Train in Vain | Music Matters

Recently, a patron came in and asked for train sounds on CD. Easy enough; libraries always seem to have at least one sound effects CD lying around at all times, right? We did have one that was supposed to be on shelf at that particular location, but it was all Halloween sound effects (i.e., no train sounds), and it was lost or missing. It did spur me to think about the last time I’d placed an order for sound effects CDs and the answer was…not immediately forthcoming, which meant it was probably time to look at this entire area for gaps and updating.

Digital divide

When looking at our music vendor’s website, searching in the “sound effects” category, there were 53 items listed, yet all but nine were marked as “not available.” Of those nine, two were actually alt-rock band albums and one was ambient music, not sound effects. Two were Halloween or “scary” sounds, and the remaining four were nature sounds, which is another relatively popular category that is often forgotten in the regular course of music ordering. Trying my luck at another vendor, the results were the same. It isn’t unusual for specialized media to go in and out of print quickly, but there is generally a replacement of similar size and shape to take its place.

A quick check on Amazon found that most general sound effects collections have gone digital; it was difficult to find them on physical CDs. There were still some very specific sound effects CDs available, however. For example, Ultimate Sound Effects Collection—Guns and Warfare and Crashes, Explosions & Earthquakes were both available on CD. Guard Dogs—Random Barking and Growling Dog Sounds for Added Home Security When the House Is Empty was available on CD—and also a pretty good idea! Stimulation Sex Sounds was a collection I never expected to see for sale in any format, but that’s Amazon for you.

With so many of the signs pointing toward digital, I checked hoopla’s and Freegal’s offerings. A good number of the CDs showing as out of print in physical format were available on hoopla. A simple search of “sound effects” brought up a total of 67 CDs, though your mileage may vary depending on the restrictions and limits your library has set up with hoopla.

In the digital age, patrons and librarians are accustomed to being able to sample before we purchase. My only quibble with hoopla is that you can’t sample any of the sounds before you check out the CD. If you need the sound of a baby laughing for a podcast or performance, you have 12 different options, but you have to check out all 12 if you want to try them out.

A Freegal search for “sound effects” also brought up a lot of choices. If your subscription includes streaming, you can sample as many effects as your time allows before deciding which to download. If you want to know the difference between “Dog Barking” and “German Shepherd Dog Barking” or “Car squealing tires while pulling away” and a different “Car squealing tires while pulling away,” you can see which one strikes your fancy.

Au naturale

Sleeping, relaxation, meditation, and healing are all keywords when searching for nature sounds. Our vendor classifies nature sounds as either “sound effects” or “new age” depending on the individual recording, and these tend to be a little easier to locate on physical CDs. You could go from a very general “babbling brook” to the sounds of a specific rainforest or a ­specific ocean’s waves. You might think that a thunderstorm is a thunderstorm, but the variety of sounds of storm, plus the sounds around it, can vary widely. I have recently added to our collection of nature CDs, and they seem to be very popular. Rainforest and ocean waves get the most use, but in what has been an exceptionally dry summer, “Rain for sleeping and relaxing” has also been checked out a lot.

When searching Freegal for “nature sounds,” you have to do a little work to separate the sound effects (30 seconds of babbling brook) from the longer recordings meant for continuous listening. Again, the CDs can cross multiple categories. Amazing Nature Sounds, 70 minutes of sounds related to rainstorms, thunderstorms, and waves, is listed in “new age,” while Nature Sounds of Relaxation, which is four and a half hours of various nature “songs” ranging from five to eight minutes apiece, is listed in the “jazz” category. Likewise, on hoopla, there is a small variety of CDs, mostly listed under new age. While a majority of the nature sounds center on water in some way, hoopla offers Relaxing Garden Ambience with the sounds of an English garden in the morning and in the afternoon—a refreshing change of pace.

Matching patrons with their desired sound effects takes a bit of effort, and if you don’t look at your sound effects and nature sounds collections frequently, they might be due some updating. If you can’t put your hands on a CD when your patron needs a particular sound, don’t forget to check online offerings if you have access to hoopla or Freegal. Patrons might be willing to pay Amazon $1 for a 20-second clip of a train whistle, but why should they if their library is on track?

Robin Bradford is a Collection Development Librarian at Timberland Regional Library, WA, where she orders adult fiction, feature films (and TV!), and music CDs. She was chosen the Romance Writers of America 2016 Librarian of the Year

This article was published in Library Journal's October 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. Heather Rayl says:

    Or, you could direct your patron to open sharing sites, like, where I found 200+ results when searching for train whistle –, or even which also has a community sound repository.

    • Lisa says:

      I use quite often, and even upload sounds there (birds, frogs, rooster). It’s a great resource. :)

    • Robin Bradford says:

      Thanks! I didn’t know about this, but now I’m adding it to my growing list.

  2. Cathy L says:

    I borrowed a CD of train sounds from my own library years ago. These were not “sound effects” so much as recordings for train lovers. Each track was identified by specific train and location. If you google “train sounds” several recordings come up–most in CD and available on Amazon.

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