More on voice banking, a subject I posted on a year ago when Laurence Brewer was interviewed for Radio 4’s Word of Mouth. This time there was a Scottish flavour to another Radio 4 programme ‘Giving the Critic Back His Voice’, presented by Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross.
Mike Arnott – who is originally from Belfast but now lives in Aberdeen – is 45 and has motor neurone disease. He was referred to speech and language therapist Karen Yuill at a time when he had no speech difficulties to explore possibilities for voice banking. Like Laurence, his goal was primarily to ensure his children would still be able to hear him as him in the event of him losing his speech and voice as the disease progressed. As he says, “How you sound is so much of who you are.”
Karen explains that she had to go away and do a bit of reading and, “We kind of explored the whole thing together really”. Initially this was via ModelTalker, which was straightforward but left Mike a little disappointed.
The next port of call was Edinburgh based company CereProc. They specialise in characterful speech synthesis, and created a text-to-speech voice for film critic Roger Ebert from his recorded documentaries when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The process adopted for Mike involves software recording thousands of phrases and sentences based on phonetic coverage so that all speech sounds can be captured in a way that will make the synthesis sound as natural as possible.
The programme explores the difficulty for synthetic voices in conveying emotions and feelings adequately, including humour, boldness, fear, anger, excitement and joy. Joanna Courtney from CALL Scotland is interviewed about CereProc’s female Scottish voice ‘Heather’, as is Louise Smith whose 19 year old daughter Leanna has Worster-Drought Syndrome. She has been excited to get the Heather voice for her communication aid as it sounds “so normal”.
Michael Arnott says that after the months of recording there was “a hesitation pressing the play button just in case I’d be disappointed – but I certainly wasn’t.” Most importantly, his 8 year old immediately said, “'That’s you daddy!' And I was so pleased because all of that’s been part of the goal…they still hear me as me.”
You can download Scottish voices from the CereProc website. The programme is available for a limited period on BBC iPlayer.