Running Way More LED Strips On A Raspberry Pi With DMA


The Raspberry Pi is a powerful computer in a compact form factor, making it highly useful for all manner of projects. However, it lacks some of the IO capabilities you might find on a common microcontroller. This is most apparent when it comes to running addressable LED strings. Normally, this is done using the Pi’s PWM or audio output, and is limited to just a couple of short strings. However, [Jeremy P Bentham] has found a way to leverage the Pi’s hardware to overcome these limitations.

The trick is using the Raspberry Pi’s little-documented Secondary Memory Interface. The SMI hardware allows the Pi to shift out data to 8 or 16 I/O pins in parallel using direct memory access (DMA), with fast and accurate timing. This makes it perfect for generating signals such as those used by WS2812B LEDs, also known as NeoPixels.

With [Jeremy]’s code and the right supporting hardware, it’s possible to run up to 16 LED strips of arbitrary length from the Raspberry Pi. [Jeremy] does a great job outlining how it all works, covering everything from the data format used by WS2812B LEDs to the way cache needs to be handled to avoid garbled data. The hack works on all Pis, from the humble Pi Zero to the powerful Pi 4. Thanks to using DMA, the technique doesn’t overload the CPU, so performance should be good across the board.

Of course, there are other ways to drive a ton of LEDs; we’ve seen 20,000 running on an ESP32, for example.

[Thanks to Petiepooo for the tip!]

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