25 years ago.

If you can run your own wiring then ethernet has enough noise immunity for a theatre environment. It's probably overkill, but if you have a microcontroller or modules that support ethernet and a higher layer protocol it should work fine.

Note that many modern lighting desks will also support ethernet but are likely to run their own proprietary protocols on top. Unless you can figure out those details it's unlikely you can interface with them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks, I'll edit my question to clarify that interoperability is not a concern. Basically we want the opposite! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 25, 2016 at 18:12

You can do what you like; you could use the old Rank Strand analogue multiplex if you like (it's a joy to watch on an oscilloscope, for a start). The issue is whether you want your light units, whatever they are, to also be able to interface to DMX. If not, knock yourself out.

DMX may be more robust than ethernet in an electrically noisy environment, though it is a bit long in the tooth (it started coming in about 30 years ago, if the length of my teeth is a reliable guide). It's also designed to be transmitted over robust connectors rather than weedy RJ45s.

It probably depends on how pro you are, or want to be, or to look. Using a non-standard system is fine at first but if you invest a lot in it, then need to standardise, you're throwing a lot away.

NB I used to be a theatre lighting engineer but haven't been for a long while. Back in my day, real men used multicores with +10 or -10 control voltages.

edit Bear in mind that interoperability is not just about interfacing to other rigs. You may want to purchase a unit yourself to add to your own rig, which would obviously need a standard interface.

  • \$\begingroup\$ thats a great point I hadn't thought of, I suppose there is a good chance of just wanting to add a COTS dmx unit down the road or being able to plop one in for backup. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2016 at 19:13

Traditional DMX (not RDM) uses one master multiple slaves bus topology and is single direction. The Ethernet versions, 10base-2 and 10base-5, that use bus topology are obsolete. So Ethernet needs switches.

DMX is simple. Practically any microcontroller with an UART interface can easily be made into a DMX receiver. With Ethernet, you probably want to use the IP stack. The stack is widely available for any popular platform, but it does add complexity. Alternatively you can choose to "farm-out" the network interface by using some pre-packaged solution like Ethernet to UART bridge.

DMX has slow data rate and is good for controlling objects with simple numerical values only. There is no bidirectional communication.

DMX equipments may or may not be isolated and non-isolated DMX implementation can potentially be a source of ground loop issues. Ethernet from 10Base-T on up are isolated.

While DMX still dominates in professional lighting applications, IoT and smart devices based on general networking are getting popular and will be more and more so.


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