How to Install & Use High-Quality System Voices in OS X

As I write this, it's the Macintosh's 29th birthday. This takes me back to the Mac's very early days in the mid-eighties when, even then, its operating system was outfitted with synthetic speech capabilities. Heck, we even used to have a talking moose! And, who can forget young Steve Jobs introducing the new Macintosh on-stage in 1984? Using software called MacinTalk, it announced itself to the world by saying, "Hello. I'm Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag."

The Talking Moose icon from early Mac OS days.

The Talking Moose provided many Mac old-timers with hours of silly fun.

Early voices were highly robotic and astonishingly crude by today's standards. Nevertheless, back then, it was downright awe-inspiring. This was something from the future! The synthesized Mac voices were used to entertain many a Mac aficionado at user group meetings across the world.

Vestiges of early artificial-sounding voices are still present today as novelties for some light-hearted, geeky entertainment – or for the nostalgic. In a bit,I'll show you how to try these out for yourself.

When OS X 10.5 Leopard was uncaged back in 2007, Apple included some new high-fidelity text-to-speech capabilities in the form of a single new voice called Alex. This mellifluous male voice included breath and pause control to augment comprehension of the spoken words and phrases. As a result of this vast improvement, I immediately found the use of synthetic speech to finally provide value for me. I began using Alex to read articles and other text to me while I was engaged doing something else, and I found that I no longer needed to listen closely, straining to understand what was being said.

The technology in Alex presents a huge advantage to those who, due to visual impairment,  regularly require screen-reading capabilities. Additionally, the higher quality voice is quite valuable to Mac users who might be learning english pronunciation and sentence formation.

As for me, aside from the fact that text-to-speech is a huge help when my aging eyes are tired after a long day at the keyboard, I have found this capability to be incredibly useful as a proofreading tool for the very same articles you read in my How-To column here at TMO. Simply reading to catch typos and punctuation errors is one thing. Having an entity read the article to me is invaluable. It helps me to hear how my words flow and how clearly the concepts and ideas express themselves.

Alex is wonderful. But, he's overworked, and I have sent him out to pasture.

Allow me to introduce you to someone. Say hello to my little friend, Samantha. She is a Alex's sibling – a high-quality American English female voice which I find to be quite soothing and highly coherent. Starting with OS X Lion, Alex, Samantha and several other high-quality voices are available for you to choose from. Additionally, choices include international voices that will support several languages and dialects.

Most of the high-quality voices are not pre-installed because the software voice files are quite large in size. But they are selectable, and you can sample them before deciding to automatically download and install them free-of-charge from Apple's servers.

Let's jump in and see how this works.

For OS versions prior to Mountain Lion, the voice options and controls are located in the Speech System Preferences panel. Starting with Mountain Lion, this has been renamed to Dictation & Speech. Once in the panel, be sure to click on the Text to Speech tab.

The Dictation and Speech System Preferences panel in Mountain Lion.

The Dictation and Speech System Preferences panel in Mountain Lion.

Click the System Voice pop-up menu to reveal voices already installed in your system. The voices are organized by language, and the one marked with a check is the one currently set as your System Voice.

The pop-up menu showing the installed voices and the currently selected System Voice.

Clicking on System Voice pops up a list showing all the installed voices. The checked one is the currently selected System Voice.

For the really good stuff, select Customize at the bottom of the System Voice pop-up list. This will reveal a pane containing quite a few other voices available in several languages. High-quality voice, Alex, is pre-installed. Notice that you can play a sample of any voice without actually having it installed. Simply select a voice and click the Play button.

The Customize pane.

In the Customize pane, you can sample all voices and select ones to download and install.

By ticking a checkbox, the selected voice will be added to your working list of ones shown in the System Voice popup menu. A yellow warning sign appearing beside the checked voice indicates that it is one of the new high-quality voices that you can obtain for free. The voice file is downloaded when you click OK. The Software Update mechanism handles the download and installation process.

As you can see back in the Preferences panel for Text to Speech, you can select other features controlling behavior characteristics of the System Voice. For example, selecting the checkbox labeled “Speak selected text when the key is pressed" lets you configure a keyboard shortcut to have the System Voice speak any selected text.

A cutaway of the Customize pane showing the old Novelty Voices.

Inside the Customize pane, you can sample and activate the goofy Novelty Voices.

What about those goofy, but ageless, legacy voices I mentioned earlier? You know, the ones like Zarvox that makes your Mac sound like a constipated robot. Or... how about Hysterical making your Mac sound like it has worked for days without any sleep? Check these and more retro voices located in the "English (United States) – Novelty" section of the Customize pane.

Your System Voice can be used in many practical ways. I use Samantha most often for reading back selected text. One way I activate this is by right-clicking (or Control-clicking) on any selected text and choosing Speech > Start Speaking in the contextual pop-up menu.

Selected text in a word processor with a contextual menu showing the Start Speaking command.

Right-clicking on selected text will allow you to have the text spoken with the System Voice.

You don't have to be afflicted by poor vision to take advantage of the Mac's speech capabilities. I encourage you to play around with this feature, and explore the many interesting ways the System Voice can enhance your workflow.