Field Report: 1950’s Freight Train Sound Effects

2011/11/17
EMD SD90 43MAC Freight Train

Courtesy Eja2k

Train sound clips

I’ve been busy mastering field recordings from last summer. As a result I hadn’t recorded sound effects for about three weeks. I sensed I was falling into a rut. I knew I had to force myself out there and record something or the rut would deepen.

I really enjoyed recording freight train sound effects about a month ago. I wrote about the session in an earlier article.

Although waiting for freight trains can be tiring, overall the experience capturing them is a lot of fun. You really get the sense of strength, muscle and power as these trains blitz by.

Each locomotive has a different voice of groans and whines. The speed and type of freight cars can provide a lot of character. Even the quality of the track contributes to the sound: more of a rattle, a grinding aspect or even a singing wail.

So I set out again.

The Location

Scouting

The spot I had strategically chosen during my previous shoot was blocked by some parked freight cars.

I set up on the south side of the three tracks instead. That side of the tracks had a dirt roadway for service trucks so there was more space.

Challenges

I know my microphone, preamp and recorder well enough that I usually record ‘blind,’ or without monitoring with headphones. Good thing I changed my mind. I heard a radio station in the headphones. (What was I thinking?)

I turned the microphone parallel to the tracks. The RF became stronger.

I’d experienced this with the Neumann 191 microphone before. I’ve been told that Neumann microphones are susceptable to RF (radio frequency). The Zoom H4n was fine though.

I’m not exactly sure why the RF was so strong. Perhaps there was a power line cable buried beneath the road contributing to an RF field? I have no idea. If anyone knows more about this I’d be interesting learning. Share in the comments below.

It was easily fixed though. I moved the microphone closer to the tracks. The RF disappeared.

Results

I waited about two and a half hours. Three trains passed. I was pleasantly surprised that two of the three were new models not in my library.

I liked this one in particular. It’s a 1,600 horsepower MLW RS-10, which was produced in the 50’s:

  • the locomotive passes by at slow speed with a cool moan
  • a long series of tanker cars follow. You can sense their loose, rattling character
  • the slow speed gave a deep lurching aspect to the pass, especially when the tankers gave way to heavier boxcars

This next one is an EMD SD90/43MAC, which is a 6,000 horsepower (!) locomotive.

  • I like the moaning whine as the locomotive passes
  • the rail clatter is well balanced with the smooth and slick sigh of the rail scrapes
  • I also like the clarity of the rail clatters, and the trim scraping sound

Some thoughts

  • I wrote in my last article about freight trains that knowing what specific train you are capturing adds a layer of detail to your recordings. Each locomotive has a unique “road number” that identifies the model, where it was built, etc.

    I noted that it was difficult to spot the road numbers at night, which is usually the best time to record for less background noise. I noticed this time that the train numbers are actually back lit. That helped me ID the trains and, with the help of Wikipedia, find the make and model of the locomotives

  • Recording next to the tracks produced some bone shattering train passing sound fx. I could feel the weight and force of the train as it passed.

    However I suspect that my presence unsettled the engineers. Whenever I was close to the tracks the train pass would be accompanied by a bell just until they passed me. They weren’t crossing a road, or near anything else interesting, so I am guessing they were likely warning me to stay farther back.

    I prefer recording train passes without the bell so the sound will be more flexible. Next time I’ll step back from the tracks.

  • I considered riding the gain to get more level on the cars, relative to the locomotive. In the end, though, I left them at their own relative levels

Notes

Gear used

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

Links

Check out Frank Bry’s crazy doppler freight train passes here. The audio is mind-bending – some elements combine to create some really strange tones. There’s also a cool video.





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4 responses to Field Report: 1950’s Freight Train Sound Effects

  1. I spent some time photographing freight trains one summer. In the US, the freights pass through Amtrak stations which have solid, safe platforms and are usually empty — no people.

    Standing a foot or so away from a fast freight is … thrilling.

    • Now that sounds like a cool project, @Speed. Are they on Flickr?

      In Ontario freight trains also pass through small town stations – that’s a great idea to set up there. Would be safer, reliable, and more accessible. Also less traffic.

      Capturing that intensity and power and excitement – the emotion per se – of those giant machines is my current favourite subject.

  2. Great recording and interesting post. We’ve recorded trains recently for a student radio project in the UK. We’ve found that the modern train’s disel engine is so loud that sound of wheels on the metal track is almost lost. The train sounds more like a big truck.

    • Thanks!

      Yes, I agree, the engine is almost overpowering. I use a -10 DB pad (built into the Neumann matrix box).

      I also try to find a spot where the track itself makes some noise – a clatter or clack or wood rail tie thump. That I find gives a bit of definition when the locomotive passes.