North Idaho Train Recording

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Back in March of 2011 I started a two year project to record as many trains as possible from North Idaho. I’ve lived here for many years and never really took the time to go out and record the beasts as they roared through the Panhandle of Idaho. I recorded some back in 1995 before I moved here and those are good but they are only CD quality. Now that I am recording everything in HD I thought it was time to record some brand new material for an upcoming library release. This blog post tells the tall tail of actually recording them in all their glory. Wait, way to much drama, I’ll cut to the chase… During the month of November (which is a great time to record here when it’s not freezing outside) I found some locations that will soon not be that great for recording. This is where I will start and who knows where it will lead… Only the Alien on the train knows.

November 06, 2011

Every year in the fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lower the water level in Lake Pend Oreille so that the winter and spring snow run-off does not flood the surrounding area. With a new super highway opening soon and access to the tracks from under the train bridge easy, now was the time to venture down and record the trains passing overhead before the freeway noise starts and the water level is back to normal.

The train bridge that runs the width of the lake is currently being retrofitted with new supports and tracks so it’s record now or wait a few more years for the construction to be complete. The bridge was high above me and my boom could only reach so far but I recorded a few trains rumbling by. They travel at different speeds over this bridge and the first one was moving fairly fast and caught me completely by surprise. My recording level on this take was to hot and the SD-702 was overwhelmed to say the least. I adjusted the level down during the take but I regret not having it set lower in the first place because I knew it was going to be loud… if I knew when it was coming. Duh!

The next two trains were not going as fast but they still made a great sound. There were lots of geese taking a coffee break on the lake and I was worried they would get in the recording but upon playback they were not noticeable. I wandered around the beach that is next to the tracks and recorded a few other trains on the land portion of the bridge and under the new freeway being built. I between the trains I was able to record some beautiful sounding water laps from the beach very close up… it was peaceful to say the least. All in all it was a worth while session and I do want to go back before it gets to cold and the new freeway bypass opens later this year.

November 12, 2011

This session was the first time I recorded at a location south of town on the Eastern side of the lake. The road is elevated above the tracks and there is a steep hillside that stops at a cliff with the tracks down below. This location has an access road to the tracks below and that’s where I set up first. It was a windy day and the remaining fall leaves were making some noise from across the tracks. I hoped the wind would die down a bit and it did for a while. It was also very cold so I left the matched stereo pair of Sennheiser 8040 microphones down by the tracks with the video camera and let them roll while I sat in the warmth of my car overlooking the tracks.

November 13, 2011

On the drive to the cliff recording area I have to cross over the two sets of tracks that lead into Sandpoint from the south. It’s a wide open area with just a few houses and farms. I set up in various locations near the crossing and waited. The good thing is that trains come from both directions (sometimes at the same time) every 15 minutes or so. There was very little car traffic that day so I felt I would be able to get some clean recordings. After a few trains went by I learned how far away from the crossing they start to honk their extremely loud horns. I set up accordingly and recorded some approaching horns and some closer honks as they passed by. I highly recommend hearing protection when doing this perpective, they can be very loud.

I plan on going back to get the signal bell and crossing arms activating. They are activated when the train is still far enough away so I’m hoping to get a good recording of them with a close up shotgun microphone.

I was in this location for a couple of hours and recorded 7 trains and I wanted more. I drove a few miles into Sandpoint, grabbed a coffee (Single tall latte with whole milk at 140 degrees, in case you are wondering) and set up in front of the old Amtrak station. There is a new freeway opening soon right behind the station and this was most likely be the last time some clean recordings can be obtained there. (I have since been back, the new freeway is still closed)

Here is the original blog post with audio and video: Crazy Train Doppler Pass Bys

November 27, 2011

On this day I wanted to get some distant perpectives of the freight trains roaring through the countryside so I searched for a location that was quiet and high above the tracks. I found a second great location south of town on the Eastern side of the lake. When I arrived I first tried to take in the view to the West from the cliff overlooking the tracks but there was a train on the bridge heading south so I quickly got into position with the gear. I really should say “carefully” got myself into postion because I was at least 150 feet above the tracks on a rocky hillside that was carved out many years ago to place the tracks by the lake. It’s a good thing I’m not afraid of heights. The tracks double up in this area and there is a switch. From across the lake I’ve seen them stopped here and I was hoping to get a train stopping and pulling away. I used a 12 foot boom pole this time instead of a stand because I really did not want to get to close to the edge of the cliff to place the stand. I was able to sit back from the edge and hang the microphones over the cliff.

The trains were moving slower that usual for some reason and the engines sounded loud, heavy and strained. So many trains come through this area on a daily basis that they have to slow down and sometimes stop when they meet up in Sandpoint. I think there are as many as seven tracks intersecting here. As they headed South from town they seemed to be really pulling their cargo hard. One train was screeching the whole time, not sure why but it was piercing. Speaking of cargo, I saw John Deer tractors, Caterpillar bulldozers, semi trucks and even some gigantic wind generator propellors strapped to these trains. With all this different cargo I do notice that each section of the train has a slightly different sound as it passes by. Empty or full, the box car and the tanker sections each have a distinct rattle and rumble to them.

After a few trains went by I moved a half mile south to the area I previously recorded on the 12th and set up the microphones on a stand and recorded some medium distant pass bys. Since I have many recordings of the close up variety, I wanted to get some wider shots. The trains were still pulling hard and the engines growled as they passed by with the heavy cargo.

The temperature had risen to 40 degrees and there was still some daylight left so I went back to the Amtrak station in town to see what I could get (Yes, latte in hand). When I was recording south of town I noticed from afar they were moving slower than usual over the lake bridge and maybe they were stopping in front of the station. I recorded from slightly farther back this time and I was lucky enough to get one train blaring it’s horn as it approached.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is with all the techniques, best practices, and knowledge it still comes down to listening… and listening again to the environment you are in to get the good stuff. The first time I place a microphone I’m hoping it gets what I’m intending but in the end it’s the trial and error that gets the best results sometimes. This happened here after the first train came through. I noticed about a hundred feet up the tracks was a track switch and when the train passed over the switch it made a very cool metal sound. I then recorded a train pass by at the track switch and it made some nice metal clunking and rattling. While waiting for the next train the propane gas heater on the switch fired up so I recorded that for a while and then the rain set in so it was time to pack it in for the day.

So, there you have it, a month of train recording from beautiful and sometimes cold North Idaho. After watching the movie “Super-8” I do wonder what else could be on these trains… An alien who just wants to go home?


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