The Val Ease Central Railroad ©
Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)
Creating Atmosphere with Sound
Many model railroads are works of art with magnificent scenery, extraordinary
structures and incredible trains. For many years now, modelers working in the
larger scales have been able to add extra elements of realism to their trains
with fiber optic lighting, on-board sound systems and real smoke from the
stacks. However, many are the layouts, impressive as they may be, that have
something missing, something that is easily incorporated into even the most
modest Z scale creation...atmospheric or background sound effects.
Z scale is still a little way off from commercial on-board chuffs and horns in
our locomotives (although no doubt someone, somewhere may have accomplished
this feat). However, Z scale layouts can be greatly enhanced by using sound
effects to create the impression of a miniature world that is teeming with life surrounding the trains gliding through the landscape.
One of the first enhancements that I added to the Val Ease Central was sound.
I designed the hand held control boxes for the VEC to contain sound circuitry
to generate steam and diesel locomotive sound effects. Each controller can
produce steam chuffs and whistles or diesel engine rumble and horns at the
flick of a switch. I chose the MRC 7000 sound generator for these effects
mainly because they were readily available, affordable, produced passable North
American steam and diesel effects and the circuit boards were easy to cut into
pieces! The MRC 8000 produces horn and whistle effects that more closely
resemble European trains.
As is the case with most model railroads, trains do not always run continuously
on the VEC. When the train stopped, there was silence. How could that be? In
the tiny world of the VEC there was activity, although imaginary, that made
noise: cars, trucks and boats, machinery, birds, farm animals, dogs, water
falls, people! Fortunately, bringing them to life through sound was fun, easy
The method that I chose was cheap, reliable and small so that it could be
housed inside the VEC suitcases. Originally, my solution was to buy small
personal cassette tape recorders and telephone answering machine cassettes. I
replaced the batteries with a permanent 6v DC power source, usually a cheap
AC/DC wall transformer. The cassette players usually cost less than the
endless loop tapes that I had purchased. After recording various sound effects
on the endless tapes, my favorites being farm animals for Val Ease East and a
pneumatic pile driver for Val Ease West, I connected a small 8 ohm speaker to
the cassette player's audio out jack. I found that the speaker was best placed
inside a structure near the apparent source of the sound. The larger speakers
that I used for the train sound effects were placed in resonator boxes inside
the suitcases under the track base. This gave a more diffuse sound which
seemed appropriate coming from trains that were relatively far away from the
listener, in scale terms that is.
Technology being what it is, prices have gone down and functionality has gone
up. I have recently replaced the original cassette players with auto-reverse
models that still cost less than the endless loop tapes. Now I can use
ordinary audio cassettes which allow me to record up to 120 minutes of sound
effects. As you might have guessed, the disadvantage of the 90 second
answering machine tapes is that the sound pattern is repetitive. 60, 90 or 120
minutes of recording time permit a more random playback of background sound
effects including periods of silence.
Sources for the early recordings were from sound effects CDs. My recent
recordings were done live lakeside where I captured the seagulls and boat
whistles that will provide atmosphere for Centre Val Ease Dock. The industrial
background sounds are a mixture of the sound effects and recordings made near
Space being at a premium inside the VEC suitcases, I only installed one
cassette player per section. Home layout or module operators have the
advantage of adding the number of sound sources that you want.
There are many other sources for sound, several manufacturers offer digital
sound generators with numerous prerecorded sound effects. Others offer digital
recording and playback devices that are triggered by an approaching object,
normally a person, but also a cat or a passing train. The possibilities are
endless and I have a few ideas that I want to play with! ;-)
There is nothing like the moment that I turn on the master switch and the VEC
comes to life. It makes all the difference in the world, even a 1/220 world!