I am a member of a great group of recordists called the Sound Collector's Club, run by a fellow in England named Michael Maroussas. The idea behind the club is to get a bunch of like minded recordists to to share their recordings and create a bit of a community around the shared activity. Each month a different theme is picked and everyone sets out to capture a fresh, original recording of the subject to share with everyone. The catch is that in order to get access to everyones recordings, you have to contribute a recording yourself, otherwise you are locked out of that months returns. It is a great way to force an extra recording session out of your schedule each month, and each time I learn something new in my little sessions. Past monthly themes have been Rain, Car Passes, and Wind among others. For June the theme was Trains. The theme was picked by sound designer Richard Spooner who works on a British children's show called Chuggington about animated trains. Richard suggested the theme in hopes of adding to his library of train sounds for the next season of the show.
Trains are actually a subject close to my heart since I come from a family with many generations of railway workers, including my brother and my father before he retired. My Great Uncle Jack was one of the main people involved in setting up the first public commuter trains in Canada when they started running in Toronto, he even designed the first schedule when they were introduced. I think some people in my family thought it was weird when I did not choose to work for the railroad as well. So I was looking forward to recording some trains to mix my choosen path with my family roots.
The first thing I did was some scouting. There are a fair amount of railway lines going through my home town of Toronto, but the problem is they are mostly running parallel along side the major highways through the city. So finding a quiet time to record would be difficult with the hum of 8 lanes of traffic constantly buzzing away in the background. After consulting a map I found a spot where the tracks were not yet beside the highway and not near much city action where the tracks run behind a mall. Next up was to find a good time when lots of trains would be passing, ideally either very late at night or early in the morning. The tracks I was investigating had both VIA trains ,Canada's national passenger train network, similar to AmTrack in the USA and GO Trains, Toronto's public mass transit trains that run between the downtown core and the suburbs surrounding the city. Through their posted schedules, based on the ones my Great Uncle Jack first made up, I decided that the best time to record would be between 6:00am and 6:50am on Fridays. This time frame would provide me with 7 Go Train passbys and 2 VIA trains, giving me a total of 9 chances to record a perfect train pass.
I packed all my gear and headed out to the spot I had scouted at 5:30am on the next Friday, I am not known for being a morning person but I was able to peel myself out of bed and arrive at my location 15 minutes before the first train was to pass. Ideally I should have arrived earlier but I was not going to be doing a very elaborate set up. The first thing I did was set up the Sony PCM D50 on a stand and point it at the tracks, I figured if a train came ahead of schedule it would be good to at least have that one up and running while I set up the main rig I was planning to use. This consisted of a Sanken CSS-5, in full windshield and furry, going into a Sound Devices 702. There was a chain link fence about 15 feet from the tracks so in order to get the microphone up nice and tight I used a boom pole going over the fence about 8 feet so the train would only be 7 or so feet from the mic. 7 feet still sounds far but it is pretty close when a train is coming towards you full speed. My goal was to record the trains as close as I safely could and try to get the doppler of the train as it passed at high speeds, instead of the more realistic sounds of the train I would get by mic'ing further away from the tracks.
The first train was early and I only barely had my boom pole over the fence in time but I was able to capture it. My plan called for me to guess at levels on the first train pass and then listen back and adjust input levels based on the results of the first train. My guess on the 702 inputs was pretty much spot on, but I had to turn up the Sony a few notches to get proper levels.
I ended up only getting 8 train passes instead of the expected 9 because 2 of the trains passed in opposite directions in front of me at the exact same time. I recorded about an hour of raw audio but when I edited it down got about 3 and half minutes of great train passes.
I have since uploaded the files to the Sound Collector's Club and got access to what everyone else has been recording for the collection. So far there are some great recordings of older steam trains and trolleys among other recordings from more modern trains. I was worried others would be recording the same way as I did and we would have a ton of close up train passes but the variety has been really wide and fascinating. I don't currently have a great need for train SFX but when I do I will be much more prepared then I was last month.
Here is a sneak peak at a few of the train passes I was able to record. If you want to hear them all and download a bunch more train sounds go and join the Sound Collectors Club and get out and start recording your own trains.
Now I can also tell my family I was working with trains for a bit this month, maybe they won't think I am the weird one anymore...maybe.
Here is another blog post from another contributor the Sound Collector's Club about his recording sessions for the Train theme.
One of the other members of the Sound Collector's Club has started a Kickstarter project to charter a restored old fashioned trolley to record the hell out of. I have made a pledge to help Rene get this happening, feel free to follow suit.