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How Text-To-Speech Gave Roger Ebert His Voice Back

By Stephanie Ciccarelli

April 18, 2011

Comments (6)

Roger Ebert using TTSAfter losing the use of his voice following surgery for jaw cancer several years ago, media personality and film critic Roger Ebert has found new ways to communicate and be heard.

Through journal entries online and a TED Talk, Roger Ebert has been able to share more about what happened to him and how he has embraced technological advances to regain his 'voice.'

Learn more in today's VOX Daily.

The Remaking of Roger Ebert's Voice

Most people take their voices for granted until they've temporarily lost use of their instrument or cease to speak entirely. April 16th marked World Voice Day, and in light of that, I'd like to take a look at the human voice this week from a number of angles.

When famous American film critic Roger Ebert lost his voice after a tracheostomy almost four years ago he was determined to still communicate audibly, even if it meant having another voice speak for him.

A couple of avenues he pursued were the designing of a text-to-speech version of his own voice and the use of existing text-to-speech personalities for purchase on the web.

CereProc

CereProc Limited, a company based in Edinburgh, Scotland, leads in the synthetic speech development field. The company was able to craft the voice for Ebert by sampling speech from old recordings over the years ranging from debates with Gene Siskel to more recent programming. From what was shared in Ebert's TED appearance released earlier this month, the development and finessing of "Roger Jr." is still a work in progress.

The video below is a snippet filmed when Ebert and his wife, Chaz, appeared on Oprah. One can only imagine what it would have been like for her to hear her husband's voice for the first time through the text-to-speech medium.

Cepstral

Searching online led Ebert to discover eight distinct TTS personalities available on VoicesForMac.com owned by a company called Cepstral.

A British TTS persona named "Lawrence," served as Roger Ebert's temporary voice. On his blog, Ebert boiled his casting process down to the following, "I tested the demos, and settled on Lawrence, not because he has a British accent but because he was the easiest to understand, and sounded intelligent." After a while, his wife began to refer to him as "Sir Lawrence."

Apple

Apple introduced a new text-to-speech voice named "Alex" when releasing Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in October of 2007. Ebert decided to change TTS voices at this time and cited Alex as being his favorite voice and also recognized Apple as the source of the best text-to-speech solution meeting his needs.

To sum up, Apple says that Alex:

- delivers natural intonation in English at extraordinarily fast speaking rates
- analyzes text a paragraph at a time and deciphers content with greater accuracy
- closely matches the nuances of human speech for better comprehension of the text
- breathes between long passages

Since Alex's initial release, Apple has released other voices and according to AppleInsider.com plans on releasing dozens more in a variety of languages in the near future for the Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion."

TTS

Text-To-Speech has come a long way. You can even use AliasKeys or other text insertion shortcuts to add emotional intonations to TTS voices that program them to say things in more meaningful ways.

While it may appear that TTS is taking jobs away from voice over talent, the technology is not yet so advanced as to be considered on par with a custom read or inspired delivery. From what I've heard, some of these jobs take 50+ hours of voice over work so at least someone out there is getting paid well when giving voice to a persona such as the Alex voice by Apple or the Lawrence voice from Cepstral.

What Do You Think of this Technology and Where it is Going?

I welcome your comments and invite you to join the conversation now.

Best wishes,

Stephanie

Related Topics: Accent, Alex, Apple, Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert, SAG, text-to-speech, TTS, voice, YouTube


Comments


    Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you for this article.

    TTS is both wonderful and scary at the same time. I have the great fortune of being "Callie", one of Cepstral's voices. And, while I was grateful to be chosen, I also had that scary feeling of "Gee, am I putting myself out of business"?!

    Fortunately, I am happily still in business and voicing as the 'real' me everyday.

    As always, thank you for the thought provoking and interesting articles. You are greatly appreciated!

    Kind regards,
    Catherine

    Posted by:

      Hi Catherine,

      That's really cool! Thank you for sharing :) It's nice to know who the voice talent are behind these virtual personas. I've been doing a bit of reading on some TTS blogs and have also learned who another talent is for a GPS. She happens to be on Voices.com.

      I appreciate your insight and take on this. I'll have to go back to the site and take a listen to "Callie" now that I know!

      Best wishes,

      Stephanie

      Posted by:

        So inspiring:

        Mr. Ebert's lovely voice returned to him through brilliant code-writing, and no doubt a great deal of determination on his part. That's reason enough to welcome TTS technology. As to its taking over in voiceover? Well, what computer ever created a true work of art - visual or poetic? Could a talking chip, however powerful, thrill us with a sudden flash of insight and inspiration?
        Our future work may well include voicing these developments, but when we are to be Believable, Conversational, Quirky... nah! It's back to the throat balm.

        Howard Ellison (Devon UK)

        Posted by:
        • Howard Ellison
        • April 20, 2011 10:36 AM

          I'm happy technology has helped a bright articulate man like Roger Ebert regain some of his former communicative self.

          And I suppose I'm happy a human voice was used to help create the Cereproc, Cepstral, Apple and TTS products and software. But I hesitate because a little paranoia in me wonders if the "great good'---helping Roger Ebert---would eventually be superseded by a "great disaster" when human=like voices will be devised and made to say anything at the control of God knows who else.

          And I wonder if who ever did the hours of voicing to help bring back Roger really was well paid. How do you ever really repay something like that?

          I'm just sayin'...

          Mike Hanson

          Posted by:
          • Mike Hanson
          • April 20, 2011 10:39 AM

            Hi Mike,

            Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for commenting!

            To answer your question, the voice samples that were used to create Roger Jr. were actually taken from recordings of his own voice. It would be interesting to know which engineers had to go through and do the work. That would have been a difficult job no doubt considering the recordings weren't made in the traditional way for this sort of application. Another issue they had to work around were the inflections Ebert used when speaking. I'm paraphrasing here but Ebert had mentioned that he often used slightly unusual inflections on words that wouldn't have been said that way in general conversation.

            Anyone else have something to add?

            Best wishes,

            Stephanie

            Posted by:

              Wow, I guess I've been out of the loop long enough that I didn't know what had happened with Roger & his fight with cancer. The video you shared was amazing! Our voices are all unique and are uniquely our own, defining and connecting us with friends, colleagues, family & loved ones. When that voice is taken from us, there's a hole and an emptiness that leaves us wanting. Thank God for this amazing technology that allowed Roger to "share" his "voice" with us once again & reconnect. The raw emotion was felt in this very touching video. Thanks, Stephanie for sharing.

              Posted by:

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