Birdsong (a.k.a. “effective audio”)

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Over the long weekend, my friend David Clubine was in town with his family and they dropped in – very briefly. David had a set of freight car trucks for me and with him in town it was a great opportunity to collect those – and give him a quick look at the railway.

It’s been a year and a half since David was last here – he visited with his father, Oliver Clubine, for an operating session in January of 2013. So I had much to show him, and we had much to discuss.

One thing that sticks in my mind is comments David made about the ambient audio on my layout. I installed this system in May of last year, and it provides a very simple background soundtrack of bird songs, with the occasional insect buzz thrown in for good measure. It’s the sound one would hear while standing in a southern Ontario meadow in the summertime.
Redwing Blackbird photo RWBbird-02.jpg

Since I installed this system after David’s last visit, this was the first opportunity for him to hear the effect first-hand. I think he was impressed because he pointed out that when he first read about the system on my blog he thought it might come off as overpowering or cheesy – but that hearing it in person he realized just how effective it is.

He’s not the only one to feel that way. Everybody who has seen the layout has enjoyed the ambient audio and it does tend to simply fade out of consciousness once one is running a train. It’s there the way that bird song is there when one is outside. We filter it out of our perceptions automatically and only hear it if we’re listening for it or if something startling happens – like a blue jay screaming an alarm call.
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And yet, if we went outside on a summer’s day and the birds were not singing, we’d definitely notice that.

A similar thing is happening on the layout. If I turn off the ambient audio system, the sound-equipped locomotives start to sound out of place to me now. Adding the ambient audio has been a real winner for me. I’m so glad I took the plunge and will definitely use it on any future layouts.

Great to see you, David – come back soon!

CNR 1560 – Sound comparison

As a follow-up to yesterday’s decoder replacement project, I’ve done a quick video comparing the sound of the old (light steam) and new (heavy steam) Tsunami decoder in CNR 10-wheeler 1560:

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

The first clip in the video features sound from the old (light steam) decoder. It was shot a couple of years ago and featured in a video on this blog at the time. I followed this first clip with several clips of the locomotive in action with the replacement (heavy steam) decoder.

I’m much happier with the sound of the exhaust, the dynamo/generator, and the bell. I still need to tweak some of the decoder settings and adjust the speed table, but I’m glad I did the swap.

Tsunami Tswap-a-roo

Today I tackled a job that I’d been putting off because I thought it would be harder than it turned out to be:

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My first S scale locomotives were two 10-wheelers built for me by Simon Parent. I took delivery of these a couple of years before I decided to make the switch from “The Standard Gauge of Maine” in On2 scale to the CNR in 1:64.

When Simon built these two locomotives for me, I asked him to install DCC+Sound. It made more sense for him to do this while building them – rather than me taking delivery then dismantling them to do so. And in all that time, I’ve never peeked under the hood.

But at the time, we settled on the Tsunami Light Steam Decoder. This made a lot of sense since these are relatively light locomotives. But…

I’m not enamoured of the Light Steam sounds. The bell is anemic and an auto-ringer: It delivers a series of single strikes – “ding – ding – ding” like a diesel, instead of the “ding-ding – ding-ding – ding-ding” that I associate with steam locomotive bells. What’s more, the chuff is apologetic – more like something one would get out of a garden scale live steam engine than a real locomotive.

Therefore, when I commissioned Simon to build some 2-6-0s for me we picked the Tsunami Medium Steam Decoder – and I’ve been much happier with the sound of the 2-6-0s as a result. The exhaust is throatier and the bell has more presence. The whistles are nicer, too.

I knew at some point I would want to replace the decoders in the 10-wheelers. But with the decoder mounted in the boiler, plus multiple lighting effects and a speaker in the boiler and in the tender, I figured it would be an unpleasant job.

But as with so many things in this hobby, the phrase “Nothing ventured – nothing gained” applies here as well. I realized a few weeks ago that I rarely run the 10-wheelers these days, because I preferred the sound of the 2-6-0s. Since there’s no point in having the locomotives on the layout if I’m not running them, I ordered a couple of replacement decoders.

I could’ve gone with the Tsunami Medium Steam Decoders – like the ones in the 2-6-0s. But I opted instead for Tsumami Heavy Steam Decoders. My rationale was simple: I wanted the 10-wheelers to sound different than the 2-6-0s – and since they’re bigger prototypes I wanted them to sound bigger, too.

While it may seem odd to install a heavy steam decoder in a 4-6-0, keep in mind that on my layout, the 10-wheelers are the heavy power:
CNR 80 and 1560 - lights photo CNR80-CNR1560-StW-Lights_zps0b2f7a58.jpg

I will never run anything larger – because the prototype didn’t, because anything larger looks awful on my 42″ radius curves, and because anything larger won’t fit on the turntable in Port Rowan.

I also really like the style of layout I’m building. I admire layouts that feature long trains snaking through mountains or speeding across wide open spaces – but the railroading that really speaks to me is the stuff that’s up close and personal. And from my experience working as an apprentice fireman on Monson RR #4 at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum, I know that even a tiny 0-4-4T – so small that the engineer routinely sits on the window ledge, with upper body outside of the cab – can sound huge when one is standing next to it.

Given that small models with small speakers already have trouble generating big noise – and given that most people (myself included) don’t actually want big noise in a layout room, because it quickly becomes overwhelming – using the heavy decoders seemed like the best choice. If I were building a more extensive layout and planned to roster larger steam power on it, I would’ve made different choices.

But enough philosophy: Today, I decided to tackle the Tsunami Tswap-a-roo. To my surprise, each locomotive took just 20 minutes, and involved making three easy solder connections then insulating the joints with heat shrink tubing.

Easy peasy – lemon squeezy.

It took longer to program the new decoders than it did to do the exchange.

In part, this is because Simon did a great job designing these kits. I simply popped off the smokebox front and unplugged it, then unplugged and hauled out the front speaker. From that point on, it was easy to lift the superstructure off the mechanism. The Tsunamis have a plug/socket connector that handles most of the wiring (to the right of the purple-wrapped decoder in the lead photo). I had to trim back some purple heat shrink on the decoders to unplug the old and plug in the new. The soldering was confined to the other end of the decoder, and involved two speaker wires and the cam wire to synchronize the exhaust.

(When the speaker is in place, it rides under the decoder, facing down. The bottom of the boiler in this area is perforated to allow the sound out.)

I’ve now programmed the various CVs on the two new decoders – setting volumes, assigning functions to function buttons, creating custom speed tables, and so on. I’m relieved that the 10-wheelers are working as well as they did before I started, and sound better than ever.

I’m glad I took the plunge and look forward to running the 10-wheelers on the layout more often.

Wide-ranging discussions

The Model Railway Show photo TMRS_badge_zpscfab16b2.jpg

Today, I was reminded why I miss producing and co-hosting The Model Railway Show.

What prompted this was a wide-ranging discussion I had with my friend Chris Abbott, who was in the neighbourhood for an early afternoon appointment but had enough time to grab a bite and a pint at Harbord House.

We talked about layout designs for exhibitions… the development of various scales and the confusion some enthusiasts have about “scale” vs. “gauge”… rationalizing one’s collection of stuff… balancing prototype fidelity with model railroading fun… modelling in larger scales in smaller spaces… and much more.

(Great – as always – to see you, Chris!)

Get-togethers with Chris always include a great exchange of ideas – not only about the micro issues that relate to building a specific layout but also the macro issues that shape the hobby as a whole. I’m fortunate that I can say the same about get-togethers with my other regular operators, too – friends like Pierre Oliver, Hunter Hughson and David Woodhead, to name just a few.

Through the podcast, I was able to have these same wide-ranging discussions with interesting hobbyists from around the world. I learned a lot – and while some of what I learned confirmed my hobby biases, a lot of what I learned challenged my thinking.

I know a number of former listeners now read this blog. I’m not posting this to solicit encouragement to pull the headphones out of storage and return to my spot behind the microphone.

I’m simply not ready to revive the podcast – not yet, anyhow. While it was a lot of fun, The Model Railway Show was also a lot of work. What’s more, it was work that cut into my layout-building time. For now, I have this S scale layout to fill my hobby hours and drain my hobby budget.

But in time – perhaps when I have more of the layout completed and I’m down to detailing, special projects and enjoying the fruits of my labours? Well, we’ll see…

In the meantime, I’m happy that I’m able to get together so often with my friends – to share thoughts, debate issues, discuss plans and, in general, solve the hobby’s problems – especially when there’s an operating session and/or a pint or two involved!

A visit from Woodhead & Reilly

Me and David Reilly photo Woodhead-130903-01_zps80c5fc1e.jpg
(With arms waving, I give David Reilly the guided tour)

Last week, my friend and neighbour David Woodhead emailed to say he had a friend coming to visit his layout – and would they be able to come over to see mine as well? Sure thing!
Like my friend David, David Reilly is also in the music business. My musical talent ends at being an appreciative listener, but I have spent some time in radio broadcasting so we had a lot to talk about on the technical side of audio production. And, of course, we talked trains.

It’s always fun showing off the layout – especially to people who are new to or, as in David R’s case, returning to the hobby. David obviously has an agile, inquisitive mind and he was very interested in the scenery materials I’ve been using – from the Noch static grass and the Silflor weeds to the JTT corn, Busch tobacco and the trees I’m twisting from florist wire and covering with flexible modelling paste, following techniques I’ve learned from books by Gordon Gravett. If you’ll pardon the pun, we covered a lot of ground.

In addition, both Davids have fine ears and as I told them, it’s always gratifying to have musicians comment favourably on the ambient audio I’ve added to the layout using Dream Player Pro sound units from Pricom Engineering.

For his part, David W hasn’t seen the layout for a few weeks now so it was a chance for him to see, first hand, the progress I’ve made – including the valance, additional wire tree armatures, the fascia labels, and the St. Williams station with its working train order board. David also took a few pictures which he shared with me, including a couple of very nice close-ups in Port Rowan and St. Williams:
David Woodhead 2013-09-03 photo Woodhead-130903-03_zps16d61b4b.jpg

David Woodhead 2013-09-03 photo Woodhead-130903-02_zpsd14a2c5e.jpg

We even arranged to meet for lunch at Harbord House and make an afternoon of it. Problems were solved – including the thorny question of food and drink.

I had a great time, David and David: Let’s do it again soon!

Layout sound and listener perspective

I’ve been having a conversation off-line about layout sound with my friend Hunter Hughson. Hunter’s a musician so he thinks a lot about audio and he’s had some great thoughts about “listener perspective” – about how sound helps to convey the story.

On my layout, the addition of ambient audio – chiefly, bird calls – has switched the listener’s perspective. Hunter thinks the sounds are great, but wondered whether I have any issues with that switch.

Here’s what Hunter and I have been talking about:

Before the birds were added, the listener assumed they were in the cab of the locomotive, since the locomotive is the only element on the layout that generated sound. A steam locomotive cab is a noisy place and anybody riding in the cab would not hear ambient noises such as birds.

Now, the addition of bird song, running water in the Lynn River, etc., has switched the listener perspective to that of someone standing trackside. We hear the locomotive – but also the environment through which it runs.

Does that switch require changes to how the sound is presented? Or is it okay to mix the ambient sound that a spectator would hear, with the in-cab sound a crew member would experience?

I’ve thought about this, thanks to Hunter’s questions and thoughts, and I’ve decided that yes, it is okay.

My layout room is of relatively modest size, and the layout plan is relatively open, so no matter where one stands in the room, one hears a locomotive in steam. But, one also hears the environmental sounds – unless the locomotive is also present. For example, standing in the alcove where the Lynn River is located, one hears the river sounds if there is no train present. But when a train passes through the scene, it drowns* out the ambient audio.
(*excuse the pun)

That’s fine – but what about other sounds? While it’s not appropriate for the steam-powered trains on my 1950s-era layout, what about radio chatter from the conductor in the van to the engineer in a diesel? That would be appropriate on more contemporary layouts – and in fact many layouts that use two-person crews also use FRS radios or other walkie-talkie type systems to communicate with each other and with a dispatcher. If the viewer’s perspective is as a bystander, those would not be heard – at least, not with the clarity of someone wearing headphones or carrying an FRS radio. Is that a problem, from a narrative perspective?

It could be, except that my experience is that once the trains are running, everybody with a throttle or clipboard assumes they’re on the train. And those visitors who are not actively operating trains assume they’re along for the ride – they’re in the head-end brakeman’s seat in the cab, or on a bunk in the van. Ambient sounds, if they’re heard at all, are for the most part edited out of one’s experience.

So then, if we ignore the bird calls when running a train, what’s the point of ambient sound? Does it have any role to play?

I say “Definitely!”

The bird calls and insect buzzes help set the scene – they reinforce that what visitors to my layout are looking at is summer in Ontario. I think if they help convey that message to visitors when I power up the layout, they’ve done their job – even if they’re promptly forgotten about as soon as we start running the trains.

(Thanks again, Hunter, for emailing me with your thoughts – they’ve helped me define why I’m doing what I’m doing on the layout. Keep the good ideas coming!)

On an unrelated note: I’ve ordered a new computer. Postings will be sporadic until it arrives and I have a chance to set it up, but I’m doing lots of stuff at the workbench in the meantime so once I do have the new machine in place, I’ll have plenty to share…

More progress on audio

Last week, my second order for Dream Player Pro sound units arrived from Pricom Design – and over the weekend I installed a third ambient audio player on the layout. This unit drives speakers located at either end of the run-around track in St. Williams.

As with the first two players, bird song is the dominant sound effect I’ve used: It carries well at low volumes through the speakers I used, and I feel it provides just enough ambient sound without becoming overwhelming. (I suspect this is because we hear birds all the time when outdoors so our brains are really good at filtering out the noise so it doesn’t become distracting. And yet, we would notice an absence of bird calls – perhaps not consciously, but we would feel that something was not right.)

When I added my second Dream Player Pro to the layout, I had to do some fine tuning to the sound files – adjusting levels and the left-right balance of sounds between the first and second units. So it comes as no surprise that now that I have a third unit running in the layout room, I must once again do some of this fine tuning. But it’s not difficult:

– I listen to the environment in the layout room;
– I make notes on needed adjustments (eg: “move ‘sparrows’ more to the right in St. Williams” or “Cut the volume of the cardinals in the Lynn Valley”);
– Make the adjustments on my computer;
– Reload the tracks onto the appropriate SD cards;
– Listen to the result and repeat the above steps until satisfied.

I’m really pleased with how this project is working out. I have a fourth Dream Player Pro unit, which I may use to add sounds at the road crossing in St. Williams and along Bay St. in Port Rowan. Or, I may keep it in a safe place in case I need a replacement. We’ll see…

(A special thanks to Steven Scheffler at Pricom Design for great customer service, too!)

By the way, this update marks a blogging milestone: This is my 500th post. I appear to like blogging… 🙂

Turntable Air Motor (thanks, Chris!)

Chris Abbott stopped in yesterday for lunch ahead of an appointment in my area. Before we headed out to the pub (do I have to say “Harbord House“?), I gave him a quick tour of the layout, and demonstrated the ambient sound that I recently added.

That got us talking about other sounds I can add – always keeping in mind that I don’t want the layout to end up sounding like a calliope:

(Pleasant though it is…)

During our hand-waving exercise, Chris and I realized that if I changed out the single-pole switch that runs the Port Rowan turntable – replacing it with a double-pole switch – I could use the second set of contacts as a trigger for a looped air motor sound effect loaded into the Pricom Design Dream Player Pro I’m using for the meadow. The right channel speaker for this sound unit is located adjacent to the turntable, so panning the sound effect to the right when recording would put it in the perfect location, sonically speaking.

Here’s a video of the air motor at the CPR John Street Roundhouse in Toronto:

I was able to capture a short segment of sound from this, edit it to my desired volume and balance, then load it into the Dream Player Pro. Rewiring the turntable control and running wire for the trigger took about a half-hour.

I’m very happy with the result.

(This reminds me that I will have to take some more video of the layout to share the ambient sounds with readers. Stay tuned for that…)

UPDATE (May 16, 2013) – I’ve taken video and shared it in two subsequent posts. Click on the following links to find videos that include:
The sound of the turntable air motor
The sound of the cattle in the Lynn River

Layout Sound

Last week I ordered a pair of Dream Player Pro starter kits from Pricom Design. They arrived this week.

These are professional-quality audio players used not only for model railways but also for exhibits such as museum dioramas. They can be programmed to run multiple tracks at the same time, and each track’s behaviour can be controlled. So, for instance, some tracks can run continuously (in loop mode), while others can be controlled via a trigger – a push-button, a motion detector, or another method. It’s even possible to use the accessory outputs on a DCC decoder to trigger sounds.

I installed my two boards under the layout on a scrap of 3/4″ plywood. As I do with all under-layout electronics, I added a “drip shield” made from masonite so that anything that dribbles through the terrain (e.g.: glue from ballasting) won’t land on the electronics:
Layout Sound - Pricom Dream Player Pros photo Audio-Pricom_zps65368eb5.jpg

I have another mount and drip shield already mounted nearby for two more Dream Players.

Each Dream Player is powered from a wall-wart (included in the starter set). I had some speakers that I used on a previous layout that do not have built-in amps, but Pricom’s instructions note that these boards can drive unpowered speakers – they will just be at low volume, like listening to headphones. I was looking for background sound and a test proved that my speakers provided plenty of noise for what I had in mind, so I went with them. Otherwise, my local computer shop has a good selection of small desktop speakers, and any of them would’ve worked fine.

My speakers came already mounted in enclosures with handy mounting holes. It was a simple matter to decide where I wanted them to be, then screw them to the benchwork near the front fascia. Here’s a speaker for the Lynn River near the water tank and steel girder bridge – it’s aimed straight down and is just a few inches in from the curved fascia:
Layout Sound - Speaker Installation photo Audio-Speaker_zpsf7cc7b7d.jpg

(More about the two buttons in a minute.)

I built my own soundtracks. I have a mixing board and a pile of digital sound editing programs from my work on The Model Railway Show, so this was easy enough to do. (Those who prefer to let others do the audio engineering might consider contacting Jim Wells at Fantasonics Engineering. It was through Jim that I learned about Pricom.) When one’s audio is mixed and saved as a WAV file, one loads the finished tracks (plus a configuration file that tells the Dream Player what to do with them) onto a micro SD card. These are used in digital cameras and recorders, and are a handy way to get the audio onto the Dream Player since they just click into place. (Rather than record directly through the Dream Player, I visited my local Vistek and picked up an inexpensive multi-format card reader by Delkin.)

In the layout room, I installed two speakers for each board:

The first board delivers audio for the meadow in Port Rowan – with the right-channel speaker located near the depot and the left channel speaker just to the left of the apple orchard. Sounds on this board include redwing black birds, house sparrows, blue jays and cicadas. I adjusted the balance and volume of each of these sounds when building my tracks so that different sounds are emphasized depending on where one is standing. For example, the blue jays appear mostly in the left channel, while the redwing black birds are mostly in the right.
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Redwing Blackbird photo RWBbird-01.jpg

The second board delivers audio for the Lynn Valley – with the right-channel speaker located under the Lynn River at the steel girder bridge, and the left-channel speaker located in front of the trestle. Sounds on this board include cattle (right channel), swans (left channel), cardinals and crows. And, of course, the sound of the river – which turned out to be the hardest thing to mix properly, but through several rounds of trial and error I was able to come up with something that can be heard while standing in the Lynn Valley, but not so much when elsewhere in the room.

The key, I think, is to not overdo it – keep the sounds low, and of a background variety such as bird calls. I don’t want the layout ending up cartoony – full of sounds of busy town sounds or Ol’ MacDonald’s Farm (“with an oink oink here, and a moo moo there…”)

Now, about those buttons:

On the Dream Player Pro that feeds the Lynn Valley area, I added the occasional “moo” and “honk” from cows and swans. But only very occasional – perhaps two or three sequences in 10 minutes. However, I also wanted visitors to be able to hear cows/swans on demand, so I created separate audio tracks and assigned them to trigger when the buttons are pushed. The two buttons in the above image trigger two different cow sound effects:
Cows in the Lyn River photo LynRiver-Shrubs_zpscb596eb8.jpg

A button near the trestle triggers the swans:
Trestle abutments photo Trestle-Abutments.jpg

I am thinking about suitable triggers for the meadow – but I’m in no rush. Meantime, I’m also thinking about bird calls and other ambient sounds I want to add in the St. Williams area.

St. Williams will require at least one more board – but I’m so impressed by the Dream Player Pro that I’ve already ordered two more. The first board will give me two channels in St. Williams – probably located at either end of the run-around track. The second board gives me flexibility to add two more channels – perhaps at the road crossing in St. Williams, and on Bay Street in Port Rowan.

I can think about this while I’m waiting for the next order of Dream Players to arrive!

Wanted: Air-powered engine sound module

As this photo of the Port Rowan turntable shows, the bridge is equipped with an air-powered engine to turn it:
CNR 86 on the Port Rowan Turntable photo CNR86-TT_zps01eb4c0d.jpg

I’m a big fan of sound on a layout – both for the trains and for the scenes through which they pass. I intend to add scenic sounds as appropriate – from birds to streams. One of the sounds I’d like to include is that of this air-powered engine at work. Therefore, I’m looking for an appropriate sound module.

I would like to set up this module so it runs only when I throw the switch to operate the turntable. (This switch is a SPDT style – as one option, I could replace it with a DPDT and use the second set of contacts to control the sound module.)

I have yet to find an appropriate module. Miller Models is no longer in business, and a search through the catalogues at Ram Track and Innovative Train Technology turned up some lovely sounds… but, alas, nothing suitable for this application.

So, I’m throwing the question out to you, the readers: If you know of one, use the Comments function to let me know. Thanks in advance!