Our local high school has a drum line that provides the community with an outstanding indoor performance each year. Yes, you read that correctly. An indoor performance. As in, one million decibels of drumming in a closed auditorium. Well, it is actually a full band concert, but the drum line steals the show. It’s a blast, and I was asked to come up with some unique lighting for the drummers this year.
Last year, our lighting choice was a combination of Neopixels, controlled with a piezo disk on the drum surface and an Arduino board. The LEDs light for a brief flash each time the drum surface was hit. It was a big hit, and I needed to find something even more interesting this year.
What I found was electroluminescent wire, otherwise known as EL wire. When a high, alternating voltage is applied to the wire, it glows along its entire length. And it looks really cool! You can purchase it in many colors, which means I can give different drummers colors that are assigned to their specific type of drum. A small inverter uses two AA batteries (or in some cases, a 9 volt battery), and generates about 107 VAC at 2,000 Hz.
One of the most common uses of EL wire is to make Halloween costumes. Stick figures are very common, mostly because it uses a small amount of EL wire, and when it’s dark, really does look like a stick figure walking around. This would be perfect to put on each drummer, and after adding in some lighted drum sticks, when the auditorium lights are turned off, there would be a group of stick figures drumming.
I placed a rather large order for EL wire from Ellumiglow.com. Jared, who helped me place the order, was excellent and offered some great suggestions to keep the cost down. For example, purple is apparently a difficult color to make with EL wire, and often results in a dull purple glow rather than the bright colors, like blue. In order to hold the EL wire in a stick figure shape, I found an inexpensive black hooded sweatshirt on Amazon. Our first attempt involved using a zig-zag stitch on a sewing machine to tack down the EL wire onto the front of the sweatshirt. Unfortunately, the clear thread used pulled the sweatshirt up onto the sides of the EL wire, which partially obscured it. We also changed to an inexpensive sweatshirt from Walmart so that we could source the sweatshirts locally.
After some additional research, we found a suggestion online that said EL wire should be affixed to something a little stiffer. We found some black canvas at our local fabric store, cut it into long strips, finished the edges so it wouldn’t unravel, and used the zig-zag stitch to sew the EL wire onto the strips of canvas. This had the added benefit of being easier to sew on than the full sweatshirt since it fit better in the sewing machine. We used the clear thread, which was difficult to work with but ultimately let the most light shine through. We then used Fabri-Tac fabric glue to attach the strips to the sweatshirt. To make a round head, I removed the draw string in the hood, and cut a 32 inch piece of 1/4″ fish tape (made out of some type of springy metal) for the round shape. I fed the fish tape through the draw string openings, and then secured it into a circle shape with pop rivets (though some holes I had drilled with a carbon drill bit). The EL wire was then hand-sewn onto the front of the hood. The inverters were placed into the front pocket of each sweatshirt, and the wiring was connected to each EL wire strip through a small hole in the front of the sweatshirt pocket, using wire splitters where possible to cut down on the number of wires needed. The EL wire was tested during the day, and you could see it glowing. However, when the lights go out, they were much brighter! The photo below showing the glow during the day from one of our early test sweatshirts. When the sweatshirts were finished, we gave them to the band students for their practice sessions. They loved them! Unfortunately, after several weeks of use, we started to hear that some of the EL wire was failing. At first, we diagnosed it as faulty inverters since some of the students complained that the inverters were getting warm. We incorrectly assumed at the time that it was due to overuse.
The first night of the performance, we verified that all the batteries were new and that every sweatshirt turned on. However, during the performance, we noticed that seven out of the twenty sweatshirts failed at some point during the performance. After the concert, we contacted Elumiglow for assistance. To their credit, they quickly diagnosed the problem as the EL wire shorting out from repeated bending. With the next performance only one day away, there wasn’t time to replace any of the EL wire.
We ended up verifying all the wires were working again, and suggested the sweatshirts remain on and not be turned on and off repeatedly. This performance was much better, with only two sweatshirts failing part of the way through the performance. In the end, we realized that the several weeks of practice probably caused the problem, and we would recommend other groups use the EL wire as little as possible before a performance. We still consider it a success, and it certainly was fun!