Interview with Nancy Workman of Soundtraxx

2008 On30 AnnualYou’ve heard of their products for years (literally)… Most notably the Tsunami™ line of sound-equipped decoders from Soundtraxx. Editor Chris Lane was able to sit down with Soundtraxx co-founder Nancy Workman in 2008 and discuss the history of the company, their design philosophies, and even a bit about Blackstone Models, their HOn3 manufacturing division. Here is the complete interview from the 2008 On30 Annual.

Chris Lane: Tell us how you got into the manufacturing business?

Nancy Workman: It’s kind of a long winded. I meet Steve (Dominguez), my business partner in 1988 while we were both working for a marine electronics company in Massachusetts. We had become friendly as our offices were next to each other. One day he asked if I had some time to help him with some marketing ideas for a new product he had developed. I said, “Sure what is it?” and he told me it was a sound system for model trains. I said, “A-sound-system-for-toy-trains!?” He got a bit indignant and told me that no, these were scale model trains. At this point I just didn’t get what he was telling me. I had never had a train growing up or had never seen a model railroad at that point. He huffed out of my office and I figured that that was the end of that.

The next day he can back with an unpainted brass Fujiyama K-36 in HOn3 and put it on my desk saying, “This is what I’m talking about.” As a former art major, I could see the artistry and craftsmanship in that model and that it was clearly not a toy. I got hooked on the spot and became fascinated with concept. As it turned out, National Narrow Gauge Convention was going to be held that fall (1989) in Durango and he suggested that I join him and check it out. I had a marine show I had to do, so I got out there about halfway through the show and walked around, saw the real trains, saw the models and products. I also met the modelers that were there and they were all so cool to talk to and had such a love and passion for the hobby and for trains, I fell in love with it.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly when we decided to become a company, and our first product didn’t turn out to be a sound system at all. We wanted to have a low end product to establish ourselves and get our name around. We were nobody and dealers had never heard of us, so we couldn’t very well ask them to spend thousands of dollars for a sound system from an unknown company. We could ask them for $39.95 for a Hyperlight and that was really the strategy for that product’s development. Some people may remember it, many might not, but it was the first little multi-function lighting system that you could select different lighting functions within the circuit. This was pre-DCC and it allowed the dealers to carry one product instead of a strata light and a Mars light and a rotary beacon. It was a very popular product and we sold thousands and thousands, and of course the same circuit is still built into our decoders today.

CL: Seems like we’ve known each other forever, did we meet at the Durango convention?

NW: Probably, I meet a lot of cool people at that show, many whom are unfortunately no longer with us. It was the clinics that totally hooked me on model railroading. One was given by (the late) Jim Wild and Dwayne Easterling and it was hilarious. Another was by the late Jim Haggard (former owner of Builders in Scale) called “The Stuff We Leave Behind.” He talked about the tire tracks across a field, the tin cans behind old houses, tires etc. and it was at that point I fell in love with the hobby. As a creative person, how could you not?

CL: You mentioned Hyperlights, after that came the sound system?

SoundTraxxNW: Right, that was the under-table sound system, not the decoder one. That was the D220IR which came out under the corporate name of Throttle Up! Soundtraxx is really the brand name. The D220IR was the first sound system and throttle combination that used infrared technology and it had some pretty advanced features. It was a robust unit, so if you dropped the hand held, it wouldn’t shatter into a bunch of pieces and it was at a nice price point. If I recall, list price was $399, so it wasn’t cheap, but it also was a good value for all the features you got for the money. It was solid state and partially digital. The air horns were analog, which seems backwards from the way we do things now, but we wanted to provide the widest range of horns we could. We recorded the notes and chimes digitally, but the modeler could mix those (this was the analog component) to get the sound they wanted. We provided a chart of the notes like C# and B flat which built the horn sounds. It provided over 1,200 air horns, which were a big selling feature, and the guys had a bunch of fun with it.

I knew we had a winner when we did the Timonium, Md., show the first time. We were a last minute entry and our booth was back in the corner by the doors (and the tracks). The doors were open as it was a warm spring day, and we fired up the system with a sub-woofer and additional speakers. I looked up to see a mob of men rush past my table and out the doors. I stuck my head out the door and they were all asking each other, “Where’s the train?” I thought to myself YES!!! This is what we were aiming at. When you can fool that many guys into thinking the train was outside, we knew we had nailed it.

We followed up a few years later with the steam version, and that was all digital, including the reverb unit. Those products did very well for us. Around that time Steve was developing a sound decoder. It wasn’t DCC as that really wasn’t around yet; it was more like a Keller On-Board carrier control unit. We then started to hear rumblings about DCC and it becoming a standard, so we made the decision to hold off on any further development. In 1996 we introduced our first DCC decoder, the DSD2408 that I’m sure nobody will remember as we only made one hundred of them! Instantly we decided two things about it. First, it needed to be smaller, even though it was half the size of anything available at the time. We also weren’t happy with the optical cam we used, as we found it to be finicky for the average modeler to adjust and we quickly decided we wanted a mechanical sound cam. So even as we were building those first hundred, we had moved to 2.0 version of the sound decoder, the DSD050.

It took off from there although it was a bit of a hard sell at first. DCC was new and there were a number of “I don’t care about sound” skeptics. How far we’ve come in this area! A lot of it was an education process, as we really had to teach them about “scale sound.” They were used to having external speakers and wanted to run things at really high volumes. Obviously, the simple physics of an onboard sound decoder has limitations and it took us a while to convince some guys that too much volume ruins the overall effect.

CL: I’m still not convinced everyone understands that; Would you please discuss some of the limitations?

NW: Sound is subjective, ask anyone who makes sound products and they say the same thing. We all hear differently, and as we age, the frequencies we can hear change or even go away, so that’s the first thing. I’ll have a customer who says, “that sounds like a single chime air horn” and I’ll say, “No, that is a three chime,” so people do hear the same thing differently. We also get requests to make our decoders smaller, so they can put them in N scale. We already make some of the smallest decoder available but the real issue isn’t the electronics. It might cost you more, but we can always make the electronics smaller.

The issue is moving air, and a speaker that can fit in N scale simply can’t move enough air to give both the volume and the bass response that we’d all like. People are always amazed when they hook a Tsunami decoder up to a stereo speaker at how much more sound is there, but that is a function of the speaker, not the decoder. That’s why we aren’t big advocates of onboard sound in N scale, because we feel the customer is always going to be somewhat disappointed. You are just not going to get the volume and low frequency “rumble” from a first generation EMD that you want to hear. That is why we are developing SurroundTraxx. It is an active project and we hope to announce some information on it in the near future, but we feel it is a much better solution for the N scale modeler, or any modeler who doesn’t have much space in their locomotives.

CL: What are the steps involved in taking an idea for a sound product and developing it into a saleable product to the consumer?

NW: This first thing is you have to have good recordings and that can involve everything from going down the street in our case (to the Durango & Silverton Railroad) to getting on an airplane and flying to a foreign country. You also have to have excellent recording equipment. If you have lousy equipment, you get lousy recordings, which make for lousy sound files. It involves a lot of expense that I’m not sure people think about. Sometimes we have to pay to use the locomotive and pay for the train crew. Sometimes, we are asked to make a “contribution” to the organization that owes the locomotive, and we are fine with that, we really are, but that adds expense to a project. Next, we need to isolate the locomotive so we are not picking up street noise, people talking and the like. Even a strong wind can ruin a recording session. You really have to be aware of your surroundings, there is nothing more discouraging than getting all the way back home and hearing a dog barking in your recording. In a perfect world, we can take the locomotive out in the woods and away from other sound sources. The way we record is to gather each sound individually, they are never combined. That way the user can control their sounds as they wish. They don’t want to hear “ding-ding-ding” every time they blow the whistle. Every sound has to be clean by itself.

CL: That brings up a good point. On a steam locomotive, there is a lot of sound going on simultaneously, so it has to be hard to isolate them.

NW: Right and that goes back to having the right equipment for this. There are microphones that can record a sound directly in front of them and reject all the other ambient sounds. I won’t go into all the microphone characteristics, but they turn out to be some of the most expensive pieces of equipment for this. You can’t go out with a handheld tape recorder and wait for the train to go by, it just doesn’t work. The cooperation of the train crew is really important. You can’t just record one toot of the horn, you have to have many samples at differing lengths. You also need them to turn off as much stuff as they can. You wouldn’t want a steam locomotive’s dynamo running while you were trying to sample other sounds. Sometimes they aren’t allowed to turn certain things off, and while you can go in and strip out some background noises, you have to know what they are and plan for them. It really is a very complicated process. People think it is easy, but getting quality recordings is very complex and time consuming.

And that is just the first step in the process, then you have to edit all these samples, and you really have to have an ear for it. I’ll be honest with you, I just don’t. Lucky, we have other people who are great at it, but again, it takes specialized equipment to do this and hours and hours of work on every individual sound. The Tsunami has 22 sounds in each decoder and even our least expensive decoders have 9. This is a misconception where since they are just recordings, people think we can just cram a decoder full of sounds and charge the same price. They just don’t understand that every sound function takes memory to both store and execute, so a Tsunami costs more because it really costs more.

Consumer electronics have gotten cheaper and cheaper, and model railroaders expect the same to be true in our industry, but it just isn’t. We don’t get the economy of scale that a GM, Apple Computer or the cell phone makers do, and in fact, we have to compete with them for parts as we use many of the same components. While there are instances where a part becomes cheaper, it is equally likely that it become unavailable, and gets replaced with a new part that has more power and features, which the modeler would understandably want, but of course, it usually costs more. We’ve also had manufacturers misrepresent a component’s specs, so we have been a year down the road on developing a product and found that the component can’t do what we need it to do.

CL: What are some other challenges of making sound decoders?

NW: Europe requires all electronics be lead-free and for a while, lead-free components were either hard to get or unavailable. It didn’t affect us, as we just built for the US market during that time. All our products now meet the European standards. Here in the US, California requires additional labeling. The main challenge is that there are never enough sounds. We frequently get requests for that one odd duck locomotive that just doesn’t exist any more so there is no way to get a sound recording. We struggle with that because we want to accommodate our customers. Related to that is the “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” effect where our customers will bring us videos or recordings to help us out with these obscure locomotives. The two problems with that is first, it is copyrighted material and we can’t use it and second, there is no way to know if it is the actual locomotive. Often the sound is dubbed and is not the real thing and since this is the only thing they’ve heard, it can be tough to convince them it’s not a UP turbine or whatever.

We are always looking to add sounds to the library, sometimes it makes sense to do it, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes, it’s just not a very nice sound or recording. We can’t make everyone happy all the time, but we really care about the quality of the recording and we really want to make sure that it functions properly in the decoder and can be operated realistically by the user. More than anything we want it to be fun. 85% of the users aren’t going to access all the stuff we put in the Tsunami, but we hope that they get in and play around because there really is some fun stuff in there. But if they don’t, it is designed to be fun right out of the package and that’s why we put things like the automatic whistle in the Tsunami and people are getting a hoot out of it. It is something they didn’t know they wanted, but they are finding it frees them up to do other sound functions.

We are always looking to put more stuff in the decoders and make them more fun. Frequently we hear, “Next time you do a decoder, could you do this…” and we really enjoy saying, you know it’s already in there; let me show you how to access it. If you sit down with the manual and just play with the decoder for a few hours, you’ll find all kinds of things built in for you to use.

CL: People tell me that they love the sound of the Tsunami, but they can’t explain why. What’s different about this decoder?

NW: The sound quality really is terrific on the Tsunami. We are using a 16-bit digital processor, which gives you 256 times more sound information than the 8-bit everyone else uses. Audiophiles pick up on it right away because you can hear a broader range of the sound spectrum, and the clarity is better. In 8-bit, the cylinder blow down sounds more like noise than steam escaping. With the Tsunami, that blow down sounds “wet” and it really sounds like steam and you can hear that difference. It is subtle difference in all the sounds, but taken together it’s really obvious, and that’s want people are hearing. Another reason they like it is everyone does hear a little differently, and you can adjust every single sound in the decoder individually to the user’s preference. It also has much better motor control than anything we have had before and the users love the back-emf and the fact that the exhaust chuff responds to the load on the motor. People seem to love that it is quite realistic right out of the package without a lot of tweaking and that there is a lot of flexibility built in the decoder, without having to spend a lot of time programming.

This is why we haven’t offered a sound downloadable decoder. That’s not to say we won’t at some point, but we feel that most consumers aren’t interested in spending all the time it takes to program a decoder like that, and in the end, they are likely to be disappointed with the sound. That’s not a knock on any the downloadable decoders available as they all function as they are supposed to, but more a comment on the sounds. Like we discussed earlier, getting the recordings is the hardest part and we feel that the consumer will likely be disappointed with the end result.

CL: What are some of the other funs things in the Tsunami that people might not find right away?

NW: The “Fireman Fred” events probability generator is pretty cool. It’s a long winded way of saying that Fireman Fred is not going to do everything each time the locomotive stops, you get to decide how often these events happen. You can control how likely it is that he will throw some coal in the firebox, or get out his wrenches and work on the locomotive or use the grease gun. The rod crank noise that kicks in when the locomotive is drifting seems to catch people by surprise and they love it. We are finding the modelers are learning much more about locomotive operation because of the sounds. In fact, we have a number of customers who will not allow a non-sound equipped locomotive on their layout, and they require proper whistle and bell signals, which adds a lot of fun to running. You just never know where you are going to find pleasure in using sound. I have a customer who is legally blind and he called us to say, “The Tsunami is so clear, I can hear exactly where my locomotive is and what it is doing, even if it gets stuck in the tunnel. I can’t really see to model anymore, but the sound has brought the pleasure back to model railroading for me.”

CL: Are you offering any On30 specific products at this point?

NW: Not at this point. I think everyone knows we are working very closely with Bachmann. They provide wonderful On30 locomotives and at their request, we are building sound decoders to their specifications for some of those locomotives. We did do a run of Bachmann Shays, Climaxes and consolidations that we purchased and installed Tsunami decoders and sold them under our name. The sound out of On30 locos is really phenomenal because you have a larger tender or space and they make great speaker enclosures. People shouldn’t be afraid to do their own installations, it really isn’t difficult.

CL: Do you find that there is a particular scale that is more “into” sound that other scales?

NW: Not really, it seems that everyone is interested in sound to some extent. Their needs are different so they might take different approaches to it. I think the interesting thing is that narrow gauge modelers in general were the early adopters of sound. They made up the bulk of our customers in the early days, and when we shifted to decoder sound units, they can right along with us. They got the “scale sound” concept right away and of course since Steve and I are both narrow gauge modelers, they were used to seeing and talking to us at shows.

CL: How did Blackstone Models come about?

BlackstoneModelsNW: It really is a reflection of Steve Dominguez. Even while we were both working for the marine electronics company in Massachusetts, he would say, “I’d really like to live in Colorado.” I think I’d previously mentioned his interest in HOn3 early on, and when we started the business, we did move it out here (Colorado). After being out here for a short time, and continuing to attend the National Narrow Gauge Conventions around the country, both he and I thought, “I’d love to be in narrow gauge, but…” The thing that was stopping us was the same thing that was hindering everyone in HOn3, and that was equipment. Your only choice for motive power was imported brass, and in addition to being quite expensive, they usually didn’t run very well. HOn3 had a pretty well-earned reputation for being a tricky scale to work in. You usually had to be a good craftsman to get your motive power to work reliably, and that was also true of the rolling stock to a lesser extent.

As Sountraxx’s decoder business grew, we spent more and more time installing and testing our products in various locomotives and this experience showed us why engines don’t run as well as they should. Usually, the models had a poor pickup design, so they weren’t electronically reliable. We also discovered all the common areas when mechanisms bind, and which mechanism styles worked better than others. Over the years, we had come to know most of the overseas manufacturers, so when we made the decision to form Blackstone Models and get into the locomotive and rolling stock business, we really had an advantage.

Starting from the ground up, we knew the features we would want to see as HOn3 modelers, and we were able to design those in the product with our manufacturer. We knew we needed all-wheel pickup on the locomotive. That single element was the weakest link on previous models. We also designed a drawbar connector that both hides the wires between tender and locomotive and has a positive mechanical connection, while separating easily for packing and storing the locomotive. Our driving criteria was “Will it run well?” If we weren’t able to answer that question with an affirmative, no one would have ever heard of Blackstone Models, as we never would have formed the company.

Once we had assured ourselves that we could offer a product that met our high standards, we started from ground zero with research. Being in Durango, it is a short hop over to Antonito where K-27 No. 463 is stored to measure and verify every part. We found many areas where “conventional wisdom” in drawings and previous models was just wrong. We also did the same with K-27 No. 464 (the other surviving K-27) in Michigan. Armed with these measurements, the photos we shot and every photo of K-27s in service we could lay our hands on, we knew we would produce the most accurate model possible. We also committed early on to offer several of the different versions of the locomotive and tender styles, including the rebuilt Rio Grande Southern No. 455. [The No. 455 was severely damaged in a runaway in 1943. It finally returned to service in 1947 sporting a cab from a scrapped standard gauge 0-6-0 and sans the insulation and jacketing on the cylinders. This gave No. 455 a distinctive, one-off appearance. Click here for more information about K-27’s. —Editor]

I should mention that when we committed to offering all the different locomotives, that meant we committed to producing them. We didn’t make the announcement as a trial balloon to see if we could get enough reservations, we were going to make each locomotive announced regardless. Obviously, some numbers sold quicker than others, but we have been rewarded for our commitment as every version has proved to be popular. At the same time, we committed to doing the 3000-series D&RGW boxcars and 5500-series stock cars and we are on our third run of those.

In the interim, we also announced the 6000-series flat car, which will be delivered in August of 2008, a D&RGW long caboose, high-side gondola, drop bottom gon, and we are working on our next locomotive, which we aren’t ready to announce yet. Rather than throwing a few products out there and see how they do, we really committed to the scale of HOn3 long-term.

We had the same sort of design process with the rolling stock. We started with the trucks and made sure that they rolled well, and made them available as a separate sale item. Finally, we committed to keeping the costs of the Blackstone line as reasonable as possible. By doing that, we addressed every issue Steve and I faced as long time HOn3 modelers. We saw an opportunity to grow the scale, so we went for it!

CL: Any chance of you doing the same sort of thing in On30?

NW: We have no plans to do anything at this time, our friends at Bachmann seem to have that market pretty well in hand. However, we certainly noticed the success they were having, and that was a factor in our decision to develop the HOn3 market. Like On30, we think it is an area who’s time has come, and we plan to be in it for the long haul.

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This article was posted on: March 1, 2008