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NY Subway Miniatures w/Real Sound Effects
Clanging New York Subways, Screeches Intact, Go Miniature

Published: September 21, 2006

Richard Perry/The New York Times
Bruce R. Koball recorded a passing train at a station in Brooklyn. His journey also took him to railyards and the New York Transit Museum.
All week, a man with a microphone has walked the subway platforms to collect the clattering of the rivets and the whistling horns, the distortion in the loudspeaker, the hush in the compressor’s song and the dying of the brake like some wounded thing.

Even in that racket, some find value. The recordings are the chief selling point of a new reproduction of a subway train by the Lionel model train company made under a license from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for completion by year’s end.

Other companies have made models before, but this one pays unparalleled attention to sonic detail, recreating the subterranean soundscape in elaborate hi-fi to win the favor of collectors and self-styled train geeks, keepers of a nostalgic anachronism to rank alongside comic books and baseball cards.

Among their number count the musician Neil Young, so devoted that he conceived a control system to reproduce the sounds of the rails, then acquired a minority interest in Lionel more than a decade ago.

“Realism is the byword,” Mr. Young said by telephone. “It’s a heavy thing moving down a track, like a real thing even though it’s a miniature.”

The system he championed has been used to recreate old steam engines, the historic diesels of the short lines and the Acelas of the Atlantic seaboard. The subway model will combine the sounds of vintage cars with recreated station announcements from the Brighton Local, a predecessor of the Q train, which runs from Midtown to Coney Island.

To capture the sounds, the company dispatched the man with the microphone, Bruce R. Koball, a Queens native who long ago decamped to Berkeley for its institutionalized counterculture. Mr. Koball, who has a thin white beard and thick glasses, dressed for his assignment with multiple belt accessories and a bulky headset wired to a recording device inside a fabric bag hanging from his neck. His microphone was fastened to the end of a long black pole and covered with a conical silvery reticulum like some futurist’s mosquito net. He looked like a hiker spaceman.

Recording began below Brooklyn on Monday, in the tunnels of the New York Transit Museum. There Mr. Koball was joined by a few transit supervisors and Mark Wolodarsky, an off-duty conductor. Mr. Wolodarsky was standing in the cab of Car 9306, a model R33s introduced in 1963 to run the 20-minute route from Times Square to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens.

“I’m more or less ready to rock and roll here,” Mr. Koball declared.


A cellphone rang and Mr. Koball answered.

“Neil!” he said. Then he paced by the tracks for a good long piece, speaking of switches and routers and circuits, happy as a schoolboy. By and by he passed the phone along, and the familiar voice on the line grasped at the grandeur of the city trains.

“It’s a symphony of motion and sound,” Mr. Young said. “New York City. What’s more American than that?”


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