Adding Background Sounds to Your Layout

View down the tracks

Model railroad layouts have become a lot more interesting since the addition of sound locomotives. Having sound effects of train horns, bells, and engine startup sequences all add to the realism we strive for in this hobby. Unfortunately, it seems the only sound on a model railroad layout is that of the locomotive. This is a missed opportunity. In this article one of our members, Ryan Balla, will describe how he has added background sounds to his layout.

The Central States and Western Railroad is a freelanced short-line railroad located in the Ozarks region. The time period depicted is the 90's and the Central States infrastructure is good but some deferred maintenance is creeping in. It serves a bunch of smaller industries across three cities and interchanges with Conrail. I took some liberties here as Conrail didn't operate that far southwest. 

The railroad layout has a generous amount of scenery. I'm passionate about scenery, as such there are lots of trees, jagged rock outcroppings, lush green pastures, and scraggly scrub brush. All this scenery is beautiful but when the trains weren't running something seemed missing. I realized much like a train seems lifeless without sound, so does nature. It's that idea that led me to add background sounds.

First I had to find some audio and I was lucky to find numerous audio tracks online for free.

Sound Card
A view of the MP3 player. The right wire leads to the amplifier while the bottom one is the power.

I first tried a short audio track but the looping was too noticeable when I was working on the layout. I swapped it out for a much longer audio track running aproximately 20 minutes long. The MP3 player selection was tricky to get right. There are a lot of models out there and I first tried a radio combo but it proved to be too finickey. I just wanted to turn the power on and have it auto-play.

I settled on a model that sells for aproximately $1.50. The photos show an alternative model that works just as well but it requires a headphone cable. The board linked in the shopping list simply needs power and will loop through the MP3 tracks placed on a micro SD card.

This setup worked but the audio was too low. Considering the power supply to the MP3 player is pretty weak this is expected. I bought an amplifier commonly used in arcade games to increase the volume.

A view of the amplifier. While I have two speakers the MP3 player is mono so only one side is used.

The amplifier turned up to near max provides just the right volume. The speakers are basic car speakers and are more than ample for this application.

Speakers for the layout's background sounds. Normally hidden behind the curtain, they are still audible.

Here is a video of a locomotive running on the layout.

Here is a video overview of some of the layout with just the sounds.

Adding background sound effects to your layout creates a whole new level of imersion in the minature world you've created. It's easy to accomplish and involves just a few components. Hopefully this inspires you to look at new ways to incorporate sounds in your model railroad.

Shopping List

< More Articles


4501 N. Clarendon Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
United States of America