Sunday, February 12, 2012

Adding Real Train Sounds to Videos

Can you hear those engines growling up the grade?

In 2008, I started making videos of my layout. It became sort of a hobby-within–a-hobby, and an enjoyable one at that. Others seem to agree; to date, my videos have been viewed over 260,000 times on my channel on YouTube.

In addition to providing enjoyable hours in the layout room, it also taught me about story-telling through images, and about the editing process.

At first, I let the trains themselves provide the sound—which wasn’t hard, since many of my locomotives are Athearn Blue Box! Later, I started adding music; jazz, mostly, because that’s what I like, and because it sounded railroady.

Lately, I’ve begun adding real train sounds. At first, I though this would be impossible—how would I collect real train sounds? I don’t have a good video camera or sound equipment to get them from the prototype.

I checked on the Web to see if there was a source of train sounds. There were—for a price. I wasn’t going to go there for this experimental project.

Then I realized that lots of great railroad sounds were on YouTube, in the thousands of railroad videos available on that online video sharing site.

But how to transfer those sounds to where I could use them? That’s where a bit of free software, called FreeStudio, comes in. FreeStudio lets you download YouTube videos and convert them into MP3s.

So I went to YouTube and listened to a lot of videos. I watched them, too, but I was really searching for good and appropriate sound.

Among the things I noticed is that a number of videos had a lot of wind noise, making them unusable. On some, people talked. Lots were shot at railway crossings. That’s fine if you want to match up sounds that include crossing bells, but not so good if you are matching sound to a train in a remote location with no roads.

Many also feature mainline action. That means fast trains. Since trains on the CP Rail M & M Sub. usually don’t zip by at high speeds, they aren’t all that useful. Videos featuring trains starting up were welcome, since that provided good slow speed sounds. Ditto for trains going up a grade or coming into a town.

Another thing to look for is short videos. Videos on YouTube can’t be longer than 15 minutes. But something seven minutes or longer is a long time when you are hunting for the right sound when creating a video.

When I found some videos I liked, I saved them to a YouTube playlist and later downloaded them into my computer using FreeStudio. After downloading them, I added them to a playlist in Windows Media.

I use Windows MovieMaker to make my videos; it’s about as simple a program as you can find. It comes with Microsoft XP, and maybe with other versions, too. After making your video, or inserting a finished one into the video line, you drop the sound you want to use into the audio line. Once there, you can trim it to fit.

The audio line in MovieMaker shows the strength of the signal. This is helpful in determining where it is louder and quieter. Note: To get the best result, you need to turn the video's audio off.

You can also loop the sound. If you find a good section of a train passing by, but it’s too short for your video segment, you just need to copy it and paste it into the audio line again. A bit of overlap between the two clips makes it seamless.

Windows Movie Maker also allows you to fade in and fade out the sound, which is helpful when a train is approaching or passing.

One thing I haven’t bothered with is matching diesel types. I’m sure there are those who can tell the sound of an SD70MAC from an SD40-2, but I can’t.

One thing I have been careful to do is to try to match the number of units in a train with the number of units on the model. If the real train has four units on it, and the model has two, it will sound a bit strange to hear more locomotives pass by than you can see.

Adding sound has opened up a new area of the hobby-within-a-hobby for me, and it will breathe new life into my old videos.

You can hear (and see) two of my videos with real train sounds here and here. I wrote some guidelines for making layout videos here.


  1. Nice addition to already excellent video. I am curious as to what type of camera you use to shoot your video. TIA RS O'Brien

  2. Ha! I use a Canon A590--a simple point-and-shoot. It has video capability. Nothing complicated or expensive . . . .