The sound of the underground: The audio identity of the London's transport system
Over 150 years ago, the London Underground set a new benchmark for communication design in transport. Harry Beck's iconic map and Edward Johnston's were replicated around the world and their core elements remain in London's transport design today. As companies become more aware of sonic signage and voice, we review the sound of the tube, which carries 1.37 billion travellers every year.
Over the years, the London underground has hosted some iconic voices. Among the most recognisable was Phil Sayer, who was also known for his was also known for TV and radio work. Sayer's rendition of "Please mind the gap" isn't the only recognisable male voice on the underground. Actor Oswald Laurence's sterner delivery, which was reinstated at Embankment station at the request of his widow.
Nowadays, the London Underground is dominated by female voice announcements. TfL’s head of bus systems and technology, Simon Reed, explains that male announcements can sometimes get mixed up in the low frequencies of a busy station. The female voice, which is around one octave higher, is easier for passengers to hear. Modern female voices of the tube include voice artists Emma Clarke and Julie Berry.
Whilst some train announcements are still made by drivers, these are gradually being phased out. Reed says that this is a matter of practicality and consistency: “Whereas in the past you might have relied on the driver to give announcements, all the training in the world can’t get that to be consistent – [what if] on Monday morning one of them comes in with a cold?” Additionally, many drivers don't have English as a first language and can be intimidated by the prospect of speaking, so pre-recorded voice announcements make things easier for them - and for foreign tourists.
Sounds and music
Alongside voice, navigational earcons are also used to alert commuters to events, such as beeps as the doors close.
Transport For London have also experimented with background music. Ten years ago, classical music - the likes of Mozart and Bach - was piped into 40 underground stations in an attempt to deter crime. This idea originally came from Montreal, Canada, where deterred groups of troublemakers.
Lastly, buskers are frequent on the London tube network. where there are dedicated spots for licensed musicians.