How to Obtain and Use Enhanced-Quality System Voices in OS X

| How-To

Apple's Mac has been around for over thirty years now. That's pretty old in terms of technology in general and personal computing in particular. There have been many changes during the Mac's evolution. By the way, changes include the Mac’s name. I wonder if young and otherwise new users to our platform even know that their beloved Mac was originally called Macintosh? As far as I can tell, Apple now only uses the word "Macintosh" in naming the default drive on a Mac. But, I digress.

One of the Mac technologies that has seen big improvements—and the topic for today—is its synthetic speech capabilities. The quality of digital speech has always been directly related to the raw processing power of the computer.

Even during the Mac’s very early days in the mid-eighties, its operating system was outfitted with synthetic speech capabilities, albeit quite robotic and crude by today's standards. Old-timers will fondly recall the excitement of having a Talking Moose living in our system! 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, mindless fun

Nevertheless, back then, any "talking" computer was jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring. We would remark, "This is something from the future." It was a great time to be alive! The synthesized Mac voices were used to entertain many a Mac aficionado at user group meetings across the world. I even recorded an outgoing message for my telephone answering machine using the robotic voice of MacinTalk. Good times!

Vestiges of early artificial-sounding voices are still present today as novelties for some light-hearted, geeky entertainment – or for some nostalgic reminiscing. Hang on, I will soon show you how to access these retro voices for yourself under OS X. 

When OS X 10.5 Leopard was released back in 2007, Apple included some new high-fidelity text-to-speech capabilities. One was in the form of a single new voice called Alex – what Apple called an enhanced quality voice. 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 that using synthetic speech finally provided great value for me, though I did miss it's utility as a telephone operator for my now-defunct rotary phone and magnetic tape-driven answering machine.

I began to request that Alex 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 by the humanoid living in my machine. Speech technology used in Alex and later developments 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 structure.

As for me, aside from the fact that I consider text-to-speech to be 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 a human-like digital entity read the article out-loud to me is invaluable. It helps me to hear how my words flow and how clearly the concepts and ideas are delivered. 

Next: Meet Samantha and Some Other Voices

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Frank Lowney 1

There’s a lot of potential here, especially if you use automation techniques to extend the utility of Mac TTS. Here’s an example that enables one to add varied voice narration to video without having to hire expensive voice talent.


If you like Samantha, you’ll love the British English, Serena.
Not only a clear pleasant accent, but the most human-sounding of all, IMO.

Going outside Apple, you can download some voices from Cepstral, which are fantastic, but can get pricey. “David” is wonderful.

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