Just a bit of noise

I always wondered if it would be possible to add sound to a small HOn30 layout. Wouldn’t it be great to hear the puffing sound of a small 13 ton Shay passing by? Unfortunately it will be hard to fit a speaker in an HOn30 locomotive. So, what options are there?

DZ125 in Shay

First of all, I should go digital … I know, it sounds a bit scary, as it means that I will have to fit DCC decoders in my models. With small decoders like the Digitrax DZ125 or the CT-Elektronik DCX74z, it should be possible and as you can see from the image above, the DZ 125 just fits in an N-scale Shay … so should definitely fit in mine. Furthermore, I will have to find some kind of “under-the-table” digital sound system, that will be able to handle the sound of my locomotives.

I did some browsing on the web and found two very interesting ones:

  1. Surroundtraxx
    This is a commercial product made by Soundtraxx and had been pre-announced for a couple of years already. It was finally released about a week ago and the products are currently shipping to the dealers. It works with multiple speakers that can be hidden beneath the layout. Using the Digitrax Transponding block-detection system, SurroundTraxx faithfully reproduces the sounds made by each train on the layout and directs the sound to the speaker closest to the train’s location. As a train moves along its route, SurroundTraxx makes continuous adjustments to the sound level of each speaker so that the sound appears to follow the train around the layout. SurroundTraxx does not simply switch the sound from speaker to speaker but uses an intelligent cross fade algorithm that factors in train speed, direction, and distance between speakers. The sound makes a smooth transition as the train travels from one sound zone to the next without abrupt pops or thumps. SurroundTraxx is capable for support of up to 6 sound zones and will simultaneously produce sound for up to 6 locos at a time. It will however store up to 99 different locomotive profiles. This of course all sounds perfect for an HOn30 layout. There is only one big disadvantage … the price: $595.00. Included in the box are only the SurroundTraxx unit itself, a speaker harness, the power supply and a LocoNet cable. It will still be necessary to buy 6 speakers (or 5 speakers and 1 subwoofer) yourself.
  2. Virtual Sound Decoder for JMRI
    It’s a new development in JMRI, which is free, and is being coded by an N-scale modeller calling himself TwinDad. The Virtual Sound Decoder (or VSDecoder) runs on a PC and emulates (simulates) the function of an actual sound decoder. It listens to the Command Centre for throttle commands and responds to them with the corresponding sounds, just as a sound decoder installed in a locomotive would do. So all you will have to do, is place the speakers of your PC or laptop beneath your layout and you will hear the sound of your locomotives. For now it is still under development and will not yet give the functionality of the Soundtraxx system. TwinDad is still working on several sound files … so if you have any available, please contact him via the nScale.net Forum. Furthermore, as far as I understand it … one of the most interesting future developments will be 3D location tracking and 3D sound, allowing you to simulate the sound coming from the locomotive via the PC’s surround sound audio system. Wouldn’t that be fun!

Looking at two systems mentioned above, I believe that I would certainly opt for JMRI with the VSDecoder. I know that the development depends on just one person, but it has and will have quite some possibilities … it’s for example even possible to run your layout with JMRI via your iPhone or Android phone. And it should be possible to buy a small netbook and surround sound system for a lower price than the Surroundtraxx system itself.