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…

Waybill bill boxes in LDJ 50

Issue 50 of the Layout Design Journal – the excellent quarterly publication from the Layout Design Special Interest Group – arrived in my mailbox this week and it includes a short article I wrote called “Design Considerations – Realistic Waybill Boxes”.
Layout Design Journal 50 photo LDJ50_zps5e86285f.jpg
(Click on the cover to find out more about the Journal.)

While some might feel a discussion of waybill boxes is more of an operations issue, what I address in this article is how Chris Abbott (who built the boxes for me) and I had to alter the design of the prototype boxes in order to make them work in a model environment. The boxes themselves are smaller, they’re mounted lower to the ground than most prototype boxes, and they’re in a layout room – a place that’s typically less well lit than the great outdoors.
Waybill Box: Port Rowan photo WaybillBox-PtR.jpg

Chris: Thanks again for building these for me!

I’d also like to thank Tony Thompson, whose writings about bill boxes on his blog – Modeling the SP – inspired me to use realistic bill boxes on my own layout. Tony also generously permitted the Layout Design Journal to print a couple of his photos of prototype bill boxes to help illustrate the article.

And since I’m thanking people, I’ll tip the hat to LDJ editor Byron Henderson, who worked with me to ensure that this article would be relevant from a layout design perspective. Byron’s doing a fantastic job of putting together a thought-provoking magazine on a quarterly basis. Well done!

I’ve said it before on this blog, and I’ll say it again: the Layout Design SIG is a great organization for anybody who wants to design (and, therefore, build) better layouts. If you’re not a member, why not start by joining the LDSIG Yahoo Group and ask about the benefits of being part of the SIG?

(While I don’t, personally, get many chances to take advantage of the many LDSIG events organized at national and regional conventions, I get plenty of good reading and interesting ideas out of the Layout Design Journal and feel that even on its own, this magazine is well worth the modest cost of membership.)

The Safe Word is “Banana”…

I’m having problems with my main computer – yesterday it would only boot in Safe Mode, and today it’s not booting at all. So, I’ll hump it to the local shop this week to have the techs rummage around in its gubbins.
 photo SickComputer-New_zps48f60298.jpg

Meantime, I’m using a shared laptop to keep track of stuff and earn a living. But that means it may take a bit longer to approve new comments / respond to questions / etc. Bear with me.

It also means I won’t be posting new photos until either I get my old machine back or I buy a new one.

That said, there’s good news: Being unable to waste banana-boatloads of time online, I’m making great progress in the real world. I spent most of yesterday detailing walls for the HO scale tobacco kilns I’m building for my friend Pierre Oliver. This is good news because Pierre has three of the CNR 8-hatch reefers from Andy Malette to build for me, and I’ll feel darned embarrassed if he gets those done before I have his kilns ready. It’s also good news because I decided a few weeks ago that I wouldn’t undertake any more big projects for my layout until I got Pierre’s kilns off my land and onto his.

Naturally, after taking this decision I’ve had several good ideas (or, at least, interesting ideas) that I’m dying to turn into reality, and then share here.

I’m taking pictures of the kilns as I build them, so stay tuned for photos. I might even do an article on these for the general hobby press. Smoking may no longer be cool – but these kilns sure are…

“Achievable Layouts” blog

Thanks to everyone who offered their thoughts on the achievable layouts series on this blog.

I’ve given your comments a great deal of thought and talked to many others offline as well. As a result, I’ve decided to collect these posts into a new blog. You’ll find a new page called “Achievable Layouts” in the header to this blog with more information. Or click on the image below to go to the new blog right now:
Achievable Layouts Header photo LayoutDesign-Header01_zps895b085f.jpg

I will continue to post short notices here so that Port Rowan readers interested in layout design can follow along. Since blogs are also able to automatically push notifications to interested readers, I encourage you to either sign up for email notifications or RSS feeds. Look for the “Follow this blog (email or RSS)” page on any of the blogs I write to find out how to receive notifications.

And, I will endeavour to update the “Achievable Layouts” page on this blog with links to new designs as they’re published. If you go to the page now, you’ll see a list of all of the layout examples to date, with hot links to their home on the new blog.

I feel this arrangement is the best way to continue to share ideas for achievable layouts without diluting this blog’s focus on my home layout.

Thanks, everyone, for the thoughts on this – very much appreciated!

Welcome, “Proto-Layouts” members!

If you’ve just found this blog through the recent post by Barry Karlberg to the Proto-Layouts Yahoo group, then Welcome! I hope you enjoy your visit and join my regular readers.

I encourage you to start with the “First Time Here?” page, which will give you some background on what I’m doing. And if you want to continue to follow my blog, check the “Follow This Blog” page for information on how to do that via RSS or email.

(Thanks again, Barry!)

“Go Exploring!”

I’ve added a new feature to this blog in response to a request from a friend. He was looking for a way to pick up where he left off, when real life prevented him from visiting the blog on a regular basis.

I dug through my available WordPress Widgets and found an archive navigating widget, which allows readers to filter all my posts by month. I’ve called it “Go Exploring!” and you’ll find it in the right-hand column on the home page. (That is, if you’re reading this on a computer. If you’re on a mobile device, it’s probably at the bottom of the screen – keep scrolling!)

Interestingly, I can show the number of posts by month as well. Seems I’m prolific…

It’s not a perfect solution, but I hope this addition makes it a little easier to get around my blog.

(Remember, if you want an easy way to make sure you never miss a post, you can enter your email address in the appropriate box in the right hand column and my new posts will be delivered directly to your inbox.)

Achievable Layout: A plan for the SP Friant Branch

On my layout design blog, I’ve posted a follow-up to my thoughts about the Southern Pacific’s branch line to Friant, California as the subject for an achievable layout. I think this branch is interesting enough to warrant a closer look, so I drafted a preliminary plan to fit my layout space.

Click on the layout plan below to read more, and enjoy if you visit:

SP Friant Branch Layout in S scale (space test) photo SP-FriantBranch_zps8053816f.jpg

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… 🙂

The dumbing down of making things

Despite the title of this post and the picture below, this is not an essay against 3D Printing. Nor is it an essay in favour of the technology. The merits and shortcomings of 3D Printing have been discussed ad nauseum in the hobby, and I’m not rehashing those debates here.

MakerBot photo MakerBot_zps96549c6f.jpg

This week I attended a two-day technology conference in Toronto, at which one of the keynote speakers enthused about 3D Printing. The speaker – a long-time observer of the technology sector – argued that 3D Printing hailed the coming of the third industrial revolution, combining the physical industrial revolution launched by the spinning jenny in the 18th Century with the digital industrial revolution ushered in by the personal computer in the 1980s.

SpinningJenny photo SpinningJenny_zps67d50bcc.jpg

Apple IIc photo PersonalComputer_zps609b0eb9.jpg

While the speaker may have a point – only the test of time will determine that – I was appalled at how he not only ignored the value of craftsmanship but actually dismissed it when questioned about it later.

During his presentation, the speaker related a story from his childhood about working with his grandfather to build an engine (the gasoline-powered kind, not a locomotive). He made a mistake while measuring a part to be machined and ruined the piece. His take-away from this? “Measuring is hard” and somehow – magically, I suppose – 3D printing eliminates the need to know how to measure.

Yeah, I know: “Seriously?”

I followed up on this in a later Q&A session. As an (admittedly novice) owner of a Sherline Mill, I argued that measuring is actually relatively easy. It’s a mechanical skill that requires little more than the ability to read a calliper and the patience to double-check plans and measurements.

By extension, all physical aspects of making things – whether machining, wood working, model building or something else – are relatively simple skills that involve observation, accuracy and patience. (The key word here is “relatively”.) As such, the physical acts can be performed by a computer-driven machine – whether it’s a lathe, a mill, or a 3D printer. In fact, they can probably be performed better by such computer-driven devices than by a human because accuracy and patience is something computers are really good at.

The real talent is in understanding how to design the object in the first place – an understanding that can only be gained through a combination of education, apprenticeship and experience. It’s easy to use a fly cutter in a mill to remove material from the surface of a piece of metal. It’s easy to press the “Make” icon on a computer screen to start the 3D Printing process. It’s hard to know – to really understand – whether the material you’ve chosen for your design is the best material, and how much you can push that material’s properties before it will no longer be able to perform the function you’re asking of it.

3D Printing gives us a new means of production, but it’s worse than useless without the knowledge imparted by the process of training and experience – in other words, by craftsmanship.

“Worse than useless” is a strong statement, but here are a couple of examples of why I feel this is a fair assessment:

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a hammer. But unless I understand the stresses acting on a hammer when I pound a nail, my 3D Printed hammer could shatter. The shattered head could rebound and crack me in the temple. At an extreme, it could kill me.

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a coffee mug. But unless I understand the nature of the material I use, and the limitations of the current technology, I could create a mug that could be impossible to properly clean. (For example, current 3D Printers leave small ridges that could encourage bacteria growth.) In time, my mug could harbour enough bacteria to make me seriously ill, or even kill me.

The visionary’s response to the role of craftsmanship was dismissive. “Computers will do all that” was essentially his verdict. And that disturbs me because ultimately, computers are programmed to serve. If we press the “Make” button, a computer might be programmed to say “Hey – are you sure? Because this hammer looks kind of dodgy to me”. But in the end, it’ll 3D Print my poorly-designed Hammer O’ Death.

Craftsmen, on the other hand, can – and if they’re trusted for their experience, will – dig in their heels, explain why the design is a failure, and refuse to produce it. And the greater their expertise, the harder they will defend that position.

The problem arises when the traditional craftsman is eliminated from the production process, which is essentially what the conference keynote speaker suggests is going to happen (although he did not put it in those terms). If, by using a 3D Printer, we eliminate the person who knows about designing and making hammers or coffee mugs, then we have to step into that role ourselves.

I would feel more positive about the future of 3D Printing as a catalyst for the next industrial revolution – with all the benefits that implies – if those considered to be authorities on the technology presented it for what it really is: Namely, another dumb tool in our tool kit.

Knowledge and talent do not manifest at the touch of a button – any more than they manifest when one grabs a hammer. They are hard to acquire – and people need to continue to recognize and value that.

3D Printing is already having an effect on our hobby and I’m certain it will continue to do so, especially as the technology improves. But I hope hobbyists don’t let their enthusiasm for this relatively new and novel technology blind them to the importance of the pursuit and mastery of the skills of the craftsman in creating products that are of lasting value.

Anybody can 3D Print junk. That’s easy. Learning to use this tool as a craftsman will be hard. Don’t let the experts try to tell you otherwise.

Fortunately, I think as a group we hobbyists have an advantage over the general population – including the computer-savvy generation of Digital Natives who will naturally turn to 3D Printing and other such technologies when they want to “make things”. That’s because we are already “makers”:

We have learned about things like material properties and good fabrication practices – through clinics, clubs, round-robin layout-building groups, publications, good old fashioned trial and error and, more recently, online forums, blogs, videos and groups.

And because our models are intended to run on our layouts, we understand the importance of fabrication skills such as the ability to accurately measure. We know that these are not skills to walk away from because they are “too hard”, but rather skills to run towards – to master so that we may enjoy the products of this creative outlet.

Equally importantly, we have developed an appreciation and respect for those who know these things, and share them with those who don’t.

So, my fellow craftsman: Well done! Let us not think of technology in terms of how it can provide us with shortcuts. Instead, let’s continue to critically assess new technologies, tools and techniques, even as we explore their potential to make our hobby even more rewarding.