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'It’s not enough to have a nice voice': The original Siri on an industry in flux

If you’ve ever travelled with Delta Airlines, chances are that Siri has given you an update on your flight – even if you don’t own an iPhone.

That’s because the original voice of Siri and the voice of the airline’s gate announcements come from the same person. Sixty-five year old voice-over actress Susan Bennett has provided the dulcet tones behind GPS systems, telephone on-hold messages, instructional videos and advertisements for more than three decades. She has done work for just about every major company out there, including TV and radio ads for brands such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Ford.

She has watched first-hand how the business has changed, and spoke to us by phone from her home in Atlanta about the voices behind the products we use and ads we hear every day.

How did you get into the business?

I used to do a lot of jingle singing, back in the day when they used to actually use groups of people instead of taking one or two voices and over-dubbing. One day, the voice talent didn’t show up. They said “Susan, you don’t have an accent, come and read this copy.” That was in the late seventies. I got some voice coaching and an agent, and that was the beginning of my career.

How does your voice change for a TV commercial versus a GPS system or an airport announcement?

Sometimes they want a warmer voice, and sometimes they want it strictly professional with absolutely no humour whatsoever. Most clients are looking for a warm, professional voice, like – [switches into a perfect automated telephone operator voice] – “Thank you for calling such-and such. We’d like to direct you to our most expensive item.”

Is it strange hearing yourself in the airport or in a commercial?

I’m used to it. The Siri thing freaked me out, though, I have to say.

Audio

Susan Bennett does her Siri voice for reporter Susan Krashinsky

How did you come to be cast as Siri?

The original Siris [there are different voices for different countries], when we were doing this recording, didn’t really know where it was going to end up. Siri was created by a Norwegian man named Dag Kittlaus. I don’t know if he chose my voice, or if Apple changed it when they purchased it from him. I recorded the vocabulary that became the basis for Siri in July of 2005, four hours a day, five days a week, for the whole month.

It was very, very tedious stuff because we were reading phrases and sentences that were created solely to get the maximum number of sound combinations in the language – so the sentences were kind of odd. Then, there’s a process called concatenation: the technicians extract sound combinations – vowels, consonants, dipthongs, syllables – and put them back together in their own reconstructed phrases and sentences.

That’s why she sounds robotic?

Yes. It’s absolutely astonishing, the technology. When the first concatenated voices came out they sounded [switches to a robot voice] Like. This. Hello. How. Are. You. That’s why Siri was such a big deal. She was the first concatenated voice that sounded almost human.

Audio

Susan Bennett talks to Susan Krashinsky about what companies want in a "professional voice"

What was it like when you realized it was your voice?

It was rather disappointing to realize that we were not going to be getting paid [residuals] for usage. [Laughs] She came out in 2011 and I didn’t reveal myself until 2013 – because part of being a voice talent, is enjoying your anonymity. People don’t know what you look like, where you’re from, how old you are – all those things people might use to judge you, other than just your voice. So I really couldn’t make up my mind. My husband and my son convinced me. They said, “You’re missing a fun opportunity.”

You won’t be the Siri on the new Apple watch, though?

They changed all the Siri voices starting with iOS 7. All the new systems, either they have manipulated my voice to the point where it doesn’t sound like me, or they’re using a different voice. I don’t know for sure, because Apple ain’t talking. [Apple has never officially identified the actors behind Siri’s voice.]… The new Siri, well, I think she’s much more generic. She doesn’t seem to have as much attitude. The first one was pretty funny. Definitely more cheeky, for sure.

It must be strange in an industry where you’re invisible, to be a bit of a celebrity. Do people ever ask you to do Siri for them?

Oh yes.

Given that it’s produced using all this technology, are you able to do the voice?

[Switches into a pitch-perfect Siri voice] Yes, I can. What can I help you with?

That was weird.

It’s not quite as perfect as the iPhone. … My natural speaking voice is a little bit higher than Siri. And because it’s been manipulated, it doesn’t sound exactly like me. A lot of times, people are surprised. There was a little kid that came here on Hallowe’en one year, and said, “The neighbours say you’re Siri. ... You don’t sound like Siri,” and I said, [Siri voice] “How about now?” [laughs]

What did you think of the movie Her, and the idea that people can develop intimate relationships with this kind of technology?

I had mixed feelings, but I thought the acting, the whole look of the movie, and the basic premise were great; and with our continual progress toward artificial intelligence, I'm sure people will become even more invested in their virtual assistants, possibly to the degree of Theodore in the movie! I just hope we can all remember how to communicate with actual humans!

How has the voice-over business changed?

We’re kind of celebrity obsessed. A lot of celebrities are doing voice-overs. Also, they’re not doing as much original music [for jingles]. They’re using library music or taking old pop songs and using them.

What about the technology?

You can have a very good quality recording system, that’s portable. If you get yourself a decent microphone and plug it into MixerFace [a mobile recording tool for smartphones] you can record right on your iPhone.

There are production websites such as Voices.com and Voice123.com, where amateurs can do auditions for voice-overs. Some casting directors also go to social media to find talent – like YouTube. A lot of the commercial work has gone non-union. Like everything else involved in the Web, it’s basically a bottom line, cost situation. There’s a ton of competition. And there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of respect for experience and professionalism that there was before. … It’s not enough to have a nice voice. You really have to know how to use it.

How do you compete?

Those of us who do a lot of voice work, have built our own studios, and did so in self-defence against the first wave of technology, which started in 1995 with the advent of ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] – this system used two telephone lines, one for voice and one for data. It allowed a person in one city to work in another city. The voice would speak into a microphone, say, in Atlanta, and would be recorded in Los Angeles. That revolutionized the business. Local talent suddenly had to compete with the rest of the country, and the rest of the world.

When you do ads, do you have a type? Is there a certain tone in the work you tend to get?

In the last few years, my voice has gotten a little bit lower, and consequently, I don’t get the same types of commercial stuff that I used to do. … Advertising goes through phases, and different trends. When I did a lot of commercials, there was a lot of dialogue, a lot of characters and comedy. Now there’s still comedy, but there seems to be a real guy-next-door thing happening. You don’t have as much of the actor sound. Visually as well – not just with voices. It’s all guy-next-door. … There aren’t nearly as many female voices in the business as male.

Why is that?

I really don’t know. I don’t understand that, myself. I think women’s voices are very appealing. Some people have the perception that the male voice might be more authoritative, but I really don’t know.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

***

The revolution in the voice-over industry has come to Canada as well. Here are some of the big changes:

That Hollywood sound

Celebrities have made voice-overs less anonymous: In recent years we’ve heard such familiar voices as Jeff Bridges in a Duracell commercial, Robert Downey Jr. in a Nissan ad, and David Duchovny for Pedigree. That helped break down differences between people who historically were just voice actors, and actors who did other things.

“Voice-over became more visible,” said Toronto-based voice casting director Kim Hurdon. “What that meant was that more local actors started to ask their agents about voice-over to diversify their incomes because it didn’t seem as taboo.”

Hollywood also influences the type of voices that are cast. Following the release of the movie Her, about the relationship between a man and his technology, Noelle Jenkinson, an agent with AMI in Toronto, saw more requests for voices similar to Scarlett Johansson, who played the Siri-like voice assistant.

“I always stay up and watch the Oscars, because the next morning, I always get casting requests for people who sound like someone who’s just won,” Ms. Jenkinson said.

Cost controls

In Canada, a lot of the high-quality work still uses union talent, but there has been an increase in non-union work.

“What’s driving that, I think, is that ad agencies have had to deal with cost consultants who say, ‘You can’t pay more than this for talent,’ Ms. Jenkinson said. “The economy is part of it.”

From announcing to conversation

When Ms. Hurdon began casting more than 25 years ago, nearly all voice-overs were from middle-aged men with deep voices that were considered trustworthy.

Since then, advertisers “started looking for voices that sounded more like a familiar friend, so that it didn’t seem as if they were selling you something as much as giving you a heads up on something you might be interested in,” Ms. Hurdon said. “There is a [young] whimsical female doing the IKEA campaign which never would have happened 10 years previous.”

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