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…