The Art of LEDs
New to LEDs? Not sure where to start? Below is (almost) everything you ever wanted to know…
Which LEDs should you buy for your pinball machine?
Short answer: Below, we attempt to help explain all the ins and outs, the what-have-yous...but if you want one bulb to rule them all, then go with the frosted sunlight 2SMD.
These will look pretty good everywhere. The frosted means the light will be a little diffused, which means you won’t get hot spots, nor will you feel like you just stared directly at the sun. They’ll be good in the general illumination. They’ll be good in the backbox. They’ll be good in the inserts. The brightness is similar to what Stern uses in their modern machines.
There are two different base types, wedge and bayonet, and unfortunately we don’t know how many of each you need. You’ll have to open your game, or you might be able to figure it out from the manual.
Long answer: This document is a crash course, but if you finish it, you’ll be an LED brown belt - ready to convert your game, lecture your friends, and launch a late night LED infomercial.
Below is 8-ish quick chapters covering:
- Benefits of LEDs
- Bayonet (#44/#47) vs Wedge (#555) bulbs
- Lens Type
- Color selection
- When things aren't working
- Our lighting philosophy
Why use LEDs instead of incandescent bulbs?
- LEDs last longer than incandescent bulbs
- LEDs give off less heat than incandescent bulbs. Over time, heat will warp & fade plastics, flake the artwork in your backglasses, and cause playfield inserts to rise or sink
- LEDs draw less power, which saves on electricity bills, and puts less strain on your machine, resulting in less problems (like burnt connectors)
- LEDs come in many different colors
- LEDs give off more light than incandescent bulbs (depending on which you choose)
A few basic pinball lighting terms
Inserts (short for Playfield Inserts): the colored, plastic windows sprinkled across the playfields of your pinball machine. The light shines through from underneath to indicate things like: which shots you should go for, what your current bonus is, etc. You also may see the term controlled lighting, as there can be other lights used by the game to indicate game features which aren't necessarily under the playfield.
G.I. (short for General Illumination): lights that sit above the playfield (but are nearly always covered by plastic artwork). With few exceptions, G.I. is always on, meaning that as you play the game, these lights will always be illuminated. They do not light and un-light regularly, and are not used as indicators for any gameplay features.
Backbox: the thing that sticks up from the back of your game to display the score. Games before around 1990 used painted glass to display the artwork, called a backglass. Games made more recently use a flexible printed art cell against a clear plastic window that allows light to pass through. This is a translite.
Warning: This page uses a lot of words like: generally, primarily, usually, etc. We’re hoping to convey general guidelines, and provide a great starting point for learning about LEDs. This is not a substitute for investigating the exact bulb needs of your specific machine. It’s possible that something said below may contradict what’s inside your machine. If this is the case, spit out your Tootsie Roll in disgust, and please let us know so that we can add additional clarifying information.
The 4 basic incandescent pinball bulbs
Before LEDs, there were only four basic bulbs. Let's start with the main two bulbs you'll be dealing with, and learn the difference between wedge and bayonet.
#44 / #47 - A regular sized bulb with a bayonet base. Nearly all general illumination bulbs, regardless of era, are bayonets. Printed on the bulb, you might see #44 or #47 - those are both bayonets, and there is no difference between #44 and #47 in the world of LEDs. Before roughly 1990, most playfield inserts also used these bayonet bulbs. But, then things changed, and along came...
A bayonet base
#555 - A regular sized bulb with a wedge base. Modern games primarily use wedges for playfield inserts, however games made before the 1990s generally did not use any wedges at all. Why? I don’t know...but there is a string of games around the time of Eight Ball Deluxe that used wedges, so it wasn't like they didn't exist.
A wedge base
The two bulbs above, #555 and #44/#47 both run on 6.3 volts. Games made before 2014* (and some made later) use this same voltage for all standard lighting. If the voltage was a little too low, your incandescent bulbs were a little dimmer. If the voltage was too high, the bulbs were brighter, hotter, and burned out more quickly. Like incandescents, LEDs will also wear out more quickly if given too much voltage.
* Stern’s Spike System (which debuted on Wrestlemania) uses 5v for G.I. and Inserts. Any of our 6.3v bulbs will run fine on 5v.
* Jersey Jack games use 12v for G.I. You do not want to use a 6.3v bulb, it will start smoking.
What are Flashers?
We’ve covered two of the basic four incandescent bulbs. Sorry I had to get into discussing voltage in the previous paragraph, but it was necessary to help me explain the other two bulbs. They run on a different voltage, and are commonly referred to as Flashers. Flashers are large, extremely bright bulbs that are turned on for a fraction of a second to reward your rods and cones for some awesome task accomplished in the game by your fingers.
#89: bayonet flasher
#906: wedge flasher
Both bulbs listed above, #89 and #906, run on 12 volts. If you see 13v mentioned on our site, or printed on a bulb, treat it as if it said 12v. They are functionally equivalent.
So, if you were buying incandescent bulbs for your machine, there wouldn’t be any more to know. Four main types:
- #44/#47, 6.3V bayonet bulb
- #555, 6.3V wedge bulb
- #89, 12V bayonet flasher
- #906, 12V wedge flasher
...and only one option for color. So how do we get from there to 1000+ bulbs? There are three main attributes we haven’t talked about yet: lens type, brightness, and color. Let’s start with the easy one.
Moving on to LEDs...
Lens Types for Pinball Bulbs
Frosted - A frosted lens is the best all-around choice. Although not all the light gets through the lens, it diffuses the light so that it spreads out evenly on nearby surfaces. For our most popular white bulbs, frosted outsells clear 4:1. Frosted is by far the preferred choice in backboxes and GI. They’re great for inserts as well, but if the inserts are too close together, the light from a frosted bulb may bleed over to an adjacent bulb, particularly if it is blinking during gameplay (although this isn't as common as you might think).
Clear - A clear lens lets a bit more light through. For our brightest bulbs, a clear lens is sometimes too bright and can often create a hotspots (particularly in the backbox). When used in general illumination, you may get some haloing effects on the plastics. This may be good or bad, depending on the look you’re going for.
No lens - As bright as the clear lens, but without the haloing. This is only an option on a few of our bulbs (1SMD, and 4SMD), and is most commonly used in general illumination where the player won’t have a direct line of sight to the bulb. Can cause hotspots, particularly when used in the backbox. Honestly, if you never bother to explore any of our no lens bulbs, you should still be able to sleep soundly at night.
Oh right, what does SMD mean? Sorry to have jumped ahead, we’ll tackle brightness next.
Pinball Bulb Brightness
You’ll see the terms LED and SMD used frequently on the site.
LED - Light Emitting Diode. Let’s just call a diode: “a point of light”. When you look closely at our LED bulbs, you’ll see that the LED is sticking up, perpendicular to the surface of the base.
SMD - Surface Mounted Diode. These diodes lay flat on the surface of the base. Mostly, the distinction between LED and SMD is for marketing, but SMDs produce a much brighter point of light. Why? Because they do - just take my word for it. SMDs are what the pinball bulb lighting technology evolved into.
As SMDs have become commonplace, it has become clear that our LED style bulbs are vastly inferior in terms of longevity. We’ve discontinued all forms of the LED style bulbs. We do still have some remaining, but we are not restocking them, and do not guarantee them beyond 30 days.
Now that we only promote and restock the SMD style bulbs, we technically no longer need the distinction between LED and SMD. So you’ll often see us refer to our bulbs as "LEDs" because that’s the general term for modern lighting used in cars, houses, and pretty much everywhere else. They use light emitting diodes, as opposed to incandescent bulbs. We’ll still refer to specific bulbs using SMD, ie: 2smd, 4smd, etc. because frankly it will cause a lot of confusion to rename them.
Below are our three most popular general use bulbs (what would be replacing your 555s and 44/47s), listed in order of increasing brightness. The number followed by the X is roughly how bright each bulb is (where 1.0x is the brightness of an incandescent bulb), and the graphic shows how far the light spreads from within a standard slingshot in your machine.
Designed to be the brightness and height of incandescents, with the longevity of SMDs.
Sometimes called 5050 (which is just a model number).
Sometimes called Twin 2835 (again, just a model number). These are the bulbs used on new Stern machines fresh from the factory.
So, which bulb should you choose? If you like the brightness of the new games released in the last few years, go with the 2SMD. If you are begrudgingly changing out your incandescents and think these new fangled lighting options are way too bright, go with the Retro SMDs. Don’t want to rock the boat? Go with the 1SMDs.
Choosing the right color bulbs for your pinball machine
For General Illumination:
- Warm White for games with warm artwork (yellows, oranges, & reds)
- Cool White (previously known as Natural White) for games with cold artwork (blues & blacks)
- Sunlight for anything that isn’t an obvious choice for Warm White or Cool White
- Cool White (previously "Natural White") for white inserts
- Warm White for yellow inserts
- Pink for orange inserts (crazy, but true!)
- Color match everything else (green for green, red for red, etc)
Long Answer: Getting to play around with different colors is one of the great benefits of LED bulbs. Back in the incandescent days, there was only one color...a yellowish white. It didn’t really matter that all bulbs were the same color, because the inserts on the playfield are made in different colors (reds, greens, yellows, and more). When the light shines through the insert, it turns the color of the insert.
With LEDs, if you want to go the easiest route, it’s still okay to just choose white for all inserts - they’ll come out the correct color. But these days it’s more common these days to do color matching to give your game a little more pop. Color matching is simply choosing a red bulb for a red insert, a green bulb for a green insert, etc. There are a few exceptions, which I’ll outline later in this section.
Let’s start with the most important color: white. We have three different whites:
Cool White (previously called Natural White). This is the harshest white. It’s like a stark sheet of paper. 5000-6000 Kelvin, if that means anything to you. For our most popular bulb, 50% of whites sold are Cool White...but we personally think that’s too high. Sometimes these will appear to have a slightly blue-ish tint, and the artwork can look a little pale.
When is Cool White most commonly used? For white inserts, and for darker artwork colors: blues, blacks.
Warm White. This is the yellowest white. It’s the closest match to incandescent bulbs. For our most popular bulb, 25% of whites sold are Warm White. For you color nerds, our Warm White is 3000-4000 Kelvin.
When is Warm White most commonly used? For the closest match to incandescent coloring and for warmer artwork colors: yellows, oranges, reds.
Sunlight White. This falls somewhere between Cool White and Warm White. It’s a versatile white that doesn’t really commit to one side or the other. Think of it as the Switzerland of bulb colors. For our most popular bulb, 25% of whites sold are Sunlight. 4000-5000 Kelvin is the range.
When is Sunlight most commonly used? A great middle ground when you don’t want the yellow coloring of the warm whites, and the cool whites are too harsh, washing away the warmth of the original art. For general illumination, I think you can choose poorly with warm white or cool white if the artwork doesn’t shout for one or the other. You really can never go wrong with sunlight.
There are a few other things to know about colors:
Yellow. Yellow LEDs are...not great. It’s very hard to get a nice light yellow color, especially one that isn’t too dim. So, what we end up with is something that is like a light amber. Until there is a technical breakthrough, we’re stuck with this underwhelming yellow. If you are color matching a yellow insert, it may come out much darker than you had hoped. We recommend Warm White bulbs for yellow inserts.
Amber/orange. The hue on this color bulbs is similar to Yellow, but darker. Also, we should apologize. Amber, Orange, and Amber/Orange - they’re all the same. It’s um...legacy marketing. We’ve often used Yellow bulbs under orange inserts, and sometimes Warm White bulbs. Our new favorite is to use Pink bulbs under orange inserts. This can vary from game to game….and may only matter if you’re really picky.
Ice Blue. Maybe this is self explanatory, but I felt like erring on the side of caution: Ice Blue is a pale blue.
Cyan. This is a greenish blue color. Close your eyes and imagine the coloring of World Cup Soccer 94. It’s a good match for that.
Blue, Ice Blue, Cyan
Purple. The Purples are a rather light color (almost a dark pink), except Purple Passion, which uses a translucent purple cap to get a dark, rich, purple.
Color: Purple Passion
Pink. All the cool kids are using Pink bulbs under orange inserts these days. Give it a try!
When LEDs aren't working properly
What are Non-ghosting Bulbs?
You may have heard of this term “ghosting”. When we’re talking about bulbs, ghosting is when a bulb flickers very subtly even when it should not be illuminated. This can happen in (some) games that were made back when everything was incandescent. A small amount of voltage can be present at the socket, even when the game is not intending to turn the bulb on. For incandescent bulbs, this small amount was not enough to noticeably illuminate the bulb, but it doesn’t take much to illuminate an LED.
For some of our styles of bulbs, we sell a non-ghosting version. They are a little more expensive, but how they work is pretty cool. There is a small resistor inside each bulb that prevents it from illuminating until the voltage reaches around 2.5V, at which point it turns on strong and bright.
Does your pinball machine need non-ghosting bulbs?
Unfortunately we can’t always say for sure. If you look on the internet, you might be able to find some resources to help with your specific game. There are some generalities that are pretty reliable, but the only way to know 100% is to try out bulbs in your machine. You and I might have the same game, and mine has ghosting and yours does not. Or maybe only a few of the bulbs ghost, but the rest are fine.
It also depends how picky you are. I’ve seen lots of games with very subtle ghosting where the owner didn’t even notice. If you’re less price sensitive, and don’t want to deal with the hassle, you can’t go wrong buying non-ghosting bulbs for your controlled lights, regardless of your game. Worst case is that you could have saved a little on some of the bulbs that weren’t going to ghost. You might be able to know this ahead of time, but not always.
I just used the term Controlled Lighting because ghosting is an issue for bulbs that are turned on and off to indicate game features. Most of these are inserts under the playfield, but there are other lights that are "controlled", like the start button, certain bulbs in the backbox in 80s and earlier games, and indicator bulbs above the playfield that indicate things like a lit scoop.
Another way of saying that non-ghosting is only a consideration for controlled lights is: you do not need ghosting bulbs for general illumination. The reason for this is simple - your general illumination bulbs are lit at all times (and as you’ll recall, non-ghosting bulbs solve the problem of flickering that occurs when the bulbs is supposed to be off).
But my solidly lit LEDs flicker/strobe?
The opposite problem can happen as well. A bulb that is supposed to be lit solidly might be flickering/strobing. This is extremely common with Bally & Stern early solid state games. Someone even developed a plug-in board to help solve the problem through hardware. We recommend that easily installed adapter board, which allows you to use our regular bulbs (usually for a lower overall total cost), but if you don’t want to go that route...
There is a fix! Ultimate Optix, aka Flux bulbs. These bulbs are more expensive than non-ghosting bulbs, but have an added benefit. They have a small capacitor inside (a battery, essentially) which stores a small charge for a short period of time. You can easily see this is action by taking out one of these bulbs out of your game and holding it up to your face. It will still be illuminated for a brief moment! To make a long story short: if an LED is quickly flickering when it should be lit, a flux bulb will be your savior.
Controlled insert fading / LED OCD
There are at least three games that got really fancy with the lighting effects used on inserts during gameplay: Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons Pinball Party, and Pinball Magic. These games fade the inserts in and out, which is pretty neat when you have incandescent bulbs, but really gross when you have LEDs installed. Pinball LEDs have a difficult time fading smoothly from bright to dim because they change brightness much more quickly than an incandescent. The game wasn’t designed to send signals frequently enough for smooth transitions with LED bulbs.
Our advice for these: if you're on a budget, leave the bulbs incandescent, or go big and get the LED OCD board
The OCD boards will give you some nice improvements in other games with ghosting issues and epileptic light shows that you see on some games, especially modern Sterns, and especially during attract mode.
Choppy Fading Effects in General Illumination
As mentioned above, your machine is not sending signals frequently enough for LEDs to fade pleasingly from dim to bright. This can cause issues for picky people when the game tries to dim the general illumination (sometimes subtly like when attempting to conserve energy when the game is sitting unplayed, sometimes dramatically, like during The Power or Seance in The Addams Family). Most of these games have an easy (but perhaps impure) fix: go into the software settings and turn off “Dimming Effects”. The fancy fix is to buy an expensive OCD board which we don’t carry, but you can buy directly from LED OCD. GI dimming is found almost exclusively in 90s Bally/Williams games.
AC vs DC
AC stands for Alternating Current, which means that the current flows in both directions. General Illumination (bulbs that are always on) uses AC power.
DC stands for Direct Current, which is current that only flows in one direction. Controlled lighting (bulbs that are turned on and off to represent the current state of the game) uses DC power. Recently, Stern starting using DC in their General Illumination.
All of our bulbs are AC/DC, meaning they will work with either.
Polarized vs Non-Polarized
Polarized means that the bulb will work in either orientation, regardless of how the bulb is inserted into the socket. Non-polarized means that the bulb will only work in one direction. For wedge sockets, take the bulb out, turn it 180 degrees, and put it back in. Viola! For bayonet sockets, you may have to reverse the wires to the socket. Nearly all of our bulbs are polarized, so generally this isn’t an issue. It’s possible you may see polarized / non-polarized referred to as rectified / non-rectified. This is almost certainly not going to be an issue for you, but hey: The More You Know.
Inserts vs GI vs Backbox
Here are some general rules of thumb, based on my own experiences and what many of our customers are doing. Everyone has unique tastes, and each game is different, but here are a few things to consider.
Generally, people will use a similar brightness across all areas of the game (inserts, general illumination, and the backbox), though 2SMDs in the GI and 1SMD non-ghosting in the inserts is the most common combination.
Inserts: if you’re unsure, a frosted lens is the way to go. No need to go too bright. Bulbs like Opmax are overkill.
General Illumination: it’s hard to make the general illumination too bright. Clear lenses will give you more brightness, but if there is a direct line of sight from the player’s eyes to the bulb, then use frosted. We tend to default to frosted, and only use clear for special cases.
Backbox: if anything, you might want to go a littler dimmer on the backbox. If you have something too bright and focused, you’ll get hotspots.
Comet’s philosophy for pinball lighting
If we all had the same taste, then ice cream parlors (if they still even exist) would only sell one flavor. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ll use the space below to step up on a very short soapbox and go over the general principles that Greg and I (Ryan) follow when converting a game to LEDs.
The most common complaints you'll hear about games that have been LEDed are:
- Too many colors. Common euphemisms: skittles, unicorn poop, clown vomit
- Too bright
For me, I like to keep the lighting near the flippers bright and white. My excuse is that I’m a pretty competitive guy, so I always want to be able to see the ball. Keeping this area white is one of the easiest ways avoid being accused of color bombing your game.
I generally stick to 1SMD & 2SMD bulbs, but know that most of my work has been on games from the 1990s and 2000s.
In the rare case that I’m adding color to the GI, it will be limited to the rear of the machine. [Good example: TRON]. Although I might dabble mixing a color near a white bulb, I rarely combine multiple non-white colors within the same section of plastics. I also try to keep the coloring mostly symmetrical from one side of the playfield to the other. There are some great artistic examples out there (like a blue/red Pinbot), but I don’t want to make the GI into a color wheel where every area is a different color. Beyond whatever white I’m using, I'll only use a handful of colored bulbs in the GI.
I also (usually) stick to one primary shade of white in my GI. It’s actually the first place I start when LEDing a game. On one side, I put Cool Whites into the slings and inlane ball guide area, and on the other side I put Warm White. One of those will look bad, and I’ll replace that with Sunlight. From there I will pick the best white, and make that the foundation for my GI.
I use primarily frosted lenses for general illumination and will only use the occasional clear bulb if it doesn't cause a distraction, though I find this is frequently the case. If a plastic is one solid color, you'll often get a prominent halo from the clear lens. If the player has a direct line of sight to a clear GI bulb, consider using frosted, or even sometimes a flex bulb is the best choice so I can tilt it away from the eyes. When standing at the game, I move my head up and down to test how these bulbs will look for players of varying heights. Ultimately, I use frosted way more frequently...but I *want* to use clear, if that makes sense. The problem is that often clear will create too many distractions.
I keep the game as evenly lit as I can. This is easier on my eyes and prevents me from losing the ball.
I generally color match my inserts. Greens, reds, and blues are a no-brainer. For white inserts, I most commonly use Cool White bulbs. For yellow inserts, I usually use Warm White bulbs. For orange inserts, the new cool trick is to use Pink bulbs, but I still dabble in yellow occasionally, Orange/Amber less frequently, and even Warm White. I find orange to be the insert color that is hardest to faithfully represent when switching to LEDs.
I default to clear lenses for inserts. If you have really sensitive eyes, you should probably default to frosted. One reason for clear is that, although not super common, you'll come across closely placed inserts that blink during gameplay. Here I find there is too much bleed with frosted bulbs. So clear is better, or even flexible bulbs for precise light placement. On older games (EMs and early Solid States), it is common to have transparent inserts with no texture, so you can see right through to the bulb. A bulb with a clear lens is more true to how it looks with an incandescent...as a frosted lens just looks like a brighter circle within the larger circle of the insert.
A lot of games will exhibit some kind of ghosting in at least a few sockets, so I’ll use 1SMD, non-ghosting bulbs for inserts.
For backboxes, I want avoid spotting by having it evenly lit. I pick one base color and add a few other colored bulbs to highlight features in the artwork when I can do so without bleeding into adjacent color areas. I don’t color bomb with large groupings of non-white colors. I almost always use frosted lenses in the backbox. Lately, I've started to favor 1SMDs, which aren't quite as strong and blend together a little better.
At the risk of lowering sales, I’m finding that I prefer incandescent flashers. While dramatic and artsy, the quick switching from dark to extremely bright isn’t easy on my eyes (like opening a door from a dark room and emerging into sunlight) and makes it hard for me to track the ball. I’m not alone: I’ve reduced the flasher effects to the minimum on all my games on location and it has reduced player complaints. No one has ever said they wish my games blinded them more frequently.
Notes on Eras & Manufacturers
Electro-mechanical machines. If your game has score reels that turn every time you earn points, you’ve got an EM. The logic of the game is controlled by hundreds of switches, a consequence of which is that it is not possible to save state between players - everything resets!
EMs are well known for their varied styles of colorful artwork, and EM owners seem the most resistant to LED conversions. Our friend Nic uses what he calls his stealth recipe: using 1SMD & 2SMD bulbs in the inserts and backbox, while leaving the GI incandescent. The results are stunning.
Solid State / Alphanumeric
Around 1977, many games started switching over to solid state: meaning the hundreds of switches in the bottom of the cabinet were replaced by a small circuit board in the backbox. Software loaded onto this board could contain much more complicated logic, and the game could remember states between players. Batteries on the circuit board allowed them to save settings and high scores even after the game was turned off.
Modern / DMD
Around 1991, we entered the DMD era. DMD stands for Dot Matrix Display - these are larger displays and can show frame by frame animations of anything an artist could come up with. This era started to give us deeper rulesets, usually made of up many different modes, giving way to more varied and complex scoring opportunities. Perhaps in a few years, we'll start refering to the current period as the LCD era, to represent our large screen color displays and even deeper rulesets?
Other bulb numbers
#455 - This is a blinking bulb. They are commonly used in backboxes, especially EMs. There is nothing special about a socket that calls for a #455 bulb, it works just like a regular bayonet 44/47 socket. It’s the circuitry inside the bulb that makes it blink, not the socket or voltage delivered to it. (So it’s okay to use blinking bulbs in sockets that had a non-blinking bulb, or to put non-blinking bulbs into a socket that called for a blinking bulb).
Many ask if we carry flasher bulbs, and after several confusing emails back and forth, we discover that they’re looking for a blinking bulb! Yes, we carry blinking bulbs in two speeds: fast and slow.
#67 - This is a 13.5v flasher with a bayonet base. Customers report that any of our bayonet (#89) flasher bulbs will work fine as a substitute
#194 - T10 Wedge that’s 14v. Any #555 12v bulb will work.
Others - a small few number of games use sockets that call for 20v, 24v or 34v flashers. Unfortunately, we have never carried these. Although, if people start bugging us often enough, we might have to start.
Why is this the "Art" of LEDs?
Comet Pinball was started in 2013 in Florida by Arthur (ie: "Art") & Lisa. Janet & I were fortunate to be given the opportunity to take over the business and move it to Colorado in 2016. We do our best to continue the great service he was able to offer to pinheads, and honor his commitment to excellent customer service and passion for the pinball industry.
Keep flippin' Art!