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

Nifty flux bottle

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My friend Chris Abbott gave me this a while ago. I’ve been meaning to mention it here (and thank him publicly). I used to live in fear of spilling the flux used to prep wires for soldering. I also used to drip flux where I didn’t want it as I transferred it from bottle to project on the end of a piece of wire.

No more.

This bottle – I think Chris found it at an electronics supply house – keeps the flux inside, even if it falls over. And the needle cap (with cover) is brilliant: a gentle squeeze deposits one drop of flux exactly where you want it.

Get one.

Thanks, Chris!

Last run on Wabash 1.0

Well… I missed it due to Internet problems and the need to hang around the house in case the Bell technician needed to work inside. But Pierre Oliver and friends held a final ops session on his Wabash in Ontario layout last Friday. As noted earlier this month, Pierre and his wife have bought a new house so this layout will be coming down.

Click on the image below to see more from that final session.
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Pierre reports he’s started to box up his many fine models as he prepares to move house. And I plan to visit him over the holidays to help move some of the layout from basement to dumpster.

The good news is, we’ll be designing a larger, better Wabash layout – version 2.0 – for Pierre’s new home.

“The great emancipator”

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That’s the title of the editorial in the current issue of the excellent UK publication, Model Railway Journal. The piece, by guest editor Jerry Clifford, is a beautifully written argument in favour of learning to build from scratch.

Clifford writes, in part:

“There is no doubt that the quality and range of what is available from the trade far outstrips that of just a few years ago. However, the downside of this undoubted bounty of goodies is a creeping sameness in what can be seen in the model press and at exhibitions. Too often, I would suggest, projects are planned and executed with what is available being the driving force rather than the other way round, the quality and quantity of RTR in particular, becoming a straightjacket rather than a liberator.”

Very, very well said – and something I often remark upon after visiting public train shows here in Canada. I see layouts with different names on the fascia – but a sameness in the modelling: The same out-of-the-box locomotives and rolling stock running past kit-built or ready-made stations, industries and other structures, and often past ready-to-plant scenery items such as trees, fences and so on.

This is not to say that RTR is killing the hobby – or that it has no place on an advanced modeller’s layout. Used with restraint, RTR can give a modeller time to focus on items that help make the layout unique. To provide two examples from my own experience:

I have several RTR models on my own layout, and many of them receive little beyond a coat of weathering and new wheel sets before being pressed into service. This frees up time to build more accurate models of more important rolling stock, such as my CNR baggage-mail car and my CNR boxcars.

I have a couple of houses built from laser-cut kits. However, structures from kits are definitely in the minority on my layout – and those I’ve used are heavily modified. Using kits as starting points for a couple of off-line structures freed up time that I could devote to scratch-building more important structures, such as the St. Williams depot, the tobacco kilns, and the Port Rowan section house.

The important point is, I temper the presence of RTR equipment and kit-built structures on my layout with a healthy dose of scratch-built structures and other details, plus heavily-modified kits for signature pieces of equipment. In the end, most of the elements that comprise my layout will be unique.

It helps that I’m working in S scale, for a couple of reasons. First, 1:64 is a larger scale so it’s easier to scratch build stuff. Second, when compared to more popular scales 1:64 is poorly supported with “ready to use” product – so one is forced to create more from basic materials. (Some may see that as a disadvantage – but I find it liberating.)

If you’re already scratch-building for your layout, then this post isn’t really directed at you. Well done – and keep it up!

However, if you’re new to the hobby and relying mostly on “ready to use” rolling stock, structures and other items, consider how you can kit bash some of them to make them unique – or consider how you can improve your layout with some scratch-built pieces. There are plenty of resources to help you succeed, if you’re willing to give it a try.

Before you know it, you’ll be what Clifford describes as “an original thinker who tends to give convention a cheery wave as he passes it by on the other side of the street.”

Chuffing to Montréal

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On Wednesday, I hopped on the train and chuffed to Montréal for lunch with my friend and fellow S scale enthusiast Simon Parent.

It wasn’t just lunch, of course. Simon is the talented guy who built my CNR steam locomotives, and when we met up at the North Shore Train Show in Laval back in October I left my two 4-6-0s in his capable hands for tuning. The reason for my trip was to collect my 10-wheelers.

The day started early. VIA train 60 left Toronto Union Station at 6:40 am. It was dark enough that I could grab a self portrait in the reflection of the coach window…

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By Cornwall, it was light enough to see the baggage wagon on the station platform:

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Other than the paint, it’s a dead ringer for the wagon in my back yard so I’m always pleased to see it.

The weather was clear in Toronto, but the snow started when we were still west of Kingston and Montréal was well covered as Train 60 pulled into Central Station just before noon. Here, a commuter train slumbers under a blanket of the white stuff:

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Simon met me at the station and we enjoyed a great meal at Reuben’s – a Montréal institution since 1976:

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(Click on the image to visit the Reuben’s website)

After lunch, Simon went back to work. I did a bit of shopping, and then wandered about the train station while waiting for my trip home. Given that it’s just a couple of weeks before Christmas, Central Station’s halls are appropriately decked:

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The station is full of interesting details. I was pleased to notice a smart CN logo done in tiles on a number of pillars:

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And I had a good giggle at some of the wayfinding signs:

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(“Foot-eating attack suitcase ahead”)

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(“Questionable umbrellas and suitcases big enough to live in at right”)

By the time my train left at 5:00 pm, I was ready to get home. VIA train 69 did an admirable job… complete with Caesars!

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I had a great day and I have now returned my two 4-6-0s to the layout. I need to do some tweaking to the decoder programming to get them set up just so, but that’ll happen over the next week or so. The best news is, they run much better than they did before, and with some adjustments to their suspensions their pulling power has greatly improved.

Thanks Simon: I look forward to seeing you again soon!

Backshop Clinics – Live at the Quinte Train Show

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(Turning a classroom into a studio requires a lot gear if you want to do it right)

On Sunday, I headed to Belleville, Ontario – and the Quinte Train Show. In addition to taking in the show, I also hosted a couple of clinics for the “Backshop Clinic” segment on TrainMasters TV. These will be airing in 2015.

While I’ve worked around TV production equipment before – most recently for “The Roadshow” series for TrainMasters TV – I’m always impressed at just how much gear is required if one wants to create a professional, quality production.

The photo above shows three cameras, including one on a jib and a small one mounted directly above the desk on which we’ll be working. A monitor to “audience left” of the desk allowed those in the room to see the output from that small, overhead camera. It also gave us a way, as presenters, to check that our projects remained in the camera’s line of sight.

A fourth camera had been removed from the studio when I took the photo, as TrainMasters TV creator Barry Silverthorn was capturing some video from the show itself.

In addition to cameras and monitors there are four studio lights, including two small lights above the black curtain to back-light our set. The curtain itself is part of the gear. And at the left of the image, one can see an audio board set up to capture and mix sound from the three microphones in use.

I always learn things when I work with Barry, and Sunday’s clinics were no exception.

A new Wabash on the way

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(Eastbound Red Ball fast freights at Renton (top deck) and Aylmer: Pierre’s layout will soon be coming down as he moves to a new home – with a larger space for trains. Click on the image to read more.)

The announcement is now official: As he notes on his blog, Pierre Oliver and his wife have bought a new house, so his HO scale Wabash in Ontario layout will be coming down.

We have one last operating session planned for next Friday, then it’ll be time to haul out the saws and lock the powered screwdrivers in “reverse”. While the electronics, structures and other details will be saved, I suspect most of the physical plant is headed for the dump box. Such is the nature of the hobby.

The good news is, moving always gives one an opportunity to reassess a layout design – to determine what worked well, and what could be improved. The better news is that the new house has a larger space available for Pierre’s Wabash layout – plus a nicer space for his workshop.

I’ll be helping Pierre come up with a new layout design, which I’m sure we’ll share via his blog before too long.

Time to grab some moving boxes at the LCBO…

Mike’s line of sight

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(Repositioning a few tree armatures opens up a view. Thanks, Mike!)

In a previous post, I included the following photograph…

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(Click on the image to read that post)

… and the image prompted the following comments from my friend Mike Cougill:

From the camera’s position there is a really nice sight line through the center of the foreground grove of trees to the overpass.

If you were to relocate one, two or three trees in the middle of that grove toward the left, it would enhance that sight line, making a nicely framed composition of the overpass. Just a thought.

This exchange illustrates two things:

First – the value of mocking up scenes.

Second – the value of sharing them via a blog.

Mike is an artist and knows what he’s talking about. As a result of his feedback, I’ve poked some new holes in the terrain and moved a few of the armatures about to turn a blob of trees into a small grouping at right and a longer, thinner grouping running to the left. And Mike is right – it does improve the composition – whether viewed from track level, from a normal operator’s perspective, and even from close up:

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At the same time, the trees continue to do what I intend them to do, which is to visually separate the overpass from the rest of St. Williams, and help create a smoother transition from the tall forest of the Lynn Valley to the more open spaces around St. Williams:

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Seen from straight on, the trees will continue to create a visual barrier between the bridge and the first switch in St. Williams – indicated by the switch stand just ahead of the locomotive in this image:

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Finally, as part of my testing, I wanted to make sure I can still capture a favourite view, looking along the track towards the Lynn Valley. I liked it so much, I used it as the lead photo for a feature I wrote for Mike’s publication – The Missing Conversation – earlier this year:

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(Click on the image to read more about that feature)

It turns out, I can still get this view with the new trees in place. In fact, I think it will look better with the tree line continuing along the scene to both sides of the track, as shown here:

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Thanks for the thought, Mike – I like how you think!