Gearhead - Speechifyin' Software

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - In the Gearhead missive "Reading and speaking," we discussed a cool utility named Talking Stocks from 4Developers LLC (www.4developers.com).

Gearhead has been intrigued by software that talks since speech-generating chips became available about 15 years ago. We remember well those distorted robot voices that sounded like a tourist from Eastern Europe with a bad head cold.

Anyway, Gearhead has been checking out more speaking software and came across a neat product called WillowTalk from Willow Pond Corp. (www.willowpond.com).

Priced at $39.95, WillowTalk can read text in a document window triggered by a user-definable hot key, as well as read scripts in multiple voices and also announce the time with alarms.

WillowTalk has a funky, non-Windows interface that is, by default, shaped roughly like a sideways L and looks like a piece of electronic equipment straight from the set of "Alien" (Ridley Scott, 1979, http://us.imdb.com/Title?0078748). You can collapse the arms of the layout to reduce the application's size and have it run permanently on top of all applications.

WillowTalk has a range of predefined voices that imitate male and female tonality quite well. You can also define your own voices in terms of pitch, speed and volume, and the product allows for custom dictionaries so you can define the pronunciation of special words.

The reading scripts feature is odd, to say the least: You fill in a grid with the voice you want in one column and the text for that voice in the other and the voice reads the script. One of these days Gearhead plans to create a completely synthesized reading of MacBeth (http://sailor.gutenberg.org/by-title/ xx973.html) for no reason other than it sounds like fun.

The WillowTalk speaking clock is cool. You can have the time announced in a 12- or 24-hour format on the hour, half hour and quarters with a greeting (for example, "Good morning," "Good afternoon") and also include the date. The alarm can play a WAV file or speak whatever text you require. What is really useful is the ability to save the speech to a file that lets you include synthesized voices in other applications.

Another fun speech utility is SayIt from AnalogX (www.analogx.com/contents/download/audio/sayit.htm). AnalogX has a lot of public domain software for Windows on its Web site, including something called SayIt.

SayIt is simple and was designed along the lines of Speak 'n Spell. It has a text entry window where you can enter up to 500 text characters and four sliders that let you change pitch, speed, modulation and cascade. (AnalogX omits explaining what these last two attributes actually do - get 'em wrong and the voice can sound awful.)You can simply have the text read to you or you can save the synthesized voice to disk. Some of the voices Gearhead got out of SayIt were great - clear and easily understood.

These speaking programs are great fun and can be used to generate speech for other application programs or Web sites.

Ein, zwei, drei, vier. Synthesis to gh@gibbs.com.

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