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 and effective.

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 construction sites.

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!