TIPS & TECHNIQUES
Recently I have been evaluating the various after market sound
systems that are presently available. In this article, I will deal with
only the digital systems, since they are recorded on chips from actual
locomotives, and are as close to the real thing as you can get. My
comments are the result of reading technical articles, product reviews,
large scale chat rooms, e-mail from friends that have installed the
systems, and hands-on experience. There are basically five major
manufacturers of digital sound systems that I had a chance to review:
LGB, Phoenix, Sountraxx, Dallee, and PH Hobbies.
LGB has an excellent sound system of very high quality. Since it is
not offered as an after market product, it will not be reviewed with the
other systems. I do not own any LGB locos, but I have heard their sound
systems, and they are very good.
Dallee makes systems that are primarily for DCC (Digital Command
Control) equipped locomotives. They do not work well with conventional
track power, and the whistle, horn, bell sounds are only fair.
PH Hobbies makes basic digital sound systems. They manufacture the
systems sold by both Aristo and USA as their "drop in" sound systems..
The engine sound for both steam and diesel is fair. The steam chuff
rate is controlled by a reed switch, and the diesel sound is controlled
by input voltage. The bell, whistle or horn are all controlled by reed
switches or remote control depending on your preference. The system has
an internal battery which is supposed to be charged by track power.
This battery powers the sound system at low rates of speed, however
once the battery voltage drops, the sound system cuts off or goes to
static. This battery has been a major weak-spot in these systems, and I
am told that this problem has been corrected with their new system.
Their new Y2000 Series system is digital, but has been reported as
"marginal" with poor volume and sound quality similar to the original PH
systems. PH charges $130 to $150 for their system which is high when
you consider the lack of features and the "poor" quality of the sound in
both steam & diesel. You do not get a crossing signal, and cannot
synchronize the sound with locomotive movement.
Phoenix makes a top quality series of sound systems. They have
actually built their systems to specific locomotives, and even to
certain railroads that had distinctive whistle sounds. They presently
have 22 American steam, 4 European steam, 9 American diesel, 1 electric
engine, 1 trolley car, 1 goose, and 1 rotary snowplow available. The
sound is excellent, with the steam sound being reed switch or voltage
controlled. The diesel sound is voltage controlled. Horn/whistle, and
bell can be voltage controlled, reed switch controlled, or remote
controlled and have excellent sound reproduction. You also get brake
screech, doppler effects on horn/whistle, and an optional low voltage
booster. The diesel sound also includes startup, idle and stop sounds.
These systems are not cheap. They are the most expensive out on the
market today, the sound is not compressed, and as such does sound like
the real thing. In fact, the doppler effect on the horn/whistle has to
be heard, since it really sounds great. Phoenix also sells some
fantastic speakers with excellent sound quality.
Sountraxx Sierra also makes an excellent sound system. They have 11
different steam systems and 10 diesel sounds available at this time.
Their steam sound is voltage or reed switch controlled, and their diesel
sound is voltage controlled. The horn/whistle and bell are voltage,
reed switch, or remote controlled and are also excellent You also get
the sound of the fireman shoveling coal and working the grease gun,
optional coupler clank, and optional firebox flicker with the steam. The
diesel offers start up and idle, air pressure release, dynamic braking
sound and multiple lighting options. Lighting can be optioned for MARS,
Gyralight, strobe, ditch lights, and many other functions. There are
fifteen different programmable options available with this sound
system. This system is probably your best bang for the buck if you
want something more sophisticated than the Aristo or USA system, but
don't want to go to the most expensive sound system available. Like
Phoenix, Sierra's sound system is also uncompressed, so the sound is
true to the prototype.
The digital sound world is not total milk and honey. Unlike
prototype steam in which the chuff rate is shortened as the speed
increases, the digital systems have a tendency to go to the "steady roar
syndrome" at high rates of speed. The Sierra system has a good set of
automatic effects (two toots for forward, three for backwards, one for
stop). If you want to blow the whistle with a remote unit, you must
turn off the automatic functions. Another potential problem with
Phoenix or Sierra systems is with the use of PWC from Aristo power
supplies. PWC (Pulse Width Control) puts pulses on the rails to light
the lights and start the smoke working at low rates of speed. This can
cause your sound system to produce false horn or whistle signals, and
have the dynamic brakes come on when the locomotive is almost stopped.
This can be remedied to a certain degree with Sierra by changing the
sensitivity from medium to high (an option), and also by adjusting the
filterrate (another option). These settings have to be by trial and
error while the loco is on the test track.
The last area I want to address is the speaker used in these
systems. The better and larger the speaker, the better the sound.
Since Phoenix and Sierra have a lot of bass in their diesel recordings,
your best sound will come from a speaker that has a large magnet, and
where the cone is free to move. Steam sound systems do not produce much
bass, and you can get by with the basic speaker supplied by the
manufacturer. A three inch round speaker mounted in a tender will give
optimum sound. Most diesels will accept an oval speaker mounted in the
fuel tank area. You need to use an 8 ohm speaker for all of these sound
systems, and Phoenix, Aristo, and Sierra make excellent speakers for
this application. An alternate speaker location for diesel cab units is
in the rear of the body shell facing up so the sound comes out through
the body vents. Several people have written me with this suggestion,
and they are very happy with the results.
The choice of sound systems is up to the individual. If possible,
listen to each before you make a purchase. Sierra and Phoenix have
sound libraries that are available on their web pages on the internet.
They will let you hear what you are getting. Remember also that too
many sound equipped locomotives running at the same time will cancel
each other out. You want to produce a realistic sound effect on your
railroad, not just a lot of noise. Always remember that we are dealing
with 1:1 sound in a 1:2X (scale) world. Many times people overdrive
their speakers to the point that body shells vibrate. These systems are
supposed to provide sound to enhance the effect of running trains.
Keep your volume at a reasonable level.