Pursuing the sound of trains

Train-tracks-IMG_3117My friend Maria Lopez recently bought a place next to the railroad tracks.

In going by and visiting her I was reminded of the world of sounds trains make. The huge blast of sound as the locomotive passes. The distant whistle, The rumble and clack of the individual cars as they pass. The squeal of the brakes and the high whistling sound the rails make when a long trains starts up again from a dead stop. And the giant “clunk” when the switch operator changes which line the train well travel on.

It is a symphony of noise, and one I’ve always enjoyed.

As a boy growing up on the Hudson River I would often sit at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and watch the trains pass along the opposite shore, waiting for the sound to make it the nearly 1-mile width of the river at that point, and listening to the doppler effect.

In the early 1990s I used to travel to Gila Bend, Arizona and dangle a stereo microphone out the window of the Space Age Lodge to capture the sounds of the many trains that passed it by, recording them into a 16 bit/48k Digital Audio Tape deck. But the upper harmonic subtleties were lost on that mere CD quality sound system.

Today there are small 24 bit, 96k field recorders that are more ideally suited to the corona of exotic sounds passing trains produce.

Even with decent equipment, it’s not easy. Trains typically run parallel to streets and highways, so there’s extraneous noise to deal with.  It also takes some guessing to figure out how low you need to set the gain so that you don’t overload the signal. The last thing you want to do is find yourself fiddling with knobs while a train is passing and misrepresent the sonic arc. And then there’s the waiting, late in the night to keep the traffic sound at a minimum.

Last night I recorded from 2-4:30 a.m. and captured one train. But that train stopped next to me as it passed, which gave me all the wonderful sounds of it starting and stopping, as well as the main pass, the very different rhythms a slow train makes and more.  I was very lucky and didn’t overload my recorder.

But I hadn’t checked the auxiliary power on my high quality external stereo microphone, and was forced to use the built in X-Y microphones of my Zoom H4n field recorder instead. These proved quite effective, I might add.

Pointing the microphones perpendicular to the run of the track proved very useful. Doing so generated the full left/right experience of the approaching and receding train, and a sense of what odd sounds sere coming from where.

But while I got the overall arc of sound without clipping, that reduced volume meant I also lost the punch of the softer sounds. So for my next attempt I will use a second field recorder, set somewhat higher, to capture those softer sounds, without having to worry about the big sonic blasts.

It will take some finesse but I hope to get some sounds that can be fed into sampling keyboards, looped, tuned and turned into musical elements.



~ by Daniel Buckley on June 24, 2013.

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