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

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

Part 2 - Meet Samantha and Some Other Voices


Alex is wonderful. But, he’s overworked, and I have sent him out to pasture. Allow me to introduce you to someone new. Say hello to my little friend, Samantha. She is a Alex’s sibling – an enhanced-quality American English female voice which I find to be quite soothing, intelligent, and highly coherent. Incidentally, I think that Siri, who lives in my iOS devices, is Samantha's twin sister. 

Starting with OS X 10.7 Lion, Alex, Samantha and a few other enhanced-quality voices are available for you to choose from. However, you will only find Alex and a handful of less useful, low-quality – and often quite annoying – voices as selectable options. Additionally, I will show you where you can find choices for international voices that will support several languages and dialects. 

It's important to realize that most of the enhanced-quality voices are not pre-installed because the software voice files are quite large in size; anywhere between 400 MB to 1 GB. However, 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 all this works. 

But first, know that a new Mac system will include one of the enhanced-quality voices (e.g.; Alex in U.S. Systems) as well as several of the lower-fidelity "standard" voices. So, be sure to test them all. It will be obvious which ones are the better ones. 

For OS X versions prior to 10.8 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 and Mavericks

The Dictation and Speech System Preferences panel in Mountain Lion and Mavericks

Click the System Voice pop-up menu to reveal voices already installed in your system. On international systems, the voices may be organized by language. The voice marked with a check is the one currently set as your default System Voice. 

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

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

To access the premium enhanced quality voices, select Customize at the bottom of the System Voice pop-up list. This will reveal a pane containing quite a few other voices that you can pick-and-choose to activate on your Mac. Additionally, you will note that there are voices available in a number of languages. 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 enhanced-quality voices that you can obtain for free. [Note: I've observed that on OS X 10.10 Yosemite beta releases, the warning is replaced by a checkbox labeled "Upgrade to enhanced quality.”] The voice file is downloaded when you click OK, and the download and installation process is handled by Software Update. 

As mentioned, you should keep in mind that these enhanced-quality voices can be quite large. Not a problem if you have plenty of disk space, but on systems with low storage space, there may come a time when you need to go in and purge files to gain more space.

As you can see back in the Dictation & Speech 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

I know what you really want to get to: 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… Hysterical, making your Mac sound like it has worked for days without any sleep. Check these as well as Deranged, Trinoids, Bubbles, and other retro voices, all located in the “English (United States) – Novelty” section of the Customize pane. 

Your chosen System Voice can be used in many practical ways. I now 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. Assigning a keyboard shortcut via the Dictation & Speech preferences pane is probably better. By the way, Samantha also soothes me by announcing the time at the top of the hour (much to my wife's consternation). This is also an option you can choose to annoy all those around you.

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

In conclusion, you don’t have to be afflicted by poor vision to take advantage of your Mac’s speech capabilities. I encourage you to play around with this feature, and explore the many interesting and fun ways that System Voice in OS X can enhance your workflow – perhaps even going as far as answering the phone for you.