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5
Jun

The Voice of the N° 39 Bus

I HAVE SOME EXCTING NEWS! The bus stop announcements on the Paris buses are being updated and the current computer generated Text to Speech voices are being replaced with real voices recorded specifically for each bus route. Soundlandscapes has been given exclusive access to see how the new announcements are produced.

Song Phanekham is the man responsible for the sound identity of RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the Paris mass transit authority, which includes the Metro, the RER, the buses and the trams. Amongst other things, he is responsible for the excellent, four-language, “Mind the Gap” announcement on the newly automated Metro Line 1.

I met Song last week at the studios of Sixième Son, Europe’s leading audio branding and sound identity agency, in the 5th arrondissement. Working with Sixième Son, RATP are gradually improving the customer experience by producing clear, distinctive and friendly announcements that have a very Parisian feel to them across the entire RATP transport network. I watched as the bus stop announcements for the N° 39 bus route were recorded.

The N° 39 bus route is one of around 350 routes that RATP operates. It crosses Paris between the Gare du Nord and Issy-Frères Voisin. If you travel on a 39 bus today, these are some of the sounds you will hear.

Sounds inside a N° 39 Bus today:

It is these dry, monotone announcements that are being replaced. The objective is to make travelling on public transport a more welcoming and friendly experience. I know that sounds like something straight out of a marketing brochure but having seen at first hand the effort RATP are making to produce more genuinely customer friendly announcements, I have to applaud what they are doing.

If the announcements are to be less robotic and more welcoming, and if there is to be a real voice specially recorded, then there has to be a face behind the voice.

Let me introduce Andréa, the voice of the N° 39 bus.

In this sonic modernisation programme, RATP decided not to use actors or voice-over artists to make the new announcements. Instead, they held auditions within RATP and selected some of their own employees to do the job. Andréa is one of several employees selected.

From the control room, I watched as the names of all the bus stops on the N° 39 route were recorded. The atmosphere was relaxed but very professional as Andréa went about her work.

Recording the announcements:

She spoke the name of each bus stop and then repeated it two or three times, sometimes with a slightly different inflection, so as to give the director and the editor more choice.  Song directed the recording session and he intervened gently from time to time to ensure that he got the result he was looking for. I was impressed by the care taken to ensure exactly the correct inflection on each name but I was even more impressed by the care taken to ensure the correct pronunciation.

One of the stops on the N° 39 route is Abbé Groult. Andréa had a view about how to pronounce ‘Groult’ and Song had a different view. In the end, it was decided to record both versions and then to seek advice from the Académie Française, custodian of the French language. The Académie ruled that, “Dans les noms qui se terminent en -ult, les consonnes finales ne se font pas entendre. On dit l’abbé grou.” So there we have it on the highest authority, the letters ‘l’ and ‘t’ are silent.

Different versions of Abbé Groult:

 After the recording session came the editing and the final selection of the sounds to be used.

Editing and selection:

Again, great care was taken to ensure that everything was perfect. A debate ensued about the pronunciation of Desnouettes-Vasco de Gama. That pesky little ‘de’ between Vasco and Gama has a lot to answer for. And ‘Grands Boulevards’ wasn’t plain sailing either. Eventually though, everyone had their say, the editor worked his magic and the finished sounds were to everyone’s satisfaction.

During the next two or three weeks, these sounds will be uploaded into the sound systems of all the buses that work the 39 route. Then, as if by magic, the GPS system on each bus will activate the audio announcements and the sound of Andréa’s voice will be heard as each bus stop comes into view.

This recording session was just one of many that are being held to update the announcements on the Paris buses, the Metro, the RER and the Trams and to make them more user friendly. From late June and early July, Andréa will also feature on bus routes 70, 82 and 92. Around mid-June, new announcements will appear on bus routes 43 and 95 with a male voice. Then the announcements on two major BRT (bus rapid transit) lines in the southeastern suburbs, Tvm and 393, will be updated.

Well done RATP!

I am very grateful to Song Phanekham, RATP and Sixième Son for allowing me to attend this recording session and for their hospitality. And of course, special thanks to Andréa for allowing me to record her being recorded.