One of the best ways to liven up a layout is to create scale-appropriate sound effects. These can not only include the obvious sounds of locomotives and railcars, whistles, horns and braking, but also ambient sounds – birds, water rushing in a creek, city traffic, or even a sawmill in the distance.
Scale sound is a phrase referring to the differences in the sounds you should hear when associated with different scales. For example, the sounds associated with an N scale layout should be significantly softer than those used for an O scale layout. If your sound is too loud for N scale then the sound is “out of scale”, the same as an O scale building would be out of scale on an N scale layout.
The difference in scale sound is mostly a matter of volume; however, it is important to remember that when the volume is low, the human ear picks up only midrange sounds. The low frequency bass and the higher frequency sounds may be lost. There are certain ways to enhance these frequencies even when the volume is low. For example the “bass boost” controls on many small stereo systems are just for that purpose. Another example is a little inexpensive device called a “WOW Thing” (www.SRSLabs.com) that you can put between your audio source and amplified speakers to enhance the sound giving it more bass and character than it would otherwise have.
There are various kinds of sound systems available for you to consider when thinking about adding sound effects to your train layout…
On board train sounds
Atlas, Athearn, Broadway Limited and probably others are now manufacturing some locomotives with sound units already included. They can produce exhaust sounds, chuff, whistles, horns, etc. This is the easiest way to get sound effects on your layout – just purchase a locomotive that already has a sound unit on board.
However, if you’re like me, you already have some locomotives that don’t have sound that you don’t really want to put up on the shelf yet.
If you want to install a sound unit in your loco, tender or railcar, you can get one from Soundtraxx for DC (analog) operation only. The circuit board contains the sounds so you don’t have to record anything. The sound effects on many of these units will change according to the amount of current used by the loco. Some can be controlled by a remote power unit, or set off by a magnetic reed switch on the loco that is turned on when the loco runs over a magnet in the track bed.
Another type of analog system is to have a sound unit located at the control panel and use the track rails as “wires” to send the filtered audio impulse to a speaker on board the loco.
You could also use an FM broadcast from a unit on the control panel, use the rails as antennae to get the signal to the rails under the loco. The signal then jumps to the receiver and speaker mounted in the loco.
When DCC entered the picture, we suddenly had a new way to get sound effects into the loco, using decoders and remote stationary units or walk-around throttles to control the sounds. This is a little more expensive, but probably offers the best quality and most versatility of all the on board systems mentioned.
Commercially available trackside sound systems
One of the simplest sound systems to install is from MRC - Model Rectifier Corporation (www.modelrectifier.com). It comes in 2 versions – each containing 18 different sounds accessed via remote control:
• Sound Station 312 – Diesel and steam engine sounds, brakes, horns, whistles, bells, etc. Some of the sound effects can be made to play continuously and you can add additional sounds as you wish.
• City and Country Sound Station – all kinds of city sounds including traffic, car sounds, jackhammer and country sounds like roosters, cows, thunder, etc.
You can mount the speakers anywhere where they sound the best – overhead, on the wall, or under the layout. You should probably test the sound with the speakers in various locations to see how you can get the best effect.
An older system that was easy to install and use is Maxx Traxx by QSI (www.qsindustries.com). You might be able to get one from a private dealer or on eBay, but it's no longer available from QSI. This system uses a special technology that makes it difficult to tell where the sound is coming from. Engine sounds correlate with the speed of the train to create a realistic effect. There are only 3 buttons on the control unit, but using the buttons in various combinations create a great variety of sound effects including grade crossings, crew sounds and multiple train sounds. There is only one speaker. Installation is a breeze: 2 wires from the control unit are connected to the track and 2 wires go to the AC output of the power transformer. The hardest part is figuring out where to put the speaker. QSI also provides railroad sound systems for Atlas (www.atlasrr.com/soundboard.htm).
The Maxx Traxx has been mostly replaced by another system called the Dreamplayer by Pricom (https://www.pricom.com/Trains/DreamPlayer.shtml). This provides a multitude of train and atmospheric sounds to which you can add more sounds that can be downloaded from the Internet.
HQ Sound Modules made by ITTC (https://ittproducts.com) are a great way to provide localized sound effects coming from anywhere on the layout. You can purchase several of these modules which each contain different sounds, like barnyard animals, sawmill, honkytonk bar, track crew, and lots of others. Each module contains hookups for the power unit, a control switch, and one speaker. The switch can be a regular toggle switch on the control panel, a momentary switch so that the sound only stays on while you are pushing the switch, or a magnetic reed switch hidden in the track ties that is activated by a magnet on a passing train.
RAM digital sound devices (www.ramrcandramtrack.com) are another option for a layout sound system that includes on-board circuit boards and/or trackside devices that can be set up to provide a combination of train and trackside sounds. Magnetic reed switches are used to operate these devices.
Surroundtraxx by Soundtraxx (www.soundtraxx.com) is a high-fidelity sound system that creates both train and trackside sounds and can be used with either DC or DCC operating railroads. This system involves placing hidden speakers all around the layout using block detectors in such a way that the sound appears to follow the train as it travels around the layout, and it can do this for more than one train at the same time. Meanwhile, it also provides ambient sounds that are appropriate for the particular location that the train is traveling though at the time. Not only that, but the sound effects can be different at different times of the day. This is probably the most sophisticated of all the sound systems available thus far.
Creating your own sound system
If you don’t really want to invest the money in any of the systems described above, or if you just want the satisfaction of doing it yourself, you can make your own sound effect system inexpensively by using several portable CD players, each containing CD’s with looping prerecorded sounds, which can be controlled remotely to play at different times. Small speakers can be attached to the headphone jacks and strategically placed in locations that are appropriate for the sound produced. The location and direction of the speakers are critical to create the right effect, so it pays to spend some time placing them properly, sometimes bouncing off walls, sometimes facing to the back sometimes to the front, etc. Use your scenery to hide the speakers or mount one or more of them under the layout with the speaker opening to the surface, just so at least 2/3 of the speaker is not covered. Don’t allow any loose items like ground turf to get into the cone, and make sure you don’t get any glue spay into the cone either. The sound is better if the speaker is mounted in a small airtight enclosure made of wood or hard plastic with no rattling parts.
You can add a small 2-5 watt amplifier for your speakers like those made by Ramsey.
The soundtracks for your system can be found at various locations on the Internet including www.TrainSoundEffects.com, www.fantasonics.com and others. There are many CD’s available containing environmental or nature recordings that you could use as ambient sounds in combination with train and trackside sounds.
You can use one or more of the above systems in combination, along with your own creativity, to make your railroad environment an interesting and exciting experience. It will certainly add to the realism and atmosphere of your train room, making it a pleasant place to work on your trains as well as a delight for your visitors.