Field Report: Freight Train Sound Effects

2011/10/25
Freight Train

courtesy contemplative imaging

Freight train sound fx

I had freight train field recording on my mind for some time.  However I didn’t find an opportunity to record train sound effects for Airborne Sound until I found myself at a pub drinking Guinness.

One night late in the summer while sharing pints on a backyard patio, a massive rumble and groan swelled as a freight train whipped by, only meters from the pub. Other trains followed. They passed at different speeds, stopped, unlatched and exchanged cars with powerful clanking, grinding and shattering sounds.

I hadn’t noticed the tracks.  From my vantage on the upper patio I could now see tracks hidden behind dense trees, tucked between the neighbourhoods.  There was plenty of area to record, undisturbed and away from traffic.

I returned a number of times to the pub and found that the trains generally passed at the same time. It was a perfect opportunity.

Hear and download the freight train sound effects now.

I have added a “Lessons Learned” section to the Field Reports. It’s at the conclusion of the post.

Background

Ever since I had written an article featuring passenger train sound effects, I had been looking for a prime spot to record freight trains. In that article’s comments, readers pointed out distinctive differences between passenger trains and freight trains.

  • a freight train accelerates differently than a passenger train. The difference is heard in the throttle
  • when a freight train starts, the train backs to compress the couplers, then moves forward. The first car moves and takes up the slack with the next car. The following cars repeat this, resulting in coupler sound effects rippling down the line of trains. This is distinct to freight trains
  • often freight trains are used in TV and movies in place of passenger trains.  They sound different and using the wrong sound can be distracting

I was determined to capture these subtle differences.

(Thank you to readers Speed, ObscureRobot and Sonic Fields who shared their knowledge.)

The location

Scouting

I reserved a morning to scout the area behind the pub. 

I scanned the area using Google maps. I saw that a breadth of brush and ruined concrete ran for some distance along the track.  This meant plenty of space to set up safely.

I hiked along both sides of the track but I found that the best areas were either on private land or were too close to traffic.

Challenges

  • I had to set the levels correctly without reference. The trains passed at different speeds. I could afford to increase the gain on slower trains. However I did have to be careful with the fast trains or risk distorting the recording. There was no way to judge the speed of the trains except by eye as they approached
  • Bridgman Transformer StationI needed to accommodate for ambient traffic and planes. I was remote so at least there wouldn’t be crowd interference
  • I only had a rough train schedule. Waiting for the trains would take time so ample battery supplies were important
  • not far from the track was the Bridgman Transformer Station.  This is a massive electrical substation which produced an audible hum.  This is what it sounds like at close range:

The shoot

Getting near the tracks was easy.  I found an entry point on public land in a desolate stretch beneath a condo construction site.  When listening to the trains earlier on the pub patio, I had noticed that there was a surge of activity around 1900 hours.  This would work well.  Construction would be finished for the day.  There would be less traffic as well.

I had no plans to cross the tracks.  I’ve seen from personal experience that one moment trains appear as a small speck in the distance and the next they are whipping by.  I was using extreme caution on the track. (PS don’t try this on your own.)

As for the transformer, I hoped a combination of my distance from the substation and the volume of the train would make it negligible. The tone was generally constant, so I planned to EQ it out of recordings.  Finally, the substation was behind the microphone’s polar pattern, further reducing its presence. 

I set up a Zoom H4n and my Neumann 191-i and waited.

Results

You are welcome to download and use these sound effects in your personal projects as long as you do not redistribute them, even for free.

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I was lucky and five trains passed during the three hour shoot. I’ve included both microphone recordings for comparison.

This recording is of a General Electric EMD SD40-2 locomotive.  It has 3,000 horsepower and a V16 engine.

There were no cars, just two engines joined together with the second attached facing backwards.

Neumann:

H4n:

The second was a full locomotive train with cars.  It was the General Electric ES44AC.  The Canadian Pacific Railway has about 200 of these trains, making it one of the most common in Ontario.  It has 4,400 horsepower.

Neumann:

H4n:

The first train I recorded approached just as I arrived.  I hurried to set up and punched in with seconds to spare.  Unfortunately the levels were too high and the engine distorted.  I salvaged the recording by creating a loopable sound effect of the train cars passing.

The sound will be seamless when placed end to end. The waveform has a 0 point at the head and tail, which means it will repeat without introducing a pop or click.

More train sound clips

You can find more train sound effects at my main website, Airborne Sound, here:

  • rail clatter sound effects
  • passenger train sound fx
  • riding in a train sound clips
  • steam train sound effects
  • train horn

Some thoughts

  • freight trains are longer than passenger trains, often with hundreds of cars. It is better to use a mic stand. Holding a mic in a pistol grip for five minutes has a high chance of affecting the stereo image and introducing handling noise
  • the cars themselves make varied sounds. Boxcars, tankers and livestock cars all sound different when passing, resulting in train passes with life and character
  • it was important to keep recording long after the train departed. The rails of the track continue vibrating and create a cool ringing sound
  • some locomotives seem to have an whining electrical aspect to them. Others have the standard throaty diesel sound
  • it became dark as I recorded. Although I could see the lights of the train approaching, I could no longer see the numbers on the front of the train. Unlike cars, the manufacturer and model of the train isn’t obvious. By comparing the train line and number, you can search the Internet to find the exact locomotive that you are recording. Hobby websites have endless details of locomotives including where and when they were manufactured, the model, make and special modifications. This is important because naming the train properly will make the sound effect more useful to others

Lessons Learned

The first lesson I learned was to keep my ears open. I hadn’t expected to hear a freight train passing near a pub patio. Being aware of your sonic surroundings can help you later.

When I hear something cool I add it immediately to my Evernote to-do list. It may not be the perfect time at the moment, but you can return later to record in more controled circumstances.

I also learned that details contribute to better sound effects. I don’t know much about freight trains. The readers of my previous post clearly have a deep appreciation of trains.

These comments sparked my interest. Combined with my own research I learned what was different between the trains and what to expect.

Knowing more about what you record enables you to capture nuances and details.  This is one of the key aspects in making your sound effects lush and evocative.

This knowledge also helps when using the sound effects. Much in the same way that revolver sound effect will be the wrong sound for an automatic pistol shooting, you don’t want to cut in a passenger train for a freight train.

Related: to skip the research, start by recording what you love. Whatever this subject is, you’ll likely have a depth of knowledge already. I wrote more about this in my post Investing Yourself in Sound Effects.

Notes

Gear used

  • Set up A:
    • Zoom H4n
  • Set up B:
    • Sound Devices MixPre
    • Sound Devices 722
    • Neumann Stereo Shotgun RSM 191-i

Have you stumbled across cool sound effects unexpectedly? Noticed details about a sound that made it especially interesting? Share in the comments below.





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2 responses to Field Report: Freight Train Sound Effects

  1. very nice stuff! I’ve been on a very long quest to get a set of good freight train sounds around here, and while I’m surrounded by freight train tracks in the Dallas area, I still haven’t found the sonically sweet spot to set up and roll yet. Congrats on the find and thanks for the download!

    • Thanks Rene, glad they’ll work for you.

      Best of luck finding that freight train sweet spot in Dallas.