🤖 Python module to control a 32x32 Matrix Led in the Raspberry Pi
Switch branches/tags
Nothing to show
Clone or download
Latest commit 4466b65 Jun 11, 2015
Type Name Latest commit message Commit time
Failed to load latest commit information.
demo-main.cc o Add support for a third parallel chain. Mar 1, 2015


Controlling RGB LED display with Raspberry Pi GPIO

A library to control commonly available 32x32 or 16x32 RGB LED panels with the Raspberry Pi. Can support PWM up to 11Bit per channel, providing true 24bbp color with CIE1931 profile (but: see Limitations below).

The LED-matrix library is (c) Henner Zeller h.zeller@acm.org with GNU General Public License Version 2.0 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-2.0.txt

The example code using this library is released in the public domain.


The 32x32 or 16x32 RGB LED matrix panels can be scored at Sparkfun, AdaFruit or eBay. If you are in China, I'd try to get them directly from some manufacturer, Taobao or Alibaba.

The RGBMatrix class provided in include/led-matrix.h does what is needed to control these. You can use this as a library in your own projects or just use the demo binary provided here which provides some useful examples.

Check out the minimal-example.cc to get started using this library.

All Raspberry Pi versions supported

This supports the old Raspberry Pi's Version 1 with 26 GPIO pins and also the newer B+ models, and Raspberry Pi 2 with 40 GPIO pins. The 26 GPIO models can drive one chain of RGB panels, the 40 pin GPIO models up to three chains in parallel (each chain 6-8 panels long).

The Raspberry Pi 2 is faster than older models and sometimes the cabeling can't keep up with the speed; check out this troubleshooting section what to do.


You need a separate power supply for the panel. There is a connector for that separate from the logic connector, typically a big one in the center of the board. The board requires 5V (double check the polarity: what is printed on the board is correct - I once got boards with supplied cables that had red (suggesting +) and black (suggesting GND) reversed!). This power supply is used to light the LEDs; plan for ~3.5 Ampere per 32x32 panel.

The connector on the RGB panels is called a Hub75 interface. Each panel typically has two ports, one is the input and the other is the output to chain additional panels. Usually an arrow shows which of the connectors is the input.

Here you see a Hub75 connector to be seen at the bottom of the RGB panel board including the arrow indicating the input direction: Hub 75 interface

Other boards are very similar, but instead of zero-indexed color bits R0, G0, B0, R1, G1, B1, they start the index with one and name these R1, G1, B1, R2, G2, B2; the functionality is identical. Hub 75 interface

Throughout this document, we will use the one-index base, so we will call these signals R1, G1, B1, R2, G2, B2 below.

If you plug an IDC-cable into your RGB panel, this is how the signals are on the other end of the cable (imagine the LED panels somewhere outside the picture on the left); note the notch on the right side of the connector: Hub 75 IDC connector

The RPi only has 3.3V logic output level, but the display operated at 5V interprets these logic levels fine, just make sure to run a very short cable to the board. If you do run into glitches or erratic pixels, consider some line-buffering, e.g. using the active adapter PCB. Since we only need output pins on the RPi, we don't need to worry about level conversion back.

For a single chain of LED-panels, we need 13 IO pins. It will work on all Rasperry Pis, including the first board revision of the Raspberry Pi 1.

LED-Panel to GPIO:

  • GND (Ground, '-') to ground of your Raspberry Pi (Pin 25 on RPi-header)
  • R1 (Red 1st bank) : GPIO 17 (Pin 11 on RPi header)
  • G1 (Green 1st bank) : GPIO 18 (Pin 12 on RPi header)
  • B1 (Blue 1st bank) : GPIO 22 (Pin 15 on RPi header)
  • R2 (Red 2nd bank) : GPIO 23 (Pin 16 on RPi header)
  • G2 (Green 2nd bank) : GPIO 24 (Pin 18 on RPi header)
  • B2 (Blue 2nd bank) : GPIO 25 (Pin 22 on RPi header)
  • A, B, C, D (Row address) : GPIO 7, 8, 9, 10 (Pins 26, 24, 21, 19 on RPi-header) (Note: there is no need for D needed if you have a display with 16 rows with 1:8 multiplexing)
  • OE- (neg. Output enable) : GPIO 27 (Pin 13 on RPi header) (Note, this changed from previous versions of this library). On a Raspberry Pi 1 Revision 1 (really old), this is on GPIO 0, Pin 3.
  • CLK (Serial clock) : GPIO 11 (Pin 23 on RPi header) (Note, this changed from previous versions of this library)
  • STR (Strobe row data) : GPIO 4 (Pin 7 on RPi header)

Here is an illustration of the different Raspberry Pi headers for reference. Left: Raspberry Pi 1, on the right Raspberry Pi 1 B+ or Raspberry Pi 2.

Or check http://elinux.org/RPi_Low-level_peripherals for details of available GPIOs and pin-header.

Note, each panel has an output that allows you to daisy-chain it to the next board (see section about chaining below). If you are using only 1 bit pwm (-p 1 flag), then this can be a very long chain. Though full color pwm (color images), the refresh rate goes down considerably after 6-8 boards.

Up to 3 Panels with newer Raspberry Pis with 40 GPIO pins!

If you have one of the newer plus models of the Raspberry Pi 1 or the Raspberry Pi2, you can control up to three chains in parallel. This does not cost more CPU, so is essentially coming for free (except that your code needs to generate more pixels of course). For the same number of panels, always prefer parallel chains before daisy chaining more panels, as it will keep the refresh-rate higher.

For multiple parallel boards to work, you have to uncomment

 #DEFINES+=-DSUPPORT_MULTI_PARALLEL   # remove the '#' in the begging

in lib/Makefile. If you only use two panels, you will be able to use I²C and the serial line connectors on the Raspberry Pi. With three panels, these pins will be used up as well.

The second and third panel chain share some of the wires of the first panel: connect GND, A, B, C, D, OE, CLK and STR to the same pins you already connected the first panel.

Then connect the following

Second panel

  • R1 (Red 1st bank) : GPIO 12 (Pin 32 on RPi header)
  • G1 (Green 1st bank) : GPIO 5 (Pin 29 on RPi header)
  • B1 (Blue 1st bank) : GPIO 6 (Pin 31 on RPi header)
  • R2 (Red 2nd bank) : GPIO 19 (Pin 35 on RPi header)
  • G2 (Green 2nd bank) : GPIO 13 (Pin 33 on RPi header)
  • B2 (Blue 2nd bank) : GPIO 20 (Pin 38 on RPi header)

Third panel

The third panel will use some pins that are otherwise used for I²C and the serial interface. If you don't care about these, then we can use these to connect a third chain of panels.

  • R1 (Red 1st bank) : GPIO 14, also TxD (Pin 8 on RPi header)
  • G1 (Green 1st bank) : GPIO 2, also SDA (Pin 3 on RPi header)
  • B1 (Blue 1st bank) : GPIO 3, also SCL (Pin 5 on RPi header)
  • R2 (Red 2nd bank) : GPIO 15, also RxD (Pin 10 on RPi header)
  • G2 (Green 2nd bank) : GPIO 26 (Pin 37 on RPi header)
  • B2 (Blue 2nd bank) : GPIO 21 (Pin 40 on RPi header)


The main.cc has some testing demos. Via command line flags, you can choose the display type you have (16x32 or 32x32), and how many you have chained. (Previous versions of this software required to do modifications in the source, that is now all dynamically configurable).

 $ make
 $ ./led-matrix
 usage: ./led-matrix <options> -D <demo-nr> [optional parameter]
     -r <rows>     : Display rows. 16 for 16x32, 32 for 32x32. Default: 32
     -P <parallel> : For Plus-models or RPi2: parallel chains. 1..3. Default: 1
     -c <chained>  : Daisy-chained boards. Default: 1.
     -L            : 'Large' display, composed out of 4 times 32x32
     -p <pwm-bits> : Bits used for PWM. Something between 1..11
     -l            : Don't do luminance correction (CIE1931)
     -D <demo-nr>  : Always needs to be set
     -d            : run as daemon. Use this when starting in
                     /etc/init.d, but also when running without
                     terminal (e.g. cron)
     -t <seconds>  : Run for these number of seconds, then exit.
            (if neither -d nor -t are supplied, waits for <RETURN>)
 Demos, choosen with -D
     0  - some rotating square
     1  - forward scrolling an image
     2  - backward scrolling an image
     3  - test image: a square
     4  - Pulsing color
     5  - Grayscale Block
     6  - Abelian sandpile model (-m <time-step-ms>)
     7  - Conway's game of life (-m <time-step-ms>)
     8  - Langton's ant (-m <time-step-ms>)
     9  - Volume bars (-m <time-step-ms>)
     ./led-matrix -d -t 10 -D 1 runtext.ppm
 Scrolls the runtext for 10 seconds

To run the actual demos, you need to run this as root so that the GPIO pins can be accessed.

The most interesting one is probably the demo '1' which requires a ppm (type raw) with a height of 32 pixel - it is infinitely scrolled over the screen; for convenience, there is a little runtext.ppm example included:

 $ sudo ./led-matrix -D 1 runtext.ppm

Here is a video of how it looks Runtext

There are also two examples minimal-example.cc and text-example.cc that show use of the API.

The text example allows for some interactive output of text (using a bitmap-font found in the fonts/ directory). Even though it is just an example, it can be useful in its own right. For instance, you can connect to its input with a pipe and simply feed text from a shell-script or other program that wants to output something. Let's display the time in blue:

 (while :; do date +%T ; sleep 0.2 ; done) | sudo ./text-example -f fonts/8x13B.bdf -y8 -c2 -C0,0,255

You could connect this via a pipe to any process that just outputs new information on standard-output every now and then. The screen is filled with text until it overflows which then clears it. Or sending an empty line explicitly clears the screen (if you want to display an empty line, just send a space).


Image Viewer

One of the possibly useful demo applications is an image viewer that reads all kinds of image formats, including animated gifs. It is not compiled by default, as you need to install the GraphicsMagick dependencies first:

 sudo aptitude install libgraphicsmagick++1-dev
 make led-image-viewer

Then, you can run it with any common image format:

sudo ./led-image-viewer myimage.gif

It also supports the standard options to specify the connected displays (-r, -c, -P).

Chaining, parallel chains and coordinate system

Displays also have an output port, that you can connect to the next display in a daisy-chain manner. There is a parameter in the demo program to give number of displays that are chained. You end up with a very wide display (chain * 32 pixels). Longer chains affect the refresh rate negatively, so if you want to stay above 100Hz with full color, don't chain more than 8 panels. If you use a PWM depth of 1 bit, the chain can be much longer.

The original Raspberry Pis with 26 GPIO pins just had enough connector pins to drive one chain of LED panels. Newer Raspberry Pis have 40 GPIO pins that allows to add two additional chains of panels in parallel - the nice thing is, that this doesn't require more CPU and allows you to keep your refresh-rate high, because you can shorten your chains.

So with that, we have a couple of parameters to keep track of. The rows are the number of LED rows on a particular module; typically these are 16 for a 16x32 display or 32 for 32x32 displays.

Then there is the chain length, which is the number of panels that are daisy chained together.

Finally, there is a parameter how many parallel chains we have connected to the Pi -- limited to 1 on old Raspberry Pis, up to three on newer Raspberry Pis.

For a single Panel, the chain and parallel parameters are both just one: a single chain (with no else in parallel) with a chain length of 1.

The RGBMatrix class constructor has parameters for number of rows, chain-length and number of parallel. For the demo programs, there are command line options for that: -r gives rows, -c the chain-length and -P the number of parallel chains.

The coordinate system starts at (0,0) at the top of the first parallel chain, furthest away from the Pi. The following picture gives an overview of various parameters and the coordinate system.

Coordinate overview

Remapping coordinates

You can as well chain multiple boards together and then arrange them in a different layout. Say you have 4 displays with 32x32 -- if we chain them, we get a display 32 pixel high, (4*32)=128 pixel long. If we arrange the boards in a square, we get a logical display of 64x64 pixels.

For convenience, we should only deal with the logical coordinates of 64x64 pixels in our program: implement a Canvas interface to do the coordinate mapping. Have a look at class LargeSquare64x64Canvas for an example and see how it is delegating to the underlying RGBMatrix with changed coordinates.

Here is how the wiring would look like:

In action: PixelPusher video

Using the API

While there is a demo program, the matrix code can be used independently as a library. The includes are in include/, the library to link is built in lib/. So if you are proficient in C++, then use it in your code.

Due to the wonders of github, it is pretty easy to be up-to-date. I suggest to add this code as a sub-module in your git repository. That way you can use that particular version and easily update it if there are changes:

 git submodule add https://github.com/hzeller/rpi-rgb-led-matrix.git matrix

(Read more about how to use submodules in git)

This will check out the repository in a subdirectory matrix/. The library to build would be in directory matrix/lib, so let's hook that into your toplevel Makefile. I suggest to set up some variables like this:

 LDFLAGS+=-L$(RGB_LIBDIR) -l$(RGB_LIBRARY_NAME) -lrt -lm -lpthread

Also, you want to add a target to build the libary in your sub-module

 # (FYI: Make sure, there is a TAB-character in front of the $(MAKE))

Now, your final binary needs to depend on your objects and also the $(RGB_LIBRARY)

 my-binary : $(OBJECTS) $(RGB_LIBRARY)
     $(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) $(OBJECTS) -o $@ $(LDFLAGS)

As an example, see the PixelPusher implementation which is using this library in a git sub-module.

If you are writing your own Makefile, make sure to pass the -O3 option to the compiler to make sure to generate fast code.

Note, all the types provided are in the rgb_matrix namespace. That way, they won't clash with other types you might use in your code; in particular pretty common names such as GPIO or Canvas might run into clashing trouble.

Anyway, for convenience you just might add using-declarations in your code:

 // Types exported by the RGB-Matrix library.
 using rgb_matrix::Canvas;
 using rgb_matrix::GPIO;
 using rgb_matrix::RGBMatrix;
 using rgb_matrix::ThreadedCanvasManipulator;

Or, if you are lazy, just import the whole namespace:

 using namespace rgb_matrix;

Read the minimal-example.cc to get started, then have a look into demo-main.cc.

A word about power

These displays suck a lot of current. At 5V, when all LEDs are on (full white), my LED panel draws about 3.4A. That means, you need a beefy power supply to drive these panels; a 2A USB charger or similar is not enough for a 32x32 panel; it might be for a 16x32.

If you connect multiple boards together, you needs a power supply that can keep up with 3.5A / panel. Good are PC power supplies that often provide > 20A on the 5V rail. Also you can get dedicated 5V high current switching power supplies for these kind of applications (check eBay).

The current draw is pretty spiky. Due to the PWM of the LEDs, there are very short peaks of a couple of 100ns to about 1ms of full current draw. Often, the power cable can't support these very short spikes due to inherent inductance. This can result in 'noisy' outputs, with random pixels not behaving as they should. A low ESR capacitor close to the input is good in these cases.

On some displays, the quality of the output quickly gets erratic when voltage drops below 4.5V. Some even need a little bit higher voltage around 5.5V to work reliably.

When you connect these boards to a power source, the following are good guidelines:

  • Have fairly thick cables connecting the power to the board. Plan not to loose more than 50mV from the source to the LED matrix. So that would be 50mV / 3.5A = 14 mΩ. For both supply wires, so 7mΩ each trace. A 1mm² copper cable has about 17.5mΩ/meter, so you'd need a 2.5mm² copper cable per meter and panel. Multiply by meter and number of panels to get the needed cross-section. (For Americans: that would be ~13 gauge wire for 3 ft and one panel)

  • You might consider using aluminum mounting brackets or bars as part of your power trace solution. With aluminum of 1mm² specific resistivity of about 28mΩ/meter, you'd need a cross sectional area of about 4mm² per panel and meter.

  • These are the minimum values to not drop more than 50mV. As engineer, you'd like to aim for less than that :)

  • Often these boards come with connectors that have cables crimped on. These cables are typically too thin; you might want to clip them close to the connector solder your proper, thick cable to it.

  • It is good to buffer the current spikes directly at the panel. The most spikes happen while PWM-ing a single line. So let's say we want to buffer the energy to power a single line without dropping more than 50mV. We use 3.5A which is 3.5Joule/second. We do about 140Hz refresh rate and divide that in 16 lines, so we need 3.5 Joule/140/16 = ~1.6mJoule in the time period to display one line. We want to get the energy out of the voltage drop of 50mV; so with W = 1/2CU², we can calculate the capacitance needed: C = 2 * 1.6mJoule / ((5V)² - (5V - 50mV)²) = ~6400µF. So, 2 x 3300µF low-ESR capacitors in parallel directly at the board are a good choice (two, because lower parallel ESR; also fits easier under board). (In reality, we need of course less, as the highest ripple comes with 50% duty cyle thus half the current; also the input is recharching all the time. But: as engineer plan for maximum and then some).

  • If you still see noise, increase the voltage sligthly above 5V. But note, this is typically only a symptom of too thin traces.

Help, some pixels are not displayed properly

Some panels don't handle the 3.3V logic level well, in particular with faster Raspberry Pis Version 2. This results in artifacts like randomly showing up pixels or parts of the panel showing 'static'.

If you encounter this, try these things

  • Make sure to have as short as possible flat-cables connecting your Raspberry Pi with the LED panel.

  • Use an adapter board with a bus-driver that acts as level shifter between 3.3V and 5V. You can find active adapter PCBs in a subdirectory of this project. Also, Adafruit made a HAT that has level shifters.

  • If you can't implement the above things, or still have problems, you can slow down the GPIO writing a bit. This will of course reduce the frame-rate, so it comes at a cost.

For GPIO slow-down, uncomment the following line in lib/Makefile

 #DEFINES+=-DRGB_SLOWDOWN_GPIO   # remove '#' in the beginning

Then make clean and make again.

Inverted Colors ?

There are some displays out there that use inverse logic for the colors. You notice that your image looks like a 'negative'. In that case, uncomment the folling DEFINES line in lib/Makefile by removing the # at the beginning of the line.

 #DEFINES+=-DINVERSE_RGB_DISPLAY_COLORS   # remove '#' in the beginning

Then, recompile

 make clean

Technical details

The matrix modules available on the market all seem to have the same standard interface, essentially controlling two banks of 16 rows (0..15 and 16..31) There are always two rows (n and n+16), that are controlled in parallel (These displays are also available in 16x32; in that case, it is two banks of 8).

The data for each row needs to be clocked in serially using one bit for red, green and blue for both rows that are controlled in parallel (= 6 bits), then a positive clock edge to shift them in - 32 pixels for one row are clocked in like this (or more: you can chain these displays). With 'strobe', the data is transferred to the output buffers for the row. There are four bits that select the current row(-pair) to be displayed. Also, there is an 'output enable' which switches if LEDs are on at all.

Since LEDs can only be on or off, we have to do our own PWM by constantly clocking in pixels.

CPU use

These displays need to be updated constantly to show an image with PWMed LEDs. For one 32x32 display, every second about 500'000 pixels have to be updated. We can't use any hardware support to do that - thus the constant CPU use on an RPi is roughly 30%. Keep that in mind if you plan to run other things on this computer (This is less noticable on Raspberry Pi, Version 2).

Also, the output quality is suceptible to other heavy tasks running on that computer as the precise timing needed might be slipping. Even if the system is otherwise idle, you might see occasional brightness variations in the darker areas of your picture. (Even with realtime extensions enabled in Linux, this is still a (smaller) problem).


If using higher resolution color (This code supports up to 24bpp @3x11 bit PWM), you will see dynamic glitches - lines that flicker and randomly look a bit brighter. At lower bit PWM between <= 4, this is typically not visible.

This is due to the fact that we have to do the PWM ourselves and for high-resolution PWM, the smallest time-period is around 200ns. We would need hard real-time requirements of the operating system of << 200ns. Even for realtime environments, that is pretty tough. We're running this on a general purpose computer with no dedicated realtime hardware (such as dedicated, separate realtime core(s) we could use on the BeagleBone Black). Linux does provide some support for realtime applications, but the latency goals here are in the tens of microseconds at best. Even with realtime-patches applied (I tried the RPi wheezy image provided by Emlid), this does not make much of a dent.

According to the paper How fast is fast enough? Choosing between Xenomai and Linux for real-time applications, it might pay off to move the display update part to the kernel. Future TODO.

(One experiment already done was to use the DMA controller of the RPi to make use of dedicated hardware. However, it turns out that the DMA controller was slower writing data than using GPIO directly. But maybe it might be worthwile if it turns out to have more stable realtime properties.)

There seems to be a limit in how fast the GPIO pins can be controlled. We get about 10Mhz clock speed out of GPIO clocking. Do do things correctly, we would have to take the time it takes to clock a row in as essentially the lowest PWM time (~3.4µs). However, we just ignore this 'black' time, and switch the row on and off after the clocking with the needed time-period; that way we get down to 200ns.