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…

8 thoughts on “Layout sound and listener perspective

  1. I think the ambient sounds are a great idea. As a composer, when working with musical ideas there is foreground material and then there is background material running at the same time. Many times the background material is lost in the wash of sound but remove it and the context of the foreground is lost. Your use of natural sounds gives the locomotive sounds a context, they appear in the real word and thus give your layout that context. The volume of the engines places them in the foreground and thus the crew are in that context, but the casual observer is in a different context, the background and the background sounds become obvious as the train passes by and reinforce that experience.

  2. Building on Daniel’s thought, we also tend to tune out different sounds as we do with things in our peripheral vision. We’re aware of them, but it’s hard to focus on two things at once. Movement and volume also contribute to the effect. I imagine that once the train is out of the scene, the bird song becomes apparent again.

    We can also become so accustomed to a sound that we cease to consciously hear it. I live close to a busy interstate highway. The noise is clear upon stepping outside but after a while it simply fades into the background and I stop being aware of it. So I don’t see any conflict here between the two layers of sound effect, but I don’t have the trained ear and sensitivity to sound a musician does.

    Mike Cougill

  3. I have to agree with Mike. My cottage is near a busy Interstate also and once we get there the sounds of the highway recede into the background as one becomes use to them and other sounds move to the front. The same at home, CN’s mainline to Montreal is very close and the train sounds tend to become background noise after a night here. Context is a very important part sound and what it conveys to us.

  4. Great comments, Daniel and Mike. One of the reasons I love blogging about the layout – the feedback is so insightful.

  5. Trevor, as far as crews operating trains, wouldn’t they be near the location of the engine anyway, and thus not hear the birds, etc., over the locomotive?

    • Hi Scott:
      Absolutely. And this is what Lance Mindheim is doing with his system, which channels a Tsunami output directly into a set of headphones. But if you take that argument to its extreme end we should build a life-size cab to stand in, with TVs for windows, and run our locomotives remotely using unboard cameras.
      The reality is we’re standing at the fascia watching the action. We’re engaged in theatre. And – for me, anyway – the benefits of ambient sound in terms of establishing the location and season for visitors far outweigh any perceived drawbacks or discrepancies.

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