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The sound of the underground

Sep 04, 2018
We've all heard a public transport announcement asking us to 'mind the gap' or 'change for the next line' – but have you ever thought about the voice behind it all? The dulcet tones chosen to accompany our daily commute aren't merely coincidental, but the work of thorough research and reasoning – so we're taking a look at what makes the perfect transport voiceover.

An announcement should reassure travellers, represent its city, and avoid disturbing commuters along the way – so while drivers used to be responsible for keeping passengers informed, pre-recorded messages have proved a more effective way of achieving all three. They might not feel quite as personal, but choosing one carefully considered voice has the potential to improve accessibility by catering to both non-English-speaking drivers and those who aren't familiar with local accents.

Emma Hignett was the first voiceover to help with London's transition from live to pre-recorded announcements back in 2005. Today, Hignett is a recognised voice in the capital – representing everything from the bus network to the London Overground – and she's just one of the many voice-artists working on city transport worldwide.

In Vienna's stations, you'll hear a female making all the announcements – a decision that's actually based on background noise and biology. While a male voice is at risk of getting mixed up in the many low frequencies present in a busy station, the voice of a female – which is generally an octave higher – is much more likely to be heard above the hustle and bustle.

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Accent, language and tone are also important factors. So while Vienna's transport team researched to find the right balance, Brussels decided to change their standard voice to a more 'toned down' version when announcing delays, and Stockholm used two completely different characters – Jarda and Anton – to take care of their northbound and southbound trains.

It's not just professional voiceovers that have been getting involved in the fun either. Many transport companies have injected personality into the everyday commute by employing local celebrities. Canadian actor Seth Rogen has recorded messages for Toronto's TTC and Vancouver's Translink travellers, asking them to keep their feet on the floor in his famous comedic fashion. And to celebrate BBC Music Day, Manchester's Metrolink recorded Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder announcing each stop in his much-loved Mancunian drawl.

As technology evolves, it looks as though we're set to take yet another step away from more traditional methods. Company Acapela Group specialises in creating real-time audio for the transport industry – using synthetic, human-esque voices that have been spliced and organised from an acoustic database. The benefits seem obvious – professional, accessible updates on-the-go. But if the success of Manchester and Toronto's campaigns tell us anything, it's that nothing beats a familiar voice.