Soho vs. Crossrail: How audio post in London dealt with the noisy neighbours

Crossrail under construction
Kevin Hilton
September 20th 2017 at 4:11PM : By

A battle has been raging below the streets of Soho - on one side, London’s public transport mega-project Crossrail, on the other, an industry that needs some peace and quiet. Kevin Hilton reports on how Soho’s post houses dealt with the booming from below

Even before it is completed London's Crossrail project is being hailed as a great feat of engineering. Its creation is a story of innovation and careful planning to build a railway passing under the centre of London, connecting the east and west of the city. It is also the story of how this landmark development has threatened both a key creative sector in the television and film business and the district where that sector is based.

The Elizabeth Line, as the service will be known when it comes into operation in December 2018, runs from Shenfield in Essex to Maidenhead in Berkshire. Shorter parts of the line branch under the River Thames to Abbey Wood in southeast London and to Heathrow Airport. The tunnels and station platform areas have been dug out by eight giant boring machines looking like something from an episode of Thunderbirds.

The works have caused substantial upheaval both above and below ground. While the whole of the central section has been affected, the area that has perhaps experienced most disruption is Soho.

Soho has had several lives. It was the domain of Bohemians during the 1950s and then became almost synonymous with the sex industry through the 1960s and 70s, with the interlude of Swinging Sixties Carnaby Street. Alongside all this were book and record shops with groaning shelves and over-packed racks, all among crowded pubs and low-life drinking dens.

People in sound, post-production and broadcasting have quite a different view on noise from people in sound and vibration

Soho has also had a long association with the cinema business. A whole community grew up around this, providing post production facilities for films and then TV productions and commercials.

Many of these are in the audio business, either with dubbing theatres or voice-over studios, both of which demand a high degree of isolation from noise and vibration. Most have been able to pick their locations to avoid any such interference from the established London Underground lines that border Soho, but it soon became apparent when Crossrail was proposed that it would run through the centre of the district, which has a serious claim to having the highest density of recording studios in the world.

Before the scheme was approved in 2008 the trade body for the post-production sector, the UK Screen Association (now the UK Screen Alliance), submitted a petition to Crossrail and the House of Commons Select Committee considering the parliamentary bill. This laid out the concerns of many facilities but one post house was so troubled by the potential for disruption and interference it drew up its own petition and engaged a team of legal and acoustic experts to argue for greater consideration from Crossrail.

Grand Central goes underground

Founded by Carole Humphrey and Ivor Taylor, Grand Central Recording Studios (GCRS) specialises in soundtracks for commercials, particularly voice overs. At the the Crossrail Bill started its progress through Parliament, GCRS took a lease on the building it now occupies in Great Marlborough Street. Humphrey and Taylor were worried that ground-borne noise and vibrations from the trains would have a detrimental impact on the company's business.

GCRS retained David Bell, managing director of acoustic consultancy White Mark, which designed and built its new suites, to help assess the potential effect the construction of Crossrail would have. In a 2007 interview Bell estimated that the building work would affect one third of Soho.

Almost immediately Bell and other experts, including Dr Hugh Hunt, at the time senior lecturer in the engineering department of Cambridge University, came into conflict with Crossrail's acoustics, noise and vibrations expert, Rupert Thornley-Taylor, principal of Rupert Taylor Limited.

Like many in the industrial noise and vibration sector, Rupert Thornley-Taylor favours the LAmax (dBA) standard, which uses an A-weighted curve. Bell said at the time the real issue was how quiet is a room, with the answer being no louder than NC (noise criterion)-25, a figure used by Dolby, the British Standards Institute, Internationla Standards Organisation (ISO) standard and the BBC.

The trains have 30 axels, each with a different vibration input

"People in sound, post-production and broadcasting have quite a different view on noise from people in sound and vibration," says Ivor Taylor, speaking to TV Technology during August this year. "From the point of view of people running recording studios of any kind, we want to know who is accountable for any noise, vibration and interference.

While some operations in Soho, notably the London Palladium theatre and entertainment venue, had been recognised as special cases by Crossrail, GCRS and the post community in general were alarmed that the possible effect on sound recording facilities was not being considered. Specifically there was no plan to install any form of noise absorption material on or near the tracks.
Bad vibrations

After much argument and disagreement between the GCRS and Crossrail - the transcripts still make for hair-raising reading - the Select Committee recommended the installation of floating slab track (FST) through Soho. Singling out GCRS as an example, the Committee said it "was concerned that the building and use of Crossrail would seriously affect the sound studios in the area of Soho, which are regarded as an international centre of excellence."

The real test will be when trains start to run. But there's plenty of other above ground construction going on that is noisy enough without Crossrail

Taylor explains that after this David Bell worked out an NC curve, which was accepted by Crossrail as a standard for noise and vibration levels in voice recording studios. This covered the construction period and will also be applied when trains start running next year. "There was still the problem of how to record a noise level when a studio is being used," Taylor says. "So we used an accelerometer, which was not measuring the studio but any vibration. At one point we shut down the studios for a weekend and had a 28-channel data recorder connected to Brüel & Kjær vibration microphones. It was a very simplistic approach to a complex issue, because the trains have 30 axels, each with a different vibration input."

GCRS initially wanted to reach an agreement with Crossrail that would see the train operator cover the costs of remedial works if any disruption or interference was caused by the construction and subsequent regular services. When agreement could not be reached on this, payment of an up-front, lump sum was proposed. Taylor says something was necessary as GCRS had racked up considerable legal and expert fees. Just before GCRS made an appeal to the House of Lords Select Committee, Crossrail asked if it would agree to a settlement and came back with what Taylor calls "an amount we could accept".

Taylor says these were "real costs and a lot of time for a small company". He acknowledges that some observers might ask what all the fuss was about but does point to the above ground disruption suffered by Soho in general and some organisations in particular: "The BBFC [British Board of Film Classification on Soho Square] had a pretty rough time. But if we hadn't dug in our heels so hard we wouldn't have FST under Soho."

Soho exodus

Despite the animosity with Crossrail, Carole Humphrey did get to go into the tunnels on a boring machine to witness what Taylor acknowledges as "fantastic engineering". He adds that people in GCRS heard only a little of the tunnelling work and cannot say for certain if there will be problems in the future. "Will Crossrail trains make our studios unusable?" he says. "I don't think so - and if they do we have built two suites on the roof."

Whether other post houses will be affected is also uncertain, partly because the Soho landscape has changed over the last ten years. "I've not received any complaints recently about disruption from anyone else, and I suspect there are fewer companies affected as many have moved away from the route as Soho rents and rates have pushed people further north," comments Neil Hatton, chief executive of UK Screen Alliance. "The real test will be when trains start to run. But there's plenty of other above ground construction going on that is noisy enough without Crossrail."

The influx of people...will push up rents in Soho that are beyond post-production companies' budgets

Hatton adds that the Soho post scene has changed considerably; some facilities no longer exist - Nats was taken over by Evolutions in 2006 and its Oxford Street building later demolished to make way for the new ticket hall at Tottenham Court Road station - while others have moved elsewhere. The Farm Group still has three facilities in Soho - Uncle, William and the Shed - but its main base is now is on the other side of Oxford Street on Newman Street in Fitzrovia. Chief executive David Klafkowski says the move from Soho Square was primarily for reasons of space but adds that the area has become more difficult to work in over recent years with a lot of building and demolition going on in addition to Crossrail.

Neil Hatton and Ivor Taylor are also concerned that Crossrail is just part of an overall gentrification of Soho. "The influx of people and renovation of the eastern end of Oxford Street will push up rents in Soho that are beyond post-production companies' budgets and more will move north of Oxford Street or out of town," says Hatton.

Taylor is more trenchant, pointing to the removal of several historic items from the streets of Soho, the loss of many long-standing, specialist businesses and local residents being forced out of the area by increasing rents and lack of affordable housing. "There are all these luxury apartments but they're empty," he says. "Who are they for?" A question that sums up the changing nature of an area where it was once very clear who lived and worked there.