To Beep No More

Ben Rubin
Ben Rubin
Jul 2, 2015 · Unlisted

A Sound Design Manifesto

With the 2nd Avenue Subway finally up and running, I’ve revived my 20-year obsession with the story of New York’s subway turnstile sounds, and with improving our city’s public soundscapes.

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MTA subway tokens, circa 1995.
This is rush hour at a bank of Union Square turnstiles in 1998, and the sound is the same today in 2015.

Sound, signifying nothing.

It’s bad enough that the turnstile’s sound is clinical, soulless, and unpleasant; what’s worse is that the sound is bad at its job. This beep is supposed to answer a question: I’ve swiped my MetroCard, now what should I do? And yet every morning when my swipe is answered by the turnstile’s beep, I ignore it, because it tells me nothing. I keep walking forward at full speed, and most of the time I sail through the turnstile’s machinery unhindered. But every few days, the transaction ends with me crashing without warning — bang! — into the unyielding turnstile gate. This happens every time my MetroCard can’t be read, has expired, or has run out of funds.

Swipe, BEEP, bang! (ouch)

The beep should warn me when there is a problem, sparing me the indignity of crashing into the bar, and it should let me know what to do next: stay put and swipe again, or else go back and fix my card. And although the beep was put there to do exactly that, it clearly fails.

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There are several independent reasons that this sound fails to deliver, and if you are interested in the psychoacoustics, you can follow this link for a detailed explanation of what’s going wrong.

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Follow this link for acoustical details about the turnstile beep sound and why it’s so ill-suited to its assigned task.

Fixing the Beep

Before discussing the beeps in terms of design, aesthetics, or the quality of the subway experience, one thing needs to be clear: Subway turnstiles are essential public infrastructure components, and as such, they should not subject riders, their captive audience, to any nonessential sound. The sounds need to be efficient above all else, and here I understand efficient sounds as those that maximize communication while minimizing the amount of sound released into the environment. If a sound were to do an extremely good job of communicating it’s message, I think it would gain a measure of beauty precisely because it is so effective, even in the absence of other aesthetic niceties.

The New York City subway turnstile sounds reimagined in 1998. This video presents the sound and its variations in isolation.
A simulation of the overall rush hour soundscape as it might sound with the new turnstile sounds and train arrival signals.

It’s not that the turnstile sounds were poorly designed,
but that they were not really designed at all.

Whenever a city or municipal agency invests in new equipment that emits sound, such as siren-equipped emergency vehicle, crosswalk signals, or trucks with backup warning signals, the sounds should be subject to a design review by a public authority along the lines of New York City’s Public Design Commission. and sound designers, acousticians, and composers should be brought into the process where appropriate. A review should make certain that when a new sound gets introduced into a public situation, the sound adds real value, that its aesthetic qualities are well considered, that it fits well with the other sounds in its surroundings, and that it delivers critical information that can’t be communicated in any other way.

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