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.
 photo BlueJaysInTrees_zpsbcd928c8.jpg

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!

27 thoughts on “Layout Sound

  1. Trevor,
    Very cool! Between the stellar scenery, the realistic operations and thoughtfully considered soundscapes, you will have a museum quality interpretation of this area and era.

    Mike C.

    • Thanks Mike!

      I’m actually surprised at just how different the layout environment feels with the simple addition of some birdsong and insect buzzes. I’ve always been turned off by the tendency for layout sound to be too busy or gimmicky. But a few nature sounds really does set the mood – and I’d do it again, for sure!


  2. Cicadas… that’s the sound rural southern Ontario! Cool idea. I’ve got to check this out.

    When I was a kid, the fruit farms all around our home had cannons that fired on regular intervals to scare the birds out of the orchards. You could add that to the sounds coming from your orchard. To be realistic, it should silence the birds until they gather enough courage to return for the feast. On second thought, scratch that whole idea. A sound that precipitates silence defeats the whole point of adding sounds 🙁


    • Hi Hunter:

      C’mon over some time: We’ll run trains and you can hear the cicadas for yourself.

      As for cannons… I think you killed the idea by yourself, so I won’t have to. I can just imagine a cannon going off as someone is trying to uncouple a car – and the apologies for punching a hole in the end of the car with the uncoupling pick.



      • Hi Trevor

        I actually like the idea of when approaching an area that it would go silent, much like nature, once the creatures became uesd to human presence, then activity would start again.


        • Hi Bill:
          It’s an interesting thought, I agree…
          I have to say though, that a sound-equipped locomotive tends to drown out the ambient sound, so it’s almost as if what you describe is happening. I tend not to hear the other sounds when a train passes – but hear them after it has gone away…

  3. Nice.
    Only thing missing is the smell of the real place (scent is the biggest memory trigger of them all).
    Have experienced an attempt at this, at an exhibition in the UK. Coal smoke can be a bit unpleasant, depending on the sulphur content, so getting a gentle waft of scent is quite important and also quite difficult. Yes, my memory is of a somewhat over-powering experience, the more so as I was present on the layout opposite for the whole weekend!


    • Hi Simon:

      I think I can draw the line at smell. And taste. If I catch anybody tasting the scenery, they’re out.


  4. It’s OK Simon, Trevor asked me to bring some manure in from the nearby farm when I visit this week. We’ll just spread it around under the benchwork.

  5. Dear Trevor,

    Good to see you having fun with the DreamPlayers. I would have hoped that you’d have mounted the speakers firing _up_ thru the scenery, rather than down under the layout, as commonly, your ears are _above_ the scene datum rather than below/under it. That said, if it’s sounding right to you, then it is, and with the “not-scared-ness” you have RE actually getting-your-hands-dirty in the audio editor, you have all the capability in the world to tweak the sound to perfectly fit your room/scene/speaker-installation config…

    For those reading along who do not have Trevor’s access and “prior experience” in audio editing, the FREE “Audacity” audio editing app is very potent, capable of producing DreamPlayer-Ready WAV files, easy to use, (if you’re reading this, and can type an email, you’ve got all the “PC skills” you need to drive Audacity), and did I mention it’s FREE?

    Knowing that Port Rowan has DreamPlayers somehow “just feels right”,
    can’t wait to hear more…
    (Pun wholely intended, and apologised for… 😉 )

    Happy Modelling,
    Aim to Improve,
    Prof Klyzlr

    • Hi Professor:
      Yes, I’m having lots of fun with the Dream Players. I’m looking forward to the next batch arriving so I can complete the sound installation.
      I thought about mounting the speakers to point up through the scenery, as you suggest. But I did not have an easy way to do that: The scenery base is roughly 2″ thick and made of foam board. Plus, I would’ve had to break through the meadow to let the sound out, and I like the scenery I’ve done so far too much to mess with it.
      That said, I’ve mounted the speakers at the front edge of the fascia, pointing down, and adjusted the sound so the level is appropriate when viewing the layout normally. The fact that the sound is indirect helps mask its source, too, I think. The bird calls sound like they’re coming from the trees – because that’s where the eyes tend to look when one hears a bird call. Meantime, the water sounds like it’s in the river. I’m really happy about that!

    • Hi again, Professor:

      I should’ve mentioned that Audacity is one of the editors I’m using. It came bundled with the Behringer 8-channel audio mixing board I used to produce The Model Railway Show. I use Audacity to capture recordings and edit individual tracks.

      Then I build my sound files in Garage Band – I find it easier to juggle multiple channels in Garage Band, adjusting volume and balance for each instance of each sound.

      As an example, the track I built for the meadow has more than 80 channels. For those unused to modern audio editing that may sound excessive, but by assigning a single sound to each channel I was able to do things like suggest movement.

      As an example, I created a sequence that represents a blue jay in flight, sounding their distinctive double cry (those familiar with it may know it as, “Cat! Cat!”)

      I created three channels, added the sound clip to each so that they’d play one after the other, with a pause between each. Then I adjusted the balance and volume of each track so it sounds like the blue jay is flying away and to the left.

      It’s hard to illustrate with words, but I’ll give it a go:
      “Cat! Cat! — — — — — –” (Vol: 100% ; Bal: 50/50)
      “– — — Cat! Cat! — — –” (Vol: 70% ; Bal: 70/30)
      “– — — — — — Cat! Cat!” (Vol: 40% ; Bal: 90/10)

      It’s remarkably effective.


  6. very cool! I’m thinking of something like this for the Gravel Crusher. Did you investigate Boulder Creek’s new 8 channel player?

    • Dear Seth,

      If you’re referring to the BCE “Brass Hat” unit
      then I’d have to point out that:
      – the DP uses uncompressed WAV, the BH uses 8bit ?kHz ISD chips
      (no contest in audio file-format perfromance)
      – the DP uses a Burr Brown DAC, whereas the BH uses the onboard PWM output (no contest in actual D/A output audio perfromance)
      – The DP allows full-res 48kHz 16bit stereo WAV files to be copied onto an SD card and loaded seamelssly. The BH uses realtime recording and no external storage/backup/’extensible” audio memory.

      In short, if one has any real care about the resolution (and I hesitate to mis/use the term, but end-result “quality”) of the audio being used on their layout, for the same RRP (US$99) it wasn’t even a fair fight, it was a massacre, and the Pricom DreamPlayer was the only unit left standing…

      Happy Modelling,
      Aim to Improve,
      Prof Klyzlr

      PS NB that Pricom publish _actual_ audio performance specs for their units,

      I see no such specs for the BCE units…

  7. Dear Seth,

    I’d also point out that:
    – the DP has a max capacity (using a single 16Gb SD card) of over 25 hours of audio, not a comparatively tiny 4 minutes.
    – the DP is fully configurable in terms of playback behaviour, randomised playback of files, “background file” operation, Trigger Input and Control Output behaviour, etc etc.
    – said configuration is via plain “human readable” TXT file residing on the same SD card as the audio. (IE easily accessible, editable, and deployable)

    Please NB, I’m not employed or financially involved with either Fantasonics or Pricom except as a hardcore fan of their ethos towards audio in model RRing, and their resulting products spawned from those roots…

    Happy Modelling,
    Aim to Improve,
    Prof Klyzlr

    PS for those so inclined, from the very first “DreamPlayer” (MK1) design,
    the trigger inputs were capable of being driven by a TCS FL4 or Digitrax TF4 accessory decoder. Ergo, a DreamPlayer can most certainly be controled via DCC/JMRI/etc… 😉

    • I should add to the Prof’s comments that I went with the top tier Dream Players because I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to use them and I wanted the additional flexibility to let me play around with ideas.

      But Pricom also offers other sizes – including the Dream Player LITE for $39 ($59 in a starter pack with micro SD card and wall wart) – that would do the trick for many applications.


  8. Hi Trevor

    I like the drip shield concept to protect electronics, something I have never considered, but badly needed for a layout still under heavy scenery construction. So easily added, and protects $$$”


  9. Trevor,

    This is a great article on ambient sound on the layout. I’m thinking that eventually on my Algoma Central layout that it would be nice to do some similar things with playing nature sounds in the background, since 90% of my layout will be remote northern Ontario backwoods railway.

    In a couple of places I’ll have sawmills and an ore processing plant, and some industrial auditory scenery would be a great enhancement to that, when you’re standing next to those scenes to hear the saws or heavy equipment, and peaceful forest sounds everywhere else.

    And you’re 100% right about keeping the volume low and barely audible so it fades into the background. Even the majority of sound locomotives have the sound output turned up way too high out of the factory, and should be turned down to sound better on the layout and so you don’t hear it at full output at the far end of the whole layout.

    Some great follow-up comments on this post too.

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