More trees for Port Rowan

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I’ll get to the trees in a minute. But first: I had a fun day yesterday…

A colleague from university got in touch and arranged to visit with his wife. Doug Moorhouse and I were both railway modelling enthusiasts all through school, but it never really came up.

(Apparently, when one is 20 years old, trying to get through post-secondary education, start a career, and impress the many beautiful 20-year-old women in your classes, professing a passion for model trains isn’t considered a conversation-starter: Who knew? Anyway…)

So, fast-forward 30 years or so, and Doug gets in touch. He and his wife Rose are going to hit a local club railway open house on the weekend, and could they come by to see the layout afterwards? Of course!

We had a great time. I gave Doug and Rose a tour of the layout. We even ran a train, and although we didn’t spot any freight or follow a schedule, we did turn the train in Port Rowan and take it back to Simcoe, so we did do a bit of switching. I learned that I still had an emergency stop button programmed on one of my two wireless throttles – a feature that’s easy to accidentally hit, so the DCC system shut off a couple of times mysteriously. (I figured out the problem this morning and reprogrammed the button in question to do something less disruptive to operations.)

Doug works in audio production and was really interested in the ambient audio on my layout, so we discussed the hardware and sound files that I use for that. It was nice to talk audio with another person trained in this stuff…

After tying up the train in Simcoe, the four of us went up the street for dinner at Harbord House (as is the tradition with new visitors to the layout). It was wonderful to reconnect with Doug and to meet Rose. It was interesting to learn that other people from my past life were also railway modellers – including at least one professor. And we’re already planning another get-together.

I decided that I wanted to get a little more done on the layout before Doug and Rose visited, so over the past week I worked on more trees for Port Rowan. I’m sure there was still a whiff of hairspray in the air, because the canopy went on Saturday night. But I have finished the trees behind the elevated coal delivery spur and it makes a huge difference to the appearance of this scene. I’ve taken way more photos of St. Williams than of Port Rowan – and I realize that’s in part because Port Rowan has not been as visually interesting, because the scenes lacked the drama of tall trees. Drama? Well, I think they make all the difference in terms of framing what I see through the camera lens. But have a look and judge for yourself.

Here’s a photo from four years ago, without trees:
Port Rowan photo PtR-Shrubs-04_zpsa2840cfc.jpg

And here are two photos taken today, from a similar point of view:
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I know which look I prefer.

The forest continues to march towards the end of the Port Rowan peninsula. Time to make more trees…

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SoundCar decoders :: not now

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(They are safe – for now)

Last week, I wrote a post about the Soundtraxx SoundCar decoder. Today, I opened up the tender on a CNR 10-wheeler with an eye to installing one – but then I did some testing with the speaker I planned to install and decided that the SoundCar isn’t appropriate for this layout.

It’s a great little decoder – don’t get me wrong! – but what I really need is the occasional bit of flange squeal on a few key curves on the layout. These are:

– The main and siding in St. Williams
– The curve from the east end of the Lynn Valley to the water tank
– The curve between the Lynn Valley water tank and Port Rowan
– The S curve on the elevated coal delivery track in Port Rowan

One of the things I realized in testing the SoundCar is that, while Soundtraxx provides adjustments to acceleration and deceleration, it doesn’t provide an adjustment for top speed. That’s problematic for my layout, because I’ve created custom speed tables for the locomotives that severely limit their top speeds. I did this because I have a 20 mph speed limit on the line yet I’d like to be able to use the full range of the throttles. It makes no sense to have “rockets on rails”:

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(Flash Gordon need not apply)

Unfortunately, this means that the sounds generated by the SoundCar will quickly go out of synch with the action on the layout. I’ll be trundling along at a sedate 20 mph (at speed step 126 on my throttles), yet the SoundCar would generate flange squeal and jointed rail noises appropriate for the CNR’s Turbo Train at full throttle:

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So… no.

Instead, I’m looking at what Scott Thornton has been doing on his delightful Iowa Interstate – Milan Branch layout. As Scott writes in this blog post, he is using components from Iowa Scaled Engineering to add ambient audio to his layout – including flange squeal.

I’ve use ambient audio quite effectively on my layout already using components from Pricom Design:

Layout Sound - Pricom Dream Player Pros photo Audio-Pricom_zps65368eb5.jpg
(Click on the image for more information about my ambient audio system)

I’m extremely pleased with the Pricom solution. That said, it’s expensive – and since and I’m thinking about four or five discrete locations to add flange squeal effects, I’m attracted to ISE’s more economical, if less powerful, sound player for this particular application.

I continue to ponder this. I need to figure out a number of issues – including the trigger mechanisms (which could be reed switches, IR detectors or something else), the location of speakers, the appropriately “squeal-y” sound files, and so on.

But progress has been made – and I don’t have to add more electronics inside the tenders of may already-stuffed steam engines.

SoundCar decoders :: Installation options

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(Dare I perform surgery?)

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to operate on a couple of terrific layouts whose owners have installed Soundtraxx SoundCar decoders to enhance the experience.

Bob Fallowfield uses them on his CP Rail layout and Ryan Mendell has installed them on his Algonquin Railway. While the SoundCar is intended to be installed in rolling stock, Bob and Ryan have both opted to install them under the layout, where they feed speakers mounted near specific scenes.

Both are using the SoundCar decoders to enhance operating sessions by contributing flange squeal and the distinctive “clickety-clack” of jointed rail. Bob has three SoundCar decoders on his layout – one in each work zone – while Ryan’s smaller layout requires only one, feeding two speakers.

While one might assume that with fixed speakers, the sound would not follow the train as it would if the SoundCar was mounted in a piece of rolling stock, in both cases the layout-mounted speakers were surprisingly effective. It’s also worth noting that if one were switching, any SoundCar equipped rolling stock not actually in the consist being worked would be, in effect, a stationary speaker. At least with layout-mounted speakers, one has some control over the sound source.

Bob and Ryan both work in HO. Since S scale is larger, I pondered whether I could fit a SoundCar decoder plus speaker into the tenders of my 10-wheelers and moguls. This would be the ideal solution, since the SoundCar decoders are consisted to a locomotive in normal operation anyway. With a speaker in the tender, the flange squeal and rail joint sounds would follow the locomotive – with or without a train.

I took the body off the tender of CNR 10-wheeler 1532 today to investigate. The answer is “yes” – there’s plenty of room. But I would have to do some surgery.

The tenders are modelled with the bunker for the coal portion – and the bunker is in the way of installing a decent-sized speaker in the tender. The good news is, if one were to cut away the bunker, there’s plenty of room – and the bunker is not visible under a load of coal.

Now, I have to decide if I want to take a cut-off disc to these exquisite models. The prospect scares the willies out of me…

Another option would be to install the decoders and speakers in key spots around the layout – but I would have to re-consist the decoders every time I changed locomotives, or as locomotives moved from scene to scene.

Still another option would be to install the SoundCars into cabooses and other equipment that brings up the markers. I can test this with my combines – which already have spare Tsunami decoders in them to provide a back-up whistle. If it works, I can modify my next set of cabooses to contain decoders and speakers (something I planned to do even before the SoundCar came to market).

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(Click on the image for more info)

Yet still another option is to install the SoundCars in the tenders, but with much smaller speakers. Related to this: I believe the existing speakers in the tenders, while large, are not “high-bass” designs. Perhaps I can swap in a high-bass speaker for the main sounds, and free up some room in the tenders for a larger speaker for the SoundCar decoder.

Obviously, I have more research to do. I’ll start by hooking up a SoundCar to a smaller speaker to test the quality of the rail joint and flange squeal sounds. Since they’re mostly high notes anyway, they shouldn’t suffer too much from being forced through a tiny speaker. We’ll see…

Furnace Fixed

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(That’s more like it!)

As reported here earlier this month, our furnace recently quit. The new one was installed on Friday – and there are several bits of good news.

In addition to all the positive home-owner related advantages (such as being more energy efficient and, um, actually working), it’s a whole lot quieter than the previous furnace. That’s a good thing, since the furnace is located in a closet in the aisle behind Port Rowan. With the previous model, whenever I hosted operating sessions in the colder months I would turn off the furnace during the session so that we could hear the layout’s ambient audio, the sound-equipped locomotives – and even each other. As an operating session on Saturday night demonstrated, the new furnace purrs in the background and is no bother at all. Yay!

The second bit of good news is that the installers were able to feed the new air intake and exhaust pipes through the ceiling without having to cut into it. I had visions of power sawing above Port Rowan – and had taped plastic sheeting to the valance to protect the layout against the dust. In the end, I didn’t have to worry about it. It did make for a somewhat naff haunted house effect, though…

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RS18s and violins :: A visit with David

One of the great things about having friends over to see the layout is I never know where the conversation is going to head. I always learn things – and not always about trains.

For instance, on Wednesday my friend David Woodhead visited and I learned about this odd instrument:

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(Click on the Stroh Violin to learn more about it on Wikipedia)

Curiously, the instrument in question actually came up in relation to my recently-completed RS18 model:

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(Click on the image to read all posts about the RS18)

The connection, of course, was the DCC sound unit I put in the model. David was impressed by the sound, and wanted to know about the speaker I’d used and how I mounted it. Here’s a look at the gubbins:

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The speaker is mounted facing up, and the sound escapes the body shell though several avenues – including the various grilles along the sides of the long hood, the exhaust stacks on the top (which are open) and the large rooftop radiator fan.

I mentioned to David that the speaker was ported, but that I was unable to determine whether the port made any difference to the sound. I’d tried a simple test – blocking the port with a finger – and I failed to discern a difference.

That got us talking about ports in speakers for audio systems, secondary sound holes on acoustic guitars and – eventually – the Stroh Violin, which certainly looks like something conjured up by a model railway enthusiast with a well-equipped shop and some spare instruments lying about.

I’ve always thought that the best in our hobby are extremely curious. We love chasing down obscure facts and revel in the unusual – and Wednesday’s visit was yet another example of that.

David and I even ran trains – sort of. Mostly, we talked about various projects over coffee. And that’s always fine.

Great to see you as always, David: Come again soon!

“Best Toys Ever!”

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(All trains on deck: The sector plate, ready for an operating session)

Chris Abbott had business in my part of town yesterday, so he dropped in for a visit. It was his first chance to see the layout since I’d upgraded all of my locomotives to TCS WOWSound decoders, so while we did not hold a formal operating session we did run a few trains…

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The decoders give me more options for replicating the operation of a real locomotive, so they’ll take a bit of getting used to. As an example, here’s what’s involved in going from a full stop to moving forward, with throttle function buttons noted:

Blow two short whistles to indicate forward direction (F3)
Turn off blower (F4)
Turn off injectors if running (F8)
Open cylinder drain valves (F5)
Start bell (F1)
Release brakes (F6)
Open throttle
Turn off bell once moving (F1)
Close cylinder drain valves (F5)

It sounds like a lot to remember, but Chris and I have both spent some time in the cab of a steam locomotive, working as a fireman’s apprentice at a tourist line, so we appreciate the ability to duplicate this sequence in miniature. We know the process – we just need to remember which button does what. It occurred to me last night that the TouchCab throttle app for the iPhone may solve this problem, since it includes icons that one can map onto the various function buttons.

While we had a lot of fun playing with the new sound decoders, we found a curious feature – one we need to avoid for now, and fix down the road:

I use Lenz throttles with keypads. There are four buttons for the throttle: coarse deceleration (-16 speed steps); fine deceleration (-1 speed step); fine acceleration (+1 speed step); coarse acceleration (+16 speed steps).

Normally, I operate using the coarse buttons: I have momentum set fairly high (CV3 = 50), which helps sound decoders produce a dynamic chuff sound. But Chris was being more cautious so he started a train by tapping the fine acceleration button once (to the first speed step – V1 – of 126).

We were both surprised when the train took off at full speed!

Fortunately, nothing was damaged and Chris stopped the train quickly. But further experimentation showed us that…

1 – V1 put full speed to the locomotive.
2 – V2 brought it to a complete stop.
3 – V3 and beyond behaved normally.
4 – The reversing switch worked properly, so the same thing would happen in reverse.
5 – It happens with all locomotives, not just one.
6 – Analogue (DC) operation is turned off on all decoders, so the decoder should not be reacting to the pure power on the rails with no signal.

The short-term solution is to avoid using the fine acceleration/deceleration buttons. The long-term solution is to contact TCS to inform them of the issue and see what they come back with. Meantime, if anybody else using these decoders has had this same problem and found a solution, I’d love to hear about it!

That said, we still had a great time and I look forward to Chris’ feedback on the new decoders.

Afterwards, we retired to Harbord House for pints and fish: Salmon Wellington for me; classic fish’n’chips for Chris. Very, very tasty and we’re definitely favourites with the staff there.

As for the title of this post…

While we might think our trains are the best toys ever, my dogs know better. They are great fans of Chris on any day – but especially yesterday, as he brought them each a new frisbee:

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(Jack and Mocean say, “Stop taking pictures: Let’s play!”)

Thanks Chris! We’ll put them to good use in the dog park this weekend!

WOWSound test video

As requested, I’ve created a short a video of one of my CNR 10-wheelers, newly fitted with the WOW101 Steam-KA decoder from TCS.


(You may also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Keep in mind that this was a quick video, and please excuse the shoddy production values.

Also, I am still learning the various functions of this decoder, so there will be tweaking. I already see that I need to tweak CV3 (acceleration: currently 50) and probably my custom-loaded speed table.

I should also adjust the volume of some sounds. But that’ll come. When I get things set up just right, I’ll have to unpack my DecoderPro gear and capture the configuration file to make sure similar locomotives (e.g.: 10-wheelers 1532 and 1560) are similarly configured.

Curiously, the generator sound shut off at one point – I’m not sure what I did. Turning the headlight (F0) off and on again restored the generator but obviously that’s not supposed to happen.

The keep-alive module is fabulous. It keeps the sound going for at least 15 seconds after I turn off the layout – more than sufficient to counteract the occasional interruption on the electrical path between DCC system and decoder. With this type of backstop for sound and motor control and the constant recharging of this module by the DCC system, I feel no need to explore “dead rail” technology.

As should be apparent by now, I’m pleased with the results so far. This is a step in the right direction for train control.

WOWSound for three moguls

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(That’s a lot of wire. But the decoder swap was simple – thanks to industry-standard JST connectors. The decoder (“1”) will fit in the tender at “A” while the keep-alive module (“2”) will reside at “B”)

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve upgraded the entire steam fleet to TCS WOWSound decoders.

Friend and fellow S scale enthusiast Simon Parent convinced me to give them a try, and I had him install decoders in my 10-wheelers while he was working on them. I decided I would do my three moguls, which are easier than the 10-wheelers because the decoders reside in the tenders.

While there was nothing wrong with the Tsunami decoders, it made sense to standardize the fleet for several reasons, including:

1. I’ve already noted I was having issues with the chuff synchronization cams on the 10-wheelers. It was only a matter of time before the same issues appeared with the 2-6-0s.

2. The WOWSound decoders have a different mix of available sounds – including 15 bells and 40 whistles. I worried that the difference in audio quality and sound mix would be really apparent between decoders from two different manufacturers.

3. The WOWSound decoders also won me over for including a cylinder drain valve sound, which can be set to run automatically or manually controlled. Having spent a little bit of time in the cab of a steam locomotive (very little, but still…) I understand the importance of opening these valves to clear condensation from the cylinders. It’s a sound I wanted on my layout.

The fist job was to get inside the tender and remove the Tsunami.

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While this looks like a spaghetti bowl of wiring, it’s actually fairly easy to trace and the use of JST 9-pin connectors on both the Tsunami and the WOWSound decoders means I could simply unplug one and plug in the other.

Well, almost. I did have to make three solder connections:

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(Tsunami unplugged: The green rectangle near the speaker is the JST 9-pin connector)

The two purple wires are for the speakers, while the pale tan wire is the lead to the chuff cam. Even though I planned to use the electronic chuff synch, I decided I would wire up the cam anyway. It’s there, so why not? Three solder joints and three pieces of heat shrink tubing was all it took. The flux bottle sure came in handy.

Rewiring each locomotive took about 15 minutes. Most of that time was spent disassembling the tender and putting it back together again afterwards.

Programming each locomotive took considerably longer. It was straight-forward, but there were a lot of variables to consider and values to assign. I’m keen to try out the TCS braking system, which is more sophisticated than the Tsunami brake, so I’ve set acceleration (CV3) to 50 and deceleration (CV4) to 150. That sounds like a lot – and locomotives will drift for some time after the throttle is closed – but I’ve also capped the top speed on each locomotive with a custom speed table that top out at 55. We shouldn’t get into too much trouble. If we do, there’s always the throttle’s “Big Red Button”.

With more available, user-controllable sounds, I have remapped the functions on the throttles, too. Here’s my list:

FO(F) = headlight/generator
FO(R) = tender light/generator
FO(F)/FO(R) = number boards/generator
F1 = Bell
F2 = Whistle (long)
F3 = Whistle (short)
F4 = Blower (to be run when locomotive is stopped)
F5 = Cylinder drain valves
F6 = Brake Release
F7 = Brake Set
F8 = Injectors
F9 = Blowdown (but I may substitute something else)
F10 = Water Fill
F11 = Whistle Select (A WOWSound feature, but I may substitute something else)
F12 = Mute

(This function map will make sense to those of you with DCC systems, and I’m including the information here for my own, future, reference too)

I’m sure every layout owner will set up functions in their own preferred way, and my list may change as I operate the layout more. But this is a good place to start.

While writing this post, it occurred to me that I would have to modify some of the special instructions in my Employee Time Table. I use this document to convey several useful bits of information, including the location of various functions on a throttle. So I’ve now updated that document (and added a “revision” note to ensure operators are always using the current version).

Click on the image, below, to read about the Employee Time Table.

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With the decoders installed and programmed – and paperwork suitably updated – I’m ready to run some trains!

10-wheeler enhancements

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(CNR 4-6-0 1560 in the yard throat at Port Rowan. It’s nice to have the 10-wheelers back in service – operating and sounding better than ever)

As noted previously, my friend Simon Parent had my CNR 10-wheelers for a couple of months to do some repairs and upgrades. I picked them up from Simon last week.

There were two issues to address.

The first issue was, the suspensions on the locomotives weren’t working as well as they should. The horn blocks (those things that the axles pass through) were not riding smoothly in the horn block guides. Some of them were jammed. The result of this was only some of the drivers were making reliable contact with the rails, which means the locomotives had very little pulling power.

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(Before identifying the source of the problem, I tried – unsuccessfully – to use Bullfrog Snot to improve pulling power. Click on the image to read more.)

Simon was able to free up the suspensions. He also gave the drivers and horn blocks a good cleaning. They run much better now – and pull much better, too!

The second issue was that the chuff synchronization cams were becoming unreliable. Sometimes, I’d get a double-chuff – other times, I get a missed chuff. These are fiddly, mechanical things. To fix the issue, Simon suggested – and I agreed – that we try a different decoder.

I’ve been using Soundtraxx Tsunami decoders in my steam engines and I’ve been generally happy with them. But they really needed the chuff cam because I’ve never been successful at synchronizing the sound to the drivers (four chuffs per revolution) using the automatic feature on many sound decoders. But, decoders have improved over time and Simon has been very impressed with the TCS WOWSound decoders. These include a pretty awesome Back EMF system to enhance smoothness at low speeds and help synchronize chuffs.

I heard one of these in a mogul when Simon and I took part in the North Shore Train Show in October, and Simon convinced me to give them a try. While he had the 10-wheelers apart to address the suspension issues, Simon installed the WOW101 Steam-KA decoders (which include an awesome keep-alive module). The chuff is easy to synch with these decoders, which use audio prompts from the decoder itself to help set up sounds.

Programming WOWSound decoders is partially traditional, with CVs and Values – and partly like working one’s way through an Interactive Voice Response menu (“Push 1 for sales, Push 2 for service”, and so on) when calling a company. (The big difference, of course, is that using an IVR to program a decoder is far more enjoyable.)

I’ve now played with my two 10-wheelers and I’m very pleased with the switch. I will run them in service and may make minor tweaks as I see fit, but I’m really impressed.

But then, I knew I would be – so I’ve also swapped out the decoders in my three 2-6-0s. More on that in the next post

Doodlebug decoder question

Well, I’m stumped…

As mentioned recently on this blog, last weekend I acquired an S scale brass model of an EMC Gas Electric. Click on the image below to read more about the model:

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While I decide how I’m going to paint this doodlebug, I’ve been doing some searching online to figure out what decoder to put in it. And I can’t find anything that’s suitable. I’ve checked the catalogues for Soundtraxx, ESU (Loksound) and Train Control Systems.

There are many, many diesel-electric sound decoders on the market – and even a few diesel-hydraulic ones, too. But I haven’t found a gasoline-electric. Am I missing something?

Thanks in advance for any leads you can provide…

On a housekeeping note, I’ve now added “Gas-Electric” to the categories menu. This will allow those who are interested to find all posts about this model in one place.