Blessed Quiet

Sound effects have been a part of model railroading almost as long as the hobby has existed. Bells and whistles have (literally) been staple sounds, for example. So have "chuffing" steamers. I'm sure these early attempts helped stimulate the imaginations of the youngsters running their toy trains.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and technology has allowed N Scale modelers to enjoy elaborate, excruciatingly accurate sound effects precisely timed and prototype-matched to their specific locomotives. It is truly astonishing. But being something of an audiophile, I'm perpetually disappointed in the fidelity of the sound. How could anyone expect a speaker the size of your thumbnail to reproduce the thunder of a real locomotive?

I'll be the first to agree: that magnificent wall of sound is enthralling when you're in the presence of the real thing. But, even if I do my best to quell my automatic objection to the hissing and buzzing of what sounds like a large angry insect on a layout, I'm left wondering: if you go to all of the trouble of getting the chuffs perfectly synchronized, or the correct whine of a diesel turbine on cue (even down to using digitized samples of the real deal), what about the rest of the train? Wheel clacks, coupler clanks, air hissing—there's much more to a train than the locomotive. And then there's the rest of the world's noise pollution: cars, trucks, sirens, jet planes, etcetera, ad infinitum.

Beyond the selective inconsistency of an incomplete sound environment, however, there's the tinny, screeching noise that "connoisseurs" of model railroad sound interpret as "realistic" locomotive effects. Sorry, as someone accustomed to nothing less than the full 20-20,000 Hz audio spectrum, I'm left much worse than unimpressed—I'm really annoyed. I regularly visit a friend's layout where sound-equipped N Scale locomotives are multiplying, and when I'm there, the owner knows to shut down the sound, or I'll leave.

I'm all for everyone enjoying the hobby in whatever manner suits them. But please don't expect me to enjoy everything that everyone else does. I'm still regarded with puzzled frowns and vague glares of indignation when I fail to fawn all over the latest noise-enabled locos. The vague hum and barely-audible clatter of moving model trains is more than enough sound for this old curmudgeon.

Indeed, I've always been a big proponent of "synthetic silence." Although this may seem like an oxy-moron, it's a very real psychological effect. Barely-audible nature sounds, such as crickets or a babbling brook, gentle wind or light rainfall, faint birds and such, create a calming, relaxing effect that's actually healthful. And once my layout is far enough along, that's exactly what will be playing in my layout room.

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