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Tutorial – Arduino and the MAX7219 LED Display Driver IC

Use the Maxim MAX7219 LED display driver with Arduino in Chapter 56 of our Arduino Tutorials. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.


Sooner or later Arduino enthusiasts and beginners alike will come across the MAX7219 IC. And for good reason, it’s a simple and somewhat inexpensive method of controlling 64 LEDs in either matrix or numeric display form. Furthermore they can be chained together to control two or more units for even more LEDs. Overall – they’re a lot of fun and can also be quite useful, so let’s get started.

Here’s an example of a MAX7219 and another IC which is a functional equivalent, the AS1107 from Austria Microsystems. You might not see the AS1107 around much, but it can be cheaper – so don’t be afraid to use that instead:

MAX7219 AS1107

 At first glance you may think that it takes a lot of real estate, but it saves some as well. As mentioned earlier, the MAX7219 can completely control 64 individual LEDs – including maintaining equal brightness, and allowing you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs either with hardware or software (or both). It can refresh the LEDs at around 800 Hz, so no more flickering, uneven LED displays.

You can even switch the display off for power saving mode, and still send it data while it is off. And another good thing – when powered up, it keeps the LEDs off, so no wacky displays for the first seconds of operation. For more technical information, here is the data sheet: MAX7219.pdf. Now to put it to work for us – we’ll demonstrate using one or more 8 x 8 LED matrix displays, as well as 8 digits of 7-segment LED numbers.

Before continuing, download and install the LedControl Arduino library as it is essential for using the MAX7219.

Controlling LED matrix displays with the MAX7219

First of all, let’s examine the hardware side of things. Here is the pinout diagram for the MAX7219:

MAX7219 pinout

The MAX7219 drives eight LEDs at a time, and by rapidly switching banks of eight your eyes don’t see the changes. Wiring up a matrix is very simple – if you have a common matrix with the following schematic:

LED matrix pinoutsconnect the MAX7219 pins labelled DP, A~F to the row pins respectively, and the MAX7219 pins labelled DIG0~7 to the column pins respectively. A total example circuit with the above matrix  is as follows:

MAX7219 example LED matrix circuit

The circuit is quite straight forward, except we have a resistor between 5V and MAX7219 pin 18. The MAX7219 is a constant-current LED driver, and the value of the resistor is used to set the current flow to the LEDs. Have a look at table eleven on page eleven of the data sheet:

MAX7219 resistor tableYou’ll need to know the voltage and forward current for your LED matrix or numeric display, then match the value on the table. E.g. if you have a 2V 20 mA LED, your resistor value will be 28kΩ (the values are in kΩ). Finally, the MAX7219 serial in, load and clock pins will go to Arduino digital pins which are specified in the sketch. We’ll get to that in the moment, but before that let’s return to the matrix modules.

In the last few months there has been a proliferation of inexpensive kits that contain a MAX7219 or equivalent, and an LED matrix. These are great for experimenting with and can save you a lot of work – some examples of which are shown below:

MAX7219 LED matrix modules

At the top is an example from tronixlabs.com, and the pair on the bottom are the units from a recent kit review. We’ll use these for our demonstrations as well.

Now for the sketch. You need the following two lines at the beginning of the sketch:

The first pulls in the library, and the second line sets up an instance to control. The four parameters are as follows:

  1. the digital pin connected to pin 1 of the MAX7219 (“data in”)
  2. the digital pin connected to pin 13 of the MAX7219 (“CLK or clock”)
  3. the digital pin connected to pin 12 of the MAX7219 (“LOAD”)
  4. The number of MAX7219s connected.

If you have more than one MAX7219, connect the DOUT (“data out”) pin of the first MAX7219 to pin 1 of the second, and so on. However the CLK and LOAD pins are all connected in parallel and then back to the Arduino.

Next, two more vital functions that you’d normally put in void setup():

The first line above turns the LEDs connected to the MAX7219 on. If you set TRUE, you can send data to the MAX7219 but the LEDs will stay off. The second line adjusts the brightness of the LEDs in sixteen stages. For both of those functions (and all others from the LedControl) the first parameter is the number of the MAX7219 connected. If you have one, the parameter is zero… for two MAX7219s, it’s 1 and so on.

Finally, to turn an individual LED in the matrix on or off, use:

which turns on an LED positioned at col, row connected to MAX7219 #1. Change TRUE to FALSE to turn it off. These functions are demonstrated in the following sketch:

And a quick video of the results:

How about controlling two MAX7219s? Or more? The hardware modifications are easy – connect the serial data out pin from your first MAX7219 to the data in pin on the second (and so on), and the LOAD and CLOCK pins from the first MAX7219 connect to the second (and so on). You will of course still need the 5V, GND, resistor, capacitors etc. for the second and subsequent MAX7219.

You will also need to make a few changes in your sketch. The first is to tell it how many MAX7219s you’re using in the following line:

by replacing X with the quantity. Then whenever you’re using  a MAX7219 function, replace the (previously used) zero with the number of the MAX7219 you wish to address. They are numbered from zero upwards, with the MAX7219 directly connected to the Arduino as unit zero, then one etc. To demonstrate this, we replicate the previous example but with two MAX7219s:

And again, a quick demonstration:

Another fun use of the MAX7219 and LED matrices is to display scrolling text. For the case of simplicity we’ll use the LedControl library and the two LED matrix modules from the previous examples.

First our example sketch – it is quite long however most of this is due to defining the characters for each letter of the alphabet and so on. We’ll explain it at the other end!

The pertinent parts are at the top of the sketch – the following line sets the number of MAX7219s in the hardware:

The following can be adjusted to change the speed of text scrolling:

… then place the text to scroll in the following (for example):

Finally – to scroll the text on demand, use the following:

You can then incorporate the code into your own sketches. And a video of the example sketch in action:

Although we used the LedControl library, there are many others out there for scrolling text. One interesting example is Parola  – which is incredibly customisable.

Controlling LED numeric displays with the MAX7219

Using the MAX7219 and the LedControl library you can also drive numeric LED displays – up to eight digits from the one MAX7219. This gives you the ability to make various numeric displays that are clear to read and easy to control. When shopping around for numeric LED displays, make sure you have the common-cathode type.

Connecting numeric displays is quite simple, consider the following schematic which should appear familiar by now:

MAX7219 7-segment schematic

The schematic shows the connections for modules or groups of up to eight digits. Each digit’s A~F and dp (decimal point) anodes connect together to the MAX7219, and each digit’s cathode connects in order as well. The MAX7219 will display each digit in turn by using one cathode at a time. Of course if you want more than eight digits, connect another MAX7219 just as we did with the LED matrices previously.

The required code in the sketch is identical to the LED matrix code, however to display individual digits we use:

where A is the MAX7219 we’re using, B is the digit to use (from a possible 0 to 7), C is the digit to display (0~9… if you use 10~15 it will display A~F respectively) and D is false/true (digit on or off). You can also send basic characters such as a dash “-” with the following:

Now let’s put together an example of eight digits:

and the sketch in action:


We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with the MAX7219 and compatible parts. They’re loads of fun and quite useful as well. And finally a plug for our own store – tronixlabs.com – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

Posted in arduino, as1107, COM-09622, LED matrix, lesson, max7219, part review, tronixlabs, tronixstuff, tutorial

Review – Maxim MAX7219 LED Display Driver IC

[Updated 16/052013]

[After this article, check out our examination of real and fake MAX7219s]

In this article we are going to examine the Maxim MAX7219 LED display driver IC***. The reason for doing so is to show you how something that used to be quite complex can be made very simple – and that is what all this technology is for, isn’t it?

*** There is another IC from Austria Microsystems – the AS1107, which is drop-in compatible with the MAX7219, and can be cheaper. So shop around!

If you have ever tried to control lots of LEDs, or more than two or three 7-segment displays, or even an LED matrix, you realise that there is quite a lot of work to do on the software and hardware side of things. It usually involves lots of shift registers, switching transistors, and some nifty coding to get everything working. And then your code is too large, so the resulting display scans slow enough to see it flicker, etc.

Not any more! The MAX7219 combined with a great library (well for Arduino anyway) solves all the headaches in no time. After using it for the first time today I was briefly angry for not finding out about it sooner… better late than never. First of all, let’s have a look:


Yes, at first glance you may think that it takes a lot of real estate, but it saves some as well. This chip can completely control 64 individual LEDs, including maintaining equal brightness, and allowing you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs either with hardware or software (or both). It can refresh the LEDs at around 800 Hz, so no more flickering, uneven LED displays. You can even switch the display off for power saving mode, and still send it data while it is off. And another good thing – when powered up, it keeps the LEDs off, so no wacky displays for the first seconds of operation.

For more technical information, here is the data sheet: MAX7219.pdf. Now to put it to work for us – this article will demonstrate using an 8 x 8 LED matrix, as well as 8 digits of 7-segment LED numbers. First of all, let’s examine the hardware side of things. Here is the pinout diagram for the IC:


At this point I should mention it is designed for common-cathode display systems. One example would be an LED matrix, such as:

Another example is a multi-digit 7-segment LED module – current flows in through the anode pins, and each digit is illuminated only when its cathode is connected to ground. Such as this unit:


It has input pins for each of the eight LED elements, and four cathode pins, one for each digit. We can use two of these displays with the MAX7219 very easily, as you will see below. An example circuit to demonstrate using the matrix is below. Note the lack of resistors and transistors:


When using with (for example) an Arduino-type board, you would connect serial data in, clock, and load to three digital pins. The resistor is the hardware control via limiting current to the LEDs. My examples use a 1k0 1/4-watt value. If you are going to experiment with this value, refer to page 10 of the data sheet first. Furthermore, ensure the ground of the MAX7219 is connected to the ground of the microcontroller. The capacitors are used to reduce supply current ripple. And here is the demonstration circuit on the breadboard:


In the above photo, the five wires on the left are connected to the Arduino board (5V, GND, load, clock, data). The two wires from the terminal block head to a 5v power supply.

Now it is time to examine the software aspect, or how to control the MAX7219. My knowledge of microcontrollers is currently only Arduino, so we will use that for this review. Thankfully there is an excellent library that has been specifically written for the MAX7219 – the LedControl library. You will need to download and install the library from the LedControl page. If you need guidance on installing a library, please visit here.

The author has done a marvellous job of documenting his library, so I will briefly describe the basic functions you need to get things blinking. Here is a very basic demonstration sketch:

Using the lc.setLed() saves a lot of code, as the chip will hold the display on until it is told otherwise, you don’t need to program in a delay loop. You can just enter X and Y coordinates for the LED to switch on. To switch off the display to save power, use lc.shutdown(0, true); – replace true with false to switch it back on again. The video clip below is more of a detailed demonstration, using the schematic above, and this sketch:

Notice how altering the brightness up and down causes a nice “breathing” affect. However, don’t run that type of thing for too long, the MAX7219 does warm up nicely after about ten minutes of running all LEDs at once at full brightness…

Now it is time to examine how the MAX7219 deals with seven-segment LED display modules. It can handle up to eight digits, so I have two four-digit display modules to use. The anodes will be connected, so they behave as one single eight -digit unit. Here is the schematic:


And here is the demonstration circuit on the breadboard:


Now to examine the functions to control these displays. Once again, be sure to have the LedControl library as used with the matrix. Here is another simple sketch:

Once again, the use of the LedControl library certainly makes things easier. The difference between setChar() and setDigit is that the former can also write A~F, space, and a few other letters that are legible when used with a 7-segment display. Here is a video of the above sketch in action:

As you can see, driving all those LED digits is now a piece of cake. To think twenty years ago we used to muck about with various 4000-series ICs, decimal to BCD converters and so on. The MAX7219 just does it all. Now that I have learned how to make a nice huge display – there is only one thing to do… make another clock! It uses an Arduino board, and my RTC shield. Here is the sketch: maxclock.pdf, and the clock in action:

Well that’s enough blinkiness for now, I could spend a week making displays with the MAX7219. In all honesty, I can say that it makes life exponentially easier when trying to control more than one LED with a microcontroller. Therefore it really is highly recommended. So have fun!

If you found this article interesting, you would also enjoy the reviews of TM1638 and TM1640 LED display modules.

Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, as1107, COM-09622, lesson, max7219, part review, tutorial

Getting Started with Arduino! – Chapter Nine

This is part of a series titled “Getting Started with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino microcontrollers. The first chapter is here, the index is here.

Welcome back fellow arduidans!

In this chapter we will start looking at LED matrix displays, designing user interfaces, implementing a user interface for  a clock, and finish up making an alarm clock.

Firstly, let’s have plenty of fun with 64 LEDs! Using an 8×8 LED display module:


Previously we have used 74HC595 shift registers to drive strips of LEDs, single and four-digit LED displays. An LED matrix seems complex at first, but after further investigation quite simple. With sixteen pins you can control 64 LEDs. It works by having 8 row pins, each pin connected to all the anodes on one row; and 8 pins each connected to the cathodes on one column:


It does look like a mess, but we can work it out. As we did with the 4-digit 7-segment display module, we just need one shift register for the anodes, and one for the cathodes. Moving along from exercise 6.2, it will be easy to drive the an LED matrix display – one shift register (the left hand side) will apply current to the rows (anodes) and the other shift register will apply current to NPN transistors to allow current to flow from the cathodes (columns) to ground. So we can make an example quite easily. You will need:

  • Your standard Arduino setup (computer, cable, Uno or compatible)
  • One 8×8 LED matrix. Try to find one that has LEDs with a forward voltage of 2 volts and a current of less than 20mA. If it is bicolour, that’s ok – just use one colour for now
  • Eight 560 ohm 1/4 watt resistors
  • Eight 1 kilo ohm 1/4 resistors
  • Eight BC548 NPN transistors
  • Two 74HC595 shift registers
  • Solderless breadboard and connecting wires

Here is a circuit diagram for our example (click on it to enlarge):


Please note that there are eight transistor/resistor combinations from the second shift register – I just have not drawn them in to save my sanity. They’re on the bottom right of my board:


Now how are we going to light up those LEDs? We need to send two bytes of data to the shift registers, one byte for the row, and one for the column. For this example we will work with individual pixels. For example, say you want to turn on the pixel at 8 across, 8 down – the bottom right. You need to send the following bytes of data to the shift registers: b00000001 and b00000001. In decimal those two numbers are 128 and 128. Or the top-left LED, at 1 across, 1 down – it would be b10000000, b10000000 or decimal 1,1. Once again we can use the functions:

… to send the data to the shift registers. This example sketch for the above circuit should be pretty well self-explanatory if you have been following my tutorials.

Here is is in action:

Once again, quite mesmerising. Did you notice that the horizontal solid rows were dimmer than the solid vertical columns? This is because when you light up one row, all eight LEDs are drawing current from one pin of the shift register – so there is less current for each LED; whereas in the column, each LED has its own source of current, so can therefore operate at full brightness. So a hint – when you are creating images or characters for your display, use scrolling columns to display the image.

Experiment with the example 9.1 sketch, if you display only vertical columns, and make the delay zero – you can give the illusion that the entire display is on, but it is not. Which leads us into the first exercise for this chapter.

Exercise 9.1

We can display entire columns with our matrix display. We can position these columns on demand. And without a delay, fill up the entire matrix. Now you can create images, or characters and display them on the matrix, one column at a time. For example, the little yellow dude from that popular arcade game many years ago might look like this:

Using the circuit described for example 9.1, create a character, shape, or whatever tickles your fancy, and animate it to move across the screen.

Hint – To animate an image, you will need to map the matrix every time the image changes – just like a normal animation or cartoon. However, store all the values for the entire animation in one array, otherwise you will go bonkers. When you need to read the array, each matrix image can be read as they are multiples of eight (then add the reference to the value you want).

For inspiration, here is what I came up with:

and the corresponding sketch.

How did you go? If you have an interesting animation, and you can do so – please email a link to Youtube, Vimeo, etc showing your creation – you could win a prize.

Time to get a little more serious now. 🙁

Over time you have been making things, some useful, some more experimental than anything. Hopefully you will reach the stage of designing something that has a real-world use and could be used by people other than yourself or your immediate circle of friends. In the next few weeks we will look at methods of transitioning projects from prototypes to standalone products you can develop!

A major part of your design should be the user interface, or how your project responds to user input and displays data, results and so on. If something is difficult to use, or understand, it will not be a good product. So what can we do about this? This week we will examine the clock made in example 7.4 and change it to be independent of a computer, and easy for the user to operate. But now for some design inspiration…

The humble alarm clock (it has been staring at me every morning). Here is my late grandfather’s clock from the 1960s:



Simple, yet functional. It does what it is supposed to do with the minimum of fuss. (It’s German). And that is how our project user interfaces should be. As technical people it is very easy to get carried away and put buttons, lights, and all sorts of things together, but at the end of the day, less is more. How can we emulate this with Arduino – but in a simple method?

Looking at the face of the clock, it displays the time (hours, minutes, seconds) and the alarm time. We can use an LCD for that. On the top is the alarm off button. We can use a button for that. On the rear there are winders for the time and alarm spring – we have electricity for that. There are two knobs, one to adjust the time, and one to adjust the alarm – here we have several options. We could use up/down buttons… perhaps we could use a knob as well? And finally there is the gain control – we don’t need this as our DS1307 is infinitely more accurate.

A rough map of how you want things to work is always a good start, for example my mess below:


How can this be implemented? Let’s see. The clock will normally display the date, time, etc. If a button is pressed, it will switch to menu mode (on the right). A knob will be used to select one of the options listed on the right, when the required option is displayed, the user presses the button to select the option. Then the user can use the knob to adjust the variable for that option, and press the button to return to the menu. The last menu option is to return to the clock display. So we can control the whole lot with only one button and one knob.

The button is easy with Arduino, and to save money we can use a potentiometer as a knob. Remember we did this in in exercise 6.2. Normally it can return a value between 0 and 1023, but with our clock we need it to return a value that falls within a variety of ranges – from 0 to 6 for day of the week, to 0 to 59 for the minute adjustment.

Exercise 9.2

Create a function to use a potentiometer to return an integer between zero and a maximum range value. The function will accept the maximum range value, and return an integer which represents the position of the knob. For example:

Here is a short video of my interpretation in action.

And the resulting sketch. The value rangemax that is fed into the function is the number of positions in the range you want to work with. For example, if I want the knob to return a value between zero and fifty-nine (sixty values in the range) I would set rangemax to 60. The value dialpin is the number of the analogue pin the potentiometer is connected to. You should use a linear potentiometer to ensure a nice smooth adjustment.

Great – now we have a way of reading our knob and customising the result for our range requirements. Our clock example’s menu will require eight options, each with their own function (e.g. set hours, set minutes, set year, return to clock, etc). We have one button, so you could use that to trigger an interrupt to start the menu display (interrupts were covered in chapter three). However if you have made an LCD shield use the interrupt pins, you will need to check the button status while displaying the time. We will make the display of the menu a separate function as well.

For now we will make our clock respond to the ‘menu’ button, and display the eight options when the knob is rotated. We will build on the sketch from example 7.4. Here is the result of doing this:

Now it is time (ha!) to make those menu options actually do something. First we need our displaymenu() function to call the selected option. This can be done with a switch…case function. For example, I will put this code after the while loop:

There is no need for a seventh option (return to clock display) as this will default if the knob is in the ‘7’ range. Notice I have already declared the name of the functions to call. All we have to do is create the individual functions. However there is one catch to work around, when it comes to setting time and date data, this is all done with the one function:

So inside the function that (for example) sets the hour, immediately before setting the hour, read the rest of the values from the clock, and reset them back in with the setDateDS1307() function.

Once again the basic work has been done for you, please see this video:

… and the sketch. Although the contents of the LCD during the menus may be brief, the framework of the user interface has been created and can now be easily modified. For example, if you had a 20 x 4 character LCD, you could offer more help to the user. But returning to the original task – emulating Grandfather’s alarm clock. We need an alarm!

Exercise 9.3

You guessed it – modify the clock in example 9.3 to have an alarm as well. User can set the alarm, and turn it on or off with the menu system. When the alarm sounds, the user should be able to turn off the alarm, Have fun!

How did you go? Here is a video demonstration of my work:

… and the sketch. That was really fun – I have a lot more clock ideas now.

I hope you enjoyed the change of pace this article and have a greater understanding on why we should create simpler human-machine interfaces wherever possible. Now to move on to Chapter Ten.


Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, education, LED matrix, lesson, microcontrollers, tutorialComments (41)

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