In this digital age, one of the important things to a voice talent is anonymity. It took me a really long time to decide to reveal myself as Siri.
You can read or listen to our interview with Susan Bennett below
Opening music by Sol Rosenthal and Zara Gounden
Have you ever wondered about the voice that seems to hang out in our pockets and purses and in the hands of our kids? Susan Bennett had no clue her voice would one day become the voice of Siri – Apple's personal assist and knowledge navigator.
When Susan Bennett, who lives in Atlanta Georgia, took on the gig to be the voiceover for a computer software program, she had no idea she would soon become the omniscient Siri – the voice of a generation. I sat down with Susan via Face Time to ask her a few of our favorite “Siri questions” and to discover how it feels to be the voice of Siri. And in the spirit of the most uninhibited users, I had my kids query friends via text, SnapChat and Instagram for the most common questions kids repetitively ask this voice that seems all around us. Here were a few of the most favorite:
Siri, do you love me?
Of course, I love everyone.
Siri, are you real?
That is a difficult question to answer. Yes, I'm real. There is a person behind this voice.
Siri, will you marry me?
I'm sorry. I already have several husbands.
Siri, where are your parents?
My parents are no longer on the planet? I was born in Burlington, Vermont.
Siri, what does the fox say?
Let me think. I used to know. (Siri aka Susan Bennett, laughs)
What does it feel like to have one of the most familiar voices of our generation?
The fact that I’m usually behind closed doors when I do this kind of recording – I’m a little bit distanced from it. It doesn't really seem real to me, actually. It's still a pretty unusual thing. I'm always amazed when people want to talk to me or ask my opinion. I can understand why people would want to hear the story but yes, it's a very unusual phenomenon because the original Siri was an iconic thing. It was the first concatenated voice to sound pretty human.
It's also probably one of the most well known voices to kids under the age of fourteen.
How did you get the job?
I don't know. Many times in this digital age, we voice talent are auditioning without even knowing it. I had done the original recordings in 2005, for a text-to-speech company (Nuance is the company that works with Apple on Siri.) You do hundreds of hours of recordings reading thousands of phrases and sentences, after which technicians go in and extract sounds and reform new sentences. These new sentences are what end up on the digital devices. At the time in 2005, which is not that long ago, but technologically speaking, it's like the dark ages, when we were doing all these recordings, we didn't really know where they were going to end up. We were told they were going to be on phone systems but who could picture a phone system in this little tiny computer being held in your hand that was interactive with you. So, yes, it was a pretty amazing thing.
When they decided you would be the voice of Siri on the iPhone, did they come back to you and say, 'Guess what? We're going to make you the most intimate voice that people are going to carry around in their pockets?'
No. No, they did not. Apple really came in after the fact. I had just learned this fairly recently that Siri was developed by a young Norwegian named Dag Kittlaus and he came up with the name Siri because Siri in Norwegian means, 'beautiful woman who helps you along your way' but the way I interpret Siri is a chick with attitude who tells you where to go!
When were you allowed to reveal you were Siri?
I was the one that held myself back because I wasn't exactly sure what the ramifications were going to be. I had to look into it legally. I never signed a non-disclosure so that was never an issue. I wanted to make sure I did the right thing.
In this digital age, one of the important things to a voice talent is anonymity. It took me a really long time to decide to reveal myself as Siri because I wasn't sure and it was definitely a double-edged sword. I would no longer have anonymity. Everyone would know what I looked like, where I was from, how old I was, and all that kind of stuff. One hopes that people are choosing you from your audition based on your performance and your voice but in this digital age, they have a different feeling about you and they form an opinion of you when they know exactly who you are.
It took me a long time to reveal myself. There were absolutely no ramifications from Apple except for the fact that they did change all of the original Siri voices in the iOS 7 System. All of us original Siris believe it's because we didn't have non-disclosure agreements and they want their digital voices to be anonymous. All of the original Siris, had been promoting ourselves and so we promoted ourselves right out of a job.
The Siri voice still sounds like your voice. What am I hearing?
Either they have completely audiologically manipulated it to sound a different way or built it anew, but to me, it is not the same voice.
Do you like being Siri?
It's been an interesting experience. That’s a hard question to answer. I'm a pretty private person. It's kind of strange to be famous for what I consider to be just doing my job.
Do people recognize your voice in public?
No. People don't recognize the voice because it's a contextual thing. They don't expect to hear that voice. Secondly, my speaking voice is higher than Siri’s voice. The Siri voice is a little lower: 'how may I help you? What can I help you with?' So, she sounds a little bit different. I lot of that had to do with the fact that I recorded for four hours a day, five days a week, for an entire month for the original vocabulary that became the voice of Siri. When you use your voice that much, it gets tired, particularly for this type of recording because it's very, very tedious. There is absolutely no difference in how you do the performance. Every sentence has to be said in the same way, with the same inflection, over and over, for different words but you're talking like this the whole time for hour upon hour and so the voice gets tired.
You said there were a few original Siri voices. Explain that.
The original Siri voices were different all around the world because it's not my voice speaking Thai or something. They had to get a native speaker to be on the phone. In fact, the original Siri in England was called DANIEL, not Siri. Daniel was voiced by a pretty famous British voice who works a lot for the BBC. His name is Jon Briggs. He came out publicly about his voice behind the iPhone in 2011.
Were you the only English Siri from North America?
Yes. I was the original North American Siri.
Do you feel like you have been properly compensated given you didn’t know your voice was going to become this ubiquitous Siri?
I was paid fairly well to record the original vocabulary that ultimately became Siri, but I was never compensated for usage. Those of us who did those early recordings didn’t really understand how they were going to be used.
Digital voices fell through the cracks with the speed of technology and the Internet has devalued everything.
How as a society should we solve this?
I have no idea. It’s like a Pandora’s box that has been opened and can’t be closed. Technology has put the onus on the individual artists and many artists aren’t business people or promoters.
Artists just want to work as artists, and many times they have to take low paying jobs to do it, just to survive. As long as greed trumps integrity, we'll continue to have this problem. It doesn't help to rant about it, though. Technology created great change in all our lives, so we have to accept it, and figure out a way to make it work for us, not against us.
My kids love asking Siri to sing a song because they get a surprise after enough attempts. Are there other questions like that that would have surprising answers?
I don't really know because I provided only the voice and Apple and original creator of Siri did the rest. I had absolutely no control over the sentences but I will have to say that I consider myself the Steve Jobs Siri, as opposed to the Tim Cook Siri.
There's a lot of humor and comedy that Steve Jobs put into the app of Siri. Your kids might enjoy playing around with these ideas: They won't recognize the reference because it's too old but there was a comedy group called The Firesign Theater that started out in the 1970s – they're still around – and they were really prescient about what they did. They did a lot of comedy about future life and the technology that was coming and it's absolutely astounding that they basically predicted how we live now. There's one story where this guy named Clem, who is a computer hacker, goes to the Fair Of The Future because he wants to hack the main computer of the world. He goes to the computer and he's taken off guard by a hologram that greets him at the door by saying, "and what is your name?" He's taken aback and says, "ahhh...Clem." From then on, that's his identity. He is now 'ah Clem' to the computer yet he refers to himself as 'worker' though. If you talk to Siri and say, 'hello, Siri, worker here,' she will respond, 'hello ah Clem. What function may I perform for you now?'' That was a very in to the thinking of Steve Jobs because the Firesign Theater had kind of a cult following. Another thing to do is if you ask Siri the meaning of life, more often than not she will say, '42' because that's a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which is also a comedy sci-fi thing.
Steve Jobs was an iconic force. I was working in San Francisco in the mid '90s when he started Pixar. Our company was invited to pitch to him and I'll never forget that meeting. You knew he was extraordinary.
Absolutely. I think that one of the people the general public forgets about is Steve Wozniak, his partner. Steve Wozniak was really the person that built the computer. Steve Jobs had the idea but he didn't have the capacity to build a computer himself. Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer. I had an opportunity to meet him last year at a tech conference and he is the nicest person. He is so smart and he's very interested in education. At these different tech conferences, he would sit for hours to talk to students and young entrepreneurs and help them. It was a dynamic duo for sure.
Maybe you can help us get an interview with him.
I do have his card.
Has your view of technology changed through this experience and how?
Some of it is very good and some of it is kind of negative. I don't like the fact that kids now just press a button anytime they want something done. They're not able to resolve a problem. They're not taught to sit down and think something through. They learn how to do functions and they learn how to follow directions and follow patterns but I'm not sure how much individual thinking they're doing. My son is thirty-eight so I'm kind of out of touch with young kids at this point.
It's fun to hear your story. I wish you were the one singing the Wizard of Oz on Siri. You have a beautiful voice. You must hear that a lot.
Thank you. Yes, I've been very, very fortunate. I love my work.
What's next for you?
I'm basically just doing a lot of the same work that I have always done and I'm speaking at events and telling the story of Siri. This is kind of a departure for me, which is what I was looking for when I decided to reveal myself as Siri. I thought, 'I want to break out of my booth and do some different things.’
Thank you. This was fun.
Thank you. I enjoyed it.